Montana State University

Plane beauty: Table crafted from felled trees returns to site

April 7, 2008 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Four third-year MSU architecture students and their teacher estimate they worked nearly 400 hours to transform wood from trees cleared to make way for the new MSU Chemistry and Biochemistry Building into a table that now sits in the building. From left: Jason Stamp, Jaron Mickolio, Bill Clinton of the MSU School of Architecture faculty, Owen Wright and Ben Wright transformed wood from four felled burr oak trees into a "work of art." MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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When Ben Wright was a freshman at Montana State University, he played Frisbee under the thicket of burr oaks to the north of Montana Hall, never dreaming one day he would help make them into a table that is a work of art.

A third-year architecture major from Stillwater, Minn., Wright is one of four MSU architecture students who designed and crafted a handsome conference table from wood milled from the trees cut three years ago to make room for the new Chemistry and Biochemistry Building.

"The table now sits in an area of the new building that is less than 20 feet from where the trees used in it once grew," said Bill Clinton, an adjunct professor in the MSU School of Architecture who teaches the school's woodworking and design course.

Wright designed the 4 ˝-feet x 14 ˝-feet-table. He was also one of a four-student team who spent about 375 hours over the past eight months building it. Jaron Mickolio of Laurel, Owen Wright (no relation to Ben) of Truckee, Calif., and Jason Stamp of Colorado Springs, Colo. also worked on the project.

"We had no idea when we began how long it would take," Ben Wright said of the project, which he called "visually simple but structurally complicated. "It was a lot of hard work. It has been worth it, though."

The MSU Chemistry and Biochemistry Department initially contracted Clinton to build the table. Not only is he a master woodworker, but he was instrumental in saving usable wood from the 45 trees north of Montana Hall cut down in 2005 to make room for the Chemistry and Biochemistry Building, which opened in the fall.

"The more I thought about it, it occurred to me that I've made lots of tables in my life," Clinton said. "This should be a student designed and built project."

Clinton recruited the Wrights, Mickolio and Stamp from a furniture design and construction class he taught last summer to design a table to fit into the building's large conference room. All four submitted designs to a chemistry and biochemistry department that selected Ben Wright's design.

Clinton said that after the design, the hard work began. The quartet worked with raw lumber from four burr oak trees that once grew in the original footprint of the new building.

"The wood was knotted, crooked, twisted and cracked," said Clinton, who supervised the project but also allowed the students to learn through the practical difficulties of building such a large project. "But, the (flawed) wood has lots of character. It's way more spectacular (than commercially grown wood)."

That meant the students had months of basic board making before they could even begin to construct the table.

"It literally took all of us to lift the boards and carry them around," Ben Wright said. "It was really hard work."

Once the table was constructed, incorporating wooden "butterfly" inlays to prevent further cracking, the students sanded and lacquered the wood, leaving a natural, non-stained finish. The tabletop weighs an estimated 400 pounds and the pedestal is fortified with about 210 pounds of steel in addition to wood.

David Singel, head of the chemistry and biochemistry department, said the new table installed in room 103 enhances the building.

"It is a beautiful piece of furniture," Singel said. "It is a work of art."

Singel adds that a tree ring from one of the trees cleared from the building site will soon be on display in the building's lobby. The ring is marked with important dates in the department's history.

The students say there were lots of challenges during the project but there was an enormous feeling of accomplishment when they were finished. The students will be paid about $7,000 for their eight months work on the table, which represents a bargain, Clinton said. He estimates a table of that size and quality would retail for $12,000-$15,000.

But the students say the biggest reward is having created something enduring and beautiful.

"I think we put all of the skills to use that we have been taught (in architecture school)," Mickolio said.

"This was a heck of a lot cooler than building paper models, which is what architecture students usually do," Owen Wright said.

"It's great to know that we're so strongly connected to the school now," said Ben Wright. "The table will be there long after we've graduated."

Clinton said plenty additional wood remains from the grove of trees taken from in front of Montana Hall. Some of it will see use in kiosk-like structures that School of Architecture students will design and build in Hyalite Canyon in 2009.

"I was devastated that the initial plan for that wood was that was going to be chipped," Clinton said, adding that he's pleased that the wood harvested from the trees is finding use in enduring projects. "We will have wood from those trees for several more years and projects."

Bill Clinton (406) 994-4402, wclinton@montana.edu