Fabled Oak Tree, Fabulous Tables

Fabled Oak Tree, Fabulous Tables

Ian Kirby is a famous woodworker, educator and wood scientist with a CV longer than my arm. He is also a close friend of mine. He turned 90 years old last year, and at that event another longtime friend, Sam Talarico of Talarico Hardwoods, gifted some oak with a curious history to Ian.

Ian told Sam he did not want the lumber. But Sam gave him the wood anyway — what are friends for? Along with the lumber, Sam included information about the oak tree’s history.

The Sacred Oak of Oley

Sacred Yellow Oak Tree
The Sacred Oak has been protected on a farm for generations.
©Copyright Plummer Dunkele.

This ancient and impressive oak tree is located in Berks County, Pennsylvania. The county was home to Daniel Boone’s parents and Abraham Lincoln’s grandparents. Daniel was born in the Oley Valley in 1734 when the oaktree was already at least 200 years old. But as important as those folks are to our history, that’s not how the oak got its association with the sacred. The native Lenni Lanape of the region have historical stories of the tree helping to make peace between tribes. It became a revered tree where sacred meetings were held.

Sadly, the Lenni Lanape people suff ered the same mistreatment and displacement that most Native Americans suff ered through.

Dedication plaque for Yellow Oak
For more information about the Sacred Oak of Oley, Pennsylvania, check
out the International Oak Society.
©Copyright Plummer Dunkele.

The tree is a yellow or chinkapin oak, Quercus muehlenbergii. After arbor work was done on the tree a while ago, Talarico was given some large limb segments. He quarter-sawed them and gifted the odd pieces of the lumber to Ian as mentioned earlier. Here is what Ian had to say about it.

In Ian’s Words

Table made from sacred yellow oak lumber
One of two tables that Ian Kirby made to display some unique and storied oak lumber. The heart of the tabletop is a torsion box.

“At the bottom of the invitation to the birthday gathering was a caveat: ‘No Gifts.’ The various bottles of champagne and single-malt were an easy forgive. Sam Talarico ignored it. With a smile and some explanation, he presented me with two boards of wood. In the hurly-burly of people arriving, his truncated explanation evaporated and his suggestion that I might use the wood was D.O.A. Even a preoccupied glance at the pieces told me there was nothing in their future. A fire came to mind.”

But Ian’s interest was sparked by the history of the tree. The first I heard of the tables was on a phone call with Ian: “Rob, I’ve done something that I’ve never done before.” This perked my interest because I was assuming the universe of woodworking things Ian has not done by age 90 was pretty small.

Second two legged table made from yellow oak lumber
A very limited amount of oak lumber meant that the two tables would make use of it differently.

The “thing” he didn’t do turned out to be following his training and order of work. As long as I’ve known him, he begins each project by defining the problem to be solved by the furniture, material and budget constraints, followed by working drawings, perhaps mock-ups or a model. Not possible here.

So as he told me, “I winged it … a process of designing and making which is antithetical to my training, my professional life and my teaching.”

With intentions to honor the Native Americans to whom the tree meant so much, he started to work. There was not much material available.

Detail of pattern in yellow oak table

“The newly sliced boards were only about 5/16″ thick, and in less than half an hour they showed signs of mild cupping and twisting.”

Nevertheless, Ian made use of the salvageable stock, torsion box technology, bits and pieces of the oak waste and lumber and veneer from his shop to create these two lovely tables. It’s another chapter in the long and curious story of the Sacred Oak of Oley.

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