Tree of Heaven reborn as table

When William Olsen cut into the ancient Ailanthus altissima that had been on the Plaza for more than 100 years, he cut into a piece of Ashland history.

History cut back.

The urban tree, with decades of bullets, bolts and other foreign objects embedded in it, destroyed milling blades and saw blades as Olsen attempted to preserve the tree as a piece of furniture for the city of Ashland.

"Nobody wanted to see that tree come down," the Ashland woodworker said. "I had seen too many fine old trees cut down and bucked up for firewood."

After more than four years of drying, planning and building, the end result is a 5-foot table that has found a home at the Ashland Community Development Department.

"It's just a beautiful memory of that graceful tree that was on the Plaza," city spokeswoman Ann Seltzer said. "We're just delighted that someone was willing to take the time to make it into a beautiful piece of furniture."

The Ailanthus, known popularly as the tree of heaven, was cut down in March 2006 after it had grown so frail that the Parks Department decided it had become too much of a hazard to stand.

Olsen was excited to work on the project as a way to support the community and because he liked the prospect of working with that wood.

"Tree of heaven is an exceptional material to work with," Olsen said. "This stuff mills up and just stays flat and the wood is naturally a beautiful yellow."

After the tree was limbed and then cut down, Olsen hauled off a 9-foot section of the trunk to be milled into usable segments in Ruch.

"Within the first three or four cuts, we hit a lag bolt," Olsen said.

That was the first hint of the frustration to come. Over the years the tree had accumulated lag bolts, musket balls, bullets of various calibers, old square-top nails and other things.

"The lead wasn't the problem — it just cuts like butter," Olsen said. "The square-head nails were the worst. They were so long they ruined a lot of material. It was so gut-wrenching when I was dealing with it."

At the end of the milling process, only 250 to 300 board feet of material was usable, much less than Olsen had hoped.

The wood dried for about three years, and then Olsen began planning the design of the piece. This was also frustrating, he said. Originally, he had wanted to create a table with an Chinese feel, based on the story that the tree was planted by a Chinese man who worked for Abel Helman, one of Ashland's founding fathers. Olsen was considering an inlaid section with the words "Tree of Heaven" in Chinese on the table.

"I was thinking about how to represent the tree," Olsen said. "What did it stand for?"

That plan fell by the wayside as metallic shards of history continued to pop up, making less and less of the wood usable.

A metal detector used on the wood showed evidence of foreign objects throughout.

"It would beep the whole way around," Olsen said. "I finally said 'enough.' It just couldn't happen. I spent so long trying to resolve the design with the wood and just kept striking out. Essentially the design was dictated by the wood.

The piece, on display at the city's Community Development Building in a nook to the right of the main door on 51 Lithia Way, is about 5 feet long and two feet wide. It has a distinct Asian feel to it, with tapered legs.

"It's elegant and beautiful," Seltzer said.

Olsen has lived and worked in Ashland since 2000 but spent three years studying woodworking at the University of Tazmania. He estimates the value of the piece at about $3,600, and, despite the frustrating process, is pleased with the outcome.

"I had a pretty good time making this table," Olsen said. "I'm a furniture maker, but I'm also a high-end cabinet maker as well. I wanted the people of Ashland to know I go above and beyond. It was an opportunity for me as a woodworker to show everyone in town I love this town and have the skills to make something beautiful."

It was a learning process for Olsen, who said he hates to see trees like the tree of heaven go to waste.

"You have to expect at least a 60 percent loss in material," Olsen said.

For information on Olsen's work call 326-1652 or see the Web site

Myles Murphy is an editor and reporter with the Daily Tidings. Reach him at

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