Mettawa woman turns dead oak tree into tables for her children
When a nearly 150-year-old tree died on Cheryl Pytlarz's property in Mettawa, a new life was actually just beginning.
The swamp white oak now stands inside the house as a 10-foot-long dining table. It was an unlikely journey for a tree that germinated around the time of the Civil War to be preserved as a dinner hour gathering place.
Standing water often accumulated around the oak, but in 2005, too much water stood for too long and the tree perished.
"You don't always know why a tree passed," Pytlarz said. "It was a swamp white oak, which means it could withstand wet feet, but this one couldn't."
The family has known the tree since they bought the property in 1995. It may have only been one decade or so of the tree's long life, but Pytlarz developed a sentimental connection to it.
The massive tree supported two swings; Pytlarz called it her daughter's play set. She estimated the tree stood about 100 feet tall and 30 inches in diameter. She described it as one of Mettawa's stately trees, similar to those seen in a forest preserve.
"The tree stood dead for two years and a branch fell off of it, and we got concerned that if the whole tree fell, it could fall on my neighbor's house," she said.
Although the tree had to come out of the ground, Pytlarz decided its existence did not have to come to an end.
She commissioned John Hatlestad, a master craftsman in Grayslake, to make the table exclusively with wood from the tree.
"I build one-of-a-kind pieces, but this is the first time we've gone out and targeted a tree, and used what we could from that one tree," he said.
Usually, Hatlestad said, you would select wood from a lumber supplier that match your tastes aesthetically and are also the straightest, flattest pieces.
Restricted to using wood from the one tree provided a challenge. The oak had been dead for two years and was in danger of rotting. There were many splits and knots in the wood.
"If we hadn't chosen this tree, we would not have chosen this wood," Hatlestad said.
Regardless, the tree yielded about 500 board feet of usable lumber. Board feet is a standard way to measure lumber and is calculated by multiplying the thickness and width of the board in inches and length of the board in feet and dividing that total by 12.
Hatlestad said the swamp white oak is an excellent type of tree for making furniture because it is very heavy and strong. He estimated swamp white oaks often live to the age of 150, and can even last well beyond 200 years.
He turned to the work of George Nakashima for inspiration, using butterfly joints to keep splits in the wood from splitting further.
Each half of the table was uniquely designed for one of Pytlarz's children - her son's half looks more contemporary, while her daughter's half has a country style. The children will some day inherit the table as an heirloom.
They won't have any problem splitting it because it is actually a bookend table - two matching tables that become one when pushed together.
Being turned into a table was an unusual fate for a dead tree. When trees die, Hatlestad said, they begin to rot on the inside and their usefulness fades the more they rot. If they cannot be used for lumber, they can still make good mulch.
Leftover lumber remains from the project, and Pytlarz said there soon may be some new chairs to go with that table.
The swamp white oak lives on.