Sourcing and building a dining table from one of Missouri’s largest recorded osage orange trees
I grew up admiring osage orange trees for their ideal bow-making wood. The trees tend to be twisted and gnarled; their silhouettes in the Mississippi moonlight are the perfect scenery for a deep woods ghost tale. The wood is so rot resistant that bow makers (called bowyers) have carved strong, effective bows from osage orange fence posts dug up after fifty plus years buried and exposed to hot, humid summers and icy winters of the south.
In recent years, I’ve begun utilizing osage orange in tables and benches. It’s striking lemon yellow color upon first surfacing a slab gradually changes from orange to a deep red, and, I’ve been told, almost purple after years of oxidation. It’s a heavy and durable wood, perhaps the densest North American wood outside of flowering dogwood.
Naturally I was ecstatic when a client tasked me with finding a pair of book matched 10’ slabs and building a dining table for his family to gather around at holidays. The finished table was to average 42” in width. Finding matching osage slabs of that size is not easy though. I called all the sawyers I knew in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas…none had any osage slabs nearly large enough. Just when I thought that I might have to inform the client that I couldn’t find the slabs required for his dream table, I received an email from a sawyer in rural Arkansas, deep in the Ozark mountains. Not only did he have the exact slabs I needed, he had an entire flitch from the largest recorded osage orange tree in a southern Missouri county (a flitch refers to the sequentially milled and stacked slabs from a single log). On top of that the slabs had dried for three years!
Once the logistics and price were agreed upon I set out early one morning from Oxford, Mississippi towards the beautiful Ozarks. It was about a 6.5-hour drive that took me through the heart of the Mississippi Delta and up into the mountains of Arkansas. Once in the Ozarks I was absolutely shocked at the density of cherry, walnut, white oak, sycamore, and hickory trees…it was a furniture makers dream forest! The final couple miles of the drive were steep, winding roads that included a forge across a scenic tumbling river.
Jake, the woodworker whom the slabs belonged to, greeted me along with his elderly father. Jake had a large beard and he, like his father, looked like he truly belonged to those mountains and forests in northern Arkansas. They were incredibly kind; the epitome of southern hospitality, and they were a wealth of woodworking knowledge.
By midafternoon I was steady on my drive back to Oxford. I had a lot of exciting work ahead of me. Upon arriving home, I was exhausted and collapsed on the bed. The following morning I unloaded the slabs at my shop and began laying out the table. Just moving and flipping the slabs by myself was an endeavor. I found that setting them on the forklift forks and adjusting the height of the slabs based on what I was working on (edges, flattening the tops etc.) was easiest.
After many hours of planning, sanding, epoxy fill, and finishing the table began to truly take shape. The completed table top is paired with a custom built walnut base. The base incorporates various kinds of joinery – mortise and tenon, dados, and dowels. Delivering this table was a rewarding experience and later hearing that guests at the client’s house expressed interest in purchasing the table from him helped me feel confident that further dining table projects will be rewarding to both me and my clients.