Posted on 10/12/2011 10:26 AM by Grace Jeffers

For my first Interiors & Sources blog post I wanted to introduce you to a story you would not have read in any other interior design magazine. This is because it is my goal to expose I&S readers to a different perspective on materials. Materials are your alphabet. You, the design professional, use materials to craft your work. They are the vocabulary of your language. You deserve to know more, and it is my job to give it to you.

American Chestnut is one of our most abundant tree species and is almost gone from our eco-system.

This image is even more amazing when you see the man standing among the chestnuts and realize the scale of those trees!  Photo courtesy of the American Chestnut Foundation.

The legend is that a squirrel could jump from chestnut tree to chestnut tree and travel from Maine to North Carolina. That is how widespread and dense the population of the species Castanea dentate was. In 1904 a chestnut blight, or fungus that attacks and kills trees, was first identified and traced back to its introduction on imported Japanese chestnut trees. By 1950, billions of American chestnut trees had been lost. Today it is said that there are fewer than 100 large chestnut trees with diameters of more than 24 inches surviving.

Author Susan Freinkel, in her book American Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, extols chestnut as the “perfect tree.” Beautiful and functional, it was prized above other species because it is almost as strong as oak but with half the weight. Chestnut, with its distinctive grain in a range of colors from wheat to dark amber, was the wood which at one time defined rural life in the Eastern United States. It was perhaps the most ubiquitous building material in those areas. Not only was the wood prized, the chestnut nuts were a primary food source for humans as well as for numerous species of wildlife.

“It’s not that the tree is extinct,” explains Bryan Burhans, CEO of The American Chestnut Foundation. “It no longer exists as a canopy tree. It exists only as a small sapling; the blight kills it before it reaches maturity (maturity is considered more than 12 inches in diameter at a height of 4.5 feet up the tree, or its maximum height 90 – 100 feet.) What we have lost is all of our big old chestnut trees.” The American Chestnut Foundation is working to develop a blight resistant strain of American Chestnut tree with the hopes of returning the big chestnut trees to our native forests.

Today the only available American chestnut wood suitable to architecture and interiors comes to us through reclaimed timber resources.

“People like the character of the wood,” explains Darren Green of The Old Wood Co. a furniture company in Asheville, N.C. “Wood of the store-bought variety is cut for the best yield and is kind of boring and plain. With chestnut every board has its own visual story to tell; nail holes will have a black ring around them from the iron reacting with the tannins in the wood; wormholes add interest to a piece. Every board is different.” Green, whose furniture line uses largely reclaimed woods, is fond of chestnut. “People are attracted to the story behind it,” Green says. “The wood itself is precious.”

The Alderson table, shown in chestnut with a Danish oil finish.  Photo courtesy of The Old Wood Co.

The Iron Scissor table, shown in American chestnut, hand-planed.  Photo courtesy of The Old Wood Co.

Chestnut looks gorgeous no matter how you finish it.  Shown are the three options that The Old Wood Co. offers; on the left is chestnut finished with Danish oil, the center shows it with a liming wax finish, and on the right is their hand-planed finish.

“Another distinction of chestnut is the color, or should we say colors, because chestnut is known to feature a range of hues,” Kevin Kowal, regional account manager for TerraMai explains. “There are two distinct color ranges: a lighter pale honey color and a darker amber color. Another interesting phenomenon is that the amber-colored wood tends to have the worm holes where the lighter has almost no worm holes.”

Reclaimed chestnut beams, before they are resawn.  Photo courtesy of Kevin Kowal at TerraMai

Each reclaimed chestnut floorboard brings its own unique history, character, and presence to a room, with an absolutely stunning result.  Photo courtesy of Kevin Kowal at TerraMai

The only way you can get American chestnut wood today is from the salvaged 18th and 19th century buildings, and the best and biggest material comes from the barns. Most of the American chestnut wood TerraMai sells is from structures from Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina. So the wood is a record of more than one history: of the species which was decimated within a single human lifetime and of the buildings that used the wood, which is today reclaimed and repurposed.

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I look forward to your questions and comments about my blog posts, and to any information you might have that will help us expand the dialogue about materials. Until next week…

Bio: Jeffers received her masters in Decorative Art History at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts and was one of the first in her field to focus her attention on materials instead of the objects that they became. Her pioneering work conserving the Ralph Wilson House in Temple, Texas was awarded the Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the house is the only structure on the National Register of Historic Places listed because of its use of material. Her approach is a synthesis of design history, materials science and cultural anthropology. And for the past eight years she has been working on an encyclopaedia of modern materials.