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Wood Enterprise Institute students give new life to two beloved campus trees

March 17, 2016

A computer image of the table
The table's unique design reflects the year Virginia Tech was established. The table is made from a centuries-old white oak from The Grove and the historic Henderson Lawn sycamore, both of which were taken down owing to poor health.

Enterprising students in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment have made two unique tables of historic value to the Hokie Nation that will be sold for $4,000 each in April.

Students in the college’s Wood Enterprise Institute (WEI) in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials are charged with conceiving a wood product they could bring to market. “The students are responsible for coming up with a product, designing and making it, carrying out a business plan to bring it to the marketplace, and getting the items sold,” said Earl Kline, professor of sustainable biomaterials and director of the WEI.

“The purpose of this experiential learning,” he continued, “is to give students an opportunity to be creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial. When they enter the workforce, this practical experience in business leadership has proven invaluable.”

This year’s group of 17 students had the brilliant idea of using the wood from two historic campus trees that were not in good health and had to be taken down for safety reasons. They decided to make four tables from a white oak tree that had stood on the front lawn of The Grove, the university president’s home. The tree, which had growth rings of 314 years, had died due to root disease.

The tree, however, is even older than that because white oaks take many years to reach the height where the tree disk was taken and dated, “so the birth of the tree is actually sometime before 1700,” said John Seiler, alumni distinguished professor and the Honorable and Mrs. Shelton H. Short Professor of Forestry.

To put this in perspective, the Drapers Meadow settlement, which is now Blacksburg, was established in 1749 along one of the earliest and most-used routes by pioneers pushing over the mountainous ridge during Colonial times. Prior to the settlement, The Grove was primarily forested hunting grounds for both the Cherokees and Shawnees. Many of the early oaks, possibly even older than the one taken down, still thrive at The Grove today.

The WEI team has crafted four custom high-quality tables (approximately 3’ wide, 6’ long, and 30” high), made from the white oak and inlaid with beautiful darker wood from the historic Henderson Lawn sycamore tree taken down several years ago and preserved for a use such as this. In their interest to preserve and showcase these historic wood treasures, the students handcrafted their limited edition tables with a live edge.

Another distinction is a small wooden piece engraved with the Virginia Tech shield and the university’s founding date, 1872. It marks the corresponding tree growth ring on each table.

Two tables will be sold this spring. Senior Wendell Foster Jr. of Suffolk, Virginia, and junior Dayna Reynolds of Round Hill, Virginia, both majoring in sustainable biomaterials, are responsible for promoting the tables. They will put one table on an upcoming campus-wide tour so the Virginia Tech community can see it:

·      March 21-25, 2016, at the Inn at Virginia Tech

·      April 11-13, 2016, at the Inn at Virginia Tech

·      In the lobby of Cheatham Hall when not at other venues

For additional tour dates or to learn more about the sale of the two tables, email the WEI at or call 540-257-3544.

A third table will be raffled off next fall during a football game, hoping to capture the interest of alumni. A fourth table will be presented to Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. Proceeds from the sales will go appropriately towards the urban forest sustainability program at Virginia Tech and to Smithfield Plantation, built around 1774 by William Preston, whose land helped give the university its start.

“The students really pushed the envelope of entrepreneurial risk this year by taking on such an extraordinary project,” Kline said. “In earlier years, students limited themselves to small, mass-produced items such as wooden coasters, clocks, bookends, bottle openers, mugs, and cutting boards, all of which could be engraved. The special product this year features a unique story behind it.”

The WEI is a student-run, faculty-supported organization created at Virginia Tech in 2007. The entrepreneurial venture uses a concept-to-market business approach in which students design, make, and sell products to customers while managing the business’s administrative functions and cash flow. “With this framework, students are able to take ownership of the learning experience by improving their business,” Kline said.

The WEI acknowledges its supporters that made the project possible. Eric Wiseman, associate professor of urban forestry, organized the harvesting of the white oak tree. David Richert, a local arborist who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in forestry at Virginia Tech, delivered the green logs to the college’s Brooks Forest Products Center. Eric Carbaugh, who earned a master's degree in forestry at Virginia Tech, processed the logs into slabs. Carolyn Copenheaver, associate professor of forestry ecology, analyzed the tree disk to establish the date reference.

Brian Bond, professor of sustainable biomaterials, dry-kilned the white oak slab lumber. Peter Sforza, director of the Center for Geospatial Information Technology, created a virtual digital standing tree to reference the location in the tree from which the tables were produced. Danny Hazelwood of Blacksburg, a graduate student in sustainable biomaterials, designed and crafted the prototype table. Baillie Lumber Co. donated materials to craft the table legs.

On this yearlong journey, the WEI students have learned how the history and location of unique trees can increase the value of the products produced from them. “The students and other project participants truly exemplify Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim, That I May Serve,” Kline added. And these two historic trees now give back to the Hokie Nation.

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