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A living legacy — students give new life to historic campus trees

April 5, 2017

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From left, Paul Winistorfer, D. Earl Kline, and Matthew M. Winston Jr. with the Legacy Table crafted by students in the Wood Enterprise Institute and presented to the Virginia Tech Alumni Association.

Thanks to students from Virginia Tech’s Wood Enterprise Institute, two beloved trees from the Blacksburg campus can continue their faithful watch in a new form at the Holtzman Alumni Center.

The students handcrafted a 7-foot table from the two historic trees — a white oak that died of natural causes after standing more than 300 years on the site of The Grove, the Virginia Tech president’s home, and a 140-year-old sycamore that once stood on Henderson Lawn, serving both students and town residents as a site to meet and relax.

On April 4, the students officially gave what is known as the Legacy Table to the Virginia Tech Alumni Association. The table now resides on the second floor of the Holtzman Alumni Center outside the Library Room.

Officiating at a reception in honor of the occasion were Matthew M. Winston Jr., senior associate vice president for alumni relations; Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment; and D. Earl Kline, faculty advisor to the Wood Enterprise Institute.

“The Legacy Table is a wonderful showpiece reflecting the vast talents of our Virginia Tech students and the dedicated faculty in the Wood Enterprise Institute from whom they learn," Winston said. "The table’s origin lends itself to the narrative of our rich campus history that will be appreciated by alumni from years past and for years to come. We are honored to have the opportunity to display this wonderful piece of Hokie-produced artwork above our museum in the Holtzman Alumni Center.”

Winistorfer thanked the various industries and supporters of the Wood Enterprise Institute and noted that that the students chose to donate the Legacy Table as a way to give back to the Virginia Tech community in the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) in honor of the College of Natural Resources and Environment celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2017.

The Wood Enterprise Institute is a student-run, faculty-supported program in the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Department of Sustainable Biomaterials that operates as an entrepreneurial venture in which students design, manufacture, market, and distribute a product.

During the 2015-16 academic year, the Wood Enterprise Institute students used wood from the historic trees to construct three tables. Two were sold to alumni, with a portion of the proceeds donated to the Virginia Tech community to help support historical preservation.

“We wanted to keep at least one table on campus,” said senior sustainable biomaterials major Jalen Hill, of Charlotte, North Carolina, who worked on the table’s production. “These trees have lived on Virginia Tech’s campus for such a long time, and they’re a piece of Virginia Tech history.”

Senior Ethan Blye, of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, who worked on the table’s initial design, added, “It made sense to donate the table here. The alumni were our target market in the first place. They’re the ones who will really see the value in what we created.”

Crafting the tables was a complex task, as many of the students had little prior experience in woodworking. Despite the steep learning curve, the students were in control of their time and efforts from day one, explained Kline, the Charles Blakeslee Nettleton Faculty Fellow in Forest Products.

“We want the students to have an idea what it’s like to own and operate their own business,” Kline said. “The more realistic the situation, the more the students can engage in learning and problem-solving.”

For some students, the experience has already begun to pay off. Dayna Reynolds, of Round Hill, Virginia, who graduated with a degree in sustainable biomaterials in December 2016, worked on the marketing team and used news outlets, social media, and word-of-mouth to secure buyers for the tables. She credits the experience with helping her secure a sales position with Waste Management in Blacksburg.

“I got the opportunity to learn how a business works and really learned what it takes to be successful, particularly in sales,” Reynolds said.

During the fall semester, the students drafted their business plan, conducted market research, and created a prototype. Master’s student Danny Hazelwood, a Wood Enterprise Institute alumnus who earned his degree in sustainable biomaterials in 2014, did much of the prototype’s construction and helped the students determine the best way to proceed with the other tables.

In the spring semester, production on the tables began in earnest. The wood had been dried several months before, a process that can often lead to warping or curving. To achieve a flat, smooth surface for the tabletop while maintaining as much of the slab’s thickness as possible, the students spent hours carefully machining and sanding.

The slabs of white oak used to make the tabletops featured several natural cracks that could potentially worsen over time. To maintain structural integrity and add to the tables’ aesthetic and historic value, the students added bowtie inlays made from the Henderson Lawn sycamore to stabilize the cracks.

Highlighting the wood’s inherent characteristics, the tables were then coated with a clear lacquer to protect the wood surface while still displaying the natural knots and stains. The tabletops also feature a live edge, in which the detailed layer of wood directly under the tree’s bark is preserved to offer a unique aesthetic.

In keeping with the tables’ historic theme, the students also identified the growth ring from 1872 — the year Virginia Tech was established. A laser-engraved sycamore inlay with the 1872 Pylons logo marks the ring.

Encapsulating the values represented by the Pylons logo, the Wood Enterprise Institute students completed this project with a greater sense of their leadership and teamwork abilities.

“It’s a testament to finding common ground and working through problems,” Blye said. “If you have a common goal, you can get things accomplished.”

“I’m proud of these students," Kline said. "The main goal of the Wood Enterprise Institute is for the students to become good problem-solvers. I encourage them to think big and this is the first group to take such a big chance.”

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