The completed table made from the staghorn sumac and black walnut. Photo: Elena Neuzil.
Seven years passed, until luck visited my house in the person of one of the elite artists and woodworkers in the Midwest, Thomas Schrunk. Among his many accomplishments, Tom provides Steinway with the veneers for its pianos. He has redone a kitchen for the Royal Crescent Hotel (dating from 1767) in Bath, England, and tabletops for the Prince and Princess of Jodhpur. He has counted Ronald Reagan and Sophia Loren as clients.
Each year, Tom holds a fundraising drawing to benefit one of his wife’s projects, with the winner getting a Schrunk veneer table. This time, Tom drew 200 names from a hat, but “just for fun, I decided to award the prize to the last name drawn, rather than the first,” he said. My name was the very final one drawn. By being last, I won.
Rather than select one of his beautiful tables as my prize, I asked Tom if he would be amenable to building a table a bit out of the ordinary, although from a common species. “Sure,” he said. “What kind of wood did you have in mind?”
“Sumac. There is one board left, from a prodigious tree.”
Silence. Then, “Sounds like fun. Let’s have a look at it.”
Tom was not dubious when he saw the sumac, but he was realistic. “There’s a reason that there are only 20 main furniture-grade species in North America,” he said. I was reminded of Thoreau’s tale in Walden of a kitchen table made of “the apple-tree wood.” If apple, why not sumac?
The reasons for “why not” are many. “There are species that grow straight and tall and drop their lower limbs and have very little in terms of knots,” Tom said. Sumac is not one of those species. But we forged ahead.
I found a pattern for a hexagon table from a 1917 Chicago Public Schools industrial arts manual; it looked like it belonged in my early 20th-century bungalow. Twelve small pieces were all we could manage from our remaining board, which had about five inches of usable width. Tom used air-dried black walnut for the table’s pedestal, base and as a frame for the top — we didn’t have enough sumac left for a complete surface. We carefully laid six five-sided pieces of sumac into the outer part of the top; six more two-inch, equilateral-shaped pieces sat inside.
After the table was complete, Tom and I carefully saved the few sumac scraps of various sizes in a paper sack. None of the pieces was more than two or three inches long and an inch wide, but I had an idea. Jim Kuebelbeck, my father-in-law, was fond of turning multi-wood bowls on his old Sears Craftsman lathe. I dropped off the sack, and in a few weeks, he combined them with black walnut to turn a seveninch candy dish. Now, about all that remained of our mantle tree was sawdust and shavings.