MATTHEWS – After falling across Charles Street during the Feb. 6 tornado that ripped through downtown, a 110-year-old oak tree on the Matthews HELP Center property is now living a second life as a table at Backporch Treasures.
The table was made by longtime HELP Center volunteer Dan Peterson to memorialize the tree and the tornado that ultimately brought it down. It measures 42 inches in diameter, 1.25 inches thick and weighs about 50 pounds, but it didn’t start out that way.
After the storm passed, crews from the Town of Matthews did the preliminary cutting to remove the bulk of the tree that fell in the roadway but left the stump in the HELP Center’s yard. That’s when staff and volunteers had the idea to turn what was left into something special.
“We have to capture this moment somehow,” said Sandra Conway, executive director of the HELP Center. “We need to be able to say this happened at this place and time and we have record of it.”
The project was right up Peterson’s alley. He does all the handyman projects around the HELP Center, fixes donated bicycles and repairs old mechanical clocks and antiques so they can be sold at Backporch Treasures.
“I’m kind of a jack of all trades,” Peterson said.
He’s also been a hobbyist woodworker for most of his adult life and even built a couple wooden boats, but nothing like what he calls “the tornado table.” He said it was the first live edge piece of furniture that he’s built.
Mandi’s Tree Care cut two slabs from the stump that were about two to three inches thick and Peterson started from there. Each slab weighed 210 pounds.
“The wood was very hard,” Peterson said. “It was probably the hardest piece of wood in terms of rock hard that I had ever worked with.”
Through the process, Peterson learned a lot about “green wood,” which is wood that’s been recently cut and hasn’t had time to dry, or season. Green wood contains more moisture than seasoned wood, which has been dried overtime time or through forced drying in a kiln.
He watched YouTube videos, read articles from other woodworkers and scrolled through posts online. He also got advice from Wood Craft in Matthews and Carolina Urban Lumber in Pineville.
Before Peterson could even start making the table, he had to wait for the water in the slab to evaporate. He said water comes out so fast that the wood cracks, shrinks and splits upon drying. He monitored the weight every week and after 90 days it stabilized at about 120 pounds – almost half the weight of when it was first cut.
Peterson leveled the slab to 1.25-inches thick – reducing the weight to about 50 pounds – and used steel rods to reinforce the numerous splits and cracks. He then reassembled the slab-like pieces of a pie and added bowtie (butterfly) oak splines to further reinforce the pieces.
Next, he filled in the gaps, slits and open areas with blue pigmented epoxy resin. He said the hardest part was keeping the seal on the other side of the slab from leaking while pouring in the resin.
“I got through it, but I had to do two or three pours to get it to fill in the total thickness,” Peterson said. “That was a little trickier than I thought, but everything else was pretty standard woodworking techniques.”
Sanding and several coats of clear varnish finished the top. The base was made out of leftover ash.
All in all, Peterson estimated he put 20 to 30 hours of work into the table. He has given it to the HELP Center on an “indefinite loan,” as long as they promise not to sell it. It’s currently on display inside Backporch Treasures along with pictures of the tornado damage and an info card that tells the story behind the table.
Conway said the “tornado table” turned out better than she could have imagined. At first, she suggested building a rustic-style bench to place outside the HELP Center in the spot of the tree. That quickly changed when Peterson presented his finished product.
“When he brought in this table, it was absolutely beautiful,” Conway said. “That was not going outside.”
Some have suggested auctioning the table off as a fundraiser for the HELP Center, which has been dealing with a dramatic increase in need due to the pandemic. In May, the nonprofit gave out $40,000 in financial assistance and is on track to give out $70,000 in June.
Conway said those numbers are double what the HELP Center is used to providing.
Peterson knows there are many people who would pay dearly to have a piece of Matthews HELP Center history, but he said it’s not going to happen.
“I’m not quite there yet,” he said. “I got attached to it because I put so much time and effort in.”
Conway doesn’t want to sell the table either. She wants it to stay at Backporch Treasures as a memorial to the tree and an educational resource for visitors.
“We can’t sell a piece of our history,” Conway said. “We need to preserve it and keep it at the Matthews HELP Center.”