Throughout history, this wood has been regarded as a tough and durable wood. In early America, wheel hubs on wagons were made from nothing but the rugged elm, and then used it to floor long-lasting wagon beds.
To show elm’s versatility, in early America, Iroquois Indians used it to calm fevers with a medicine derived from the inner bark of this stately tree. Years later, players in the new game of baseball chewed this same bark to produce a sticky saliva, which when rubbed into the pocket of their glove, made balls easier to catch.
Despite its many uses, its primary fame has come from its beauty and the shade it provides. From Europe to America, elm once lined miles of city streets and country byways. Today, unfortunately, elm trees are being killed by a spreading fungus called Dutch elm disease. Efforts to control the disease haven’t been successful. Fortunately, the planting of hybrid, disease-resistant trees has shown promise.
It claims about 20 species in the temperate regions of the world. The most well known include the stately American elm (Ulmus Americana) and the slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) of the United States, and the English elm (Ulmus procera) in Europe and Great Britain.
In the forest, elm often grows 140′ tall. But open-grown elms rarely reach that height. Instead, they form a spreading, umbrella-like crown valued for shade.
The English and American elms have deeply fissured bark with crisscrossing ridges of an ash-gray color. The bark of slippery elm is the same color, but lacks pattern.
Its heartwood ranges in tone from reddish brown to light tan, while the sapwood approaches off-white. The usually dramatic grain resembles ash. Moderately dense, elm weighs nearly 40 lbs. per cubic foot dry.
Hard and tough, elm still bends easily when steamed, and when dry, holds its shape. Its twisted, interlocking grain makes elm difficult to work with anything but power tools. It also won’t split when screwed or nailed, but demands drilling pilot holes. And the wood sands easily to a natural low luster.
Besides the frequent use of its veneer for paneling, furniture makers take advantage of elm’s strong features for hidden furniture parts. You will often find it in chair and sofa frames, backs, and legs. However, elm’s beautiful wood grain also has fine furniture possibilities. Elm works well, too, for butcher block tops and cutting boards because it has no odor or taste, and it won’t split. When it contacts water, elm resists decay, so many boatbuilders use it for making planks.