Woodworker Transforms Fallen Trees into One-of-a-kind Inspirations

Martha and her son Rafe in front of the family’s timber frame three-season hang-out.

Yoga studios are known for their welcoming spaces that inspire beauty and infinite possibilities. That feeling is evoked immediately upon entering the front vestibule of Yogamn (3900 Vinewood Lane N. Suite 21; yogamn.com). Anchored into the floor is a one-of-a-kind, rustic bench embedded with bright blue turquoise accents, harvested from a big Norway maple that had fallen a couple miles down the road.

“We wanted the first thing people see when they walk through the door to be natural and made from love,” says studio owner Mary Margaret Anderson, also a mother of two grown children and grandmother of three.

The tree formerly stood 50 feet high in the back of a large wooded lot on a dead-end road near Medicine Lake belonging to Anderson’s sister, Martha Williams. Williams, a mother of two sons ages 12 and 7, is a woodworker hobbyist who, like her sister, owns a yoga studio—Bikram’s Yoga in Minneapolis. “It was a beautiful tree with beautiful wood,” Williams says. “It was so sad when it died. I said to my husband, ‘We should do something with it.’”

So she found a friend of a friend who owns an Alaskan saw mill, which is a chainsaw that cuts with the grain and moves sideways to allow for thick slabs. After the tree was cut, Williams selected one of the slabs to be used for the Yogamn bench, then scraped and buffed it down, leaving it in its original shape.

“I traded childcare and some wild game in exchange for the bench,” jokes Anderson, who is not only Williams’ big sister, but also her next door neighbor. The sisters come from a family of 10 kids. “Our mom and dad are the original yogis,” Anderson says.

After Williams completed her work on the bench, Anderson sanded it. Then Brad Coats, the Yogamn studio designer, filled in the gaps and divots with ground up turquoise. Finally, Anderson’s husband, Skip Fay, attached the steel legs and drilled it into the floor.

From that one tree, Williams also created a coffee table, a coat rack, and three more benches for her own yoga studio. There are three slabs left that she is still deciding what to do with. “It feels very satisfying to recycle something that would probably otherwise get wasted,” Williams says.

Williams’ woodcarving endeavors date back long before this particular fallen tree. Her greatest pride and joy, in fact, is a 25-foot-tall timber frame outbuilding erected in her backyard, a project she started working on in 1998 while attending a two-week timber framing course at the Northhouse Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn.

Timber framing is an ancient style of construction. It involves using heavy timbers carefully fitted like a jigsaw puzzle and secured with large wooden pegs. No metal is involved. “Shakespeare’s house was timber frame,” Williams says. “It’s very labor intensive, but beautiful in its execution and everlasting.”

While at Northhouse, Williams created the pieces for the structure and hauled them home on a trailer. Then several years later, with the help of a big crane and a team of about 20 people including her handy brothers, it was finally assembled and raised. “The teachers at Northhouse totally empowered me,” Williams says. “I was a suburban housewife with a dream, and it was the school that really made all this happen for me.”

Northhouse offers a rich array of hands-on coursework in traditional crafts of the north, the only folk school in the United States where you can build your own timberframe, according to Williams, who also served on its board for six years.

At first, Williams mostly used the outbuilding as a shed for firewood. But in 2014, she transformed it into a jewel from the rough by finishing the walls with Cordwood masonry, a building technique whereby short, firewood-like logs are laid up crosswise and cemented together with mortar. Now, it’s a three-season hang-out with a loft, a gas stove, small fridge, and a table with an old kerosene lamp. “It’s a little airy, but it’s really fun. We go out there sometimes [in winter] and have hot cocoa,” Williams says.

Williams also applied the timber framing skills she learned in the class by framing the porch and living room that she and her husband added on to their 1955 rambler. The wood used for that project was harvested from Minnesota’s massive 1999 blowdown storm that flattened nearly 377,000 acres of trees in the Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Other woodcarving projects completed by Williams over the years include wooden spoons, bowls, various shelves, the check-in desk for her studio and a life-size Lincoln Log set for her kids, which is currently in progress.

For Williams, working with wood is a labor of love, not a money-making venture. “It’s a hobby that keeps me connected to the natural world. Being outside, being in nature, being in contact with the wood is super grounding for me,” she says while standing on a concrete slab in her backyard, peeling bark. “Some people doodle while they talk. I peel bark.”