Sunday, October 21, 2018

On Campus

UW-Stout students combine with city, DNR to transform ash trees into benches

UW-Stout students transform ash trees into disc golf course benches

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    Max Mueller, an engineering technology major, works on a bench designed and made by UW-Stout students who used wood from ash trees to make benches for Menomonie disc golf courses. UW-Stout collaborated with the Menomonie Urban Forestry Board and the Wisconsin DNR.

    UW-Stout photo

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MENOMONIE — Visitors at the Brickyard and Wakanda Park disc golf courses in Menomonie may notice a new amenity when they play the courses in 2018: Rustic benches.

Seven benches have been designed and built by UW-Stout students, and six of them will be installed at the courses in the new year, with more on the way, thanks to a collaboration with the city’s Urban Forestry Board through a state Department of Natural Resources grant. One bench will go to the city’s Leisure Center.

The beauty of the project goes beyond the university-city-DNR collaboration. The benches themselves are unique, eye-catching designs made with wood from 30 city ash trees.

“The trees have been repurposed for a good cause,” said Landon Julson of Eau Claire, one of the project leaders who graduated from UW-Stout on Dec. 16 with a degree in engineering technology.

The city has been cutting ash trees with the expected arrival of the tree-killing emerald ash borer. When the forestry board received a $9,000 DNR Urban Forestry Grant early in 2017, it saw an opportunity to reuse the wood via the partnership with UW-Stout.

Thus began a research and development project, one that will continue in 2018 under the direction of university professor Jerome Johnson. The first building phase of the project was capped off in December, when students presented the finished benches to members of the board in the Research and Development Prototyping Lab at Jarvis Hall Tech Wing.

The seven benches were built in the fall, with another five to seven expected to be built during the spring semester. Last spring, students in a sophomore-level research and development class devised ideas for the benches and created scale models. Some of them were then built by the seniors.

Many styles

The benches vary in color, shape, size and style. They have light, medium and dark natural stains, and one was constructed to include a band of pink. Another has four square modules, each a different color.

Several of the benches have curved sitting areas to encourage conversation. Others are atypically long, able to hold four to six people who could play a round of disc golf together. Some feature natural slabs of wood for the structure’s backs and seats. And one has legs with feet shaped like real feet, including toes.

Randy Eide, the Menomonie public works director who advises the forestry board, attended the presentations and told those in attendance that the project is “a great collaboration with the university and students, and the grant is giving something back to the community. These benches will be used for a long time.”

The project was coordinated through forestry board member Nancy Schofield, a professor emeritus in engineering and technology at UW-Stout. “The students are doing something they like. It’s a win-win-win situation,” said Schofield, who also audited one of the classes and observed students working on their projects.

In addition to the classes, students from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Society of Women Engineers and other student organizations volunteered many Friday afternoons sanding and finishing the benches.

‘Skills learned’

Students used a variety of building techniques and processes to make the benches. When it came time for staining and sealing, they had to consider that the benches will be exposed to the elements year-round. They experimented with an ancient Japanese method of finishing called Shou Sugi Ban, in which the end grain is charred and oil is added, resulting in a hard material more resistant to fungi.

“There was a lot we had to think about before completion, but it makes you feel good knowing the relationship of this project with the local community,” said Julson, the engineering technology graduate who wrote the final report for the fall class.

Johnson said his students “seemed to be motivated by doing this project with the purpose of providing a service to the community.” Ash isn’t the best type of wood for outdoor use, he said, a fact that required students to devise creative wood-finishing solutions. 

Other members of Johnson’s research and development classes experimented with bentwood processes and developed other wood products. Those works included a fidget spinner, a hunting bow, a firearms cabinet, a hydrofoil for a wakeboard, a stave-and-hoop barrel, a mandolin and a guitar-style dulcimer.

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