Home & Garden

Championing a Champion Sycamore Tree

When a record-setting North Carolina sycamore fell, one Raleigh furniture company set out to repurpose the wood and preserve its legacy

photo: Alex Boerner

Billy Keck inspects the grain patterns on the newly cut slab.

Despite the old adage, it’s safe to assume that when the largest sycamore tree in the state of North Carolina came crashing down during a summer storm in 2017, the sound was deafening. On the day that it fell, the tree in Nash County stood 150 feet tall, had a circumference of 193 inches, and a crown spread (or average of the thinnest and thickest part of the treetop) of 119 feet—so massive that the state recognized it as a “Champion Tree” in 2015, an honor given to the largest native and naturalized trees in North Carolina. 

“They had logged huge sections of forest around it, but they couldn’t log this area because it was so wet,” says Billy Keck, the founder of Raleigh Reclaimed who set out to save the sycamore. “But logging the rest of the forest opened it up to wind, and a large storm blew it over.” For most people, that would be the end of the story, but for Keck and his partner, Melody Ray, it was just the beginning. 

photo: Madeline Gray
The trunk of the tree was so large that it had to be removed in 16-foot sections and so tall (even while on its side) that a ladder was required to reach the opposite side.

Keck had been an engineer for the state when he launched a side project of salvaging wood from abandoned barns and warehouses and transforming them into tables, beds, desks, mantels, and flooring. “There are a number of trees coming down from things like storm damage, disease, and age. At that point, tree companies and homeowners have to cut it up into chunks and pay to put it in a debris landfill,” says Ray, who joined Raleigh Reclaimed in 2014 after a career as a lawyer. “We thought we could repurpose those, too.” 

Keck and Ray first heard about the sycamore from an arborist friend who was doing tree work in the area for a man named Cam Bass, who lives on the property next door to the downed tree. “[The friend] called and said, You’ve got to come and see it,” Keck recalls. “I get that call about ten times a week and the trees are never as good as they say they are. This one was.” 

photo: Madeline Gray
Raleigh Reclaimed owners, Melody Ray and Billy Keck, share a smile and a sense of relief after the last section of the sycamore was safely salvaged.

When they went to scout it out, they met Bass, who knew the tree was too special to let rot. “Mr. Bass described it like the Statue of Liberty,” Ray says. “He’d seen it standing above all the other trees for so many years. It meant something to him.” 

photo: Alex Boerner
A 50” wide slab from the champion sycamore being processed on an abrasion planer.

The team spent more than a year strategizing how best to remove the wood from its swampy environs, before a drought swept through the area and dried the ground enough for it to be removed, the rare instance a dry spell has brought good fortune. They then sawed it into manageable pieces and hauled it back to their 70,000-square-foot facility in Raleigh where they sealed and preserved the wood, cut it on their custom sawmill, and dried it out in their vacuum kiln. 

photo: Juli Leonard
A vintage Whitney planer refurbished by Raleigh Reclaimed.

Every step of their process gets done in-house on refurbished machinery, relics from the golden era of North Carolina manufacturing. “Billy buys the machines when they go up for auction,” Ray says. “Sometimes they look more like scrap metal to me, but he’s able to fix them up. These big beautiful vintage machines operate better than modern ones sometimes and evoke such a sense of joy and nostalgia. They’re like works of art in themselves.”

So far, Raleigh Reclaimed has made four tables from the champion sycamore. “But we’ll probably be able to get anywhere from fifty to eighty pieces from this one tree,” Keck says. “And these are big pieces, too. Large slab tables, beds, credenzas. The sky’s the limit on what you can make out of this.” 

photo: Alex Boerner
The first table made from the champion sycamore in the home of a Raleigh Reclaimed client.

Each client who buys a piece of furniture will also receive a photo book that Ray compiled, tracking the tree’s story from felled and decaying wood to chic final product. “A lot of clients heard the story and wanted a piece of it,” Ray says. “Having seen all the work going into saving it, it means a lot to a lot of people, and it’s amazing to see it come full circle in someone’s home.” Perhaps no one may be able to swear to the fact it made a sound when it fell, but thanks to Keck and Ray, the story of the Nash County sycamore will be heard for generations to come.