October 1, 2013

Turn tree stumps into beautiful fall centerpieces

Harvest, forage or purchase them for a pretty table display, then use them to serve buffet-style.

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I’m always inspired by nature for fall tabletop decor. I love bringing natural leaves, fall berries and, especially, weathered wood indoors for the season.

Wood provides a certain texture and warmth in a home during autumn and winter. Inspired by a display I saw in a retail clothing store a few years ago, I put together a woodsy cluster of stumps that serve as multilevel pedestals for party buffet service.

And, no, I didn’t have to become a lumberjack to do it.

I arranged the “stumps” — cuts of varying sizes from a fallen elm tree — on a wood-plank farm table. The bark was frail and falling off, so I pulled it off for a cleaner look. You can whitewash (or milk-paint) the wood’s outer surface to keep the look lighter, but my wood came with the white, aged appearance of natural weathering. I kept the bark on a cedar piece for a more rustic look.

If you are used to working with wood and advanced power tools, or you know someone who is experienced with saws, you can harvest wood slices to use for this project using a small chainsaw. Sometimes the wood is already cut and headed for the trash. The best time to look for ideal wood pieces is after a windstorm or when a neighbor is trimming trees and pieces are piled up on the curb. (Ask for the property owner’s permission to take a few pieces, even if it is set out for trash.) Look for smaller limbs about 8-10 inches wide and 2-10 inches tall. You might cut one tall one for a focal point like I did (at 18-20 inches tall).

Thanks to several retail sources, though, you don’t have to forage for tree stumps and limbs.

Craft stores offer wood cuts and faux-wood parts, usually in birch wood.

You can check for natural wood slabs meant for furniture and tabletop decorations.

The website Save on Crafts,, offers tree slices and natural wood slabs for decorating. (A quick check at press time shows the price at $10 each or three for $27.)

Watch the shipping costs on heavier woods if you are shopping online. They can be high, whereas lightweight birch can be less expensive.

Some wedding rental companies offer a huge bridal cake riser that looks like a tree trunk base, bark attached. Display companies sell faux logs and hollowed-out tree parts to retailers to make striking display windows and exhibits.

Preparing the top for safe serving

For both projects, I lightly sanded the top of the stumps to remove all particles and make the pedestal or riser clean and smooth. You can see the tree’s rings of life, and the sealing will really bring out the grain.

You want to seal the top like you would a new chopping block, with food-safe options. Never use polyurethane products. Go for nontoxic, natural oils like walnut or mineral oil. Vegetable-based oils can turn rancid in a short time, but walnut and mineral oils don’t tend to have that problem.

Some products, like Salad Bowl Finish by General Finishes, are made for wood that comes in contact with food.

Watco Butcher Block Oil & Finish is FDA-compliant. This is a ready-made, food-safe oil finish that is fine to use for sealing the top of raw wood for appetizer serving. Use a new, clean paintbrush or kitchen basting brush to apply the seal.

I gave my stump tops about three or four coats of walnut oil, letting each coat absorb well between applications. Try not to drip the oil on the wood’s outer edges, so you can retain the natural patina of the wood or the paint finish if you have whitewashed the sides.

Arranging a tree design

Once you have harvested wood pieces and sealed the tops, it’s time to set the table. You can use earth-toned table runners or simple burlap material to give the logs a soft place to sit, or just put them on a bare farm table.

For the cedar stump table platform, I used a runner, then put fresh kale under the cedar stump (just before serving) to give the centerpiece greenery, as though the stump were rising out of natural ground cover.

The group of elm tree wood cuts sits directly on a white farm table. I laid pine cones, nuts and white potpourri pieces at the base of the arrangement.

What to display

Top the wood with beautiful appetizers. This is the fun part. The wood is the organic but creative backdrop for the colorful food.

Look in the freezer section for small, flavorful finger foods: spinach phyllo triangles, bite-size popovers, puff-pastry cups topped with cheese, almonds and your favorite creamy or fruit fillings.

Also, smoked Gouda, Brie, pesto-covered goat cheese and other cheese rounds or slabs are nicely displayed on the wood slabs with crackers and a cheese knife nearby. Look for specialty crackers that blend well with the wood tones. An assortment of seedless grapes and fruit pieces is always beautiful in the mix.

Reuse the wood pedestals by dusting them off and refreshing their top seal with a few more coats of oil before serving on them again.

The stumps can also be used in other ways. During the holidays, mount miniature villages, family photos or unique collections.

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