American black walnut is one of the most beautiful woods on this planet. I like the way it doesn’t rot, I like the way it mills, I like the way it dries, I like the way it works, and I like the way it smells like money. Walnut is one of the most valuable trees, and right now, it’s the most requested lumber from my customers.
I sell walnut as fast as I can cut it and sometimes even faster. Whenever I have a chance to pick up a walnut log, I do it. There is nothing better than finding a good quality walnut log and turning it into lumber. Well, except for finding a veneer quality walnut log and not turning it into lumber. A veneer quality log is so valuable that I make more money by just selling it to a veneer buyer than I do by milling, drying and planing all of the wood from the same log.
To be veneer quality, a log has to be perfect or close to it. It needs to be straight, round, defect free, and, if it is to be very valuable, it needs to be large (24″ or larger on the skinny end, inside the bark). The log also has to have one other key characteristic – no freakin’ visits from a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
In the veneer business, they call it bird peck. I just call it bird _____ (you fill in the blank). Bird peck is a defect caused by a woodpecker called a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker digging holes in the tree to find bugs and to get the sap flowing out of the holes which attracts even more bugs. These holes eventually heal over, but they leave dark marks in the wood and make veneer buyers head the other direction. Bird peck can take a log destined for a veneer mill that would sell for $7 or more per board foot and make it only worth $2 per board foot when it ends up at a regular sawmill.
Even though I get a lot of logs, I don’t get veneer logs very often – maybe only a couple a year. Recently, I had what looked to be the most valuable log of my career, except for, you guessed it, the ol’ Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. The log wasn’t giant, but it was big and long (24″ x 13′) and straight. It could have been a little more round, but otherwise it looked great on the outside.
When I was cutting the tree and harvesting the logs, I saw a couple of bird peck marks in the top logs, but hoped that it wouldn’t be so bad lower in the tree. After all, birds should more often be up in the tree instead of down in the tree. I trimmed the top of the log more than a foot, but I couldn’t get the log to be clear. Every cut I made still showed at least a couple bird pecks.
At that point, I stopped cutting and decided to see what the veneer buyer had to say. I remembered selling logs in the past that showed a little bird peck and the price was lower, but he still bought it at a good price. I figured I had nothing to lose, and I couldn’t do anything about the bird peck, so it was time to sell it, or try to. The buyer, Damian from Tracy Export, had always treated me fairly, and I expected him to offer as good a price as he could.
I pulled in to the yard in Columbia, Illinois with the log on my trailer and expected Damian to be in awe of my big walnut and to start throwing money at me. I prepared by practicing my straight face and trying to not look too excited. Anyone that has ever met Damian can tell you that he does all of that naturally. He is always straight-faced and is never the giddiest of the bunch. Outwardly, he looks like he would break you in two for fun and not even blink. He has always been helpful and courteous and we have had some good discussions about wood, but he would never be accused of being soft. I imagine his rough exterior and no-nonsense approach serve him well as a log buyer.
It wasn’t the best day weather-wise and the cold rain didn’t help raise Damian’s mood. He grabbed his log scale and cant hook and headed towards the trailer. He was ahead of me and I couldn’t see his face, but I was sure he was saying to himself how good the log looked.
Within a micro-second of looking at the skinny end of the log, Damian’s cut and dry attitude somehow became even drier. He saw the bird peck immediately and had no interest in the log for veneer, not even a little. He said that the log would go to a sawmill and most likely would be cut into flooring and he offered me $2 per board foot. The same log without bird peck could have sold for as much as $2,100, but as is, the offer was only $600. At that price, it made more sense for me to cut it and make one of my customer’s happy than it did to sell the log, so I drove back to my shop with the log still on the trailer.
Since then, I milled the log and got a chance to see the inside. Much of the log was perfect, but there were areas that had bird peck. Buyers like Damian avoid these logs because they just can’t tell how much of the inside will produce high-grade veneer. Since they are paying top dollar for veneer logs, it just makes sense for them to only buy the best logs for veneer and avoid the questionable ones.
The good news for this log is that it made very nice slabs that will end up in some very nice furniture. Even the areas with bird peck are still perfectly usable, though they lend themselves to more natural pieces, which just so happens to be what most of my customers prefer. After all, it is actual wood produced in nature and not perfect wood that came out of a machine. At least that’s what I tell myself when the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker comes to town.
When I think of green products, especially a green cleaner, I think of something that is nice to the environment and nice to dirt. I imagine a product that tries harder to make me feel better about using it than it does about getting the job done. Now, I am not in a hurry to damage the earth, but if I have to choose, I often lean to the more manly and more toxic.
One of my favorite toxic substances is lye. It is mean, and if you want something to melt any organic substance you can think of, lye is it. Lye is the main ingredient in Drano drain cleaner, and it removes clogs by dissolving the most common culprit – hair. I also know that it burns skin and while I use it to darken cherry, if left on too long and too strong it will actually dissolve the wood.
Now that got me thinking. I have used oven cleaner in the past to clean saw blades; it did a good job dissolving the wood stuck to the blades and it burns my skin. With those two things in common, there just might be lye in the oven cleaner. It doesn’t really matter what is in the oven cleaner, but it started to make a stronger connection in my head between lye and using it as a cleaner to remove wood and wood pitch that gets stuck to every high-speed tool in the shop.
I got very excited and very sidetracked and started using lye to clean everything, and it worked great. The most impressive use of the lye was on belts from my wide-belt sander. At $40 a pop the sanding belts are hard to part with, especially when I know the only thing wrong with them is that they are full of pitch. In the past, I had used the rubber sticks that are specifically built to clean sanding belts and there were always spots that wouldn’t come clean, but not with the lye. In just a matter of minutes, even the nastiest chunks of burnished and burnt wood streaks melted away and left me with a like-new belt. Luckily, the sanding belt itself seemed rather impervious to the lye.
I couldn’t believe it. There was only one thing left to do – go to YouTube and see if anyone else knew about this dramatic new finding. I didn’t find anything for cleaning big belts, only ideas for smaller belts and none of them mentioned lye. I couldn’t believe that no one had come up with this yet. Lye was the ticket. But as I soon found out, it wasn’t the Holy Grail.
The more I searched the internet to see what others were saying about lye, the more I came across what I assumed were the granola’s of the earth pushing Simple Green to clean saw blades. I thought sure, if you want your saw blades cleaned sometime this year then go ahead. Then I read a few more posts about the virtues of Simple Green and eventually I couldn’t ignore it, so I tried it.
Simple Green worked great on my saw blades. They cleaned up as quickly as they would have with lye or oven cleaner – WHAT? I truly couldn’t believe it. No way on God’s Simple Green earth was it going to beat the muscle-bound, knee-busting power of my good friend lye. There was only one way to find out, so I put them in a head-to-head test on a belt of wood-clogged sandpaper from my wide-belt sander.
I am sure you can tell from the title that Simple Green had more than a good showing. Simple Green worked just as well as lye – absolutely no difference. If a spot needed to soak a bit with lye, it needed to soak the same amount with Simple Green, with the added benefit of not melting everything it touches. I don’t know what is in that stuff, but it works.
Lately, I have even been using it in my drip system on my sawmill. In the past (when my sawmill was outside) I would resort to using diesel to keep the blades clean on pitchy wood, like pine. It worked, but at the end of the day everything felt extra dirty and smelled like diesel, which is the exact opposite of how it should smell when cutting fresh wood, especially pine. Just a little Simple Green added to the water in my drip system keeps the blade clean and the shop smelling fresh. It really is amazing how well it works.
Simple Green, who knew?
All of the woodworkers I know like the woodworking part, but most of them dislike the finishing part. They have a great time using their tools to craft something beautiful and useful and then get paralyzed when it is time to wrap it up. They want it to come out perfect, or at least really good, and are sure that they are going to mess it up. Usually, they have tried applying a finish with a brush, or a roller, or a cloth, or all of the above and more, and the results were never great. It is possible to get a good finish with a brush or any of the above, but it isn’t easy and usually comes up short of perfection.
In the quest for a better finish, many woodworkers ask me about spray guns and spraying in general. They are looking for a better finish, a finish that is easier to apply, and a finish that makes their hard work shine. Their reasons for not already owning a spray gun are numerous, but when I am asked if they should purchase a spray gun, my answer is always a loud and excited, “YES!”, followed by, “What in heck are you waiting for?”
On my list of essential woodworking tools, a spray system ranks near the top, only after a table saw, jointer, and planer (and, logically I suppose, after sandpaper). I use a spray gun on nearly every project and for a multitude of reasons, with the main reasons being quality of finish, speed, speed and speed. Quality of finish is self explanatory, but the triple speed thing may need a bit more description.
With a spray gun, the application is fast (speed #1). From spraying stain to applying the last coat of finish, the spray gun can move some material quickly. There is no faster way to get finish from the can to a project, short of just dumping it on. If the gun is working well and the finish is flowing nicely, I can often put down finish as fast as I can move.
The spray gun also allows me to use fast-drying finishes (speed #2) like lacquer or conversion varnishes, which are impossible to apply any other way. With lacquer products, the finish is often hard enough to sand and be recoated in just 15 to 30 minutes, compared to a full day with oil-based polyurethane. Lacquer dries so fast, that I often spray parts just before heading to an install, throw them in the bed of my truck, and they are ready to install by the time I get to the job site. It can’t get much faster than that.
The best part for me, not being the most fastidious of woodworkers, is the time it takes to prep the spray area when using lacquers (speed #3). Besides covering areas from potential overspray, there is no prep required. I usually spray right next to my table saw or anywhere that I have room in the shop and do nothing about the dust. I just blow off the piece I am about to spray and get on with it. The finish dries so fast that dust doesn’t have time to get in it. I literally do nothing before I spray, even if I am standing in a pile of sawdust (the piece I am spraying is on sawhorses and not in the pile of dust, of course). I would never even think of working like this using something like an oil-based polyurethane, which seems to pull in dust from everywhere. (Quick note: I do use the gun to spray slow-drying finishes too, but the spray area needs to be clean and dust free, and I would prefer to skip that here in the speed, speed, speed section.)
Besides the above four advantages, I am often asked additional questions when it comes to spraying, but I must warn you, the answer to all of them is still, “Buy a spray gun!” Here are some of the most common questions:
- Can I spray ________ with it? Yes, YES, yes, yes and YES! You can spray any liquid finish by changing its viscosity and/or your spray tips, if needed. It is no different from a brush – a spray gun is just a vehicle to move finish from the can to the project.
- I don’t have anywhere I can spray inside. Can I spray outside? I think outside is the best. Spraying outside requires no exhaust fans and usually provides ample space to work. Plus, it is just nice to be outdoors. I often move outside to finish large projects, or if I am out of room in the shop and need to spread things out. The best outdoor spot is a garage (with the door open), which has good ventilation, controlled wind, and a shield from the sun – a lot like an actual paint booth.
- What about the fumes when I spray indoors? Yes, there are fumes when spraying solvent finishes, but they can be dealt with quickly and easily. First, spray near a window with a fan in it (instant paint booth). Second, wear a mask while spraying. Third, don’t spray when your wife is home.
- Won’t the overspray get on everything? Sort of. The spray gun will shoot finish beyond the workpiece (overspray), but most of it will land in the form of dust. Fast drying finishes like lacquers dry almost instantly in the air, so only overspray close to the workpiece is wet and sticky. Even the overspray on the floor directly beneath the sawhorses just sweeps up.
- Isn’t a spray gun a pain to clean-up? No. If you stick to solvent-based finishes, like lacquer, that dissolve with lacquer thinner you only need to clean-up when the gun isn’t working right and then only by soaking the parts in lacquer thinner. If I am spraying lacquer, I treat the gun just like a can and leave the finish in it until the next time I spray. If you are using finishes that aren’t soluble after they dry you can’t be so cavalier, but it still isn’t a big deal. Often, it is only a matter of spraying the solvent through the gun until it is clean.
After I berate someone for not already owning a spray gun and then tell them over and over again to buy one, the next question they ask is usually, “Which one should I buy?” My answer is simple, “Not a cheap one.” I have used several different high-quality, name-brand HVLP spray systems, and all of them did a good job. There are, of course, subtle differences in the way the guns work and some may be better than others, but none of the higher-priced systems will be a bad purchase. I have personally used HVLP systems from Fuji, Apollo and Graco, and all of them give similar results. At the same time, it is worth noting that I have used cheap no-name guns, and they were painful to use. The spray was splotchy and the guns would only put down a wet finish in the very center of the fan pattern compared to the entire width of the fan pattern from a good gun.
When selecting an HVLP gun there are lots of choices, and again, as long as you don’t buy a junk gun they are mostly just different, and not necessarily bad. I currently use an older HVLP system made by Graco. It has a turbine and a small compressor that pressurizes the 2-quart pressure pot for the gun. I use a pressure pot because it holds more finish, so I can refill less often and keep moving. Plus, with the pressure pot system the gun profile is small to fit into tight spots. For most uses and especially for those of you that don’t even own a gun, one without a pressure pot is fine, leaving you only to decide on two items, the type of gun (bottom-feed or gravity-feed) and the air delivery system (air compressor or turbine).
As far as the guns go, I prefer the bottom-feed gun because it holds more finish, and since it is the type of gun I started with, it just feels right. At the same time, I know several people who use gravity-feed guns with no complaints. They like that the gun is a little lighter and fits in smaller spaces, and they don’t mind refilling as often. Between the two there really is no bad choice.
The air delivery system is the other area to focus on when deciding which system to purchase. The guns can either be powered by an air compressor or a turbine, and you get to choose which makes the most sense for you. Again, neither is wrong or bad, just different. First off, do you own a large compressor (5 hp, 50-gallon tank)? If you do, and you don’t need to be portable, you can save some money and just buy a gun. If you don’t, I wouldn’t recommend buying a big compressor just to spray. I would spend the compressor money on a turbine unit because it is very portable. I know I often take my gun with me to the job site or just outside, and I appreciate not having to lug around a giant compressor just to spray.
Here are the key decision points to address when purchasing your new system:
- Do you already own a large compressor and don’t need to be portable? If you already own a large compressor you can save money by only purchasing a compressed air gun. Don’t buy a big compressor just to spray, spend the money on the more portable turbine system.
- Would you like to use your spray gun outside of the shop, maybe at the job site or at your house? Turbine systems are the lightest and most portable. If you need to take your spray gun with you, pick a turbine. If you are only spraying in the shop, either a turbine or compressed air system will work.
- Are your jobs big? Bigger jobs (full kitchens, for example) require more material and may benefit from a system that can hold more finish. If you are spraying very often or are consistently spraying large jobs, think about a system with a pressure pot. Otherwise, stick with a gravity-feed gun or bottom-feed gun. Note that even large jobs can be sprayed without a pressure pot, but will require more refills.
- Do you have extra money? Here’s your chance to spend it. None of the good spray guns are inexpensive. Expect to pay $800-$1,000 or more for a complete turbine system. And, remember, don’t buy a cheap one.
If you have been thinking about buying a spray gun, stop! There is no reason (except for money) to think about it anymore. Start living your woodworking dream and buy one. No one, and I mean no one, has ever been unhappy knowing that they had a good spray gun to use whenever they needed it. You will use it so much more often than you think, and, though a good spray system is expensive, it may make you actually enjoy finishing.
If you have any concerns about using or purchasing a spray gun, let me know below in the comments section. I am certain that I can allay any of your fears and maybe even answer a question or two.
If you are not sure what to buy for your favorite woodworker or just your idiot husband, I am here to help. I have put together a list of gifts that I would be glad to receive and assume that other woodworkers and idiots alike would enjoy. I have included name brands where I think they are necessary to keep a good gift from becoming a flop. They are in no particular order and if you do the math there are probably more than ten.
• Clamps. Woodworkers will tell you that they can never have too many clamps. While this is true, they can have too many bad clamps. Even if you just buy one pair of clamps, make them good ones. QuickGrips are excellent one-handed clamps and are great to have around the shop. I recommend the 12″ length. For flat panel glue-ups parallel clamps are the best. I prefer Bessey because they were the original, but others work well, like Jorgenson. F-style clamps are also handy. Again, Bessey is a top name along with Jorgenson. I would stay away from pipe clamps. I don’t like the way they work and they don’t seem very fancy for a christmas gift.
• Impact Driver. Not long ago impact drivers weren’t so widely used. I remember thinking that they didn’t seem like an improvement over a regular drill for driving screws. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. If you know someone who uses power tools and doesn’t already have one, the impact driver is a no-brainer. They are on the higher end of the price scale, but worth it. I haven’t met an impact driver that was bad. The difference in price is usually the quality of the battery. Cheaper tools have batteries that don’t last very long. I use Dewalt, but other guys I work with use Makita, Hitachi, Milwaukee, and Ridgid with no complaints.
• Hand Planes. Good hand tools are always appreciated. Start with a block plane. If they already have a block plane step up in size to a bench plane. If they already have a bench plane step up to a bigger bench plane until you run out of money or options. Lie Nielsen is a name that woodworkers aspire to have. If you have a never-ending supply of money and can wait until next Christmas, look at a Sauer & Steiner.
• Bosch Jigsaw. A good jigsaw is a blessing after using lesser quality tools. I am a fan of Bosch, again the first and still the best. A jigsaw is used more for installations and on-site work, but is also useful in the shop on a regular basis.
• Oscillating saw. Along the same lines as the jigsaw, it is used for a lot of on-site work, but otherwise it is its own class of tool. It is not used on every job, so it wouldn’t be my first pick for a gift, but it is a great choice for the woodworker that loves power tools and has every other tool. There are lots of attachments available that make this a very versatile tool.
• Porter Cable Router. Routers are used on almost every job in my shop. They can be used for making parts, doing joinery, or fancying up an edge. The most common size is 1-3/4 horsepower and is a good all around pick. Porter Cable has an array of choices in routers and accessories and is the go-to brand for most shops.
• Premium Saw blade. There is nothing like a new sharp saw blade to make woodworking more enjoyable. For a christmas gift, go the extra mile and buy a premium blade. Forrest Woodworker II saw blades have a great reputation and produce great results. For the 10″ table saw, a 40 tooth combination ATB (alternating top bevel) is a great choice.
• FatMax Tape Measure. I always used cheap tape measures or whatever was within easy reach until I used a Stanley FatMax. Now, I will walk past any other tape measure and to the other end of the shop or even out to my truck to get to the FatMax. That is saying something since my shop is 200 ft. long. They are accurate, durable and have a long reach. Christmas is a great time to splurge and by the expensive tape measure. The first FatMax I bought was $25 and worth it. They are less expensive now.
• Combination square. This is one of the key layout tools in my shop. For a gift, splurge and get a good one. An accurate combination square will be used on every project. Look for a cast iron tool as compared to aluminum. Starrett is the most coveted.
• Nippers. Nippers are great for lots of applications. They work like a pair of pliers to help remove nails. Whether it’s pulling an errant brad in new woodwork or nails out of an old piece of trim, nippers get a lot of use. Nippers are more for on-site installation type of work, but I use them in the shop too. Mine are Channellock brand.
• Premium Paint Brush. Like clamps you can never have enough paint brushes, but you sure can have too many bad ones. Go crazy this holiday season and give a $15 paint brush. I recommend a 2-1/2″ angled sash brush. There is nothing like a brand-new premium paint brush.
• Drill Doctor Drill Bit Sharpener. Every woodworker and do-it-yourselfer has a box with drill bits in it that are dull. They are still good, but dull. Even guys that love to sharpen their tools have dull drill bits. Fix this wrong in the world and save the drill bits. The Drill Doctor is fast and works great, plus a lot of woodworkers don’t have one.
• Small/Quiet Air Compressor. Many woodworking tools use compressed air. And like routers, it is fine (in some states required) to have more than one air compressor. For a gift, try the Senco PC 1010. I own one and love it. It is tiny, but will run a brad nailer and many other nail guns. It is super portable and ultra quiet. Do not, I repeat do not, purchase a Porter Cable pancake model. It is cheap and works fine, but it is the loudest tool in the entire world. I know guys that own one and they have extra long hoses so they can get the compressor as far away as possible, usually outside.
• Note Pad & Pencils. I am a bit of a pencil snob. The best pencil for woodworking is a Dixon Laddie. It is a fatter pencil that won’t easily break, and it can be sharpened to a fine point or can make a bold line when needed.
• Utility knife. Everyone can use a utility knife. Put cheap ones in the stocking or buy a good one and give it as a stand-alone gift. Folding versions can be carried at all times and fit easily in your pocket.
A couple of years ago, I was called by Dan Hellmuth of Hellmuth and Bicknesse Architects to work on a new green building that they were designing. I had worked with Dan previously on Washington University’s Living Learning Center and was glad to hear from him again. For me, the new job was similar to the Living Learning Center – trees from the property were going to be milled and the lumber was going to be used to make finished products throughout the house. The new building wasn’t trying to be the greenest building in the U.S., like the Living Learning Center, but it was designed to be very energy efficient with structural insulated panels (SIPS) and geothermal heating and cooling.
The property had about 80 acres of forest comprised of eastern red cedar, oak and hickory, along with a sprinkling of sugar maple and ash. The best trees were white oaks in the 24″ diameter range, some of which had veneer-grade butt logs (which means they were perfect, straight-grained and knot free). Most of the trees were slightly lower-grade and smaller, but still nice. The smallest were the cedars, which are considered invasive and were scheduled to be removed.
My choice of logs to harvest was limited by the terrain, which ranged from hilly to mountainous. Only one inclined ridge allowed reasonable access to the better logs. The rest of the forest housed bigger trees that will probably never be cut – it is just too difficult to get the logs out. Even spots that looked reasonably flat were only so in relation to the steep drop-offs. Often it was so steep that I had trouble getting the Bobcat back up to the landing, even if I wasn’t moving a log.
Once I got the logs out and back to my mill, I cut them and either air-dried or kiln-dried the lumber depending on their final use (kiln-dried goes inside, air-dried goes outside). The white oak was used for the deck, the boat dock and interior doors. The cedar was slated to be used as siding for the house, but that was changed to reclaimed barn siding and the cedar was moved indoors to be flooring in the loft areas. The smaller amount of ash, maple and hickory haven’t been used yet and are waiting their turn, most likely for future furniture.
Interestingly enough, two areas of woodwork in the house that I am most proud of, did not use wood from the property. We built the entertainment center cabinets from a mix of the customer’s cherry and cherry that I provided, while we made the front and back doors from WunderWoods walnut.
Overall, the project is nearly complete (I am finishing up the wine cellar racks), and since I never remember to take photos, I thought it was about time.
Here are some photos I took last time I was there (click on any photo to enlarge and view the slideshow):
Special thanks to John Stevens and Dan Draper for their help on many aspects of the job. Also, thanks to Scott Allen and his crew, who took over the general contracting of the house and made sure I always had an extra hand when I needed it.
We recently went to Elephant Rocks State Park, the home of largest round granite boulders and awe-inspiring landscape in the great state of Missouri, for a second time. On our first visit we almost missed the main attraction because we were a little too adventurous. We took a side trail, missed the easy entry to the top, and only found the path up the center as we were leaving. Looking back, it seems almost impossible to do, but we did it. The trees were thick, and we just couldn’t tell where to go. In that case, we should have followed all of the wacky kids that ran up through the trees and disappeared (I guess they had been there before).
On this trip we knew how to get to the big rocks, but started by cruising the perimeter a bit before lunch, and we found even more cool stuff that we missed on the first trip. To the right of the parking lot, the rocks make a nice surrounding for the picnic tables, and are where we started to explore. Once we got up past the picnic tables and started climbing, we quickly went into slow-down-Mira mode, so that she could live to see the rest of the park.
We got Mira to focus, get away from the edge, and stop running and quickly found a quarry pond with steep ledges and more big round rocks, that we hadn’t seen on the first trip. After we were done checking out the new-found area, we headed down for lunch. On the way back down, I noticed for the first time (really noticed) the trees growing on the top of the rocks. I found a dead log and brought it back with me so I could slice it and take a photo. For those of you wondering, all of the signs said don’t take the rocks, they didn’t say a thing about dead logs. Anyway, here is a picture of the unbelievable 28-year-old post oak log. Click on the photo to see what makes it so unbelievable.
I knew that it would be a slow grower since it was growing on top of a rock, but it was really slow. The log is a tiny, itty-bitty 1-1/4″ in diameter. At that rate, to grow to a reasonable-sized log for milling of about 18″, it would take 409 years or maybe never even make it. To put that more into perspective, a normal slow-growing tree would have about eight rings per inch. This one had about 40, and so close together that they are hard to see.
The tree it came from was small and stunted, trying to grow out of a crack in the granite. It looked like many of the trees directly on the rocks. One of them can be seen in the first photo and another is pictured below.
A few trees were much larger. Perhaps they were very old or just had more soil to work with, even though they were in a tough spot. I was surprised to see a tree this size in this spot.
We also found many trees with odd shapes, trying to work their way through the rocks. After this next post oak, I was told to stop taking tree photos and move on by both of my boss’.
From then on we enjoyed the rest of the park and spent our time climbing on the rocks. We followed the very nice asphalt trail that makes a loop around the rocks and takes you to the top. The following photo shows you the other reason (besides the trees) for going to the top of the mountain. The rocks are unbelievably giant. It is amazing how big the rocks are and that they don’t just roll down the hill. By the way, that is not my family.
This is how the rest of the park looked when we visited on November 10th:
If you have never been to Elephant Rocks, I highly recommend that you go. If you have been there before, I highly recommend that you go again. It is truly amazing, and at about 1-1/2 hours south of St. Louis, worth the drive.
Below are a few notes that I put together after just two trips to Elephant Rocks. If you have been there before, feel free to add your own in the reply section.
Notes for visiting Elephant Rocks:
- Granite gets warm. The park has lots of shade from the trees, but the open spans of granite get toasty in the sun.
- Plan to stay awhile. The path around the park is only a mile, but there are lots of things to see and explore.
- Bring a lunch. There are many nice picnic tables around the parking lot, all situated among trees and rocks.
- Be ready to climb. The entire park is open to be explored. Older kids (and some adults) will be jumping from rock to rock, rock climbers will be honing their skills, and parents of little ones will be very nervous. Even so, there are plenty of places to safely explore close to the ground.
- Granite is slippery. Some spots are well worn, polished and smooth. Don’t be afraid to get down on your butt. You will end up there anyway.
- Bring your camera. You will definitely need a photo of yourself holding up a giant rock.
Don’t miss the biggest rocks. At the bottom of the hill and the entrance to the loop Braille Trail, is what I will call the “foyer” of the park. At this spot, which has a single rock with a ring of asphalt around it, you can head directly into the trees and up the mountain. It is not marked as a trail or a path, but others will most likely be headed through this passage. This is the spot we missed the first time because it is not identified at all, especially compared to the very nice trail that heads away to either side. When there are no leaves on the trees the path will be obvious. Otherwise, just trust me and head up the gut to the top. Do note that heading up the center is on the granite rock and not on an asphalt path. It isn’t too hard to climb, but it isn’t for everyone. If you think you might have trouble climbing the rock, just follow the main trail around the back and to the top. You will end up in the same spot.
One of the best finishing tips I’ve ever picked up came from an episode of “This Old House”. Norm and Tommy were building some cabinets for a house, and they were spraying a lot of plywood. They showed how they used a razor as a scraper to knock off the nubs between finish coats. It looked simple, so I gave it a go, and I haven’t looked back since.
Let me first start by saying that the razor isn’t perfect. It is flat and straight, so it doesn’t work for profiled edges or rustic, wavy surfaces, but it is great for big, open flat spots. I use it most often on sheets of plywood, but also use it on the flat spots of doors, including the stiles and rails.
The beauty of the razor is the simplicity and speed. With one razor blade, I can quickly smooth a surface between coats on a job that would eat up several sheets of sandpaper. The big difference is that the razor doesn’t clog up with finish like sandpaper does, it just scrapes off the high spots. This is especially helpful when I am trying to finish a job in just one day (which is usually the case). As long as the finish is set up enough to handle, I can start scraping with a razor and never have to stop. In the same scenario with sandpaper, it would clog almost immediately causing me to use more sandpaper and not get consistent results. The clogged sandpaper also tends to drop off little boogers of coagulated finish that stick to the surface. That never happens with a razor.
Using the razor is simple. Hold it up nearly vertical to the surface, lean the top into the cut and pull or push the direction you want to go. It works just like a cabinet scraper, only on a smaller scale, and it doesn’t need to be sharpened. When the razor is dull, just grab another one and move on. I often flip the blade around and cut the opposite direction to make the edge last even longer. If it feels like it isn’t cutting, flip it around. If it still isn’t cutting, just grab another one and get back to work.
Quick tips for using a razor:
- Make sure the finish is dry before scraping.
- Make sure runs are super dry before scraping. The finish should scrape off in shallow layers, not rub off in big chunks.
- Always use a new razor. Old razors can have nicks that scratch the finish.
- Use a razor on flat surfaces. Razors do not work on profiled edges.
- Watch the sharp corners. The corners of the razor can easily scratch the finish.
- Use a light pressure to start. Apply more pressure as you get more comfortable.
If you are going to be doing a lot of scraping, I highly recommend wearing gloves or putting tape on the top of the blade to serve as a handle. The blade gets hots and starts to dig into your hand during heavy use, so it is best to make it as comfortable as possible. There are plastic blade holders commonly available as well. They work fine, but they got lost easily. It seems like I can always find the blades (mostly because they came in a jumbo pack), but I can never find the holders.
As I mentioned, the razor is great for flat surfaces, even curved, flat surfaces (what?). Yep, that’s right, the ol’ curved flat surface, like the belly of an arch. The razor will work on a surface like this, as long as it can sit flat. You can still follow the curve by changing the angle of the blade and quickly scrape the surface.
The razor is not a good choice for profiled edges. First off, it often can’t reach where it is needed, and secondly, there is a great risk that one false move might destroy an edge. In this case, sandpaper or a Scotchbrite pad is the poison to pick.
I use the razor between coats of sanding sealer and even topcoats, when necessary. It makes for a speedy job and a quality one at that. The razor takes off only the highest finish, which is usually just dust nibs and other loosely clinging items (like the legs of flying insects). And, with a little extra pressure a razor will dig in deeper to help remove runs and other problems, like finger prints, smudges, etc.
When you use a razor for scraping a finish, watch the edges of the razor and your pressure. The edges of the razor are sharp and can easily leave an errant scratch. Use a light touch, so if you bump the edge into something it won’t plow a line through it. The lighter pressure also ensures that you don’t take off any more than the imperfections. Only apply more pressure after you get the hang of it and when you really need it.
Lastly, make sure to use only new razors. A razor that has even just one ding in it will scratch up the surface, and the scratches won’t show until the next coat is sprayed. Don’t be a cheap skate and try to stretch the blades you have. Buy a pack of 100 and rest easy knowing that you will use all of them, either for scraping or in a knife.
Using a razor on your newly applied finish will seem scary at first. Go slow, use light pressure and be careful. In just a few minutes you will get used to the feel of it. As you work, use your hand to feel the progress along the way, by rubbing the surface to feel for imperfections. Your hand will tell you what you’ve missed and where you need to work a little more. Give it a try, and after just one swipe of the razor, I think you will be hooked.