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.
When I started cutting lumber for myself, I thought I could do it better than Home Depot. No more twisted and crooked lumber for this guy. I was gonna be the guy that did it right, the one that wasn’t affected by the limitations of mass output, the one that made sure every step was followed, and the one that made sure that every board behaved. I thought that if I properly placed my sticks and used more sticks and weighted down the pile and otherwise paid attention, that the lumber would respond in kind. Boy, was I wrong.
One of my favorite stories to tell people is from my early milling days when I tried to dry some sweet gum. The customer wanted to make flooring out of the tree, so I milled the log into 4″ wide boards. I took that nice-looking, 4″-wide sweet gum and stickered it on the bottom of a stack of lumber the was as tall as the Bobcat could reach. There must have been at least 3,000 bd. ft. and about a billion pounds on top of that sweet gum to help keep the notoriously ornery lumber flat as it dried.
After a few months on sticks, the lumber had twisted in unimaginable ways. Some of the boards twisted 45 degrees. Somehow, they pushed up the entire stack as they dried and went on their merry way getting all crooked without regard to my perfectly placed stickers and extra weight. It was really incredible. Even if I showed you a dried board in person, you may not have believed it. I had to cut some of the wood as short as 8″ long, just so I could straighten it on the jointer before it went through the planer. I don’t cut sweetgum anymore.
After my sweetgum “education”, it was clear that some wood is just not going to dry straight. Certain species always dry wonky. Flatsawn sycamore, elm and cottonwood all come to mind, along with the sweetgum, as bad actors. If quartersawn, they are all more stable, but if flatsawn, all bets are off. I always say that flatsawn sycamore dries like a potato chip. Elm and cottonwood dry more like thinly sliced potatoes that are fried in oil.
And, it isn’t just certain species that twist. Branches or trees that grew with a lean will dry crooked, even if they came from normally cooperative species. Certain areas within the good lumber can dry crooked too. Wood around a branch or crotch always dries spastic because the grain of the wood is flowing in many different directions. And, the lumber can still dry crooked if the lumber isn’t cut with the pith of the tree down the center of the board. There are just too many forces in the world trying to make the lumber unstraight.
The last one, and the one that I cannot defeat, is the tree with a twist. Not twisted lumber, but a twisted tree. The twist gets in the tree as it grows, and it twists the lumber as it dries. I have seen it in may different hardwood trees and the resulting lumber is always twisted. This past summer, I took a photo of a dead sycamore that showed off this “death-twist”, which would make an already cantankerous lumber throw an off-the-charts fit. It is easily identified by looking at the surface checks in this dried out log.
Click on any photo to enlarge.
Sycamore doesn’t always look like this. The grain is normally wavy, which makes the lumber dry unflat, but it isn’t usually twisted. This tree is very, very twisted and will dry with a pronounced twist in every board. It is best left as a decoration in the field. The good news is that this twist is usually obvious, even when the bark is on the tree. The bark will have the same twisted lines as the log, and let you know that it isn’t worth milling.
In the world of sawmilling, however, very few logs come right out and announce that they are going to twist. They don’t say, “Don’t waste your time cutting me, idiot!” Many logs and pieces of lumber look good but end up doing what they want, and you have to accept that some lumber just won’t dry flat. I still do everything I can to make the lumber dry straight, but I know now that crooked lumber is part of life and, in the meantime, I have become really good friends with my jointer.
“The June rise used to be always luck for me; because as soon as that rise begins, here comes cord-wood floating down, and pieces of log rafts – sometimes a dozen logs together; so all you have to do is catch them and sell them to the wood yards and sawmill.”
–Quote from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
I am reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn right now (mostly because everyone that considers themselves a fair-bit learned says it’s a proper read) and I came across the above paragraph about wood floating down the river. It struck me for two reasons. First off, I see the river every day and can’t help but be drawn to it for the logs that float past my shop. The second, and most appropriate reason, is that it mentions the “June rise”.
I didn’t know the “June rise” was a thing, even though I knew the river was highest in the spring. Personally, I think of June as the summer, but early June is still spring, and this year the rise was in spring and interestingly enough, in June. As a matter of fact, it was June 1st officially, but started with a vengeance on May 31st.
That night we were at the Ameristar Casino, on the Missouri River, in downtown St. Charles for my dad’s retirement party, planning on an upscale night out with the family. We were going to attend the retirement party, go swimming, watch TV in the bathtub (they have TV’s in the bathrooms), probably go swimming again the next morning and go out to breakfast, and just generally live it up as much as possible with our 7-year-old daughter. I say, “We were going to,” because things didn’t go as planned.
After the party, we went to the pool and were told that we would have to get out because a storm with lightning was headed our way. It wasn’t a big deal because we knew that we could swim the next morning, so we headed up to the room to find something else to do. We ended up watching out from the 22nd floor, with a great view, to see the approaching storm and lightning. It looked rather ominous, so we turned on the news to see that a tornado was headed in our general direction, and so, ended our night of fun.
We sheltered in the basement, hearing second-hand damage reports as we waited for it to pass. We weren’t in the basement long, but the hotel lost power, so we spent the rest of the evening in the lobby until the power came back on. When we finally got up to our room, we, of course, looked out the window and could see vast areas of darkness where there should be light, punctuated by areas of bright flashing lights. The tornado had come very close to the hotel and the lights were from emergency response teams. It looked like the tornado might have went close to our house as well, but there was nothing to do that night. All of the power was out and traffic was all locked up because the highway was closed, so we just hung out in our room, watched the news, watched the rain, and went to bed.
When the sun came up, there was some evident damage from high winds, but the most obvious outcome from the storm was the rising river. It was already a little high before this latest storm, and the all-night rain pushed it to flood levels. The water from the river was starting to fill the lower parking lot, making the hotel an island.
As I looked out from the 22nd floor, I could easily see a large segment of the Missouri River, and guess what I saw. Logs, logs and more logs. Huge ones floating right on by, and in good numbers. In just one minute, easily three to four giant trees would go by, along with all the smaller pieces. The “June rise” was on.
As much as I wanted to get all of those logs, it was obviously too dangerous. The water was high and swift, and as far as I could tell, only an idiot would get on the river in those conditions. It didn’t matter right then anyway, because I had to focus on the ramifications of the tornado.
A few days later, as I was looking at some downed trees from the tornado, one of the guys in the conversation mentioned how fast the river can drop in just a day, “like someone pulled the drain plug,” he said. Near the river, he had a house that was flooded the day before and was now on dry land. He also mentioned that he had a lot of trees just float onto his land, as well as some that were knocked over by the tornado.
This got me thinking more about the logs on the river, and that it would be a good time to look for logs or driftwood. But, I didn’t do much about it. I had a never-ending supply of logs right around my shop from the tornado and didn’t need to go looking for trees in the river. Plus, the river was still high, even though it had dropped a lot.
As much as I tried to avoid them, I couldn’t. Within just a couple of days, I was headed across the Missouri River on the Blanchette Bridge back into St. Charles, when I noticed the mother lode. Off to the right, near a parking lot for downtown St. Charles and Frontier Park was the biggest log jam I have ever seen. It was as big as a football field full of logs and driftwood, all piled in tight and screaming my name. It was huge, and I expected that I could pick logs from this pile for a long time. All I had to do was wait for the ground to dry a bit, and I could move in (with the proper clearance, of course). I knew that the logs would be there awhile because every person working for St. Charles was cleaning up the tornado debris and none of them were going to worry about this pile of logs, no matter how big it was, on the banks of the river. Heck, another good rain would take it down river anyway. So, I waited – but not long.
Only two days later, I was headed across the bridge in the same direction and looked down at the giant log jam to see only dirt. A football field-sized piece of real estate that used to be covered in logs, was now just dirt. It was incredible that they could have cleaned up that many logs that fast, but somehow they did. I thought I had plenty of time, but I still missed them, just like the great walnut log I let go downstream at the end of winter.
I told myself it was for the best, and that I didn’t need to chase river logs, but I was sure that the “June rise” had left something for me. It is a big river, and I knew that there were treasures to be found. I held out as long as I could, but then finally, I took the official “plunge”.
It happened a couple of weeks ago and knowing that summer was coming to an end, I went out and picked up five river logs, figuring that I better do it now before the water gets cold. I didn’t find any walnuts this time, but I did find one, in particular, that makes me want to go back. It is a silver maple, like the others that I picked up, but it must have spent more time in the water because the sapwood was very dark, almost black. At the same time, the heartwood looked almost new, making the boards with both sapwood and heartwood have amazing contrast. I was especially excited at how the dark sapwood looks like marble or some other stone. I always say, the less it looks like wood, the better it is.
Here are some photos of my prized log. Click on any of the photos for a closer look and to view the slide show.
The entire log was solid, including the sapwood and produced six slabs up to 22″ wide and 2-3/8″ thick, and in case you were wondering, all of them smell like the bottom of a river. Other than that, milling this log was a completely enjoyable experience. And, even though I can find plenty of logs on land, this one log will have me going back to the river again, especially around June.
Not too long ago, I got on a kick milling wide slabs on the Lucas Mill. I was milling some pecan branches from a giant tree and the slabs were coming out great. The crazier the section was, the better the slabs were. Then I got to this last branch. It was the smallest in diameter, but I thought it still had potential. My plan was to clean it up and make it more “log like” without the extra branch and then mill the slabs. The problem was that every time I tried to move it with the forklift it kept rolling off of the forks. The forks of the branch made it want to spin, and every time it landed in the same position. It was almost yelling at me to leave it alone, so I did. For awhile, I just kept moving it out of the way so I could work on better logs, and it kept flopping off of my forks.
It took me awhile to clue in, but then I realized that the final piece was going to be a bench cut from the branch and not slabs cut from the branch, and the way it kept landing was the way the bench was going to sit. So, I stopped fighting it and made a few cuts. I ended up with this excellent outdoor bench (and one bonus slab). I milled both the top and bottom to make it sit level at 18″ tall. The widest flat area is 24″ wide, while the entire bench is about 10′ long. I don’t know how much it weighs, but it is very heavy and will require a Bobcat for loading and delivery. The top has been sanded and then finished with Sikkens Cetol, which I have found to be the longest lasting outdoor finish. I expect that the bark will fall off, but so far it is staying on pretty good.
I have never made a bench like this before, and I am quite proud of this one. It looks nice, functions well and is hard to steal. And, the best part is that now, for some reason, it doesn’t roll off of the forks. I guess it is just the way it was meant to be.
Lately, I have had a run on countertop orders. They have all been walnut (which is the hottest wood around right now), and all 1-1/2″ thick. These jobs could be as simple as gluing up boards 1-1/2″ thick and going home, but I don’t make anything simple.
First, a little background. In case you haven’t read much of my blog, I cut and use as much of my own lumber as I can. I get all of my logs for free and have little jurisdiction over what I get. When I mill the logs I rarely have a specific job in mind. I am cutting lumber and guessing what will sell. I tend to cut 4/4 lumber because it is the quickest to dry and the easiest to sell. It makes up about 75% of my sales, and is my fallback position.
I only cut thicker lumber when I have a really good log that will produce high-quality thick boards or I have an order for it, and then only when I am not in a hurry (thicker lumber takes longer to dry). So, that leaves me with a lot 4/4 lumber that needs to magically grow to 1-1/2″ thick when a countertop comes along. Martin Goebel (a friend and fellow woodworker) would call me an idiot and tell me to cut all of my wood thick, that there is no substitute and anything else I do is just nonsense. I am OK with that, but that isn’t the real world.
In the real world, regular woodworkers (and even irregular ones) are often asked to make some magic happen from time to time. Often, it involves stretching lumber to make a project even possible. And, so it was on my latest countertop, when I was asked by a customer to make a large island top out of their small walnut tree.
In this case, I didn’t have enough lumber available in the logs to cut them thick and still get the coverage I needed. I also needed to get the top installed in just a couple of months and thicker lumber would have made that nearly impossible (without my dream vacuum kiln).
I pulled out a trick that I “invented” years ago when I had a similar situation with lumber that was too thin for the job. In that first attempt, I reassured myself that I could do it because the room it was going in had little light and no one could look at it closely anyway. It so happens that it turned out great and now it is my go-to move (much to Martin’s chagrin).
The concept is simple, but until you see a finished piece you may be as skeptical as I was on my first one. Keep an open mind and be sure to look at the final pictures, and I think you will be a believer.
It all starts with picking out the lumber and laying out the boards to be about 1-1/2″ to 2″ wider than the finished piece on all four sides. For the countertop in the photos, the finished size was 42″ x 96″, so my final glue-up was about 46″ x 100″. After the top is glued up and sanded, it is time to lay it out and trim it to the final size.
As you trim the top, keep track of the offcuts and their relationship to the countertop. All of these pieces have to be flipped under the top to make up the extra thickness, and they need to line up with their original position. Start with the end grain pieces because they are the most critical as far as alignment goes. Miter the corners, flip them over and glue them on.
After gluing the end-grain pieces, do the same thing with the long-grain pieces. The grain alignment is less critical on these pieces, so focus more on the fit of the miters and making sure that the corners look good.
After the glue is dry on all of the edges, it is time for more sanding. I use a 6″ random orbit sander for this task. Spend enough time sanding to make sure all of the saw marks are gone on the edge. If you are doing a top with a square edge, it is time to do the final overall sanding and finishing.
The top I did got a profiled edge, which helped hide the glue lines even more. Look at the photos below to see how the endgrain on flatsawn and quartersawn lumber looks.
After profiling the edge, just a little more sanding finishes up the woodworking portion of this top. Next, it is on to the finish.
When finishing walnut, I usually put on a coat of walnut stain (yes, walnut stain on walnut). It is a 50/50 blend of Minwax Special Walnut and Minwax Dark Walnut to maintain the dark color, since walnut lightens with age. The stain does a great job of enhancing the rich color without hiding the grain. Waterlox, which is easy to apply and repair, was used as the topcoat.
After all is said and done, I think you’ll agree that the top looks great, and appears to be made from thicker lumber. I even ended up with a few extra boards.