When I cut wood, I am always on the lookout for the unique. I don’t always know what I am going to find, but I know that the less it looks like wood or “regular” wood the easier it is to sell. And, even though I like to cut anything and everything wood, it just makes good sense to cut the stuff that sells. Often the lumber goes up in value because of things that happen to it after it is dead, like spalting and bug intrusions, but a lot of good things happen when the tree is alive and growing too, like burls and curly figure. I guarantee, if I ever cut a curly log, with burls, that is spalted and full of bugs, that it will sell – quickly and at a good price (for me, that is).
Every log has wood in it somewhere that is at least a little irregular. You just need to know where to look. One place that holds a lot of promise is the crotch area, another is the stump and a third is at the base of large branches.
All of these areas have one thing in common – None are regular, plain, or straight-grained. Some are better than others, but none are regular. They stand out because the grain is figured, usually referred to as curly (at least by me). The curliness happens when two directions of wood grow into each other. It is a little hard to explain, but easy to see, especially in a crotch.
A crotch is an area on a tree where a single trunk splits into two, forming a “Y” shape or an upside-down pair of legs, similar to your own crotch. In this magical area, the tree is short on space for the material that is added to the tree as it grows. With each year of growth and the addition of another annual ring of thickness, things get crowded. Wood pushes against wood and the grain starts to buckle in different directions. It shimmers in the light and looks like waves of liquid. The crotch, in particular, can be large and somewhat predictable. If the crotch is built well, the wood inside will be worth the work.
Notice I said, “If it is built well” – not all crotches are. The good news is that usually everything you need to know about the inside of the crotch is labeled on the outside. You just need to be able to read it. Here are a few keys to the language:
1. Bigger is better. The bigger and wider the crotch, the bigger and wider the figured wood. Wider crotches are also longer. Every ring of growth adds to the width, but also pushes the crotch up, adding to the length.
2. Pointed isn’t the best. Between the two branches, at their intersection, things should be rounded, not pointed. Round inside curves show that the crotch is increasing in length every year as one piece and not two pieces crashing into each other. I like to think of a really good crotch as being “U”-shaped as compared to “Y” or “V”-shaped. A truly “U”-shaped crotch is difficult to find.
3. Parallel is worse. If the branches that meet to form the crotch are close to parallel, the crotch will be long, but broken into two separate pieces. Bark from each branch gets forced into the wood as the crotch grows over it. A 90 degree angle between the two branches is ideal. Think perpendicular, not parallel. Parallel is just two branches growing next to each other, not a crotch.
4. Bulges are the worst. If a crotch is forming correctly, with no bark inclusions, the crotch itself will be flat on the outside where the branches meet. A bad crotch will have a bulge, indicating that the crotch has bark in it (bark inclusion) and the tree had trouble growing over it. It may look like one solid piece on the outside, but the inside will be divided into two pieces with bark down the middle (not exactly what you are looking for in a crotch).
Besides the size, all of the other concerns above (#2 through #4) are regarding bark inclusions (which we are trying to avoid). Without bark inclusions, crotches are a single piece of highly-figured wood. With long bark inclusions, the crotch is usually unimpressive, not figured and broken.
For most of you, deciding how or whether to mill a crotch will never be an issue. At the same time, I have run into plenty of people who want to have logs milled and are especially excited about a crotch section that just won’t pan out. If you find yourself trying to decide how to cut up a tree with a crotch in it, I hope this proves to be helpful. Notice how I gently worded that and didn’t say, “Don’t mill it.” I would never say that.
I like big trees, and I like American Elms. When we stopped by Jaycee Park in St. Charles, MO, I found both all rolled into one. We went to that particular park so Mira, my daughter, could check out the newly renovated playground (which is very nice by the way). Mira played while Chris and I held down a bench and talked, but I couldn’t stop looking at the tree on the top of the hill. I kept wondering if it was time to go yet, so I could get a closer look and take a few photos.
When it was time to go, the girls humored me and let me take pictures of the American Elm tree. I asked them to stand in the photos for scale and they actually did it. Most shocking was Mira, who seemed to not totally hate the experience. She was even a touch cocky, putting her leg up on a straw bale, while Chris was only the slightest bit annoyed (she gets forced to look at a lot of trees).
As I said, this tree is large, which is a noteworthy feat for a tree that usually succumbs to Dutch Elm disease at a much younger age. It shows no sign of the disease (knock on my head) and seems to be in great health. You can tell from the close-up photo of the base that it gets a lot of visitors who admire it as much as I do.
Besides having a large base, the crown is enormous. Click on one of the photos to get close-up and try counting the branches. There must be at least a billion of them up there (give or take a few). They spread out like a fan in all directions and leave very little open air. I am sure that in the summer it just looks like a big bush.
The way the branches spread from the main trunk is the best way to identify American Elms, especially without the leaves. The tree usually has a vase or fan shape to it, where a short to medium length and wide base separates from one area into many branches with no clear lead. The profile of the tree sometimes shows the lower branches with an upward turn at the ends, which makes the vase shape even more evident. This American Elm is so old that it has added some extra lower branches which are not strongly turned up. Still, even from a great distance, you can tell it is an American Elm.
I know a lot of you are wondering how old this tree is, and I can tell you that I don’t know (I am not afraid to admit it). My best guess would be about 150 years old based on the other trees I have milled. Let’s just say it is between 100 and 200 to be safe and definitely much older than me.
After I took the photos above, I thought it would be a good idea to post photos of other American Elms to show the consistency of the shape from tree to tree. Some of them have a long main trunk before the branches split off and some have almost no main trunk. One even has two trunks, but still shows the vase shape overall. Notice that none of them are near the size of the American Elm at Jaycee Park.
It feels like Deja Vu all over again. After spending weeks cleaning up from the last tornado that hit North County in 2010 and still milling logs from it, I felt right at home when I went to visit our last house in Hazelwood, MO. On April 10 a tornado rolled through town and right across our old street, Woodcrest Lane.
I didn’t know anything about it until later that night because our power was out in our new house in St. Charles. I called my ex-neighbor (Alan Orban) after I heard it hit Hazelwood and asked if there was any damage around him. When I asked, I didn’t realize it went through his yard. He told me about the damage ant that trees were down, but it still wasn’t clear that the tornado went right through our yards.
It became very clear the next morning when I saw the TV news reports and aerial photos that included our houses. It became even more clear when I went by in person and could see the very obvious path that the tornado took right down our driveway and across the street. Most of the big trees that were in the path are down or need to come down, leaving a clear view of the sky that we have never seen. Woodcrest Lane has a nice country lane kind of feel with large trees and, in some cases, lots of trees. It still does, but a section about 5 lots wide (one acre each) is now a lot more wide-open-prairie like.
The damage on the street seems to mostly involve trees and trees that fell on structures, compared to houses being ripped apart from the winds themselves. In a few spots further down the line some roofs were blown off, but no structures where leveled. The tornado was officially classed as an F2 and stayed on the ground for a couple of miles. Amazingly, there were no serious injuries.
After we found out it was a tornado, I was specifically instructed by my boss not to go and get trees. I was told that I have more than enough paying work to keep me busy, and I don’t need to be chasing trees. I agreed, but mostly because I know every tree in the path of the tornado, and there isn’t anything I couldn’t live without.
Here is the channel 5 video:
Here are the photos that I took during my visit:
After the drought last summer all of the local rivers were very low. The Missouri River, right across the street from my shop, was lower than I had ever seen it. It was a trickle compared to its normal self. This big and forbidding river had become almost friendly with giant sandbars and never-ending chances to explore.
The more I explored, the more I found. I found a lot of cool driftwood pieces and lots of logs. At first, I blew of the logs that I saw, assuming that they were probably cottonwood or some other quick-to-rot species. But, then I thought a little more and wondered, “What if they aren’t all cottonwood or rotten?” So, I started taking a little closer look.
It didn’t take long to find a walnut that was solid and then a nice maple, but both of those were in Frontier Park in downtown St. Charles and there was no real way to get to them, so I let them go. Besides the fact that I couldn’t get to them, I didn’t need to get to them. I had a big supply of logs and plenty of paying jobs to do otherwise. I didn’t need to chase river logs. But, as you might have guessed, logic doesn’t rule in my world.
I began small and started bringing back driftwood pieces to the shop. I looked at the bigger logs, most of which were cottonwood, but didn’t pursue them. I didn’t see any that were easy to get out. Nothing was sitting right next to a boat ramp, and I wasn’t in a hurry to go out on the river in the middle of winter. I can swim, but that doesn’t make a difference if the water is freezing cold. I kept bringing back pieces I could carry, and I was fine… until I found one particular walnut log.
This log sucked me in. It was literally right across the street from the shop, big, and walnut, with the coolest exterior. The outside was so cool that, no matter what wood it was, I would have made it into mantels or something else that I could leave unpeeled. I had to have it, or at least cut into it, and then decide if I had to have it.
The main thing that had kept me from doing this sooner was getting the log. None of the others I found were easy to get to or get out, and this one was no different. It was far from the road and, at this point, far from the river. I decided I was going to go old school on this one and mill it in place with my chainsaw. If anything good came out of it I was sure I could find someone or several someones to help me carry it out (I have a lot of wood-loving friends that I can pay in wood).
The plan I hatched was military inspired. I went in quick and light with only my chainsaw, a few wedges, a hammer, and extra gas and oil. I didn’t plan to stay long. After all, this wasn’t making me any money, and I had other paying jobs to do. In and out was the mantra. I limited my stay to one sharp chain and only one sharp chain – the one on the saw. I knew it wouldn’t last too long since I was going to cut dirty roots from a muddy tree at the bottom of a sandy river. I would’ve been happy with the chain staying sharp for just one full tank of gas. I figured by that time I would know if I wanted to come back. And, if I did, I could make more formal plans.
I picked a nice sunny, slightly warm morning and launched my attack. I sharpened the chain on my saw, packed my saw bag, checked the battery on my camera and headed in. I started with the root section and made a couple of small cuts, just to make sure it was walnut and see how things looked. I worked my way back and forth and up and down the tree making cuts to assess the situation and try not to screw things up.
The entire tree, including the root section, was pretty accessible even though it was wedged between two piles. Even so, in order to get to the main root section, I had to cut off the tap root. I wouldn’t normally do anything with the tap root, but this tree was big and so was the tap root. This seemed like a fine place to start milling and finish off my chain.
After it was all said and done I ended up with six chunks from the tap root that we hauled back. You can tell from the video commentary that I wasn’t too impressed with them, but the rest of the log looked great. I left the tree in three sections (two nine-foot long logs and the root section) and packed out.
I spent the next few days working on my paying jobs, telling friends about the log and planning the next big milling session. Then it began to precipitate, and precipitate, and you guessed it, snow. I kept thinking that we should have tied up the logs, but we didn’t. I knew the river would eventually go back to normal levels, I just didn’t think it would all happen in a few days. Now the river is back to its normal width, and it just snowed another foot.
Needless to say, that log is gone. It is somewhere downstream for someone else to find. I was telling a friend of mine about it and how the log was in New Orleans now and how someone was just going find an awesome piece of ready-to-go walnut, when he mentioned Shelby Stanga. We both watch Ax Men and love Shelby Stanga. I think Shelby should have his own show, so I can see more of him and the logs that he pulls out of the Louisiana swamps and Lake Pontchartrain. Anyway, we both laughed and thought about how funny it would be if Shelby found that walnut and it ended up on our favorite show with our favorite logger. Well, if I can’t have it, I would want Shelby to have it. Happy Birthday Shelby!
Sanding is one of those things that is low on the priority list but high on the necessity list. Very few of us want to do it, but we all know that we have to do it. And, even though most of us aren’t excited about it, the quality of a sanding job can be the difference between a masterpiece and a large paperweight. Poor sanding techniques cannot only ruin the actual piece but can also ruin the finish. No single tool in the shop can be so disastrous (note that I didn’t say bloody).
It all starts with the right mindset. Often sanding is viewed as an obstacle, something that gets in the way of actually finishing, but it is the opposite. Sanding is finishing. Treat is as a separate and integral first part of the finishing process.
Be happy about it. If you break a woodworking project into two halves, the second half would be the finishing, which starts with sanding. Celebrate that your project is more than halfway finished and sand with a smile on your face. If you aren’t happy about it, at least try to fake it.
Don’t be lazy. Laziness shows up in the worst ways. Hard to reach areas will still have saw marks. Wide open areas will have chatter marks from the planer. Glue joints won’t be flush. If you don’t want to put in the time to sand, don’t be a woodworker!(Wow! That was harsh.)
Be disciplined. Don’t sand just because you are supposed to. Sand with a purpose, achieve the goal, and stop. Lack of discipline only creates more problems. Sanding through veneer, sanding through topcoats or stain, sanding across the grain, and rounding off edges too much (and this is only a partial list) all come from a lack of discipline.
Obviously, I think sanding (good sanding) is critical. Think about the four points above next time you are sanding and see where you land. It may be the difference between woodworking success or failure.
I went shopping for new tools last year after my fire. One of my best finds is a 36″ AEM (now TimeSavers) widebelt sander, affectionately known in the shop as the “FriendMaker”. It is a 20hp wood-eating machine that is in great shape for its age. I would say it is perfect, or at least now I would. The only problem that I found after I ran it was a groove or three in the front sanding drum. I didn’t know a lot about this sander and told myself that it would be alright if the drum wasn’t flat because the platen, which is a flat bar that presses the sandpaper to the wood would smooth things out. And it did (kind of), when it wasn’t falling apart.
The platen is a piece of aluminum about 37″ long and 1-1/2″ wide. It has a piece of stout felt attached to it that is covered with a separate piece of graphite fabric. The graphite reduces the friction and allows the machine to apply pressure to the backside of the sandpaper without burning through everything. The sander had the platen in it when I got it, and I assumed that it should be in there all the time, so I used it all the time. I was getting decent results, even with the grooves in the front drum, but I was going through graphite and felt quickly. I had to baby the machine and the graphite was still wearing out. I finally broke down and called TimeSavers to talk to a tech guy.
The good news was that the tech guy knew what he was talking about. The bad news was that he assumed I did to, even after I told him that the machine was new to me, that I had never used it or one like it before and that he should assume that I knew nothing about it. It took me close to a half an hour of going back and forth to finally figure out that it isn’t necessary to use the platen all the time. If I wanted, I could run it without the platen. Well, now I was listening (not that I wasn’t before). Turns out that the platen is for finish sanding and shouldn’t be used to take off more than .005″ at a time. It was for smoother grits, like 150 and up. The platen spreads out the sanding pressure to keep the sanding scratches from going too deep. Good to know.
Now things started to make sense. I had read that my sander could take up to 1/8″ per pass on rougher grits. That was a crazy number compared to .005″, and I am all about crazy. If I could take that much off at a time it would be a real game changer for me. The problem I faced with my new aggressive sanding technique was that the front drum, which is rubber coated, had those grooves in it that I mentioned earlier. Smaller pieces could run through and avoid the bad spots, but bigger pieces couldn’t. And many times the smaller pieces would drift into the zone with the groove and come out with high spots. I wanted to fix it, but it looked like a daunting task. There is no obvious way to get the drum out, and I had heard that redoing the drum would cost thousands. As much as I am all about crazy, I am also about cheap. Thousands for a resurfaced drum was not in the cards for a machine that I got for $2,500.
So, I coasted. I used the sander almost every day and tried to avoid the bad spots. I even put the platen in when it was vital for the part to be flat. No matter how careful I was, parts would still come out with hidden ridges, the sneaky kind that only show up in the finish, when you want them the least. I kept coasting until, out of pure coincidence, the guy that sold the exact machine to the original owner stopped by my shop trying to sell me new machinery. He asked me how the sander was working, and I told him about the drum and the grooves that were ruining my life. He casually mentioned that I could “dress the drum” if there was enough of it left. He took a look at it and assured me that I could fix the drum on my own. All I had to do was search the internet for info and videos on “dressing the drum”.
Searching I went. No videos. The only thing I found was one posting on WoodWeb about how to dress the drum. I was really hoping for a video because I wasn’t in a hurry to destroy the drum and mandate the purchase of a new one. However, the one posting was all I could find. I read it and it made sense, so I stopped looking and decided to give it a whirl. It ended up being quite easy and intuitive. I just never would have thought of sanding the rubber drum on my own, but once I knew it was an option it all made sense.
Because I couldn’t find a video on how to do it I decided to make my own. I’ve been wanting to start making videos because I think the videos can be a lot clearer than still shots. I don’t like seeing or hearing myself, but I decided it is something I just need to work through. So, here it is, my video on “Dressing the Drum on a Widebelt Sander” (just click the photo of the sander below). Next up is a full-time, non-judgemental cameraman.
The premise of the whole event is that a flat board covered with sandpaper is sent through the machine (with the sanding belt removed) and sands the rubber drum smooth. It starts with a new 36 grit sanding belt and a piece of 1/2″ thick MDF with radiused leading edges. The width of the MDF is determined by the throat opening of the machine and what is the widest piece that will fit through it. In my case, it is about 39″ wide. The length of the MDF is based on the width of the sandpaper minus 2″. The minus 2″ is so the paper can completely cover the two radiused edges. My paper is 37″ wide, so the MDF is 35″ long. The new sanding belt that is applied to the MDF runs at a 90 degree angle or perpendicular to the way it normally runs. Doing this allows the MDF to be a little wider than the drum and to be sure the drum gets completely sanded on each pass. The key is to have a wide, flat, consistent-thickness sanding block to send through the machine. After the MDF and sandpaper are cut, apply the sandpaper to the MDF with spray adhesive (3M SUPER 77) and trim everything flush.
I was instructed on WoodWeb to use a high feed speed, low grit and very shallow cuts since the rubber could just melt instead of being sanded. It didn’t take long. I took light passes and was done way before I got the video shot. In all, I only sent the MDF sandpaper block through 10 times to remove the 1/16″ deep grooves.
Now, I use the drum all the time and never use the platen. I consistently and confidently take of 1/16″ or more per pass (even on wide stuff) with the 36 grit and 1/64″ with the 100 grit. It is amazing how different my life has been since I “dressed the drum” on my sander.
Last week, I was asked to speak at the annual conference for the Midwest Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (a surprisingly lively bunch). While I was working on my presentation and looking through old photos, I came across photos of the kitchen at our last house and was reminded of a story that I think is worth retelling. The kitchen at our last house was made from quartersawn sycamore and all of it came from one giant log. This is the story of that giant log.
One day I was out looking for logs and stopped by St. Louis Composting, where they see a lot of logs that they turn into mulch. Every time I have been there I can have my pick of logs as long as they are not desirable in any way to anyone else, especially someone who might pay for them. That normally leaves me with short, rotten, crooked, hollow and busted pieces from undesirable species of trees (mostly sweetgum, pin oak and cottonwood). But this day I got lucky. I found a log that looked bad on the outside, but was great on the inside.
It certainly did not look like a log of my dreams, but it caught my attention because it was big. For some reason, probably because it was so big, no one had cut it to firewood length yet. From all aspects it deserved it. The log was old and gray with no bark and plenty of cracks, and it was rotten in spots. Maybe it wasn’t cut up yet because everyone thought it was too rotten or because they somehow knew it was a sycamore and thought it wasn’t good enough for firewood (you would be surprised how snobby people are about their firewood, even when it is free).
No matter what the reason, it was there. It was long too. Big and long, now you really have my attention. The log was 13 feet long and scaled at about 1,000 bd. ft. It was giant.
I knew right away I wanted it. Heck, as long as it wasn’t a cottonwood, pin oak or sweet gum I wanted it. But, I also knew that my crane wouldn’t pick it up. Luckily, they have very big loaders at St. Louis Composting and for $20 they agreed to load it for me. After I paid the loader operator he scurried over with the loader and scooped the log with his bucket. The log didn’t fit in the bucket, but it rested nicely on the front while he maneuvered over to my truck. This guy apparently had a lot of other material to move and was in a hurry. He moved quickly to the side of my truck, but slowed down like I expected when he got close.
What I didn’t expect him to do was to dump the log on my truck from a couple of feet in the air. When he did, I sank to my knees, all the way to my knees, completely in sync with my truck. Both of us quickly squatted to the ground and very slowly bounced back up. “Holy S—,” I thought. My heart was jumping out of my chest. I couldn’t believe it. Was it this dudes first day? I was sure that my truck was now destroyed, if not permanently disfigured. There was just no way on this great earth of ours that my old 1977 Chevy C60 could take a hit like that. But, somehow it did, and it bounced back.
My first thought (once I could breathe) was to ask for my $20 back, but as far as I could tell nothing was broke. I knew my truck could handle a lot of weight, I just didn’t think it could take it all at once and with such force, but I guess I was wrong. I threw some straps on the log and headed back.
On the way back I was something to see. I felt like the coolest kid in school. I could feel everyone staring at me. Ill-informed do-gooder dads were pointing out my truck to the kids in the back seat and explaining how long it takes a (insert tree name here, as long as it isn’t sycamore, or it won’t be funny) tree to get to that size. Policeman were stopping gawkers at intersections worried that they might be too distracted by looking at my huge log (could have gone so many ways with that one). Other drivers pulled up next to me and yelled, “Did you load that yourself?” By the way, that last one really happened. All was right with the world. At least for a time.
When I got back to the sawmill, I jumped out to open the gate and noticed a smell of something burning… maybe rubber, I thought. I took a walk around my truck and all six of my tires were still good. The smell got stronger when I came back around to the front of the truck, and now smoke was coming out of the front end from under the hood. Quickly, like a really slow jack rabbit, I opened the hood and jumped up on my bumper to see what was burning. To my surprise, it was the battery, but I wasn’t surprised to see why. The battery was now laying on my exhaust manifold. The truck was bounced so hard that the battery (which was not properly secured) was flung out of the battery tray and onto the exhaust manifold and it was very melty.
That guy at St. Louis Composting with that giant loader managed to dislodge my battery from its cute little tray with one whack. In all of the time I have driven this truck (all without the battery properly secured) it has never popped out of that tray. And, I have hit some big bumps, many of them way too hard and way too fast and the battery has always stayed put. I just wish I had some video of it, so I could see my truck go all the way to the ground and bounce back up and say, “Thank you, Sir. May I have another?”
After it was all said and done, I had a new battery and after even more was said and done I had new kitchen full of cabinets made from one giant sycamore log.