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.
After the latest tornado to roll through I have been out looking at logs to pickup. I ran across this White Oak not far from my sawmill that was listed on Craigslist for free firewood. I could tell even from a blurry, out-of-focus photo that it was giant and needed to see just how big. It is 52″ in diameter about 8′ from the base and one of the two biggest White Oaks I have run into (the other is actually a Burr Oak, but it is in the White Oak family. Click here to check it out). Unfortunately, it was hollow all the way up, but I still had to get a photo. Good luck to the kids that want to firewood that one!
Click on any photo to get a closer look:
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.
I always think I am going to do a short post, especially late at night, but I never seem to pull it off. This will be an exception. Introducing, my first, official, quick short post.
Logs in back yard, truck with winch in front yard, nice lawn between the two.
Get logs out without tearing up the yard.
Roll the logs on to 3/4″ plywood with the cant hook.
Hook plywood to the cable and pull.
Now… if it was just that easy, short and simple I would have nothing to talk about, would I?
(Stop reading here if you don’t have a little extra time and a tiny violin to play.)
This tree was only two houses away, and I have had my eye on it since it started dying last fall. It was a nice white oak that had a 11′ long veneer-grade log in it and two lower-grade 9′ long logs (the logs in the skidding pictures are the upper logs, not the veneer quality log). The tree was quickly declining through this summer of death and was totally dead when I got to it. It was still solid and the heartwood looked good, but the sapwood had started spalting (rotting), and the bugs had moved in. Even though I wouldn’t be able to sell the log for veneer because of the lack of freshness, I still deemed this tree worthy of a little effort to procure. Notice I said a little.
I got out to meet the tree crew early on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Chris woke me up. She was telling me that the tree guys were there, but all I needed to hear was the word chainsaw, and I was out the door in a flash. I trust no one to cut a tree correctly. It goes back to when a friend of mine cut a 30″ diameter walnut tree 24″ up from the ground and turned a $1,500 log into a $300 log. He knows all of the best wood is close to the ground. He just got lazy. Now I remind everyone to cut low and tell them, “Get your chainsaw dirty.”
As far as the felling, things went great. The guys were accommodating and cut the tree perfectly (I think they were happy to leave the big parts on the ground and still get paid). I headed home to let them wrap up and returned in the afternoon with my log truck to start skidding the logs.
From the spot where I set up I had a straight shot to two of the logs, but the stump was still there and in the way of the main log. I figured I would get those two logs and stop by the next day to pick up the last one after the stump was ground up.
The three logs were in the back yard and down a pretty good incline. I wouldn’t call it steep, but it is strongly downhill and the logs needed to go uphill. My normal skidding technique is to hook a cable up to the log and pull. This works fine, but it can also tear up the yard. It does a lot less damage than driving a log truck in the yard, but it can still scalp the lawn when it is soft. I had told the apprehensive homeowners that I would use my “improved” normal method, which was to put a piece of plywood under the log and skid it like a sled and not tear up the yard. I have done this many times in the past, but always on more level lawns. Still, I figured it shouldn’t change things too much. It’s just a hill, what’s a little hill? A big problem, that’s what!
The gravity opposing operation proved to be quite time-consuming. Just getting the logs on the plywood took awhile, even with one of my neighbors helping (he was watching out the window and couldn’t handle it). It seemed like everything we did was uphill.
Once the logs were on the plywood the sailing should have been smooth – pull them up and go home. But, they kept hanging up in the yard, and since I was working alone and couldn’t see the logs I would just pull until something obvious happened. By then I had pulled the plywood out from under the log and had to reconvene with the logs at the bottom of the hill.
After a few attempts I figured out what the problem was. It was simple physics. The logs were long and straight(ish). The hill had a couple of dips in it that would grab the nose of the log or the leading edge of the plywood. In the woods, I would just pull through it and move the dirt out of the way, or if it was an episode of Axmen, I would break something and yell down the hill, “Are you guys O.K.?”, even though I knew they were fine.
I did a little of both (pulling and yelling). I pulled and re-rigged and pulled some more until I got a log out. Then, home I went. I had worked on the logs for hours, now it was dark, and I only had one of the top logs out. The one I really wanted was still in the back yard behind the stump and behind another log.
The tree guys were supposed to come first thing Saturday morning to finish grinding the stump. They didn’t finish friday night because they had an issue with the stump grinder. I got to work because the stump wasn’t in the way of the second log. Again, it was going to work out perfectly. I would pull out a log while they fixed the grinder and then I would pull out the last log.
The second log turned out to be just as cantankerous. More pulling. More yelling (I don’t really yell, but you get the picture).
The entire time I was working on the second log the tree guy was working on the grinder and he was yelling. He put in two new starters on Saturday after another guy put in a new battery on Friday night. I tried to be as helpful as possible because I needed him out of there at some point. We looked at what was happening, and even though I am not much of a mechanic, I offered some advice. It seemed like the starter was working, but not engaging. I have messed with my share of starters, and it acted like it was running backwards. I told him to check to make sure the new battery was hooked up right. I wasn’t sure if that would make the starter spin the wrong direction, but it made sense in my head. He checked it out and said the it was hooked up correctly. I had no other ideas, so I left him alone.
I got my second log out, and then the tree service mechanic asked if I could move my truck so he could drive his Chevy Trailblazer down and try jumping the grinder. I have no idea what that was going to do, but I didn’t have a better idea, so I went with it. I handed him my jumper cables, moved my truck and he moved his Trailblazer down the hill to the stump. It didn’t take long for the mechanic to yell, “The battery’s hooked up backwards.” That was a bonehead move, but I was happy that he got the grinder working and was getting out of my way. Well, sort of.
He went to back out and his tires started spinning. This is a common problem for guys like me with two-wheel (I call them one-wheel) drive vehicles. If you spit in front of my trucks the tires spin, but not on a Trailblazer. “Hey idiot, put it in four-wheel drive,” I thought almost out loud. But his truck didn’t go in to four-wheel drive. I couldn’t believe it, something went wrong, amazing!
“Can you pull me out?” he asked me.
I was a little irritated, but a little relieved because it is usually me asking to be pulled out (I can bury a truck in the mud like nobody’s business). I pulled him out and packed up to finish my Saturday morning project, which started on Friday and was now going in to Monday.
By the time Monday rolled around I had it all figured out. The stump was out of the way, and all I had to do was pull out the best log. It was about a 26″ diameter (on the skinny end), 11′ long white oak log, and it did not want to go on or stay on the plywood. I used straps, wraps, blocks and schmocks (don’t forget locks) to try to keep it on the plywood, but everything just kept digging in and the log kept coming off. This last log was longer than the others and that didn’t help a thing. Every little contour change in the hill sent the nose of the log plunging down and digging up the dirt. By this point I started to care less and just kept pulling. I knew I could pull through the dirt and I did. I almost flipped my truck a few times, but I finally did it.
After I got the logs on my truck I spent another hour cleaning up. The yard went back together pretty good, not perfectly, but pretty good. I just told myself with a chuckle, “Well, at least there were no tire ruts, those are a real pain to fix.”
Here are some photos of what we got out of the logs. I think it was worth the effort.
This past Saturday I took Mira, my 5 year-old daughter, to downtown St. Charles, MO for a girl scout outing at the Lewis and Clark Heritage Days Festival. I was sent because Chris, my lovely wife, was busy working on Mira’s birthday party scheduled for the following day and because she didn’t really think it was going to go that well. It was going to be hot (90ish) and we were going to do boring things, like milk cows, make candles, pet ducklings, learn how to make arrowheads, learn how to start a fire with flint and steel, drink authentic root beer, watch a juggler, watch a guy carve wooden signs and make wooden rings, learn how to make thread from wool, watch the drum and fife corp (much cooler than I thought it would be), make butter, pet a calf, shop for a tiki turtle necklace and pet horses. Needless to say, we were there for quite a while and would have stayed longer, but after almost four hours we were running out of energy and time. We had to get home – fresh cupcakes were waiting for us.
The last thing we did was see a juggler and headed in the direction of the car. We were close to the river (Missouri) and the water was low, so I said, “Let’s walk down to the river before we go and check it out.” Mira was starting to fade and didn’t really want to, but she said O.K. with the promise that we would head home after that. The river is big and muddy and isn’t very scenic, but for me it always holds the possibility of big catfish and big logs, so we headed down. There were lots of people in the park, but we only passed two guys walking along the river (it isn’t very scenic).
We weren’t down there very long and I found a big, burly maple log. Mira wanted to go. I looked to the right and saw another good-sized log. We checked it out and it was a walnut. Mira wanted to go. I was excited because I expect every log along the river to be a cottonwood, and so far I had found no cottonwoods. I started coming up with plans on how to get the logs out; boat here, truck there, wait a little for the water to come up. Mira wanted to go. I didn’t see any more logs to check out, so we headed up the bank.
We walked until we found an opening in the weeds that I thought was in line with the car. At the top of the bank I took a look around to see exactly where we were. Directly ahead I saw a fair number of gentlemen dressed in bright red British regalia. Behind them was a large crowd of people gathered around to see something. It was me and Mira, about to have our heads blown off by the British and their big fancy canon – and to think we didn’t even dress up. One of the soldiers saw us pop up like whack-a-moles and started flailing his arms and yelling, “Get Out Of There! MOVE!”
Luckily, they hadn’t lit the cannon yet and, more luckily, I am pretty sure they didn’t have a cannon ball in it. They kept yelling, we kept moving and people kept staring at the idiots that walked in front of the cannon, until finally we were out of the way enough to fire. By the way, that thing was loud.
Here are the logs we almost gave our lives for.
Almost a year ago, a tornado swept through the St. Louis area. After seeing the destruction, I was surprised no one was killed, and at the same time excited to start salvaging trees. I drove around the first day to get a feel for things, following the trail of downed trees and using bright blue tarps that covered damaged roofs as beacons when I started to stray from the path. The first job was to procure trees before they were cut up, so I had to hustle. It didn’t take long to realize that I was going to have a tough time efficiently covering a 10-mile path.
I went home that night and decided to look at Google maps in satellite view. I love to look at the satellite view normally, but now I had a reason. I imagined I could generally chart the path and pick out spots with the best trees. What I didn’t imagine is how well it helped me out in identifying specific trees. I was very lucky to find that the satellite photos for the area I was most interested in were taken in the early fall. In the early fall the trees are starting to change and they don’t just look like green blobs in the photos.
The ones that stood out the most were walnuts. They lose their leaves early, so in the photos they were bare. The cottonwoods were bare too, but that was it. I could scan the satellite images and find the bare trees, then go see if they were down. All but two that were down were walnuts. I got some walnuts out of the deal, but walnuts didn’t seem to be the most abundant species. As a matter of fact, I only found one block with a heavy concentration of walnuts, but it got me looking.
After closer examination, I realized that I could see the shape of the tree by its shadow on the ground. It told me if it had a long trunk (good for milling) or a short, bushy shape. The shape really helped me identify cherry. Cherry tends to have a wispy top, without much foliage and very little spread. They also tend to have stems with multiple leads. If they were alone in the photos, I could pick out cherry trees from the top. But, if not, and this is totally cool, I could jump down to street view and see the tree like I was driving down the road. This helped me verify that trees were worth looking at when I got calls from friends.
As I was going back to pick the images for this post, I realized that the photos had been updated and that the path of the tornado is visible from distant views. When I realized that, I took a look at Joplin. Wow! In Google, just type in Joplin, MO and click on the map. It looks like they took the photo within weeks of the tornado and the width of the path and the complete destruction is incredible. For contrast, type in Ferguson, MO and realize how much smaller this tornado was, and it was not small. I could have picked up trees all summer.