On a semi-regular basis I talk to someone who would have used me for their last project, but they didn’t because they didn’t know everything I do. My woodworking customers don’t know I mill lumber, my milling customers don’t know I sell lumber, my lumber customers don’t know I do custom woodworking, and I blame it all on my inept advertising department.
I am here to change all of that with a new video that shows what is really happening at WunderWoods (when I am working). With the help of a few of my customers, I have put together a montage of the goings on in a three-week span of my daily work life. The clips are chronological in order, but random in their approach. One day I cut a tree, the next day I finish a piece of furniture – just like real life.
The bottom line is that if it involves wood there is a good chance I do it.
Thanks to Dwayne Tiggs from Crafty Naturals, Jermain Todd from Mwanzi, and Martin Goebel from Goebel and Company Furniture for starring in the video.
The following photos are of the finished products shown in progress in the video:
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?
About a week ago we milled a big Black Oak log for our friend Martin Goebel of Goebel & Co. Furniture. It looks like he has some big plans, and they include a large tabletop for a customer. Our mission was to get at least one good slab, cut at 4″ thick, that would stay together through the drying process. The log was stout with a lot of character and a few bad spots, but it was so big that getting some slabs that met the requirement was no problem.
This is the first log that I have milled on the Lucas Mill that required the mill to be jacked up (by about 10″) to get started. The mill will cut up to 62″ wide with the chainsaw slabber attachment, and we still had to trim both sides of the butt end for the log to fit. We milled the bottom log with the slabber, and Roger Branson of Red Rooster Sawmill cut up the top logs on his Wood-Mizer LT40. In all we got about 1,600 bd. ft. out of the tree, with about 1,000 bd. ft. coming out of the bottom 10′ log.
Here are the photos of the event:
After the milling we got all of the wood back in the shop and stacked to start drying. It is nutty to know that the lumber is so big that it takes two of us just to slide one end of the slab on to the sticks. Luckily, the stacking is done, and now we wait, with our fingers crossed, in hopes that nothing breaks as it dries.
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.
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.
Working with wood is most enjoyable to me when I can just grab a tool and get to work – forget the tape measure, the jigs, and the worry. It is one of the reasons that I really like to work at the sawmill. One of my favorite things to do is bust up big logs with my chainsaw so they will fit on the sawmill or to prepare them for quartersawing, or better yet, just to move them.
I have an old 742 Bobcat that is rated to work with 1,500 pounds, which isn’t much when the logs get big. But, that doesn’t stop me. I just cut the logs lengthwise to lighten the load. People always ask me how big of a log I can cut (in reference to my sawmill). And, I always tell them, “As big as I want if I have my chainsaw.” By the way, my TimberKing 1220 sawmill will process a 30″ diameter log without any chainsaw work and cut boards up to 24″ wide. To a lot of people it seems crazy, like I am cutting the tree the wrong direction, but it works. It takes a little while, but it works.
When I get ready to break down a log, I only use the chainsaw (nothing on the bar to guide the cut). This gives me maximum flexibility, even if it is daunting at first. Daunting or not, you would be amazed how good the freehand cut can be with just a little practice (that doesn’t mean that I haven’t made some terrible freehand cuts).
When it comes to chainsawing a potentially valuable tree, I wasn’t always so cavalier. I would mark, remark, cut, check, recheck and cut again to make sure I wasn’t screwing it up. Now, after some practice, I realize it isn’t so hard, and rarely do I mess it up too bad. To help you not mess it up at all, I have some advice. It starts with only a minuscule amount of planning and a micron of forethought. After that it’s just you and your chainsaw.
Here is the plan of attack (This works for all lengthwise cuts on a log, but is shown on the flat face of a half log below):
First, decide where you want the cut to start and make a mark on the top of one end that you can see from the other end (I just make a small chainsaw cut). Then, swing around to the opposite end and make a mark where you want the cut to finish. Next, make a shallow marking cut using your entire bar. Start with the back end of the bar on your original mark and drop the front end of the saw on to the log in line with your mark at the other end. The idea here is to start your straight line by aiming at the finish point. After you mark the log, swing back to the side you started on and do the same thing.
At this point the log will be marked on both ends the length of your bar. Sight down these two lines to make sure they are in line with each other and then connect them. If they aren’t lined up, adjust now, before you get to deep. Trust your eye, it will tell you all you need to know. Imagine you are eyeing up lumber at Home Depot, but now you can fix the crooked wood. If you don’t trust your eye you can use other guides, like a straight board or a chalkline if you want, but I say trust your eye.
After you have scored the log, it is time to start cutting. I like to work the entire line, going back and forth and dropping a little deeper each time. I keep doing this until my chainsaw is at a pretty steep angle, and I feel like I have a nice cut to guide the saw. After that, I aim the bar down as deep as necessary to finish the cut. I work myself along the log and make sure to leave the end cut for last. If you cut the end first then you have to finish in the middle of the log. This is dangerous because your body will be next to the log when it breaks apart and squishy things could happen. Finish with your body off to the end of the log.
That’s all there is to it. With a little practice your cuts will be straighter than you imagined. Trust your eye and let the sawdust fly.
Note: There are chainsaw guides available like the Beam Machine and the Alaskan Mini Mill which guide the chainsaw along a piece of lumber or track. These work fine and give a straighter cut than freehand cutting. I find that they work well for shallow cuts but are harder to use with a big saw making deep cuts. They are much easier to set up on the flat cut face of a log half compared to the round outside of a log for the first cut. I am not against using these guides and I know that I lose a little bit of lumber because of imperfect freehand cuts, but I like the freedom of being able to do whatever I need when I need it with just my chainsaw.
I met David (Dave) Moore about a year ago, and I knew we would hit it off. From our initial conversation, I could tell that he loves wood and has an artistic sensibility. He showed up at the mill with his video camera and wasn’t afraid to use it. I knew nothing about his video-production capabilities, but wasn’t expecting much when I realized his video camera looked like a regular digital 35mm SLR camera. Needless to say, I underestimated the final results. That little camera produces an excellent picture and Dave knows his way around the editing room, as well as he does the woodworking shop.
Dave wanted to build a table for a customer out of quartersawn sycamore. I used quartersawn sycamore to build the cabinets in my last house, and I quarter-saw sycamore whenever I get the right logs (they need to be big in diameter, free of ring-shake, and preferably have a lot of dark heartwood), so I told Dave I was up for the challenge. Dave wanted to document the whole process, so he showed up to the mill just after I chainsawed the log in half to get us started. Dave can take it from here:
In case you were wundering, this is how the kitchen looked with quartersawn sycamore cabinets:
I have spent a lot of time cutting wood at the sawmill and in the shop with bandsaw, chainsaw and circle blades. I have found a sharp blade to be imperative. Probably all of you know this already, so I am preaching to the choir. But I wanted to add a few things that you may not know.
A sharp bandsaw blade will overcome almost all of its other shortcomings. Your blade may not have the proper set, may be tracking to the left or right, or have other issues that will cause crooked or wavy cuts, but once sharpened it will always improve. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a blade that started out strong and cutting perfectly, only to find that the cuts quickly became wavy. I would tell myself that I must have a problem with the saw, maybe with the blade guides, because I haven’t used it that long and it just couldn’t be dull yet. And, though one time I did have a blade guide issue, every other time the blade was just dull. Dull and nothing else. I probably hit a rock and didn’t know it. Here I was, worried about the set of the teeth and it has never been the set. Now, I don’t question it. If the saw isn’t cutting right I put on a newly sharpened blade and all is good.
A sharp circular blade will overcome almost all of its other shortcomings. See a theme yet? Not long ago, I owned a circle mill with a 48″ bottom blade and a 30″ top blade. These big blades are set at a slight angle to the feed of the log so that the trailing side of the blade is out from the cut just a bit. The saw guide on the front would keep the blade in the right place, but only if the saw was sharp. If it wasn’t sharp, the blade would dig in, cut crooked, warm up and cut more crooked until finally it became shaped like a big salad bowl. With a sharp blade the tolerances of the setup were much less critical. As long as it was sharp, and the kerf was still wide enough, it would just cut… and cut… and cut.
A sharp chainsaw blade makes life worth living.There is nothing better than a chainsaw that cuts fast. It makes the job enjoyable and a lot less like work. I sharpen my chainsaw a lot. If it is not throwing out big chips at a fast rate I stop and sharpen. I sharpen my chain on the bar with a hand-held electric grinder until the teeth get so worn they break off. I highly recommend this type of sharpener. It uses your car battery for power and will sharpen a 20″ bar in just a couple of minutes. If you use a chainsaw and don’t have a sharpener like this, get one.