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.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Last week, I went to one of my favorite places; Mueller Brothers Timber in Old Monroe, MO. The sawmill can produce over 20,000 Bd. Ft. of grade sawn hardwood lumber per day. That equals about six tractor-trailer loads or about 200 average size logs. I get tired just thinking about it. I went to buy some lumber to replace a small batch that was burned in my fire. Randy was probably even more helpful than normal because it wasn’t that long ago that his sawmill caught on fire too. It seems like every sawmill has a fire in its history.
While I was there, I wanted to take a photo of their walnut steamer for an earlier posting. Since I had my camera out, and it was lunchtime, I ran around and got some photos of the place. You can’t fully appreciate the operation unless you see it in person, but I thought I would give it a shot. The main thing that you need to see in person is the headsaw, which is the first saw that the log meets. When I tell people about this bad-ass saw it involves crazy hand motions and sound effects by me, but the bottom line is that it turns, grabs, positions and makes a full pass on a log up to 40″ in diameter in about 10 seconds. To reset and make the second cut takes even less. The saw has a lot of power and a lot of blade. I used to have a Corley circle saw with a 48″ bottom saw and 30″ top saw that I thought was very capable. I didn’t measure theirs, but my best guess is that the bottom saw is 60″ and the top saw is 48″. They cut at the same time and allow the mill to process some extra-large logs. They need this capacity because the mill is right next to the Mississippi river and they get some huge sycamores and cottonwoods.
The entire process starts at the debarker, where logs are spun around and processed with a cutterhead that works like a big planer. The object here is to get the bark off, which contains dirt and grit that damages saw blades and to shape the log, so that it sits nicely on the carriage at the headsaw. The debarker at Mueller Brothers is especially good at removing humps and reducing the butt end of logs. After the logs are cleaned up they go to the infeed deck where they wait to be loaded on the carriage of the headsaw. The headsaw is used to quickly get logs squared up into four-sided cants (logs with square sides) for further processing. On bigger logs the sawyer might cut a few boards off at this point to make the cants smaller for the following saws, but they don’t like to cut too many boards here because the kerf (width of the saw cut) is large and wastes material.
After being squared up the cants go to a transfer that leads them through a metal detector and to the twin-band runaround resaw. This machine is also on steroids, but doesn’t have the superfast feed speeds. It is designed for consistent, steady and accurate sawing. This is the point where the highest grade of lumber is produced and it is important for the sawyer’s to get a good look at what they are doing so they can make good decisions. The cants go in a merry-go-round fashion through the twin bandsaws after being flipped to the best face before each cut. The twin bands are big at 8″ wide and let’s just say super long (they use an overhead crane to change them). The twin bandsaws can be positioned to take two boards off of the same side or one board off of each side, allowing for a lot of flexibility and making up for slower feed speeds by cutting two boards in one pass.
Boards that are produced without square edges go to the edger and then to the end trimmer, while boards with square edges follow another path directly to the trimmer. After the boards are edged and end trimmed they go to the green chain, which is a system of chain conveyors that separate the lumber by length and feed it slowly to the stackers at the end of the mill. At this point the sawing is done and then the lumber is either sold “green,” or it is stacked on sticks to air dry and then put in kilns to be kiln dried.
The best part for me is hanging out along the green chain and watching the lumber come out. I will sometimes buy lumber green from Mueller Brothers, and there are times that I can’t get up and down the chain fast enough to get to the boards that catch my eye before they are buried. This mill can bust up logs fast!
I own and run a TimberKing 1220 manual sawmill. The manual part means that it is not automated and less expensive than other bigger models. I have had several other sawmills, and overall I am happy with this one, though I would always like a bigger and better one. It is a small entry-level mill, but can still cut a log up to 30″, which is big.
In most ways my TimberKing mill is strong enough to handle the bigger logs, even though it is not really made for them. However, there is one area that I have found severely lacking, and that is the log supports. You see, when you put a log on the mill it may roll off, so the mill has two or three posts that can be raised into a vertical position to catch and hold the log during milling. They also can be lowered out of the path of the bandsaw blade when needed. The posts need to be strong enough to support the log in a resting position, and be able to handle the pressure placed on them when turning a log. They also need to be square to the bed to help make a round log into square lumber.
The log supports on my mill don’t do any of these things well. They are made from dainty little pieces of steel that can bend quite easily and are never square to the bed. Through the years I have bent them back – never to square, but back enough to support the logs. When I want a square cant (squared up log), I take the time to shim the log and use a carpenter’s square to make sure that everything is copacetic.
Well, this week I finally did it. I put a large elm log on the mill, and I was adjusting it with a big loader when the log just rolled over the supports and off of the mill. It didn’t even notice they were there. The uprights looked like limp noodles, and it is obvious they aren’t going back to any acceptable shape. I bent them more than enough to finally provoke myself into making new ones.
The good news is that I bought the steel to do it a while ago, but have just never taken the time to do it. Looks, like now is the time.
I want to have this blog be mostly educational, while at the same time entertaining. This one is more for entertainment.
It started with a call about having a tree milled. I talked to Ron (a first-time customer) on the phone to see what he needed. He said that he had a white oak that was down and another that he was going to have taken down, and that he wanted to find out about milling. We talked about sizes and basic pricing for my services and he agreed to have them milled. Ron told me they were about 30″ in diameter on the phone and didn’t sound at all excited about the size of the trees. In my experience that 30″ tree, especially if the customer isn’t gushing about how big it is, is only about 20″ in diameter. Still a good tree, but not that big.
I thought I would just stop by with my truck and load them up on my way to get another tree, assuming that I could get a couple of logs on my truck and have room for a few more. Well, I found Ron’s house at the end of a narrow lane, and all I could see in the clearing was log. Scratch that, logs – big logs. I knew that I was going to have to regroup after I saw the size of these trees. They weren’t the biggest that I have milled (I included a photo of that one too), but they have the most board feet for two trees. In total, the nine logs scale out (Doyle) to about 2500 board feet. My truck can handle about 900 board feet at a time if they fit perfect, but these were not going to fit perfect (more like just barely). I knew I would be lucky to get two on at a time, so I had to call in some backup. Did I mention that these were big?
Anyway, I have them back at the mill now and have started milling them. Most of them are going to be quartersawn, while the upper logs are going to be cut thicker for slabs to show off the curly lumber around some of the big branches. So far, two of them are milled and they look great. Oh, and big!
Many times customers will call to discuss having a log milled and how much it will cost. The answer is often based on how many board feet (12″ x 12″ x1″) will be produced. So, the first thing I ask is, “How big is the log?” Usually the answer is, “Well, I can’t get my arms around it.” And, while this may be helpful, there is a more accurate way to determine the size of a log and how many board feet will be produced.
There are three common scales or rules used in the industry (Doyle, Scribner, and International), but the Doyle scale is the most commonly used around the St. Louis area. All three of the scales estimate logs closely in the medium to larger size range, but the Doyle underestimates footage on the smaller logs. Because of this, it is advantageous for buyers of logs to use the Doyle scale to make up for extra log handling on small logs. Since the buyers like this scale, it is what they use and therefore, what the sellers use.
All buyers have a Doyle scale on them at all times, usually in the form of a folding rule with the footage marked at each inch. The printable version above has more increments on it, but it is basically the same and is used in conjunction with a tape measure. I always have a tape measure on me, so I usually use the printed version (they are also cheaper).
The formula for the scale is based on a tapered cylinder, milled with a 1/4″ kerf. Straight logs, with little taper and cut on a thin-kerf bandsaw will yield more lumber than the scale predicts. It usually averages out, because logs are usually not so perfect, and often have boards that are below-grade and end up in the firewood pile.
To use the scale, first measure the average diameter of the small end of the log inside the bark (in inches). Locate that row on the scale. Next, measure the length of the log (in feet). Move over on the scale to that length column. Where those two measurements intersect, you will find the board footage for that log. The process must be repeated for each log. Deductions are made for defects, like rot and curved logs.
Since sawmills usually charge by the board foot, this scale will help you determine the amount of lumber you will have and what you can expect your bill to be. Make sure to accurately measure your log and not just guess the diameter. The logs seem bigger than the actual measurement. My customers are usually off by about a foot in diameter on good-sized logs when they guess.
A little perspective on log sizes:
• A respectable diameter on a hardwood tree is 20″.
• A large diameter on a hardwood tree is 30+”.
• The smallest diameter most hardwood mills buy is 13″.
• The largest logs I get on a once-a-year basis is about 45″ diameter (8′-10′ from the ground).
• The largest hardwood I have ever milled is a 54″ diameter (20′ from the ground) Burr Oak.