A friend of mine sent me an e-mail recently and said he had a line on a couple of logs. He gave me no details. I responded quickly telling him that I was not currently chasing logs because I had to focus on work that would make me money quickly, and collecting logs was not it. He let it go until I saw him at the next St. Louis Woodworkers Guild meeting when he brought it up again. This time he talked about the trees being big, which caught my attention. Then he said the magic words – Burr Oak. It wasn’t an accident that he knew the magic words for me because they were magic words for him too. See, a few years back he built the front door for his house out of Burr Oak lumber that I milled, and we both want more like it.
I knew it would be hard to duplicate, because that tree was, by far, the biggest that I have ever milled. It measured 54″ in diameter, inside the bark, 20′ from the ground. It was ginormous.
Unfortunately, the bottom 12′ where the clearest lumber would have been was rotten, but I still got an 8′ log that was pretty clear from the top. That particular tree was very close to my last home in Hazelwood, MO and I had admired it from a distance for a while. It was in a fenced in area on the IBM campus, so I never got right next to it to appreciate just how big it was before it fell. It was a perfect looking tree, the kind that you draw in school, with a short trunk and a big round top. I specifically remember saying to myself, “That is a big tree, too bad the bottom log is so short.” That short log was 20′ long, which shows you how wide the tree was. After seeing the photos of it on the ground and actually working on it, I imagine that it would have set some sort of records for size.
To mill that log, we cut it first into quarters with a chainsaw, lengthwise. Then we milled each quarter on the sawmill to produce quartersawn lumber. I always tell customers that size is one of the key factors for deciding whether to quartersaw a log or not. Sometimes I have to think about it, but this log left me no choice. We had to quarter it to get it on the mill and then still had to take a deep first cut on my old Corley circle mill to get things started.
The log produced quartersawn boards without bark or pith up to 20″ wide, which is crazy wide for quartersawn white oak lumber. I still dream about the lumber that would have come out of the base of that tree if we got it before it rotted. They would have been perfectly straight-grained and up to 25″ wide without a defect, and I would have retired on the proceeds. As it was, the bottom log was completely gone and the top log that I milled still showed some signs of decay in spots.
After working with that log, I heard Burr Oak and started picturing more of the same. I heard big and I pictured perfection in wood. I knew the potential and hoped for a repeat. Well, after picking up the new Burr Oak I must say it is nowhere near as big. It is big (about 36″ in diameter), just not ginormous.
It will have good lumber in it since it is solid to the ground, but it has a lot of branches and nubs that will make the lumber less than perfect. It doesn’t matter, though. I am a wood junkie and I can’t do anything about it. If I didn’t go get it, I can guarantee that it would have been bigger than the biggest Burr Oak and not rotten. The Burr Oak also came with a big cypress and a funky sycamore, both of which will also find a home on the walls of my shop. Thanks John, for letting me know about it (I owe you some lumber).
I was meeting with a customer last week and we were going over the details of the job and discussing the wood that I was going to use for their bookshelves – cherry, as you might have guessed. I was going on about how much I like cherry and was making sure to plug the fact that I mill my own trees. During our discussion, which was mostly me talking and him nodding, he asked,”Well, how big do cherry trees get?” I knew then that he was wondering what I was wondering when I started cutting trees. How do you get big boards from such little orchard trees? I explained to him that it wasn’t the type of cherry tree he was picturing. It was an American Black Cherry, which grows in the forest, mixed with other hardwoods. His next question was, “But, it doesn’t have cherries does it?” As a matter of fact it does. They aren’t big and they are in a cluster that looks like grapes, but they are fruit that birds love to eat, and they are definitely cherries. Then I thought and quickly asked, “Are you ready to be shocked? I bet that you have one right here in your yard and don’t even know it.” I wasn’t going too far out on a limb because I had just driven down a long gravel drive with upland hardwoods to get to his house. I hadn’t specifically spotted a cherry tree, but I could smell them (not literally).
As we talked more, our discussion went back and forth from the piece of furniture that I am going to make to the wood that I am going to use, and we talked more about how big the cherry trees get. I explained that they get big like any hardwood lumber tree, but are on the smaller end of the scale overall. An average log size in this area is about 14″-15″ in diameter, inside the bark, on the skinny end. However, it isn’t uncommon for them to be larger. The main problem with larger and older logs is that they tend to have punky/rotten areas in the center of the log, so many bigger logs don’t get milled. For fun (as always) and to prove that they get bigger than orchard trees, I thought I would share a few photos of my larger finds. Notice that we are not phased at all by the size of the larger logs. It’s routine for us.
By the way, as I left his property, I saw a couple of small cherry trees and I am sure that there are more.
A while ago, I attended a Jeff Jewitt finishing seminar hosted by the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, and we were encouraged to bring pieces of wood that were presenting us with problems. Jeff intended the problems be related to finishing, but a couple of members brought wood that they needed to have identified.
We spent some time looking at the wood, examining all the characteristics that could help in identification. Color, weight and grain all came in to play. Next we moved on to other clues like age of the samples (which would affect color) and from where the wood came (to determine if it was domestic or exotic).
The first member, Tom, had a sample that looked like sassafras. We looked at all the above characteristics and then smelled the piece. It didn’t have an obvious scent because the sample was not fresh. Tom’s board was a scrap, so we cut it to expose new wood and a new scent. Sassafras has a strong scent, similar to Murphy’s oil soap, and is indeed used as a scent in cleaning products. The smell test was conclusive and the scrap was confidently labeled as sassafras.
That is all well and good, but sassafras has a very strong, unique scent. It is easy to identify by the smell alone.
Next up was Cecil with his wood. We had the advantage of knowing that the piece came from Mueller Brothers sawmill in Old Monroe. They only mill certain species, so it was already narrowed down for us. We looked at the wood and it looked like poplar, but they don’t mill poplar at that sawmill. Cecil’s piece was scrap, so we cut it and smelled the end. It smelled like popcorn, not buttered or salted, just popcorn. It was cottonwood. A lot of the time it burns in the saw and then smells like burnt popcorn. Not the best of smells, but it is a good indicator of what wood you have.
After this, I realized that most of the logs that I cut could be identified just by the smell. It helps to have a days worth of sawdust from one species in your nose for proper training, but it can be done. Other examples that came to mind were cherry (very sweet and fruity), hard maple (butter cream icing), white oak (wine), sycamore (apples) and walnut (bitter and burns). And these are smells that I can describe. Other woods have distinct smells that can’t as easily be put in to words, but can still help identify a species.
Think about it next time you are trying to identify a wood, make a fresh cut and take a whiff. It may tell you what wood it is or at least tell you what wood it is not.
I cut elm logs whenever I can – too much probably, because the market for elm isn’t that great. It isn’t because elm is terrible, it’s because most people have never used elm, and most people have never used elm because it isn’t readily available.
Well, I am here to change that with my not-so-new (drum roll please) Elm Revolution. This movement started after I used elm for the first time about 15 years ago and, to be frank, hasn’t quite taken over the world. Alright, alright, it hasn’t gotten much further than me and a few of my friends, and I don’t know why. I think elm deserves a place in the top ten of hardwoods for everyone, with Siberian Elm in the top five for me. My top ten goes something like this:
- Quartersawn white Oak
- Siberian Elm
- Soft Maple (with character)
- Eastern White Pine
- Flatsawn White Oak
- American Elm
- Quartersawn Sycamore (I rarely use flatsawn because it is too unstable)
- Red Oak
Note: My choices are limited to species available locally in St. Louis, MO. However, almost every domestic hardwood grows in this area.
The order of the species will fluctuate depending on the job, but both the elms are always in my top ten. If the job will be made completely from solid wood and I have elm available, I almost always present it to the customer as a choice.
Of the elms, the two that lead my revolution are Siberian Elm and American Elm. I like them both and choose between them and other species depending on a few variables. The first is the color of the wood, specifically the color of the final piece. Both elms take stain easily and consistently, very similar to oak, which makes medium to darker colors easily achievable. However, when I am looking for a white wood, the elms aren’t the ticket. Siberian Elm is mostly heartwood, which is a medium brown, and American Elm is usually stained in color (from standing dead after succumbing to Dutch Elm disease).
The second variable is the grain pattern and how pronounced it is. Siberian Elm has a strong grain pattern, especially when stained. It stands out a lot and is not the wood to use if subtlety is desired. However, if you are looking for a showy wood, the elm’s are for you. Siberian Elm is the standout of the two, and commonly has small knots that can range from just a couple per board, to a birds-eye look, and even heavily burled. It is not uncommon for only one in ten logs of Siberian Elm to have straight grain, with the rest having varying degrees of funkiness. American Elm is more consistently straight-grained, refined, and stains with less contrast. The beauty of American Elm comes from the grain itself and not from the growths within it. The interlocked grain of the elms causes a little zig-zaggy pattern between each growth ring that looks like a feather and is best seen in flatsawn boards. The figure has an iridescent quality about it and really pops with a dye stain.
A big issue, and the third variable, is stability. Elms do not dry flat and are more unstable than other woods in service. When I pull boards from the kiln it is easy to tell when I have gotten to the elms. Siberian Elm will dry with cup, bow, twist, and crook, as well as a lot of waves, especially in lower-grade boards like those in the photo to the right. American Elm is just as cantankerous, but doesn’t usually have the waves. It goes strong towards cup and twist. The amazing thing is that after drying and straightening the boards on the jointer, they stay relatively flat. Notice, I say relatively, because they can still move a little if they are not quartersawn (everything is more stable if it is quartersawn). Because of this potential for movement, I don’t use elm where movement may cause something to get out of alignment and stand out. For example, I would use elm on cabinets with larger gaps between the doors, but not on large cabinet doors where I was trying to maintain perfect reveals – it is just asking for trouble.
Elm ranks low on the durability scale, which is the fourth variable to consider. Because of this, I only use elms indoors. In the log form it rots pretty quickly and starts to have issues after only one season outside. Both elms can be used for anything inside, including flooring. American Elm is harder than Siberian Elm, which I compare to walnut, but I have done floors with both, and they seem to stand up fine.
Availability may be the biggest hurdle to overcome after you decide to give elm a try. Elm is not readily available in either American or Siberian. American Elm is scarce because it is attacked and killed by Dutch Elm Disease, which has wiped most of them out. They are still out there and get to good size, but are usually only available after they are dead. If they are alive, most people prefer to leave them standing because they have a nice shape. Siberian Elm was brought in as a Dutch Elm Disease-resistant tree and only grows in areas where it was planted (though it does reproduce prolificly and spread from where it was planted). Because of this Siberian Elm mostly grows where sawmills aren’t, which means it doesn’t get cut very often.
The main difference when working with elm compared to other woods, is the interlocking grain mentioned earlier, which kicks hand planes and several other hand tools out of the equation. Other than that, they work like most any other hardwoods.
If you get a chance to use an elm, especially Siberian Elm, give it a shot and help move this revolution thing forward. I know a lot of people who have tried them and liked them. As a matter of fact, two of my friends have just introduced furniture lines with Siberian Elm as a choice. Long Live Elm!
So, now because of my earlier post, “Have You Heard About Shrinkage,” you’ve been thinking 0-1-2, 0-1-2, slow, slow, quick, quick (if you’ve ever taken a dance class with your wife you’ll get that one), and you are still a little confused. Most likely you got bored reading about the 0-1-2 rule I wrote about earlier and drifted off, but this is where it all comes together.
Lumber basically comes in three categories of cuts, which refer to the angle of the growth rings in relation to the surface of the lumber; flatsawn, quartersawn, and riftsawn. A board can be any of these three or anywhere between these three, and since the growth rings form a circle, the category can even change within a board. That’s right, wider boards can have centers that are flatsawn while the outer edges are riftsawn and possibly quartersawn. That is why I push for an understanding of the cut of lumber and worry less about the name.
To the right are the three cuts in their most pure form (the three in the top right of the log diagram) and others that are thrown in for fun. The “fun” ones are to show that it doesn’t matter what process was used to get the lumber from the log (flatsawing, quartersawing, etc.) or its orientation in the log, it is the growth ring direction that counts. The growth rings of flatsawn lumber are parallel to the widest surface, while the growth rings of quartersawn lumber are perpendicular to the widest surface. The rings of riftsawn lumber are at a 45 degree angle. Remember, these refer to their purest forms and there are many cuts in between (as demonstrated by the “fun” names like Nifty Rifty Flatsawn).
The next illustration shows the 0-1-2 rule in action. The three illustrations are table tops glued up from several pieces of wood. The first one is flatsawn lumber, the second is riftsawn, and the third is quartersawn. The numbers represent proportionally how much each piece will move in a given direction (remember that the length moves 0). In this case it is shown as shrinkage from a low-humidity environment, but it could also be expansion if the piece was stored in a high-humidity environment. Either way, the proportion of movement is the same. To make the proportions mean something, make them into fractions. Across the width, flatsawn lumber moves 2 over 1 when expressed as a fraction or 2/1, which simplifies to 2. Quartersawn moves 1 over 2 or 1/2. If you compare those two numbers (2 to 1/2), flatsawn moves four times as much as quartersawn across the width.
If I didn’t just lose you, then you can see by looking at the numbers and the second illustration that quartersawn lumber has the least amount of movement across the width, while flatsawn has the most. This makes the quartersawn the more stable of the two as far as expansion and contraction goes.
The other advantage to quartersawn lumber is its ability to stay flat. While flatsawn lumber has a propensity to cup, quartersawn lumber does not cup, and the 0-1-2 rule is the reason why. All of the heavy internal forces exerted on quartersawn lumber are in the thickness of the wood and going in only one direction, and they have little effect on the shape of the lumber. Those same forces on a flatsawn board are going across the entire face and in an arched trajectory. When these forces pull hard during shrinkage or push hard during expansion, they cause the lumber to take an arched shape that we call cup.
Quartersawn lumber will stay flat and move the least amount when in service. However, it is not so stable that the wood movement can be ignored in construction. When joining two boards, any movement between them that is not proportionally the same and in the same direction must be addressed by allowing the wood to move. Remember the 0-1-2 rule, and look at the boards you are joining to see if the numbers match. It is as easy as 0-1-2.
As woodworkers we have developed our skills worrying about shrinkage, many knowing that quartersawn lumber is more stable, but not really understanding why. We know a piece of wood is going to get fatter in high-humidity and skinnier in lower humidity, but to what extent, and how is that going to effect the shape of the lumber. If the lumber that is being used isn’t obviously quartersawn then what will happen? Is it flatsawn? Or, is it riftsawn? Or, maybe, kinda riftsawn?
I say stop worrying about, and trying to name, the condition of each piece of wood when trying to understand how it will move. A simple rule can be applied to the log to understand wood movement, which can then be easily translated to the lumber. Following this rule will tell you how the lumber is going to shrink, no matter which part of the log it came from or the direction it was cut. Just looking at the endgrain will tell you everything you need to now about the lumber you are using.
I call the rule the 0-1-2 rule, which is a simple ratio of wood movement in three directions in a log. The first direction is along the length of the log. Since the movement along the length is negligible the number is 0. Basically, lumber does not shrink in length. The next number, 1, is applied across the end of the log. In this direction the lumber does shrink, and in a ratio of 1 to the 2 in a circular direction, or half as much. The third number is the 2. In this circular direction, the log shrinks twice as much as it does across the log.
This 1-2 ratio is what causes all the kerfuffle in wood movement. Since the two directions aren’t shrinking and/or expanding at the same rate, wood can’t just be thrown together any direction and expected to stay together. These movement forces are great and will blow things apart or break lumber if not allowed to move.
There is a lot more to be said in a complete discussion of wood movement, but this rule lays the groundwork for all further discussions. Study this one and get to know it like the back of your hand. After you do, it won’t matter what the cut of wood is called, you can just look at the end of the board, envision where it came from in the log, and know how it wants to move.
Today, I was working on the large white oaks from the previous blog post, and I had a chance to snap a quick photo of an interesting phenomenon. On the stack of white oak lumber that I cut yesterday, I added some fresh lumber from this morning. It just worked out that I had two boards next to each other that clearly demonstrated a color change in white oak. This doesn’t happen in just any white oak, it happens only in “The” white oak, the one that is commercially sold as white oak.
You see, there are many different species of white oak in the white oak family of trees, like burr oak, swamp white oak, post oak and others, but none change color like “The” white oak. The change starts quickly after the lumber is cut. The wood goes from a tan color to a tan-pink or even just pink within an hour. However, don’t get too attached to the color because after the lumber dries for a day or two the color migrates back to the original tan color.
“The” white oak is not the only one to change colors after being freshly cut, but it is the only one where the color change is a key identifier. Others that change color include walnut, which goes from a green-brown color to a medium-dark brown color with no hint of green. Another one is cedar, which goes from a vibrant pink/purple to a medium-dark brown. The only other one that changes color like the white oak is ash, which develops a pink cast to it that then fades away in a day.
“The” white oak is in the white oak family and called white oak. This is tricky because it doesn’t have another name that clearly identifies it. For example, in the red oak family, the most desired species is called Northern Red Oak. But in the white oak family, the most desired species is also called white oak. I know that many people, including myself in the past, may be cutting a tree and wonder if it is “The” white oak. If it turns pink shortly after you cut it, it is.
Lumber that we consider white woods will have a much thicker ring of sapwood when compared to lumber that you would normally think of as being darker. Here is the trick, the sapwood needs to be thick enough to produce a reasonable amount white lumber. This is very often the case in species such as maple, ash, and hickory. In these trees, the sapwood is thick enough that we can use use it. In darker woods like walnut, cherry and oak the sapwood is usually only about and inch thick and is trimmed off like fat from a choice piece of meat. Within, the white woods it is possible to have a log that is almost entirely sapwood or a log that is almost all heartwood. It is most common that the white wood log is about half and half.