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.
We recently went to Elephant Rocks State Park, the home of largest round granite boulders and awe-inspiring landscape in the great state of Missouri, for a second time. On our first visit we almost missed the main attraction because we were a little too adventurous. We took a side trail, missed the easy entry to the top, and only found the path up the center as we were leaving. Looking back, it seems almost impossible to do, but we did it. The trees were thick, and we just couldn’t tell where to go. In that case, we should have followed all of the wacky kids that ran up through the trees and disappeared (I guess they had been there before).
On this trip we knew how to get to the big rocks, but started by cruising the perimeter a bit before lunch, and we found even more cool stuff that we missed on the first trip. To the right of the parking lot, the rocks make a nice surrounding for the picnic tables, and are where we started to explore. Once we got up past the picnic tables and started climbing, we quickly went into slow-down-Mira mode, so that she could live to see the rest of the park.
We got Mira to focus, get away from the edge, and stop running and quickly found a quarry pond with steep ledges and more big round rocks, that we hadn’t seen on the first trip. After we were done checking out the new-found area, we headed down for lunch. On the way back down, I noticed for the first time (really noticed) the trees growing on the top of the rocks. I found a dead log and brought it back with me so I could slice it and take a photo. For those of you wondering, all of the signs said don’t take the rocks, they didn’t say a thing about dead logs. Anyway, here is a picture of the unbelievable 28-year-old post oak log. Click on the photo to see what makes it so unbelievable.
I knew that it would be a slow grower since it was growing on top of a rock, but it was really slow. The log is a tiny, itty-bitty 1-1/4″ in diameter. At that rate, to grow to a reasonable-sized log for milling of about 18″, it would take 409 years or maybe never even make it. To put that more into perspective, a normal slow-growing tree would have about eight rings per inch. This one had about 40, and so close together that they are hard to see.
The tree it came from was small and stunted, trying to grow out of a crack in the granite. It looked like many of the trees directly on the rocks. One of them can be seen in the first photo and another is pictured below.
A few trees were much larger. Perhaps they were very old or just had more soil to work with, even though they were in a tough spot. I was surprised to see a tree this size in this spot.
We also found many trees with odd shapes, trying to work their way through the rocks. After this next post oak, I was told to stop taking tree photos and move on by both of my boss’.
From then on we enjoyed the rest of the park and spent our time climbing on the rocks. We followed the very nice asphalt trail that makes a loop around the rocks and takes you to the top. The following photo shows you the other reason (besides the trees) for going to the top of the mountain. The rocks are unbelievably giant. It is amazing how big the rocks are and that they don’t just roll down the hill. By the way, that is not my family.
This is how the rest of the park looked when we visited on November 10th:
If you have never been to Elephant Rocks, I highly recommend that you go. If you have been there before, I highly recommend that you go again. It is truly amazing, and at about 1-1/2 hours south of St. Louis, worth the drive.
Below are a few notes that I put together after just two trips to Elephant Rocks. If you have been there before, feel free to add your own in the reply section.
Notes for visiting Elephant Rocks:
- Granite gets warm. The park has lots of shade from the trees, but the open spans of granite get toasty in the sun.
- Plan to stay awhile. The path around the park is only a mile, but there are lots of things to see and explore.
- Bring a lunch. There are many nice picnic tables around the parking lot, all situated among trees and rocks.
- Be ready to climb. The entire park is open to be explored. Older kids (and some adults) will be jumping from rock to rock, rock climbers will be honing their skills, and parents of little ones will be very nervous. Even so, there are plenty of places to safely explore close to the ground.
- Granite is slippery. Some spots are well worn, polished and smooth. Don’t be afraid to get down on your butt. You will end up there anyway.
- Bring your camera. You will definitely need a photo of yourself holding up a giant rock.
Don’t miss the biggest rocks. At the bottom of the hill and the entrance to the loop Braille Trail, is what I will call the “foyer” of the park. At this spot, which has a single rock with a ring of asphalt around it, you can head directly into the trees and up the mountain. It is not marked as a trail or a path, but others will most likely be headed through this passage. This is the spot we missed the first time because it is not identified at all, especially compared to the very nice trail that heads away to either side. When there are no leaves on the trees the path will be obvious. Otherwise, just trust me and head up the gut to the top. Do note that heading up the center is on the granite rock and not on an asphalt path. It isn’t too hard to climb, but it isn’t for everyone. If you think you might have trouble climbing the rock, just follow the main trail around the back and to the top. You will end up in the same spot.
I’ll admit it, I am not as fast as I’d like to be. I always think that I will get things done quicker than I do. And, I always say that things are done when I mean they are “basically done”, which means that I still have a few things left to do (therefore not done). I like to think of it as being optimistic. Well, while I am being “optimistic”, a lot of other things aren’t getting done (mostly because I am busy working on the thing that I thought was already done).
The one thing usually not getting done is sawing. After all, the logs aren’t going anywhere and a lot of them are just getting better with age. I’ll let them sit for a while, depending on the species, and try to play it just right for special things, like spalting, to happen. Sometimes I push it too far and the log rots and becomes unusable. Species like ash and maple, which have a lot of sapwood, need to be milled sooner than the rest. They (especially maple) will quickly stain, spalt and then rot, while others will be fine. I often use this rotting process as a gauge to decide which log to mill next. I like all of the logs I bring in, and I don’t want any of them to turn into dirt before they get turned into lumber.
Through the years, as I have kept tabs on the disintegrating logs, I have learned what it means to be “durable”. In the books about different species of wood, they always list their durability, which I thought meant how they handle wear and tear, like from a hammer, but they mean from the weather. Turns out some woods last longer outside than others. I knew this, of course, but only from reading it. Now, after all of my “wood collecting”, I know it from watching it happen. Some woods go fast, but some never seem to go. And, they are not necessarily the first ones to come to mind.
I was inspired to write this because of the two that are extremely durable, but no one ever thinks to use outside – two of my best friends – walnut and cherry. These two just don’t rot. I should say the heartwood doesn’t rot. The sapwood on both of them rots as fast as any other sapwood, but the heartwood doesn’t rot. I commonly find old logs with no bark and sapwood that just flakes off in my hand, but the heartwood is fine. It might have cracks in it from the log drying out or bug holes from sitting too long, but the heartwood will be just as solid as the day it was cut down.
Of the species I mill, these are not the only ones that perform great outside, but they are the surprises. I bet almost no one would think of using walnut or cherry outside. They always end up inside because they are so nice, maybe too nice to put outside. I will tell you that this one has me baffled, and as of yet, I have no idea why this is. However, my main interest is to spread the word that walnut and cherry are great outdoor choices. Walnut may not be the best because the price is going up, but cherry is becoming an even better choice as its price is on the decline. If you don’t mind a few knots in your outdoor work, common-grade cherry is very affordable. And, if you are doing a high-end outdoor piece clear walnut may make sense. It is more expensive than Ipe (an imported wood great for outdoor work), but it is easier to work with and it just feels right to use an American wood.
Again, the sole reason I know that these woods are durable is from my own experience. If I have a walnut or cherry log and it doesn’t get cut right away, I don’t sweat it. I know that years down the road that logs from these two species will still have solid wood in them, while others have rotted away. The best example I have is from a recent post about a walnut that I found on the Missouri River. It was the driftiest piece of driftwood you will ever find and the inside still looked like new (click here to check out the post and video from the picture above and to see the inside of the log).
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.