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).
I am a man. I like to build things and I like to burn things. Heck, I have even been known to build something just to burn it down or blow it up (especially around the Fourth of July).
Fire mesmerizes and bewilders me. I find it amazing that it can come from virtually nowhere, you can’t really touch it even though you can feel it, and it makes things disappear into thin air. Heavy things, really, really heavy things, like a whole stack of wood, can be gone in no time.
I know this, of course, because I have burnt a lot of things in my lifetime, including my last shop (a complete accident, by the way). What was amazing about it was the fact that just the day before, I had a shop filled with tools, and the next day I had a shallow pile of charcoal mixed with rusty metal. I remember going there the morning after the fire and looking for anything to salvage and being amazed at how rusty the metal was. It looked like it had set out in the rain for years and it was only hours since the fire department was there.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I was just cleaning up the debris and throwing the chunks of rusty steel into the scrap pile. But it didn’t take long for things to click. You see, rusty metal is a very desirable finish in these days of worn, industrial, antique, distressed furniture – a style that I find myself doing on a regular basis. Even if it’s not officially a rusty finish that I am looking for, it is usually something that looks not new in some way. And, I have to tell you that burnt, rusty metal does not look new. It looks very, very old.
All of this was a welcomed revelation because I have spent lots of hours in the past trying to get the “not new” look. I had used paint stripper to remove the protective clear finish from new hardware. I soaked steel directly in salt water and in salt water towels so it would get more air, and hopefully, rust faster. I’ve tried a lot of things on brass too, like ammonia and vinegar. But, I never considered heat until the shop burned down.
Heat makes sense. Heat is what they use to make the metal, so it seems like it could work to “unmake” it a bit. And after I saw the magic that happened to all of the metal in my former shop, I gave it a go. The first batch worked great. I was doing a cabinet with very small hinges, so even if I destroyed them it would only cost me a few dollars. I made a little fire and threw them in. I put the fire out with a lot of water and just let it sit in the water-logged charcoal mix for a day and it looked just like the rusty metal from my shop.
The second attempt was as amusing as it was informative. Now that I had one burning under my belt, I confidently came home, started a fire in the fireplace (it was winter time), and nonchalantly threw them in like I had done it a thousand times. Chris (my lovely wife), of course, questioned my actions and I, of course, acted like she was the idiot this time. Turns out, I was the idiot again. Why do I always have to be the idiot? Mostly, because in this case, I threw what appears to have been aluminum or some other metal that easily melts into the fire. It burned in a beautiful rainbow of colors, which told me that the metal was actually being consumed by the fire. After the fire died down, I dug around and found only the screws. Everything else vanished. I made myself feel better by saying that they were cheap and I didn’t want them anyway.
Because of that, I now make sure that my victims are made of steel or something like steel, something that can take the heat. I would recommend testing one piece before you throw them all in the fire if you aren’t sure about their metal content. Besides that one bit of caution, all you have to do is build a fire and throw your hardware in. Make sure that you act like you have done it before and don’t even bother to take it out of the packaging (it all disappears).
Let the fire burn until all of the wood is charcoal and the metal looks discolored. While everything is still hot, put out the fire with plenty of water, just like the firefighters would do it. At that point, you can immediately dig out the hardware if you don’t need the metal to rust, or you can let it sit in the wet charcoal for a day or two and get rusty. The amount of time will depend on the metal. Better steel, hardened steel with more carbon, will rust quickly.
When the hardware comes out of the fire it looks very different. If you like the look you are done, but for me it looks a little rugged on most pieces. I usually put a thin coat of lacquer on the hardware to make it look more like an old piece, but one that has spent more time indoors than out. Depending on how it looks when it comes out of the fire, it may only take a little bit of cleaning to have the right look.
The beauty of the burning process is that each piece comes out different and looks authentically aged. Compared to “antiqued” hardware from many large hardware makers, which often look like a lackluster attempt at aging, the difference is night and day. And, the best part is I have a reason to burn things. Now, I need to find a reason to blow things up.
I am now in the wood filler business.
For years now (I don’t know how long and I can’t pinpoint when it started), I have been making my own wood filler. I never thought anything of it. I thought everyone made their own filler, especially when they ran out of filler from the store. It just made sense take some wood dust, mix it with some sort of binder, and voilà, wood filler.
For me, the wood part was easy. I am surrounded by lumber in my shop and from my sawmill, and it seems like I am always buried in dust. But the binder part proved a bit more challenging. I started out with glue (everyone says to use glue), but I didn’t like the results. The glue took forever to dry and it didn’t sand easily. Some folks recommend epoxy, but you can’t mix up a big batch with epoxy. It sets up in just a few minutes and then you have to start over. I was looking for something that I could make in a larger batch and save to have on hand the second I needed it. Sometimes I might be finishing 50 parts at a time, and I can’t imagine mixing up a new batch every time with epoxy.
So, I played more with the binder and finally came up with something that holds everything together, sands easily, accepts stain, dries fast and is just about as perfect as wood filler can be. I have been using it for a long time now, and will still take the time to make a batch, even when my previous favorite wood filler, Famowood, is right there.
The beauty of this filler is that except for the binder, the rest is 100% wood dust from a specific, specified species (I did that for fun). That means that the color of the filler matches as close as possible and changes with the lumber over time. This is critical on projects with a clear finish, especially on species that change a lot during their lifetime, like cherry (darkens), walnut (lightens), or maple (yellows).
In the shop we jokingly call it “Wunderfil”, but who would have guessed that there is already a filler called Wunderfil (even with a “U”) sold through Rockler. Because of that unfortunate finding, this one is not called Wunderfil, it is called WunderWoods Custom Wood Filler. Even if the name is a bit longer, at least you will know where to get it.
And, here’s the pitch. I am selling it in 6 species (cherry, walnut, red oak, white oak, hard maple, white pine) to start with, for $9.65 per 6 oz. can. I will also make custom batches from any wood that you request for $15 per 6 oz. can. If you would like to make a purchase click here to go to ebay, or for custom orders, just send me an e-mail at email@example.com.
Thanks for your support, and don’t feel like you have to buy some just to make me feel better.
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.
After the latest tornado to roll through I have been out looking at logs to pickup. I ran across this White Oak not far from my sawmill that was listed on Craigslist for free firewood. I could tell even from a blurry, out-of-focus photo that it was giant and needed to see just how big. It is 52″ in diameter about 8′ from the base and one of the two biggest White Oaks I have run into (the other is actually a Burr Oak, but it is in the White Oak family. Click here to check it out). Unfortunately, it was hollow all the way up, but I still had to get a photo. Good luck to the kids that want to firewood that one!
Click on any photo to get a closer look:
Two weekends ago we were looking for some local entertainment and ended up taking a little trip to the Missouri Botanical Gardens. It is on our short list of great St. Louis attractions, and even though it isn’t free like the zoo, the science center, or the art museum, we go there at least once a year. We live in St. Charles now, which is just outside of St. Louis County, so we don’t get a reduced rate or free days like we did when we lived in Hazelwood, but it doesn’t matter. It is well worth the full price of $8 for adults. Children under 12 are free, but the Children’s Garden will add $5 to the bill. Still, for about twenty bucks, it is well worth it.
As soon as I walk through the main building I feel a little lighter and happier, like the worries of the world have just vanished. It feels right. It is so nice and clean and Disneyesque. I can’t help but think that someone needs to build a hotel next to the gardens to capitalize on what they have going. Of course, I’m biased though. I love the outdoors, plants, gardens, and trees.
As soon as you walk out of the main building and head down the path to the right, you are greeted by large trees. I noticed Tulip Poplars and a big Sycamore right away, but they are mixed in with every tree you can think of. The beauty is that they are big, they are old, and they are labeled (by people who I trust).
The trees are set among themed gardens and are usually together in a small group or grove. The Children’s Garden, which is an excellent recent addition, is built in and around a grove of Osage Orange trees like you have never seen. Usually these trees are bushy, with short crooked trunks. Sometimes, they are called “hedge apple” or just “hedge” for short, because they will form a fence-like impenetrable barrier. They are rarely trees that you would look at and say “I could make some good lumber out of that”, but these are a different story. One, in particular, that I photographed is 36″ in diameter at 8′ from the ground and has 16′ or more of good trunk. “Unbelievable!” I say.
Throughout the park the story is the same. Big trees mixed in with beautiful gardens are a constant, except of course, in the Japanese Garden, where everything is more petite. Back by the English Garden are the biggest trees; Ash, White oak, and a record Basswood.
One group that stood out during our visit was the Black Gums or Tupelo. Three smaller trees hung over the path and were buzzing with the sound of thousands of bees. I have heard about Tupelo Honey and I got a chance to hear it being made (the girls were not as excited as me to be under those trees). There were a few beehives a short distance away, and you could smell the honey in the air.
As always, we didn’t see everything because the park is so big, but we got to fly through most of it in a couple of hours. If you really wanted to take in everything there, it would take a full day, and I am sure you would still miss something. Even so, I highly recommend that you visit this world-class park. You will not be disappointed.
Here are some other photos of the park for your enjoyment (click on any photo to view the slide show):
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.