A few years ago I cut a huge American Elm log into slabs and quickly sold all of them except one piece that ended up being short after hitting a few nails. The nails dulled the sawmill too much to finish the cut, so I just cut the slab off at about five feet long and salvaged what I could. All of the other slabs where long enough to make large tables while this one struggled to find a home, until I got a request for a kitchen peninsula top.
I flattened the slab on the Lucas mill and sanded it by hand since it was too wide to fit through the wide belt sander. It wasn’t until I sprayed the first coat of finish on it that I realized how nice it was and was reminded why I like American elm so much.
The slab had a great shape with a beautiful crack down the middle and the edges had tons of character too with ridges and bumps down the entire length. But, what really made it stand out and grab your attention was the figure of the wood and its chatoyance, or the way the light bounces off of the surface. The finish has great depth and changes in brightness as you walk around the piece. It reminds me of satin sheets with ridges that reflect ribbons of light. It is really something that you need to see in person.
Here are some before and after photos of the slab.
I am currently working on installing a wood ceiling in the basement of my house. I thought it would be a great use of eastern white pine and a treat to actually do a little work on my own house. I “treated” myself to eastern white pine because it is the cheapest lumber I sell and therefore causes me the least financial negativity by not selling it.
As I was rounding up all the pine in my shop, I was worried I didn’t have enough stock, so I looked for lumber that was similar. I grabbed some spruce and cypress that seemed fairly similar, and since I am whitewashing all of the lumber, I decided they would work. The spruce looks great. Most people couldn’t tell the difference between it and the white pine.
The cypress is a different story, but not for the reasons you would think. The problem with the cypress is that after I sealed it with shellac prior to the whitewash some of it looked so cool I couldn’t bring myself to whitewash it.
I have always poo-pooed local cypress because it has so much sapwood from growing quickly in wide open spaces (usually yards). The sapwood is less durable than the heartwood so the wood is not the best choice for exterior applications, which kills me because that is the first thing that people expect out of cypress. When someone asks if I have cypress I say,”Yes, but not the cypress you are thinking of. It didn’t come out of a deep swamp from a slow-growing old tree, and there isn’t much clear wood.” Almost every board is knotty since the trees are usually covered in branches to the ground. Everything about this “exterior” wood says don’t use it outside, so it tends to lean against the wall for sale and only very slowly trickle out of the store.
Now, I got a fresh look at my cypress, but not for an exterior application. Now, I just looked at it as wood, and what I saw was a wood that stands out from the crowd. Some of the boards looked more like burls and less like lumber. The knots are clustered in tight pockets, mixed with bark inclusions and swirly grain. Again, not great for exterior wood, but awesome for a future piece of furniture.
As I went through the stack and rediscovered the boards, I set them aside, hoping that I could finish the job without using them. At this point, I have the ceiling almost completed and it looks like I won’t need the cypress. But, even if I did, I have a feeling that I would be milling up some new, not-so-cool lumber to finish the job. This stuff is just too cool to paint and put on the ceiling. Go-oh, Cypress!
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:
Silver maple has a special place in my heart. It was one of the first trees I ever milled (I would say it was my first, but my memory isn’t that good). It was a tree taken out by our neighbor and had a short trunk, only about 6′ long, and about 24″ in diameter. At the time I knew little about processing lumber and nothing specific about maples, and didn’t know what I had. Looking back it was a great short log. It had very little heartwood, which meant that all of the boards were a bright white color. Plus, it had no knots except for the very center.
Like I said, the lumber was nice, but I didn’t know how to feel about it. Around here, maple isn’t that prominent. We have a lot of silver maple in yards and along the big rivers, but this is basically walnut, cherry and oak land. The fact that it was maple threw me off, and the fact that it was silver maple really threw me off. I read what I could about it in books (since the internet wasn’t widely available). I also checked out field guides, focused on magazine articles and tried my best to figure out where I could use the lumber.
Everything I read made silver maple sound like a loser. It was a secondary wood. The Audobon field guide probably said it was used for wood spoons (everything that has no odor is used for wood spoons). Sugar maple was what I wanted. It was hard maple – tough and durable, the kind of stuff they make the first few feet of a bowling alley out if, not to mention the pins. I didn’t have sugar maple, I had silver maple, which is a soft maple. But it looked nice (did I mention that?). Some of the more quartersawn boards even had a little curly figure. Nobody had anything good to say about soft maple. So, I didn’t use the wood right away. I dried it and slowly used it here and there as a secondary wood, but that was all.
When I used it, I found that it planed easily and would come out clean if the grain was straight. I also found it to work well with other tools and started to wonder more about why it gets such a bad rap. I finally figured it out – it’s the name.
They call silver maple “soft” maple, while sugar maple is called “hard” maple. I would argue that this is wrong. Silver maple should just be called “maple” and sugar maple should be called “unnecessarily hard maple”. That would even out the playing field. No one would want to use wood that was unnecessarily hard. They would want a wood that is just right, like silver maple. It does everything hard maple does, comes in almost all of the same variations and won’t make you dread running it through your tools.
I even used silver maple (ambrosia figure) for the floors in the kitchen of my last house. It looked great and worked fine as a floor. Sure, it dented some, but hard maple dents too. Think about it, even oak dents, so the question is, how soft is too soft?
Silver maple is soft compared to sugar (hard) maple, but that isn’t saying much. Compared to sugar (hard) maple, cherry and walnut are softwoods too. But, cherry and walnut are great woods and the fact that they are not rock hard makes them even better. They are not too heavy and they are a pleasure to run through the tools. So how does silver maple compare to woods besides hard maple?
To put it in perspective here are a few domestic species and their densities or specific gravity. The higher the number, the denser and heavier the wood. Though silver maple is not the hardest of the group, notice the fine company it keeps in the middle of the pack.
.35 – White Pine
.37 – Basswood
.42 – Poplar
.47 – Silver Maple
.50 – Cherry
.55 – Walnut
.63 – Sugar Maple
.63 – Red Oak
So, I eased into using silver maple. First, I just used it for stuff around the shop, like fixtures and jigs. Then, I started using it for drawer sides, then painted parts and then stained parts.
Now, I use it regularly and will gladly let it be the primary wood. It works especially well for my more rustic work because I can find specific logs with lots of character. They are often curly or wormy or figured in some way. And, at the same time you can find logs with clear, bright white lumber.
I have been amazed at how diverse silver maple is, and I am always finding new places to use it. I would encourage you to give silver maple a try as well, and don’t forget to call me when it comes time to stain (staining maple is worthy of an entire blog posting on its own).