On a regular basis, probably at least once a week, someone contacts me looking to have a pin oak milled into lumber. They are excited because they finally got their hands on a truly giant specimen of a tree, and even though it is just a red oak, they are excited to get to work with a hardwood at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, I have to be the bearer of not-so-good news and try to get them to reconsider.
As I mentioned, pin oak is in the red oak family, but that is about the only relationship it has to any decent red oak lumber. Pin oak is not milled and sold commercially under the name red oak, and as far as I know, is only used for low-grade products like pallets and blocking, where the only requirement is that it be made of wood that will stay together. And funny enough, pin oak often falls short of even that low requirement.
The problem is that many pin oak trees suffer from ring shake, which is where the rings of the tree peel apart like an onion, making that section of lumber nearly unusable. The beauty of ring shake is that it can’t be seen from the outside of the log and it won’t always be visible even early in the milling process. Sometimes, it won’t be until the lumber has been fully processed and dried for it to start falling apart. Needless to say this is frustrating, especially if you are counting on that lumber for a project and then end up with no wood to work. Even if the ring shake isn’t bad enough to make the lumber actually break, it very often leaves at least one fancy break line somewhere in a board where you would rather not have it. Again, super frustrating.
So, let’s say you find a pin oak that is solid, with no ring shake, then it is all clear sailing, right? Far from it. You may have lumber, but you probably don’t have great lumber. One of the main attractions for pin oak is the giant size and the promise of a never-ending bunk of lumber comprised of super-wide boards. This, you may indeed have, but it comes at a cost. The cost is that all of the super-wide lumber will have super-wide growth rings, rings that may be up to 1/2″ or more in width. Because the tree grows so fast, putting on up to 1″ in diameter per year, the logs get big in a hurry too. It isn’t uncommon for a 36″ diameter log to have only started growing 45 years ago. It was planted because the trees grow to a large, stately appearance quickly, and that means big, wide growth rings.
Big growth rings mean a coarse textured wood, no matter how you cut it. Whether flatsawn or quartersawn, red oak is already known for its open, in-your-face, grain, and pin oak is ten times worse. Imagine an 8″ wide flat sawn board that may only show a couple of annual rings on the face. It looks more like the cheapest of spiral cut plywood for sheathing the side of your house, instead of quality hardwood lumber for building fine furniture. That same 8″ wide board, if quartersawn, will probably show about 20-25 rings, where a high quality white oak board will show 60-80 rings. The difference is night and day, with the higher growth ring count looking much more refined and not so clunky.
Even if the wood stayed together and for some reason the growth rings weren’t so wide, pin oak would still be far from a great hardwood. The lumber typically also sports bad color, bad smell (commonly referred to as “piss” oak by local tree guys), and many more knots than are outwardly apparent. Since the trees are usually open grown and well pruned, the always straight, always perfectly upright trunks appear to contain up to 30′-40′ of clear lumber. The truth is that the trunks typically contain only 8′ of clear lumber near the ground, with the remainder being full of knots from previously trimmed branches.
Overall, I have nothing good to say about pin oaks, except that they grow big, tall and straight. And, while it may be possible to mill pin oak lumber that meets some minimum requirements (like staying together), the best pin oak is still easily surpassed in quality by almost any other reputable wood. Just know, if you are thinking about paying someone to mill a pin oak tree for you, that I wouldn’t even mill a pin oak if it magically fell on my sawmill. I would take the extra time to get it out of the way, so I could mill something better. It’s just not worth it. Move on.
If you have driven down Highway 40 in St. Louis recently, you may have noticed a new structure being erected next to the St. Louis Science Center where the “temporary” Exploradome once stood. After 16 years in service, the inflated building was past its prime and too expensive to operate, so it was replaced with a new, permanent agriculture exhibit called Grow.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is the new building that features massive bent laminated beams which create a beautiful swoosh of a roof. Just outside the entrance of the new building is a vermiculture display that I built for the exhibit. While it pales in comparison to the woodwork that went into making the building, I like to think it makes a nice little earth-friendly welcome mat for visitors.
The vermiculture unit, designed by Mark Cooley, uses worms to make compost. Built out of locally salvaged Eastern Red Cedar, the two-compartment structure is set up to have green waste loaded in the top and compost extracted from the bottom after the worms have done their job eating the contents. The two compartments, which are side by side, are divided by a wire mesh that allows the worms to move between compartments. This particular unit has glass panels to allow for viewing of the interior from the front of the display, though the glass is not required for use.
This project was a bit out of the norm for me since it was more carpentry than fine woodworking, but it was a fun change to build something that wasn’t so fussy. I had the most fun when I was able to find some logs in my shop already standing against the wall for the project. They were left over from another project, and I was able to just carry them to the sawmill and cut the parts I needed. I chuckled to myself while I was doing it because I have never just hand carried logs to the sawmill that were standing in the shop like sticks of lumber. It was only possible because cedar is lightweight and the logs were small, but I still had more than enough to make this project.
Cedar mills like butter on the sawmill, even when dry, and since it was going outside I didn’t need to do any extra drying. I was able to mill it, plane it and assemble it right away, which made it feel more like I was building a fort or a treehouse, especially since I never get to knock something out like that. It reminded me a lot of the Mermaid Lagoon sign I made for Mira a few years ago, since both went together expeditiously. There were a few critical measurements to maintain, like the size of the footprint, but everything else was somewhat negotiable as long as it looked and worked like Mark Cooley’s design.
The vermiculture unit is nestled in the Grow exhibit along a mulch path surrounded by plantings that are arranged like a garden or small farm field. Nearby are live chickens, two new tractors, a greenhouse and a dairy demonstration area. Inside the building are electronic, hands-on displays that focus more on the places that generate food, from the species of plants to different farm settings. Outside, on the North side of the building, are a couple of displays that focus on water, with a chance for the kids to interact with displays that are both hands-on and hands-wet.
The St. Louis Science Center and the new Grow exhibit are free to all visitors. It opens Monday-Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and Sunday at 11:00 a.m. The Science Center closes at 5:30 p.m. during peak summer hours (May 28-Sep. 5, 2016) and at 4:30 p.m. during off-peak hours.
This week I picked up a sycamore log at Grant’s Farm for a local woodworker. He has been commissioned to build a round table from the tree that has stood on the property since the time of Ulysses S. Grant.
Because the log was too heavy to load in one piece and was going to be cut into round slices anyway, I cut it in half to make it easier to handle. The log is a minimum of 60″ in diameter on the skinny end, and should make a few nice table tops.
I jokingly complained to my wife that I drove all the way to Grant’s Farm only to pick up two 3′ long logs – that, by the way, filled up the truck.
This summer we took an overnight camping trip to Hannibal, MO to visit Mark Twain cave, Casano’s pizza and a Liberty Tree. We picked the cave because it is within a two-hour drive of St. Louis and it’s open for visitors, we picked Casano’s pizza for the same reasons (plus we like it), and we picked the Liberty Tree mostly because we had to walk around it to get to the cave.
On the way past the tree, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a pretty big Burr oak.” Apparently, I was right because there is a plaque in front of the tree (looks like someone else thought it was noteworthy too).
The plaque reads, “As part of our Nations Bicentennial, the Missouri Department of Conservation recognized certain trees throughout Missouri as Liberty Trees. This Burr Oak started as a seedling in 1721 and is included in Famous and Historic Trees of the United States by the Department of Agriculture.”
I don’t know if this tree got special consideration because of its ties to Mark Twain, its age, or both, but either way, it is still an impressive tree. Just look at how small my head is next to the tree (Mira’s head is naturally smaller and is not affected by adjacent trees).
If you decide to look for this tree, you won’t have to look very hard. It is right in front of, and looms over, the building that serves as the entrance to Mark Twain cave. And, in case you are wondering, the cave is worth visiting. A 45-minute walking tour gives a detailed history of the cave, its visitors and, of course, Samuel Clemens.