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Drying Twisted Wood And Knowing When To Walk Away

When I started cutting lumber for myself, I thought I could do it better than Home Depot. No more twisted and crooked lumber for this guy. I was gonna be the guy that did it right, the one that wasn’t affected by the limitations of mass output, the one that made sure every step was followed, and the one that made sure that every board behaved. I thought that if I properly placed my sticks and used more sticks and weighted down the pile and otherwise paid attention, that the lumber would respond in kind. Boy, was I wrong.

One of my favorite stories to tell people is from my early milling days when I tried to dry some sweet gum. The customer wanted to make flooring out of the tree, so I milled the log into 4″ wide boards. I took that nice-looking, 4″-wide sweet gum and stickered it on the bottom of a stack of lumber the was as tall as the Bobcat could reach. There must have been at least 3,000 bd. ft. and about a billion pounds on top of that sweet gum to help keep the notoriously ornery lumber flat as it dried.

After a few months on sticks, the lumber had twisted in unimaginable ways. Some of the boards twisted 45 degrees. Somehow, they pushed up the entire stack as they dried and went on their merry way getting all crooked without regard to my perfectly placed stickers and extra weight. It was really incredible. Even if I showed you a dried board in person, you may not have believed it. I had to cut some of the wood as short as 8″ long, just so I could straighten it on the jointer before it went through the planer. I don’t cut sweetgum anymore.

After my sweetgum “education”, it was clear that some wood is just not going to dry straight. Certain species always dry wonky. Flatsawn sycamore, elm and cottonwood all come to mind, along with the sweetgum, as bad actors. If quartersawn, they are all more stable, but if flatsawn, all bets are off. I always say that flatsawn sycamore dries like a potato chip. Elm and cottonwood dry more like thinly sliced potatoes that are fried in oil.

And, it isn’t just certain species that twist. Branches or trees that grew with a lean will dry crooked, even if they came from normally cooperative species. Certain areas within the good lumber can dry crooked too. Wood around a branch or crotch always dries spastic because the grain of the wood is flowing in many different directions. And, the lumber can still dry crooked if the lumber isn’t cut with the pith of the tree down the center of the board. There are just too many forces in the world trying to make the lumber unstraight.

The last one, and the one that I cannot defeat, is the tree with a twist. Not twisted lumber, but a twisted tree. The twist gets in the tree as it grows, and it twists the lumber as it dries. I have seen it in may different hardwood trees and the resulting lumber is always twisted.  This past summer, I took a photo of a dead sycamore that showed off this “death-twist”, which would make an already cantankerous lumber throw an off-the-charts fit. It is easily identified by looking at the surface checks in this dried out log.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Sycamore doesn’t always look like this. The grain is normally wavy, which makes the lumber dry unflat, but it isn’t usually twisted. This tree is very, very twisted and will dry with a pronounced twist in every board. It is best left as a decoration in the field. The good news is that this twist is usually obvious, even when the bark is on the tree. The bark will have the same twisted lines as the log, and let you know that it isn’t worth milling.

In the world of sawmilling, however, very few logs come right out and announce that they are going to twist. They don’t say, “Don’t waste your time cutting me, idiot!” Many logs and pieces of lumber look good but end up doing what they want, and you have to accept that some lumber just won’t dry flat. I still do everything I can to make the lumber dry straight, but I know now that crooked lumber is part of life and, in the meantime, I have become really good friends with my jointer.


2013 St. Louis Woodworking Show In Collinsville IL

This is your reminder to go to the St. Louis Woodworking Show and, while you are there, stop by the booth for the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild. It is a collection of approximately 100 woodworkers, most of them hobbyists, that get together to talk about wood, and we are always looking for new members. Say hi and see what it is all about.

The St. Louis show (which is actually across the river in Collinsville, IL) is usually around Valentine’s Day and this year will be February 8th through February 10th. The admission is $12, but it’s still worth the money. You will see lots of exhibitors giving short seminars as you stroll the aisles, and you can also sign-up for longer, more in-depth seminars on specific topics. All of the major woodworking tool companies are usually represented, which makes this a great place to compare tools side-by-side before you let go of the cash.

This year’s show is Friday, February 8th from 12-6pm, Saturday, February 9th from 10am -6pm and Sunday, February 10th from 10am-4pm. The woodworking show is big – smaller than it used to be, but still big. If you have ever thought about building something out of wood, you will enjoy the show. Unfortunately, and quite surprisingly, there isn’t a lot of wood at the show, but there are a lot of tools, and all of them are for sale. This is a selling show, not just a “see how cool the tools are” show. Plenty of attendees will be filling their trucks with tools that they have waited until now to purchase.

I remember the first time I went to this show and was amazed at how many woodworkers are out there. I, of course, was looking at it from a lumber producers viewpoint and only saw a huge ocean of potential customers, and every one of them spending money like crazy. From then on, I was hooked. I go to the show every year (lately, to man the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild booth), and I am still amazed at how many people are woodworkers or are dreaming about woodworking. If you are in one of these two groups, go to the show. You won’t be sorry. And, don’t forget to take your wallet!

Click here for full details on the St. Louis Woodworking show.

My Bow Is Made Of Catalpa (bean)

Through my sawmilling days, I have cut a lot of Osage Orange for guys that build bows. I would supply some guys with pieces to make self bows, which are bows made from a single piece of wood and others with strips of wood that they laminated together to make the bow. I gravitated to the wood for the laminated bows because it didn’t have to be as perfect as the wood for self bows and Osage doesn’t yield much perfect wood. I was often surprised by the pieces that were still deemed acceptable despite their flaws. Apparently, the laminated bows are much more forgiving.

Knowing this, and being part idiot, I decided my first bow should be a self bow. I wasn’t going to make anything special, just something we could call a bow and shoot like in the movie “Brave”. Mira, my six-year-old daughter was excited to make a bow just like Merida’s, and I was glad to have an excuse to make one. I have fond memories of shooting my dad’s bow from when he was a kid. Hopefully, Mira would share my joy.

The experience started out with a trip to the library, where we picked up a few books about archery. It didn’t take Mira long to gravitate to a Native American (the book from the 1980’s said Indian) book about bow making. She quickly found the style she wanted, along with the appropriates decorations. She had a vision. I read the book and learned how a self bow should be cut from the tree and realized that a good bow stave could be cut out of slabs from the sawmill. I thought, “I have a sawmill…  and slabs.” Wahla!

The following Saturday we headed up to the sawmill. It is never as fun for Mira as I think it should be, so I quickly picked out some slabs (two cherry and one ash) and headed home. The book that I read said that the wood for the bow wasn’t critical and Indians made bows out of many different kinds of woods, not only Osage and Hickory. Mira and I decided on cherry as the main wood, and I grabbed the ash as a backup. I didn’t expect much from the ash because it is the first to get borers that would make it worthless for a bow, but I didn’t see any outward signs of problems on any of the slabs.

On Sunday we set up in the garage and I started marking wood, cutting staves and trying to hustle so Mira wouldn’t lose interest. The saw was loud and dusty and lacked much enjoyment for Mira, who spent most of the time covering her ears with my radio earmuffs (love those things, by the way). While I got in to it, Mira pulled out a long Catalpa bean that she had grabbed off of tree in grandma’s neighborhood. It was shaped a little like a bow, so she informed me that it was going to be her bow. I wasn’t happy that I had already lost her, but helped her on the Catalpa bow while mine took shape.

Mira taking a test shot.

Mira got out the ribbon and made a handle and added tassles on the end, just like the book. Meanwhile, I tried to string mine up – Snap! It broke on the end, exposing a rotten area that had no business being in a bow. After that, I strung up Mira’s catalpa bean with some fishing line and she got to work looking for an arrow. I stopped working on mine and helped her with a stick that needed to be whittled and have a nock carved in the end. We set up some cans for target practice, and from more than 1/2 yard away Mira started knocking them off – her bow worked!

Now, I was excited. I checked over my next stave carefully and started to cut. Everything went great. I cut it out with a jigsaw to rough the shape and went to string it up – Snap again! By then Mira was ready for a real arrow, and I was ready to move on. We took Mira’s arrow with no feathers and started working on the flecthings. Lucky for us, Mira collects feathers, and I had read the chapter on arrow making. I never expected to make our own arrow, but that ended up being the easy part. Just rip a feather down the middle, cut it to size leaving tabs on the ends and stick them on. We didn’t even bother gluing them and just used tape. It worked great.

After the original bow finally broke (thanks grandpa!), we grabbed some more beans and made enough bows for the kids in the neighborhood. The bows don’t shoot very far, but they shoot further than mine ever did.

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