My sawmilling adventures began with an Alaskan chainsaw mill, which is just an attachment for a chainsaw to allow it to repeatedly cut a log lengthwise into lumber. It wasn’t anything fancy, and while it produced fine lumber, it was painfully slow to use. It didn’t take too many hours of me directly sucking in sawdust and fumes, while sweating my butt off, to start shopping for a more capable sawmill.
When I started my search, I considered bandsaws made by companies smaller than Wood-Mizer or TimberKing or Baker in a quest to also find smaller prices. While searching, I found several mills that looked suitable in the $5,000-$10,000 range, and I also came across a new “swing mill” from Australia called a Lucas mill.
The bandsaws looked to be a good choice as far as production went, but I didn’t have any way to move logs at the time, so the Lucas won out. It’s ability to easily break down and set up on site, while fitting in the bed of a pickup truck made it the clear choice, especially for larger logs. I say clear choice, but it wasn’t an easy choice. I didn’t like that the basic mill, fitted with a circular blade, was limited to 6″ or 8″ wide lumber without the optional slabbing bar attachment. And, my biggest fear was that this new mill from Australia, that I knew nothing about, might not be as good as it appeared in the videos.
Unfortunately, my fears were NOT immediately allayed. I went to pick up the more than $10,000 sawmill at the shipping terminal, and I couldn’t help but feel like I way overpaid for the amount of merchandise I picked up (Did I mentioned that it fits in the bed of my pickup truck?). There was only a sawhead, two long rails, and a few other miscellaneous metal parts that formed the frame ends. Besides that, the kit included a sharpener and some other odds and ends, but none of it added up to very much. I started doing the cost per piece arithmetic in my head, and it wasn’t looking good.
Regardless of my buyer’s remorse, I was tickled to have a “real” sawmill and set it up in my back yard the very first chance I got. After just a short time reviewing the directions, I had the sawmill set up and ready to cut. Even for someone who had never set one up, the Lucas went together fast. It was then that I realized what I had paid for. I didn’t pay for lots and lots of parts and extra bulk. I paid for an impressively designed machine, with an amazingly small stature, than can tackle the biggest logs. I paid for all of the research and design that went into the mill by the Lucas boys, and I paid to not lug around thousands of extra pounds, and I paid for everything to go together with minimal effort and a minimal number of steps. I got all of that and more.
From a design standpoint, I can confidently say that every part of the Lucas mill is well-planned and simplified beyond belief. The only mechanisms that I have ever had a problem with are the winches that raise and lower the ends of the long rails. They work perfectly fine and they are quite smooth, but they can be dangerous. When fully loaded with weight, it is possible to release the winch and lose control, resulting in a violently swinging handle that can smash your arm and allow the sawhead to come crashing down. I know from personal experience, as this has happened to me more than once, with the last instance leaving me at the hospital with a possible broken arm (luckily it was just a very bad contusion). If they were to ask, I would recommend that the winch system be built like the raising and lowering mechanism on my TimberKing 1220 manual mill, which magically is able to easily raise and lower the sawhead with complete control and without the possibility of having a disastrous crash. I have no idea how it works, but it smoothly operates the sawhead with a very heavy 15 hp electric motor attached to it like it isn’t there at all.
Now that you know to watch your arm and to be careful when lowering the sawhead on the Lucas mill, I can continue telling you how wonderful the Lucas mill is. First off, realize that I bought a Lucas mill in 1995, so I have been using one for about 2o years now, and I still use it on a regular basis. It is a very versatile machine that can handle big logs with ease. I often get asked how big of a log I can handle, and with the Lucas mill in my corner, I can just answer, “Yes.”
Currently, I use the 8″ model, which means that with the 21″ diameter circular blade attached it can produce up to 8″ x 8″ dimensional lumber. I rarely cut 8″ x 8″, but the mill can easily be adjusted to cut any dimensions under 8″. I often cut 1″ and 2″ thick lumber by 8″ wide.
The Lucas mill is called a “swing” mill because the blade can flip or swing with the pull of a lever from the horizontal to vertical position and right back again. The cool part is that both of the cuts line up with each other and work in concert to produce accurate and straight, completely edged lumber without a dedicated edger or any extra handling. In contrast, to edge lumber on a bandsaw mill requires flitches (lumber with bark edges) to be stood up in the mill and cut one or two more times to produce lumber with four square edges.
When cutting dimensional lumber I can easily work by myself making the vertical cut walking backward, then making the horizontal cut walking forward and finishing by sliding the cut board backward and out of the way. After a quick repositioning of the sawhead and a flip of the blade, I am back to cutting another piece of lumber. When cutting dimensional lumber like this I get in a rhythm–walk backward, flip blade, walk forward, slide board, move and flip blade, then repeat. The first cuts on the outside of the log are firewood, but after one pass across the top of the log and then dropping the mill to the next set of cuts, almost every pass produces an edged piece of lumber.
When I first got my Lucas mill I used it with the circular blade most of the time. Everything I produced was fully edged. Big slabs weren’t in style, so I didn’t even own a slabber, let alone use one. Now things are different. Live edges are in and so are big slabs, so the slabber is on the mill most of the time. The slabber is an attachment that turns the sawhead into a giant 2o hp chainsaw mill, with a maximum cut of 64″ wide.
I use the Lucas mill with the slabber attachment to cut all of my big logs that will produce slabs for table tops. With the slabber attachment the Lucas is not fast, but it can cut much wider than my bandsaw mill (maximum cut of 29″ wide), and it doesn’t make sporadic wavy cuts like the bandsaw mill. Knowing that I won’t get a miscut on a high-priced piece of wood gives me a great piece of mind.
These days when the slabbing attachment isn’t on the mill, the circular blade is, but not for milling lumber. I have been using it to flatten my kiln-dried slabs, and as long as the blade is sharp, it works great. After I move the slab into position, I just skim the surface with the mill to remove the high spots. Next, I flip the slab, drop the mill a bit and skim the other side. The end result is a perfectly flat slab, ready for final planing. The kids at Lucas sell planing and sanding attachments, but I haven’t used or purchased either one since I finish almost all of the slabs with the power hand planer or wide-belt sander.
Every time I use the Lucas mill, I am reminded how well it works, from quickly setting it up to making small adjustments, everything is simple. And, I know when I show customers how capable it is, they are impressed that such a lightweight, easy-to-setup mill can do so much.
Note: While Lucas is more than welcome to pay me to endorse their mills, as of now they do not. This was written for educational purposes and to let others know how my slabs are produced.
Last week a friend of mine, John, was at my shop telling me about a chair that he found on Craigslist. It wasn’t in perfect shape, and the wood was stained with red blotches that he said looked like Kool-Aid, and he joked that they were more likely blood. It was, however, well built, in good shape overall and had not been repaired, so he shelled out the asking price of $20.
After getting the chair back to his house, John quickly got to work sanding on the chair by hand to remove the stains and then followed the sanding with a little Danish oil to make the chair look like new.
I’m not sure exactly how it happened and I don’t know that it is important to the story, but another friend of ours stopped by John’s house and between the two of them they realized that the bottom of the chair seat was signed. Luckily, John hadn’t sanded the bottom of the seat and everything that was written on it was still very clear. They found, in large letters, lightly written in pencil, an inscription that says “Cotton Rocker” and in bold, black ink what appears to be, “George Nakashima, March 1974”.
It didn’t take long after hearing the story for me to end up at John’s house, so I could see the chair for myself. I wasn’t expecting much and imagined that I would know right away that the chair wasn’t a legitimate Nakashima, not because I am a Nakashima expert, but because I know wood and something was bound to be obviously wrong with the materials or construction.
My initial concern was that John destroyed any possible value with a wild bit of overly aggressive sanding, but that wasn’t the case. The chair looked great, and after a little more interrogating, I discerned that it didn’t take much work to remove the stains. And, though it didn’t necessarily help, nothing John did permanently damaged the chair.
After I gave the chair a quick look, I plopped myself down and took it for a test rock. The chair is a bit low for me, but it makes sense for someone who is probably a foot shorter, like Mr. Nakashima himself. Both the seat and back are wide and provide great support while still being flexible and comfortable. As a matter of fact, it is probably the most comfortable, all-wood chair that I have ever sat in.
I sat and rocked for a short time while we talked more about the chair and my disbelief that he found it on Craigslist for $20. It was beginning to look like it was the real deal, but even if it wasn’t, the price was fantastic for a chair of this quality. He definitely did not overpay.
After I rocked for a bit, I decided to really do some detective work. I started by looking closely at the wood. The walnut had the right patina for being around 40 years old and the spindles were made of hickory, which later research verified was appropriate.
The only thing that seemed odd to me was the wood selected for the seat. When I think of George Nakashima, I think of wood and the way that he respected it and the way that he would make sure that the wood was selected with as much care as the actual construction – this seat seems to be less so. While not wrong, the seat is composed of seven pieces of walnut that appear to be selected on a Friday just before quitting time. I imagine Nakashima making his seats out of a single piece or two pieces of matched woods and it looks like this walnut wasn’t even from the same tree, which is a bit hard for me to swallow, especially knowing that Nakashima was known for having plenty of wood on hand.
Everything else about the chair oozes quality and makes me believe that it is a Nakashima product or was made by someone who appreciated his work and tried hard to duplicate it. All of the proportions are well-found, with a great balance between strength and delicateness. The hickory spindles are almost dainty, but offer more than enough support to the backrest, which is equally small, but more than adequate. The details that I really noticed and appreciated, are the two spindles that extend through the top of the backrest. They protrude so little that they are almost unnoticed, but they reach up just far enough to be a detail that connotes fine craftsmanship.
The overwhelming clue to me that this may truly be a Nakashima piece of woodwork is that the chair is 100% solid, with no signs of loose joints or repairs. It is a testament to the fact that this chair was built with care from the original maker, which I am guessing is George Nakashima or someone who spent lots of time with Mr. Nakashima.
While doing a little research on Nakashima and trying to find a photo of a similar signature (which I did not), I found some recent examples of authentic chairs that have sold at auction. It looks like similar chairs, like the one below, are selling currently for between $2,500 and $10,000. I assume that John’s chair will be at the lower end of the spectrum, even if it is found to be the real thing, since it is not in original mint condition. Even so, it is a heck of a find for $20.
John plans to keep the chair and enjoy it for now. I told him that I thought it was a great idea because I don’t see it going down in value and it will give him time to try to find out more about that specific chair.
If you have any insights on how to determine the legitimacy of this piece, we would love to hear about it. I know John would love to determine if it is an actual Nakashima chair. I guess he could always go on Antiques Roadshow and find out for sure.
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.
When customers stop by to peruse the lumber and slabs I have for sale, they inevitably end up near the back of my shop, where I do my woodworking. They like to see what I am up to and discuss woodworking in general. Lately, I have been making a lot of live-edge tops, so I usually have at least one being glued up, and I can guarantee you that the first question is going to be, “What do you use to join those two pieces of wood together?” They are expecting a dramatic answer full of technical jargon, like tongue and groove or sliding dovetail or dominos or even biscuits, but I always disappoint them and just say, “glue”. I like to say it in a sort of caveman fashion for dramatic effect and a bit of humor, but then I quickly jump in and fill the awkward silence with a more detailed explanation, especially since I can tell that just blurting out the word “glue” isn’t going to be enough.
I use Titebond original wood glue with the red cap. There is Titebond II and III for more water-resistency, but I usually stick to the original unless it is a project that is prone to getting very wet. I like that the original cleans up easily with water and that even dried glue can be soaked and removed from brushes and clothing. I don’t prefer Titebond for any special reason, except that it is widely used and widely available. I would just as confidently use other name-brand wood glues and expect similar results.
The glues available today are strong, super strong, stronger than the wood itself. To prove this, I always save the end cuts from my glue-ups, so I can break them later for demonstration purposes for customers and inspection purposes for myself. If the glue is fully dry (results are not guaranteed if the glue is still wet), the glued-up scraps will always break somewhere in the wood. Even if it does happen to spilt close to the glue line, there is always plenty of wood stuck to the glue to make anyone doubting the strength of the joint to become a believer.
In comparison, I have worked with plenty of reclaimed wood, especially old oak church pews, that have a tendency to split along the glue joints. When closely inspected, it is clear that the old glue had become dry and brittle, and though it stuck to both surfaces, the glue itself broke down, like old plastic that has been outside too long. Most likely, the older glues, while strong at the time, weren’t formulated correctly to stay flexible over time. Current glues are formulated to hold strong and not break down during regular indoor use. Note that I wrote “indoor” use – for outdoor use, all bets are off. From extreme wood movement to glue breakdown, there is simply too much wear and tear outdoors for the glue to hold a jointed edge together on its own without any eventual failures.
So, we know that the glue is strong and is more than capable of holding a joint together, but just how strong is it? There is probably some value on some fancy scale to tell you exactly how strong the joint is, but it doesn’t really matter, as long as you know that it is stronger than the wood. At that point, to know the strength for sure, you would need to know the strength not only of the wood you are working with, but the weakest point in any given spot in a board, which you just can’t know, so I say stop worrying about it. Just know that it is more than strong enough to do the job.
Now, for the glue to work correctly, your machining and joints need to be reasonably good. I say, “reasonably” good because I think there is a lot of wiggle room here. Obviously, if everything is perfectly square and straight, there is no question about your joint integrity. You can simply coat the joint with glue, apply just enough pressure to pull everything together, and you will end up with a strong, wonderfully impressive joint. But, what if your jointed edges are square but the boards are long and have a bit of a bow and they will require a bit of extra clamp pressure to pull them together, is that gonna work? Heck yeah! Did I mention the glue is strong? A little extra clamp pressure is fine.
What about a lot of clamp pressure? Now this is where the “reasonably” good part comes into play. I say if you are doing a glue-up and you feel like you have applied so much pressure to pull things together that it just feels wrong, then you should probably work on the joint some more. But, here’s the kicker. I can tell you that I have been involved in more glue-ups than I should admit to that have required an inordinate amount of clamp pressure, and to this day (knock on wood), I have never had a joint fail. Maybe I have just been lucky, since I have done tons of glue-ups, but I use this as a real world testament to the strength of the current glues.
The problem with needing a lot of clamp pressure to pull joints together is two-fold. The first issue is that there are built-in forces that are always trying open the joint with the same amount of pressure it took to close up the joint, which can be significant. The other issue, and the one that is commonly more worrisome, is that more clamp pressure means less glue in the joint. The concern being that if all of the glue is squeezed out then obviously there is nothing to hold the wood together. As far as I can tell, especially since I have not had a failure yet, is that this isn’t easily accomplished. I am not saying it isn’t possible, but it isn’t easy. Many woods have open pores that will hold glue no matter how much pressure you give them (think oak and walnut), and if you are fighting at all to pull a joint together, that means that somewhere along the line things are loose enough to hold some glue. Sure, it might completely squeeze out in one spot and make the joint a bit weaker, but in other spots the glue will hold like it is supposed to and keep things from coming apart.
With all of this cavalier talk about crappy joints with extra clamp pressure, you still have to show some restraint. There are going to be times when you can’t rely on just the glue, no matter how strong it is, to hold everything together and you will need to rework your joints for a better fit. A couple of instances come to mind. Some woods have very tight grain that is smooth and won’t hold much glue (think hard maple), so it is possible to end up with a joint that has almost no glue in it. The second instance where more jointing work will be required is if the boards are tight in the middle and loose on the ends. The ends are where a top will want to naturally split, so trying to use extra pressure in this case, is inviting an issue down the road. I feel a million times more confident closing up a gap in the middle of a glue-up than I do the ends, knowing that the entire joint is holding things together, not just the glue on the ends.
One last category that requires a little extra attention is exotic wood. Some have oils in them that just won’t glue properly. They need to be cleaned with lacquer thinner before gluing to provide a good surface and they are often extra hard, so they don’t absorb much glue. I have had problems with bloodwood in the past, which fell apart during my initial tests because I had not cleaned the wood enough. To be safe, I cleaned the wood even more and roughed up the surface a bit with sandpaper to give the glue something to grab. Before the sanding, the edges were just too hard and too smooth. Since then, the extra hard and oily exotics scare me, so I would never force a glue joint with them. I trust the current glues a lot, but there are limits.
Assuming that you have decent joints and wood that will accept glue, all you have to do is make sure that both surfaces are coated with wood glue and clamp them together until the seam is tight. That is really all there is to it and all that is done at almost every professional shop I can think of. You don’t need any special tricks at all, just “glue,” I remind you in my caveman voice.
Believe it or not, until recently I had never done any turnings. I have been messing with wood for a solid twenty years and never once have I even turned on a lathe. I’ve seen Norm do it a bazillion times on “The New Yankee Workshop” and listened to plenty of other woodworkers tell me about their turning escapades, but I never felt inclined to do it myself. I guess it’s because I am not attracted to work that has turnings in it, so they rarely end up in pieces that I am building and if they do, I pay someone else to do them.
It wasn’t by my choosing, but I did agree to build a bench with multiple turnings after my customer changed her mind on what she wanted. She showed me a picture from Sawkille.com of their “Tall Rabbit” bench and asked if I could make one like it for her with a variation on the length. Since I already had her deposit on the previous project, I didn’t want to say no and send back the money, so I said yes. I looked at it this way, if I consider myself a real woodworker and I am interested in spreading real-world useable woodworking knowledge, then it can’t hurt for me to have more knowledge myself. After all, was it possible that I would consider myself a real woodworker and die one day never having done a single turning? Sounded pretty hypocritical to me.
First off, let me say that the work from the kids at Sawkille is very nice, and though I don’t know them from Adam, I do appreciate the attention to design details that show in their work. I spent a lot of time messing with small details and proportions, and there is no doubt in my mind that they have spent exponentially more time on those same details and slight variations than I did.
The picture above is in black, but my customer saw some other variations and decided to go with bleached maple, and though it didn’t seem necessary on maple, bleaching gave the wood a very different look. The maple went from a light yellow-white to bone white with a couple of applications of two-part wood bleach. That part was as simple as could be – the actual turning was not.
Actually, I take that back. The short turnings weren’t too bad. After I turned the first couple and started to get a feel for it, the next 17 went pretty fast and came out nice. I got my time down to about 15 minutes each, which didn’t set any speed records, but it was a pace I could live with. If I did them all at that rate, I could turn all of the pieces in about 6 or 7 hours, which sounded like a fine day of work.
As you might have imagined, I wouldn’t have much to talk about if it all went down like that.
My troubles started when I stepped up to the legs and long stretchers. All of those are in the 24″ range, and about three times as long as the easy-peasy pieces. Out near the ends, where everything is solid, the work went according to plan, but in the middle, I would simply say that it did NOT. No matter how I attacked the middle, whether it be with a light touch or a hard push or maybe a quick jab or a different angle or a different speed or perhaps standing on a different foot or even just squinting a bit more, nothing improved. The piece of maple just jumped and kicked like a bucking bull, and I couldn’t stop it.
Even though I knew my problems were the result of the longer pieces, I imagined that a better turner (or at least someone who had turned at least once before in their life) could overcome the bounciness with better technique. I kept trying different lathe tools and worked slowly to get the pieces as good as possible, and while the overall shape was acceptable, the surface was not. It was nubby, like off-road truck tires, and there were plenty of spots were the wood was just ripped instead of cut. To finish up, I finally dumped the lathe tools and grabbed the sandpaper. I decided to take full advantage of the easy sanding on the lathe and let the paper do the work. Of course, it took awhile, but it was the only way I could come up with to overcome the bouncing spindle syndrome.
After I had a few of the long turnings done, I talked/complained to random shop patrons about my lathe fun and one of them mentioned using a rasp. Apparently, he had more turning knowledge than me (I think everyone does), and he had used the rasp a lot. It made good sense – a rasp is really just super-aggressive sandpaper. Plus, by holding the rasp more parallel to the piece than perpendicular, the rigid flat shape worked great to form the gradual curves with no humps. It wouldn’t have worked so well on intricate turnings, but it worked great in this case.
After finishing this project, I have a new respect for wood turners and turning. After all, my turnings were simple and still provided quite the challenge. When I think about some of the turnings I have seen, especially in other works, like large hollow vessels, and I consider all of the issues that the turner might face in a project like that, it really makes me appreciate the craft of it. And, though I may never do another turned project in my life, I am glad I gave this one a go.
A few weeks ago I ordered 300 board feet of 12′, #1 common walnut from a wholesaler that I use on a regular basis. The customer that I ordered it for doesn’t mind knots, so #1 common, which is not the highest grade, is usually a fine choice – except in walnut. In the order, none of the boards looked very good, many were so crooked that I had to cut them in half to get a straight board, only a couple of the boards were over 7″ wide with a good number of them only 3-1/2″, and half of them looked like pallet wood. They were painful to look at and painful to use. So painful, in fact, that out of the 300 bd. ft., I couldn’t find two boards that contained a 4″ x 7′ clear piece to finish up another order. Out of 300 bd. ft. of medium-grade walnut lumber, I couldn’t even find 5 bd. ft. of clear lumber. If that same stack was red oak instead of walnut, I would have been able to find those two pieces in the first layer of the stack. I may have even found the two pieces in one wide board, between the knots.
This wasn’t a randomly poor batch of walnut from a consistently good supply. Every time I order walnut, no matter which sawmill or distribution yard it comes from, the quality of the wood from any of the grades is always worse than I could imagine. The crazy thing is I know it is going to be bad going in, so I try to prepare myself for it, and I am still surprised when I see it. I do end up using it or selling it, explaining to my customers that it’s just the way walnut is, that it is graded by different rules and even though it doesn’t look great that it is indeed higher-grade lumber. I have a hard time with this explanation, but it is absolutely the truth – walnut is graded differently from other woods.
If you search the internet for the reason walnut is graded on a different scale, all you will find is something along the lines of, “Walnut is graded differently from other woods to make better use of this valuable resource.” This sounds like a quote from someone towing the company line and giving a politically correct answer, and it does nothing to explain why the grade is so different.
The only tidbit you will find that sounds like a real reason for the lower grade of walnut is that it is difficult to get good quality wood out of the walnut log supply. Most of the wording would make you believe that walnut trees don’t grow tall and straight and don’t get to a decent diameter, so there just isn’t anything good to pick from. This is partly true. There isn’t a lot of good quality logs to choose from, but it has almost nothing to do with the way walnuts grow – walnuts grow just as tall and straight and big as many reputable hardwoods. The real, full and complete truth is that, yes, the log supply doesn’t have many high quality logs, but it is because the high-quality logs never make it to the sawmill, it’s not that they don’t exist. I know that I find good-looking walnut logs all of the time, and I don’t have any special powers to find good logs.
So, where are the good logs if they aren’t at the sawmill? They are sold to make veneer, which requires the best logs, and they are shipped overseas where walnut is viewed as even more valuable because it is a fancy import. And, since the demand for walnut is so high, even the “not the best, best” walnut logs are being shipped out and sliced into veneer. Species other than walnut are being sliced into veneer as well, but not in the same ratio when compared to the number of available trees. Walnut accounts for less than 1% of our forest, so there just aren’t as many logs to choose from and since almost every decent walnut log ends up anywhere but the sawmill, the odds of a good board ending up in the hands of a domestic customer are not good.
The situation is very obvious if you visit a higher production sawmill with a big supply of logs, where you will probably find three sorting categories for logs entering the yard. The largest pile of logs will be smaller diameter (14″ and less) and low-grade. The second biggest pile will be larger diameter logs (over 14″), but they will still be knotty and/or crooked. The last pile will be hidden in the back, away from the hustle and bustle of the sawmill where the best logs wait for the veneer buyer. These logs don’t have a chance of being cut into lumber because the sawmill can make just as much or more money selling the logs for veneer instead of wasting their time cutting, drying and selling them for lumber. If the sawmill can purchase a walnut log at $2 per board foot delivered to them and sell it for $3-$4 or more per board foot just for loading it on the veneer buyers truck, it makes no sense to touch it more than once.
So, the problem with walnut comes down to simple economics, supply and demand, that sort of thing. But why are the grades different? Obviously, “to make better use of this valuable resource,” meaning so sawmills can cut the lower grade logs that are available at a reasonable price and still sell them at a higher price. Walnut is that much in demand.
I did some research on walnut grading rules by contacting the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), which is responsible for implementing the current rules, thinking that the rules must have started out the same as other species (called standard grade) and then changed at some point based on the increasing demand for walnut. I found no time when the rules made any sort of abrupt change, so it appears that even though walnut may drift in and out of style, it has always been in demand and in relative short supply. Working with the chief lumber inspector, we went back to the 1920’s and even then walnut had special exceptions to make it easier to achieve a higher grade.
The differences in the grading rules for walnut may not sound so aggressive at first, but when you see them applied in real life, it is easy to see how lower-grade walnut can slide through in the higher-grade categories. Hardwood lumber is graded by the percentage of clear area in each board, with higher grades having fewer defects and more clear wood. The assumption is that the lumber is going to be cut down to make a finished product, so it can contain a specified number and minimum size of imaginary pieces (cuttings) that can be cut out of a single board. The main differences between other hardwoods and walnut is in the additional number of cuttings allowed per board and the smaller size of the cuttings in each grade, meaning that you are allowed to cut a walnut board into more and smaller pieces to remove defects. The percentage yield of clear wood needs to be the same as other species in each grade, but the pieces can be much smaller. A great example is in the FAS (First and Seconds) grade of lumber, which is the highest grade in hardwoods. FAS lumber in walnut can have three cuttings instead of just the two in other hardwoods, and it can have shorter cuttings in lumber 8′ and longer, so the best walnut usually has a knot right in the middle of the board, where other species often won’t. That is great if you only need shorter pieces, but a real pain when you need 8′ of clear stock. You would be amazed how much FAS walnut you will have to go through to get a good amount of wide, clear and long stock, if you find it at all.
Another painful part of using commercially processed walnut is sapwood. Sapwood is the white wood on the outside of all logs, and it is a part of living life in the world of hardwoods, but since walnut heartwood is dark brown and contrasts so much, it is considered a defect (at least by the grading rules) and should be removed. Larger operations get around the sapwood issue by steaming their lumber to darken the sapwood. This is a separate operation, performed after the lumber is milled and before it is dried, that has moved walnut sapwood out of the defect category. In researching the NHLA grade books, walnut sapwood was not considered a defect, as long as it was steamed, as early as 1920.
Walnut with steamed sapwood may grade higher and look homogenous in a rough board, where it is difficult to discern sapwood from heartwood, but once the lumber is planed, the sapwood is often clearly visible, even though it has been darkened. This wouldn’t be the worst thing if it just kept a high-grade board with a touch of sapwood from being rejected, but it has allowed sawmills, while still meeting grade, to cut walnut lumber that may have up to a 100% sapwood face. No amount of steaming is going to make an all-sapwood walnut board look like anything more than an imitation of the original, and one that needs to be stained (with a walnut stain, crazy enough) to have a chance of looking acceptable.
Along with allowing the sapwood to be 100% useable introduces our good friend “Wane”. Wane isn’t a person, it is the area on the outside of a piece of lumber that is permissible to be non-existent and not reduce the footage of a board. It’s our favorite spot on the end of a 7″ wide board that only measures 5″ wide, when we really need that 7″. It comes into play now because lumber is being cut to the outer edge of the log since steamed sapwood is allowable. Sapwood and wane is allowable in other species as well, but in walnut it is just another obstacle in the way of producing a board that looks like it has no defects. A piece of walnut lumber can, and often will, have sapwood (as long as it is steamed), knots and wane and still make a high-grade.
To be clear on the sapwood issue, I am not against sapwood overall. I think the contrast between the sapwood and heartwood can be very pleasing. But some jobs require all dark heartwood or the customer would prefer all dark heartwood, and it is almost impossible to get it, even if you tried to specify it. Plus, while darkening the sapwood, steaming reduces the depth of the color in the heartwood, turning the entire board into a brown gray color instead of the deep-rich brown it is without steaming. Allowing steamed sapwood to not be a defect, just like the other special walnut grading rules is done, as they say, “to make better use of this valuable resource,” or maybe, just to sell more walnut.
I would argue that while there are written rules that clearly explain the different grades of walnut, it is unnecessary and extremely painful to have them different from other hardwoods. It is so painful, in fact, that both of my wholesalers told me that it wouldn’t break their hearts if they never sold another stick of walnut again, especially since they spend so much time listening to unhappy customers and dealing with a constant stream of returns. The point of having a grading system is so that everyone has a consistent and clear understanding of the products they are purchasing, and having such a great variation for one species does nothing but muddy the waters.
Again, it all comes back to economics. Sawmills can now pay a reasonable, if not low price (relatively speaking) for lower grades of walnut logs and sell the lumber as fast as they can cut it for a good margin. If sawmills had to move to cutting the high-grade logs to produce more truly high-grade lumber, the price of walnut, which is already high, would increase even more, probably to a point that it couldn’t be sold, at least that is what the custodians of the walnut lumber market would fear.
I personally think that the market would then just reflect what the real situation is. Just like gold, which is rare and very expensive, walnut lumber would go up in price commensurate with the demand because it wouldn’t be so easy to produce high-grade walnut. It already isn’t easy to produce high-grade walnut, it is just easier to sell it as high-grade walnut. The highest grade walnut might end up selling for twice the price it does now, but at least those paying for high-grade might actually get it.
There have been attempts to move walnut to standard grade, but they have fallen short with the walnut industry members voting to keep special rules for walnut in effect. The way the system is now keeps large walnut producers running their operations like they always have, which seems to be working, so there is little reason to change it. And, after some of my discussions with industry insiders, I found even one more reason walnut producers may want to stick to the status quo, and that is proprietary grades of walnut, meaning that producers can now sell “premium” or “super-premium” or whatever they want to call it walnut.
Since the highest grades of walnut are not that high, mills that specialize in walnut can now sell the clearest and straightest-grained walnut lumber for a premium (well beyond listed top prices) because no official grade exists for this product. They can ask higher prices and get it, as long as they deliver a product that they have the luxury of defining. It is a big win for the sawmill, but another loss for those on the other end just trying to purchase a good walnut board, because now a board that may have been beautiful and straight and perfect has even less of a chance to end up in a bundle of “high-grade” walnut. It just helps guarantee that your next FAS board won’t be clear and it will have a knot or three, probably right in the middle. Well, if nothing else, at least we are making better use of this valuable resource.
To be clear, I am not blaming any of my sawmilling friends for the current walnut situation. They are simply following the approved standards for the industry. I do, however, think walnut should be graded following the standard hardwood rules and without all of the exceptions. It reminds me a lot of playing a game with a first-grader that keeps changing the rules when they are not in their favor, and I just don’t want to play on that playground.
One of the first things I needed to figure out when I started cutting rough lumber on a sawmill was what thickness to make it. I could generally determine if I wanted it to be thick or thin, but just how thick or thin? 4/4 lumber is 1″ thick, so it should be rough cut at 1″ thick, right? Not exactly. For hardwoods, the commercial target for 4/4 lumber is actually 1-1/8″, which allows enough margin to produce dried and planed lumber at a thickness of 13/16″ or 3/4″ (3/4″ is acceptable, but the extra 1/16″ of thickness in 13/16″ material allows room for additional planing or sanding after panels or doors are glued up).
The crazy thing is that back then I couldn’t find solid information on lumber thicknesses anywhere and when I referred to the NHLA (National Hardwood Lumber Association) guide, the thicknesses didn’t match up with what I was finding from hardwood producers. The NHLA guide doesn’t include the bonus 1/8″ of thickness – 4/4 lumber, for example, is specified at a minimum of 1″.
In my experience, 4/4 hardwood lumber cut at 1″ is too thin to consistently produce flattened and planed lumber at 13/16″ thick and will even have trouble producing 3/4″ thick unless the boards are very flat. The only way 1″ thick rough-cut hardwood lumber can plane out completely to 13/16″ or 3/4″ thick is to skip the flattening and just plane the lumber. This will produce thicker finished lumber, but it won’t be flat and straight since the planer will simply follow the curves of any crooked boards. From a woodworkers perspective this is a horrible practice and makes woodworking much more difficult. For this reason, I cut my 4/4 hardwood lumber like all other quality producers at 1-1/8″ thick and don’t accept anything from other sawmills or wholesalers at 1″ thick.
Starting with the lumber measurement and adding 1/8″ for the final thickness is how all of the hardwood measurements go, with a target for 4/4 lumber at 1-1/8″, 5/4 lumber at 1-3/8″, 6/4 at 1-5/8″ and 8/4 at 2-1/8″. These are the commercially accepted numbers, and except for 8/4 lumber the ones that I shoot for. The problem with 8/4 lumber is that since there is more wood it shrinks more than thinner lumber and 2-1/8″ thick just isn’t enough thickness to flatten and plane lumber to consistently finish at 1-3/4″, which is the target for 8/4 lumber. When I flatten and plane batches of 8/4 lumber milled at 2-1/8″ thick it isn’t uncommon for half of the lumber to finish at 1-5/8″ thick instead of 1-3/4″.
Because I think 2-1/8″ is a little thin, I commonly cut 8/4 lumber at 2-3/8″ thick. 2-3/8″ thick is twice that of 4/4 lumber, plus the 1/8″ saw kerf that would have been between the two imaginary cuts. The extra thickness not only impresses the ladies, but it assures a final dried and planed thickness of at least 1-3/4″ and officially uses no extra wood when compared to cutting 4/4 lumber (to keep things simple, a friend of mine simply calls it “double four quarter” lumber). As I mentioned though, 8/4 is commercially sawn at 2-1/8″ thick, so if you cut it at that measurement it isn’t wrong, 2-3/8″ is just better for the end user (none of my customers have ever been upset that the wood is a little thicker).
The previous examples were for hardwoods, but softwoods, like white pine, can be cut thinner since they shrink less and dry straighter overall, plus softwoods are commonly used for construction purposes instead of furniture, which don’t need the extra thickness for secondary planing or sanding, so 3/4″ final thickness is common for 4/4 softwood lumber. For 4/4 white pine for example, I cut 1″ thick, which will finish at 3/4″. And, for cedar, which shrinks very little and is very straight and stable, I will go even thinner, down to 7/8″. In general though, softwoods are cut on the standard quarter scale with 4/4 lumber measuring 1″.
The scale below shows the target hardwood lumber thicknesses for commercially produced, rough-cut lumber and their planed thickness counterparts. These are the sizes you should expect to find when shopping for hardwoods.
Hardwood Lumber Measurements
Quarter-scale measurement Rough cut thickness Planed thickness
4/4 1-1/8″ 13/16″
5/4 1-3/8″ 1-1/16″
6/4 1-5/8″ 1-1/4″
8/4 2-1/8″ (or 2-3/8″*) 1-3/4″
*2-3/8″ is a better thickness to consistently finish at 1-3/4″ thick, but 2-1/8″ is the norm.