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American Elm Slab Really Takes a Shine

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.

American elm rough slab

American elm slab edge

American elm trimming

American elm finished

American elm finished detail

How to Install a Wood Fireplace Mantel (Mantle)

The call usually goes like this. A potential new customer calls and says, “I am looking for a mantel. The stone guys are coming tomorrow, and I need something today so they can put it in. Can you cut me a mantel?”

The answer, of course, is yes. However, I spend a little time calming them down and explaining that they are going to mount the mantel after the stone work is done, how it will come out beautifully and how not having a mantel right now won’t slow anything down.

Most people expect that the wood is going to be embedded in the stone, which is the reason for all of the last-minute, frantic calls, but I argue that the wood should not be surrounded by stone, mostly because of wood movement and not because of the fact that they don’t have any wood to surround with stone.

This mantel was milled from a piece of driftwood and the fresh cuts were stained to match the gray exterior.

Install solid wood mantels in front of the stone. Don’t leave a void or do anything different to the stone. 

All wood, dry or wet, moves with seasonal changes and the stone does not. This means cracks will develop around the mantel over time. They will be small, perhaps unnoticeable, around dry wood, but if the wood is newly sawn and installed wet, the cracks will be unsightly after the wood has dried and shrunk. The other possibility is that green wood could bow, twist, or warp in some fashion and blow things apart. If a 8″ x 11″ x 8′ long piece of white oak decides to move aggressively, there may be little that can stop it and the results could be catastrophic. It is definitely possible that any stone or brick veneer could be popped from the wall when the wood starts moving.

So, I say, don’t fight it. Don’t try to put the stone around the wood. Let the stone guys do their thing, step back, take a deep breath and then find a cool piece of wood to install in front of the stone.

The method I recommend works for installing any solid wood mantel above any fireplace, from drywall to stone and anywhere in between, and the process is quite simple.

Besides your tools and the actual piece of wood for the mantel (purchased, of course, from WunderWoods) you will only need 5-minute epoxy and two steel stakes. I get the steel stakes at Home Depot in the concrete supply aisle. They are 5/8″ thick steel stakes used for concrete forms and they are very sturdy. Do not use rebar because it is too flexible.

You might be thinking that just two steel rods aren’t enough and be inclined to use more, but don’t, unless it is absolutely necessary. Two 5/8″ thick stakes can easily hold 200 pounds (which I usually verify with a modified one-handed pinky pull up in which my knees stay on the ground), and I have found that even with more than two stakes, the heavy lifting is usually done with just two, while the others are just along for the ride. And, since the extra stakes just make for more drilling and more chances for things to not line up, I say don’t use them. If you feel that you need to beef things up, just get bigger steel rods.

The basic premise of this method is that you are installing two shelf brackets in the form of steel rods that will support the mantel which will have two holes drilled in the back to accept the rods, all of which will be hidden.

Start by determining the mantel location and then finding suitable places to install the rods. The rods need to be mounted solidly, either through the wood framing or through the stone, or both if possible, and close to each end of the mantel. Usually the exact locations are determined by the stone or framing layout.

Drill the holes in the fireplace surround with a 5/8″ masonry bit and a hammer drill in stone or brick, or a 11/16″ bit and a regular drill in wood. The 5/8″ bit in stone will usually leave a hole with enough room for level adjustment because the hammer drill makes a roomier entrance. Since wood drills easily and with a cleaner hole, the 11/16″ bit is required to allow for level adjustments.

Drilling holes for mantel rods

Drill a hole in the fireplace surround for the metal stakes.

Next, you will need to drill 1″ diameter holes as deep as possible in the back of the mantel that line up with the rods (be careful not to drill all of the way through). I usually just measure for the locations, but if you are worried about messing things up, you can make a drilling template to use on the wall and the back of the mantel. This still doesn’t eliminate screw-ups (nothing does) because it is easy to flip the template when you should have flopped it. Be sure to mark your template with top, bottom, left and right sides, and don’t forget to mark the side that faces the mantel and the one that faces the wall.

Drilling mantel for rods

Drill 1″ holes in the back of the mantel. Use a square to keep the drill bit lined up.

Next insert a steel stake into each hole and secure it with 5-minute epoxy. Be sure to fill in the front and back for full support. While the epoxy is setting check the rods for level and adjust as necessary. I often add some small wedges to help hold things level while the epoxy is setting up. After the epoxy is set up, trim the rods to the final length which is determined by the depth of the holes in the back of the mantel.

Fill the hole and cover the steel stake with epoxy to make sure it is fully supported.

Fill the hole and cover the steel stake with epoxy to make sure it is fully supported.

Site across both stakes to make sure they are parallel with each other.

Site across both stakes to make sure they are parallel with each other.

In a perfect world you would slide on the mantel and be done at this point, but it is rarely the case – often you will need to make some small adjustments to compensate for drilling by hand. If the mantel doesn’t sit level it can be adjusted by adding wraps of tape to the metal stakes, either near the front or back, depending on which needs to be raised.

Use wraps of tape to make level adjustments to steel stakes.

Use wraps of tape to make level adjustments to steel stakes.

Once you have the mantel sitting level you are done. Don’t worry about gluing it on – it isn’t necessary and will only make the mantel more difficult to remove if you need to work on it in the future.

The finished product.

The finished product.

 

Hollow Sycamore Logs Get Sliced Up

Recently, I set up three large hollow spalted sycamore logs to cut in the Lucas mill. They are all in the 48″ diameter range and most were cut 3″ thick. I see future tabletops (with glass) and wall decorations. Out of all the logs I had on the lot, these were drawing the most attention, so they got cut first.

Sycamore slice #27 (48%22 x 53%22 x 3%22) $400

A couple of them had a very cool curl shape where the tree tried to heal.

Hollow sycamore slicing WunderWoods

I set up all three in a row for faster cutting.

 

From this close-up you can see why I like spalted sycamore.

From this close-up you can see why I like spalted sycamore.

I had to put myself in the photo (sorry), so you could get an idea of the size of the pieces.

I had to put myself in the photo (sorry), so you could get an idea of the size of the pieces.

 

Is It Red Oak or White Oak?

Since I started milling lumber, determining the difference between red oak and white oak has been a challenge. I’ve got a good handle on it now, but there are plenty of times (at least once a week) when a customer has a piece of wood that they want to identify. It is usually some old barn lumber and usually some sort of oak.

I have had a lot of practice trying to figure out what kind of oak I am dealing with since many of the logs I cut are salvaged. Often they are old, without leaves or even bark, and a challenge to identify. Even just raw, newly planed oak lumber can sometimes be tricky. The secrets lie within the structure of the wood itself.

What about color? Color can help, but it can also be misleading. While white oak is less red in color, red oak can range from very red/pink to the exact same color as white oak. I use color as an indicator only if the board is very red, which most likely makes it red oak. Anything in the tan range needs to be investigated further. Note that newly cut white oak lumber turns a bright pink when exposed to the air and then goes back to tan after drying (read more about that by clicking here).

How about the grain? The grain or texture of oaks is very similar. Even when finished, both just look like oak. There are subtle differences, but if you only have one oak in front of you and you aren’t sure what it is, it still just looks like oak. White oak is, on average, a finer texture, with tighter growth rings and a more refined appearance, but there are plenty of red oaks out there with tight growth rings that look similar. Red oak as a family has several members that are fast growing like shingle oaks, willow oaks, laurel oaks and pin oaks, while all white oaks are usually slower growing. If you find an oak board with wide growth rings and a coarse appearance there is a good chance it is a red oak.

Isn’t white oak water tight? Now, we are on to something. White oak, as compared to red oak, is water tight and is used to make wine and whiskey barrels. White oak can hold water because the “open” pores are filled with tyloses, which looks like foam – red oak is not. If you look closely at the pores on an oak board (and your vision is good) you will be able to see grain that either has open pores or pores that are filled with tyloses. On a very small level, especially with a magnifying glass, you can see the difference, and it is usually very clear.

 

The tyloses can be seen in the pores of the white oak sample on the left. Red oak, on the right, has open pores and no tyloses. The tyloses makes white oak water tight. Click on the photo to see a closer view.

The tyloses can be seen in the pores of the white oak sample on the left. Red oak, on the right, has open pores and no tyloses. Click on the photo to see a closer view.

How about the rays? Finally, we’ve got it. The big difference is in the rays. White oak has long, showy rays, which are especially visible in quarter sawn lumber and give quarter sawn white oak it’s one-of-a-kind appearance. However, the rays are also visible on flat sawn lumber, which is the main way that I discern between red and white oak. On the face of flatsawn red oak lumber the rays look like little short tick marks, usually no longer than 1/2″ long. The marks are very visible and strongly contrast with the surrounding wood. White oak has long rays, and on flat sawn lumber the rays look more like straw. The rays are so long that they blend together and are often hard to tell apart. There may be a few shorter ones here and there, but on average the rays are well over 1/2″ long.

Red oak can be discerned by the short tick marks on the face of flat sawn lumber. The tick marks are actually the ends of the rays which are visible on quarter sawn lumber.

Red oak can be discerned by the short tick marks on the face of flat sawn lumber. The tick marks are actually the ends of the rays which are visible on quarter sawn lumber.

The rays of white oak lumber are large and show up as long lines on the face of flat sawn lumber. They are much longer than the rays in red oak lumber and usually have less contrast. White oak looks more like straw.

The rays of white oak lumber are large and show up as long lines on the face of flat sawn lumber. They are much longer than the rays in red oak lumber and usually have less contrast. White oak looks more like straw.

The main reason it is necessary to discern between red and white oak, besides general appearance, is to determine its durability. White oak is water-tight and great to use both indoors and outdoors. Red oak is more like a sponge. It will tend to soak up water when it can and quickly rot. Red oak can be used outdoors in vertical applications, like barn siding, and last for quite a long time, but in horizontal applications, especially where the wood will dry out slowly or not at all, it wouldn’t be uncommon for red oak to decay in just a season or two. My unofficial testing of both species used in my own garden for tomato stakes showed a major difference between the two species with red oak rotting and breaking off at ground level in just one summer/fall season, while the white oak showed no symptoms.

The good news is that while it may be difficult at first to tell the difference between red and white oak, it isn’t impossible and actually pretty simple if you look in the right places. Remember you can check out the color, gawk at the grain and peek at the pores. And, if all that doesn’t work, you can always just rely on the rays.

 

 

 

 

A Walnut in the Walnut

We were sanding some walnut lumber the other day in the shop, and look what we found. It’s a walnut in the walnut. How nutty! It looks like the walnut shell fell into a crotch in the tree and the tree grew around it. I am so glad to run into a foreign object that doesn’t ruin the equipment.

I've never seen this before. Usually it's a big chunk of metal.

I’ve never seen this before. Usually it’s a big chunk of metal.

This photo was sent in by a WunderWoods follower. He was resawing lumber for the top of turkey calls and cut a walnut perfectly in half. It makes a nice turkey call and a great story.

This turkey call was made from walnut with a walnut.

This turkey call was made from walnut with a walnut.

 

New Found Love for Cypress

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.

A mixture of eastern white pine, spruce, and cypress are finally whitewashed and installed on part of my basement ceiling, minus the extra nutty cypress that I couldn't bring myself to paint.

A mixture of eastern white pine, spruce, and cypress are finally whitewashed and installed on part of my basement ceiling, minus the extra nutty cypress that I couldn’t bring myself to paint.

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.

The cypress on the bottom is not local, but it is what I expect cypress to look like if it is going to be used outdoors. I milled the cypress on top, and while it may not be great for outdoor use with all of its "character", it is way too cool to paint.

The cypress on the bottom is not local, but it is what I expect cypress to look like if it is going to be used outdoors. I milled the cypress on top, and while it may not be great for outdoor use with all of its “character”, it is way too cool to paint.

Another portion of the same lumber shows the difference between the two cypress boards.

Another portion of the same lumber shows the difference between the two cypress boards.

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!

Flatsawn Lumber Is Not So Flat: How To Fix Cupped Wood

Quartersawn lumber stays flat, but flatsawn lumber does not (ironic, I know). Flatsawn lumber cups during the drying process and it even cups after it’s dry if not cared for properly. Wide boards are especially fussy and panel glue-ups can be a giant pain in the tuchus.

I deal with cupped lumber all of the time, and I was reminded of this common problem when a friend of mine was trying to figure out why his wide panel glue-ups had cupped. Whenever I am asked about this, my first question is always, “How did you store your panels after they were assembled and surfaced?” The answer is usually that they laid the panels flat on a table. A quick bit of logic says that a flat panel on a flat table should stay flat, but that isn’t how it works, at least not with solid wood.

Solid wood needs to expand and contract evenly, on both sides, to stay flat. If the panels are placed flat on a table, they can breathe on one side but not on the other. The bottom side will remain as dry or wet as it started, but the top side will shrink or swell depending on the ambient humidity in the room. Usually, this  problem arises when lumber is moved from a non climate-controlled environment (like a garage or barn) into a dry, climate-controlled shop, so the top of the panels will shrink and the lumber will cup up and away from the table as it dries.

This glued up panel couldn't breathe on the bottom since it was flat on a table. The top dried out a touch after processing and the panel cupped.

This glued up panel couldn’t breathe on the bottom since it was flat on a table. The top dried out a touch after processing and the panel cupped.

 

In a perfect world, rough lumber would be stored for months in the exact same, hermetically sealed environment where the processing is going to happen, but since we don’t live in a bubble, that’s not really possible. Even if you store the lumber in your climate-controlled shop and build in your climate-controlled shop, the climate still changes – in small increments from day to day and more dramatically from season to season. And, since you know that these changes will make your wood expand or contract, it is even more imperative to store surfaced lumber and panels properly to make sure your flat work stays flat.

Again, storage is the key, and there are two approaches to keep things flat. The most common way is to store the wood so that it can breathe on all sides. This is done by keeping it stacked flat on sticks or by storing it upright at an angle, perhaps leaning against a wall. The other approach is to not let the wood breathe at all and keep it wrapped or covered in plastic. I commonly use both tactics, leaning panels against the wall for short-term storage, usually during a day of processing and then covering them with a sheet of plastic for longer storage. Note that dramatic changes in flatness can happen in just hours if the conditions are right (or wrong, in this case).

From fresh sawn lumber (in this photo) to finished product, storing wood on sticks is the best practice.

From fresh sawn lumber (in this photo) to finished product, storing wood on sticks is the best practice.

For short term storage (hours to days) standing wood upright is a great choice. Make sure air is able to get to all sides.

For short-term storage (hours to days) standing wood upright is a great choice. Make sure air is able to get to all sides.

Now, let’s say you didn’t follow this advice and your panels developed a cup in them. They were planed and sanded flat and ready to be put into the door frame before you left the shop, but when you returned the next morning they had a noticeable rock. Since everything was already to final thickness, what options do you have? There is no meat left to machine flat and the wood can’t really be bent back into shape… or can it?

No, it can’t really be bent back, but it can be coerced back by doing the reverse of what caused the cup in the first place. The key is understanding the cause of the problem.

First, you need to identify the wet side and the dry side. If you are looking at a cupped panel from the end and it is shaped like a rainbow with the legs down, then the bottom side is the drier side. It is drier, tighter and smaller, and the outside edges are pulling together. The top side is wetter, looser and bigger, and its outside edges are pushing apart. These two forces, one pushing and one pulling, are working together to make a cupped panel.

After you have identified the problem, the solution is to treat the panel to the opposite conditions. This can be done by drying the wet side or wetting the dry side, but since almost all problems in woodworking are from wood that is too wet (at least around here), you should choose to dry the wet side.

I recommend to use a hairdryer for convenience, but on nice sunny days you can put the sun to work for you too. Both work fine, but the sun can fix a lot of panels at a time, quickly and quietly. The sun works great because it focuses all of the drying energy on just one side, and it focuses it on the entire side, not on just one spot like a hairdryer. (Be aware that some woods, like cherry, change color quickly in the sun and may be a better choice for inside drying).

The process is simple. Put the dry side down on a flat surface, one that restricts air movement across the bottom of the wood. The wide board or panel will be sitting like a rainbow, with the two legs down and the center up. Then just proceed to dry the top side, either with the sun or a hair dryer. If you are not in a hurry, you can simply move the wood to a drier environment, like the inside of your house on a cold winter day and let it dry out on the top side overnight. Any way to dry the top side while the bottom remains as it is should do the trick.

Use a hair dryer (like in this photo) or put the panels out in the sun with  the wetter side of the wood up to reverse the cup.

Use a hair dryer (like in this photo) or put the panels out in the sun with the wetter side of the wood up to reverse the cup.

Keep an eye on the panels and check them regularly. With a hair dryer you will probably end up propping it up in a position to blow on the panel and check it every thirty minutes. In the sun, check the progress every hour. If you just move them to a drier environment, check them once or twice a day. Even with regular checks it is not uncommon to go too far and overcorrect. If you let the wood bake too long on one side and it starts to cup the other way, just flip it and dry the other side. Eventually, you will get a feel for how long it takes and end up with a flat panel, and now a drier panel (both good things).

Follow these guidelines for flat wood:

  1. Build with quartersawn lumber. Quartersawn wood doesn’t cup.
  2. Store lumber in the rough. If the lumber goes wonky you will still have extra thickness to machine flat.
  3. Store lumber and build in an environment similar to where the piece will end up.
  4. Quickly build with lumber after it is machined. Don’t give it a chance to move on you.
  5. If you can’t build immediately, store wide boards and panel glue-ups properly. Give them air on all sides or no air at all.
  6. Make sure assembled furniture stays flat by finishing both sides of solid wood panels the same. This is especially important on wide glue-ups like tabletops.

Remember, wood moves and changes size all of the time. It is your job as a woodworker to understand how these changes happen, how to prepare for them and how to control them. And, luckily, in the case of wide wood, you may even have the chance to correct them.

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