I have been on a sycamore kick lately, and this sycamore slice keeps my streak going. There are three stacks of these rough sawn slices for sale in my shop, and though I have sold a few, this is the first one to officially get finished and installed.
The slice is 3″ thick and is a cross cut of a 48″ diameter hollow sycamore log that had the added benefit of having a long open wound that didn’t quite seal up. In the tree’s attempt to close the wound the new wood took on a curl shape on both ends that make the slice look more like an artistic expression than just a hollow log.
Since the tree was standing dead all of the sapwood is consistently spalted and marbled in appearance. There is some solid heartwood in the piece which isn’t spalted, but has a beautiful rust color.
I was planning on ditching this tree since it was hollow and didn’t seem to have any millable lumber in it, but when I saw the curl shape on the inside of the log I did a u-turn on my way to the dump. Solid logs with complete centers that are sliced like this tend to crack and fall apart because of the drying stresses in the log, but in this case all of the drying stresses were relieved since the center was gone. When the outside wood wanted to shrink it wasn’t restricted by wood on the inside and could freely reduce in diameter without any problems.
I installed the slice on the wall with two lag screws, just like a mantel. I drilled matching holes on the back of the wood and just slid it on the wall (with the help of my customer). This system works great since it allows the piece to get flush to the wall and enables it to be removed without tools should the need arise.
Overall, I am ecstatic to have one of these completed and out the door. Next up is to finish at least one extra to keep in the shop to show off. You wouldn’t believe how much faster they sell with a finished sample around to seal the deal.
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.
Recently, I was in need of some empty wine crates to fill in the bottom shelves of a wine cellar that I was building for Silver Oaks Chateau, a wedding venue just outside of Wildwood, MO. I picked up the wine crates for $5 each, which seemed fair, but only a couple of them had complete lids. The rest were destroyed when the cases were opened by the employees at the wine store.
My plan was to install the empty wine cases so they looked as though they were full and unopened, so the lids had to be rebuilt. All of the boxes are made from pine, and mostly Eastern white pine. I am guessing that a couple from France are some more exotic form of pine found only in Europe, but they looked a lot like Eastern white pine.
I worked through the stack of twelve cases and found three that had serviceable lids, which just need to be nailed on again. The others were broken or nonexistent, so I headed over to my rack of pine and grabbed a few boards to resaw and plane to 1/4″ thick. On my way to the table saw I thought to myself, “It sure is nice to have a bunch of pine just waiting around to be used like this.”
And, it wasn’t by accident.
I have white pine in the shop because I like it. I especially liked it because I had it when I needed it, but I like it well beyond that. White pine is easy to work with, lightweight, dries quickly and stays straight, it is easy to nail and screw, it is easy to plane and distress, and the trees can get big with beautiful straight logs. Plus, the wood smells great and leaves my shop smelling fresh and clean. It isn’t so great at resisting dents or Mother Nature, but those usually aren’t deal breakers for me.
White pine is usually poo-pooed by everyone and treated as a lesser wood. Maybe it’s because it is sold at Home Depot and it doesn’t cost too much, or maybe it’s because pine is thought of as a framing lumber. Either way, it seems like everyone thinks that nice woodworking isn’t done with pine. But, I say don’t blow pine off just yet.
Think about the things that pine is good for and focus on them. It is great for projects with big and long pieces since it is light, dries quickly and the logs can be big (the 16′ long tables for Urban Chestnut in the photos above are a great example). Pine is the perfect choice for anything with a rustic feel because it can easily be worked with hand tools, distressed with minimal effort and is naturally rustic in feel from the characteristic knot patterns. But, white pine isn’t always knotty. The big logs can produce completely clear lumber for projects with a more modern look, and even smaller logs can produce clear lumber between the knots, which can be used for smaller projects. White pine is also fantastic for woodwork that needs to stay straight, like interior doors, because of the trees normally straight up growth pattern which produces consistently stable lumber. I have built many doors with white pine, and I love knowing that the doors will stay very straight. Just think about all of the places that you could use pine and haven’t given it a chance.
Lastly, think of the joy of working with pine. Everything, except sanding, is easier with white pine – focus on that. Pull that handsaw off the wall and make a few cuts, just for the fun of it. Grab a hand plane and make long curls of shavings. Leave those shavings on the floor and feel how soft and fluffy it is, and enjoy the smell. Pick up a board and feel how the lumber is so lightweight and a joy to carry. Heck, grab a stack of boards and carry those around for a bit, and be thankful they aren’t oak. Imagine your shop is much older than it is, maybe with a water wheel powering the entire operation, and be proud to use a wood that has been making its way into furniture for hundreds of years.
Stop finding reasons to not use pine, and you will start to fall in love with it before you know it. All you need to do is spend some quality time with the white pine and keep an open mind.
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.
I often get asked, “What can I put on wood that will protect it outside?” My follow-up question is, “Do you want a finish that builds up to a film or just something that soaks in, like an oil?” If the answer is a film finish, I recommend Cetol Door & Window, from the Sikkens Proluxe line of wood finishes. It holds up better than any other outdoor finish that I have used, and every painter that I know and trust uses it too. I have found Cetol to last almost twice as long as the next class of film finishes.
In my teenage years, I tried regular ol’ Minwax polyurethane on the wood bed of my restored ’63 Chevy pickup truck, and I couldn’t believe how fast it started to peel. One St. Louis summer of constant heat and sun made it look like it had a bad sunburn with lots of dead skin.
After that, I moved on to other products like spar urethanes (Minwax also makes one of those, called Helmsman’s). Yes, it lasted longer, but not LONG. It started to look bad after a little more than a year. It didn’t totally fail all at once, but enough areas were falling apart that it didn’t really matter – it just looked bad.
In defense of these two products, the bed of a pickup truck is a tough environment. It gets direct sun, extra heat with no breeze, and the surface is horizontal, so water has a much better chance of nosing its way under the finish. It really gets no more demanding than this for a wood finish.
With yearly maintenance, the spar urethane could be kept looking reasonably good, but eventually the maintenance gave way to submission and the weather won. The boards still looked alright (nothing rotted through), but there were always spots where the finish failed and the beautiful clear-coated lumber had cracked finish and gray spots of raw wood.
It wasn’t until much later that I was introduced to the Sikkens brand name from a friend in the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild. He had great things to say about their products, and then I started noticing them being used by different painters on different jobs around town – and consistently. Nobody was using anything else, at least not anyone that I trusted, so I started using them.
Originally, Cetol only came in various forms with added stain. Some of the colors were pretty light, but none were clear. I believe the color is added to help with UV protection, but it does nothing to help color matching or achieving a clear finish. Now, with the name change to Proluxe, a colorless version is available, and it is the one that I use.
The can says that Cetol should be applied with a brush and not rolled or sprayed. I haven’t rolled it, but I have brushed and sprayed it, and both worked fine. Spraying is more difficult, and probably not recommended by the company, because the Cetol has a long working time and tends to sag if applied too liberally. That same working time is great for brushing and allows large areas to be worked and reworked to blend brush strokes. If you do try to spray it, start with a light application and allow it to settle for a second so you can get a feel for how it is going to sit down. Keeping a wet edge isn’t critical because it doesn’t even start to get tacky for a long time and the following passes will easily blend together. If you do spray the Cetol be vigilant about finding areas that start to sag or run and simply blend them in with a brush.
Cetol, like many other finishes, takes three coats to build a good protective barrier. A fourth coat will add a bit of extra protection, but isn’t required. I would opt to skip the fourth coat on the initial application and put that energy to a maintenance coat later down the road.
Regular maintenance is critical to keep the finish from failing. Keep an eye out for areas that start to crack and get another coat on as soon as they appear. If you wait too long it will be necessary to completely strip the finish and start over.
Cetol should last for several years without maintenance on vertical surfaces and even more if they are protected from the sun. Horizontal surfaces in the sun will probably last a maximum of two years before they require attention. Both of these time-span numbers are not great, but they are at least twice as long as the spar urethanes. If you jump around the internet and read about other choices or recommendations from other woodworkers, you won’t find anything that lasts longer.
Unfortunately, three years is really the maximum for an outdoor clear finish with sun exposure. Of course, if you know of a finish that lasts longer please let all of us know about it. But, do watch out because the world will beat a path to your (long-lasting, clear-coated wood) door.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.