On a regular basis, probably at least once a week, someone contacts me looking to have a pin oak milled into lumber. They are excited because they finally got their hands on a truly giant specimen of a tree, and even though it is just a red oak, they are excited to get to work with a hardwood at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, I have to be the bearer of not-so-good news and try to get them to reconsider.
As I mentioned, pin oak is in the red oak family, but that is about the only relationship it has to any decent red oak lumber. Pin oak is not milled and sold commercially under the name red oak, and as far as I know, is only used for low-grade products like pallets and blocking, where the only requirement is that it be made of wood that will stay together. And funny enough, pin oak often falls short of even that low requirement.
The problem is that many pin oak trees suffer from ring shake, which is where the rings of the tree peel apart like an onion, making that section of lumber nearly unusable. The beauty of ring shake is that it can’t be seen from the outside of the log and it won’t always be visible even early in the milling process. Sometimes, it won’t be until the lumber has been fully processed and dried for it to start falling apart. Needless to say this is frustrating, especially if you are counting on that lumber for a project and then end up with no wood to work. Even if the ring shake isn’t bad enough to make the lumber actually break, it very often leaves at least one fancy break line somewhere in a board where you would rather not have it. Again, super frustrating.
So, let’s say you find a pin oak that is solid, with no ring shake, then it is all clear sailing, right? Far from it. You may have lumber, but you probably don’t have great lumber. One of the main attractions for pin oak is the giant size and the promise of a never-ending bunk of lumber comprised of super-wide boards. This, you may indeed have, but it comes at a cost. The cost is that all of the super-wide lumber will have super-wide growth rings, rings that may be up to 1/2″ or more in width. Because the tree grows so fast, putting on up to 1″ in diameter per year, the logs get big in a hurry too. It isn’t uncommon for a 36″ diameter log to have only started growing 45 years ago. It was planted because the trees grow to a large, stately appearance quickly, and that means big, wide growth rings.
Big growth rings mean a coarse textured wood, no matter how you cut it. Whether flatsawn or quartersawn, red oak is already known for its open, in-your-face, grain, and pin oak is ten times worse. Imagine an 8″ wide flat sawn board that may only show a couple of annual rings on the face. It looks more like the cheapest of spiral cut plywood for sheathing the side of your house, instead of quality hardwood lumber for building fine furniture. That same 8″ wide board, if quartersawn, will probably show about 20-25 rings, where a high quality white oak board will show 60-80 rings. The difference is night and day, with the higher growth ring count looking much more refined and not so clunky.
Even if the wood stayed together and for some reason the growth rings weren’t so wide, pin oak would still be far from a great hardwood. The lumber typically also sports bad color, bad smell (commonly referred to as “piss” oak by local tree guys), and many more knots than are outwardly apparent. Since the trees are usually open grown and well pruned, the always straight, always perfectly upright trunks appear to contain up to 30′-40′ of clear lumber. The truth is that the trunks typically contain only 8′ of clear lumber near the ground, with the remainder being full of knots from previously trimmed branches.
Overall, I have nothing good to say about pin oaks, except that they grow big, tall and straight. And, while it may be possible to mill pin oak lumber that meets some minimum requirements (like staying together), the best pin oak is still easily surpassed in quality by almost any other reputable wood. Just know, if you are thinking about paying someone to mill a pin oak tree for you, that I wouldn’t even mill a pin oak if it magically fell on my sawmill. I would take the extra time to get it out of the way, so I could mill something better. It’s just not worth it. Move on.
When customers visit my shop we usually start by talking about their wood needs. If it is someone’s first time to visit I also try to get to know them, what they are looking for and what they are expecting from me. Half of them are just looking for rough cut wood, while the others are looking for wood that is processed a little bit more, perhaps jointed or planed, or even sanded. During our time together I get to understand their needs and abilities, and our discussion usually turns to the tools they have in their shop.
I am often surprised at what tools woodworkers don’t use or own, especially when they are some of the few that I find essential. Sometimes it’s just the difference between hand tool and power tool guys, but sometimes it’s just from lack of experience or the fact that they haven’t given it too much thought. Most likely they just buy tools as they need them and never really considered what tools would give them the most bang for the buck.
Since this is a common conversation, I decided to compile the following list of what I think are the most useful power tools and should be the building blocks of any woodworking shop:
Table saw. Of all of the tools in the shop, the table saw is the most useful and versatile. It excels at making straight cuts, and with the addition of any of a million jigs, can be made to perform an amazing number of tasks with repeatability and precision. I use the table saw for roughing out smaller parts from larger pieces, all the way through trimming parts to final size. The only limit to the table saw is that the piece needs to be small enough to be pushed through it. Above a certain size, the table saw becomes less useful and even impossible to use as the saw needs to be brought to the piece, instead of the piece being brought to the saw.
The table saw is best suited for making rip cuts, which are cuts along the length of the board, but with a crosscutting jig, the table saw can do just as well on crosscuts, which are cuts across the board. I even use the table saw for resawing thick lumber into thinner boards. The bandsaw is usually the tool for resawing, but any lumber under 6″ wide can be resawn on a 10″ table saw by cutting from both sides of the board.
Besides just making through cuts, the table saw can also cut dados, rabbets and other grooves with just a few adjustments. And, with the addition of profiled cutters and a creative mind, the table saw can be used to make all kinds of mouldings, including large crown mouldings.
The table saw also works amazingly well as a table. Mine is big enough to not only hold stuff, but serve as an assembly table when necessary. The table of the table saw is set apart from other tables because it is commonly the only one open and available in the shop. I try to keep it clear enough to actually use, which means that at least part of the top is usually available and ready to be used as a table or maybe even a saw.
Thickness Planer. Running a rough board through the planer is always fun. Even after sending billions of board feet through a planer, it never gets old. The amazing thing is that beyond making the wood look good, the planer can size lumber in ways other tools can’t.
I have met a lot of customers that don’t have a planer. And, while it is possible to operate without one, I believe that once you own one, you will find it hard to believe that you ever ran a shop without it. For me, it is along the same line of thinking for spray guns, where I say, “Stop thinking about buying a spray gun.”
Even if you buy your lumber already planed, you will still encounter many circumstances that require the use of a planer. For example, you might want to build a simple and delicate jewelry box out of small scrap pieces lying around the shop, and you will end up making a small and clunky jewelry box because all of your lumber is 3/4″ thick, and that’s how it is going to stay. That is just the first example. Think about all of the other times that you will pick up a piece of lumber in the shop and it will be the wrong thickness, either just slightly wrong or in an entirely different size category. A planer is a real problem solver and can fix all of that.
If you work with rough lumber, a planer will be absolutely necessary, except for the most rustic of projects. Every piece of rough cut lumber ends up somewhat not straight, not flat and not consistent in thickness, either from variations during the sawing or from stresses which occur while the wood dries. The planer, combined with the jointer, is a one-two punch to remove these variations and produce straight, flat and consistently thick lumber. The reason the planer is ahead of the jointer on this list is that some lumber is straight enough and flat enough to plane without jointing if the job is a little less finicky, thereby skipping the jointer.
Jointer. I use my jointer a lot. When preparing rough lumber it sees as much action as the planer. As a matter of fact, almost every piece of lumber in my shop gets surfaced on the wide face to straighten things out before it even heads to the planer. Without the jointer, my life would just be a crooked, twisty mess of painful attempts to make things seem straight.
One of the misconceptions about planers is that they make lumber straight. They do some straightening, but they don’t make lumber straight. That is what jointers do. Many lumber mills just send rough lumber through the planer allowing the board to exit the machine with the same ups and downs and whoops that is entered with, only now to a consistent thickness. This is especially apparent when gluing up a couple of these roller coaster type of boards and trying to get them to line up. After a couple of those glue-ups, you will swear by lumber that has seen the jointer before the planer, and never skip the jointer.
Besides flattening lumber, the jointer also puts a straight edge on lumber for joining two boards together and for running through other machines. I also use the jointer for making small adjustments during the final fitting of parts like drawer fronts, where small changes can make a big difference.
With these three power tools (and a few hand tools), I feel like I could make about 80% of the jobs that come through my shop on a daily basis. Obviously, some jobs will require more specialized power tools to complete, but these three probably find their way into almost all of my work. With that said, there are a few other tools that I couldn’t imagine being without and I feel need to be added to the list.
Spray gun. Not every woodworking job gets a film finish, but most of mine do. And of those, every one will meet a spray gun. For a million reasons, including making finishing fast and fun, I recommend using a spray gun whenever possible. It will raise your game and make you n0t hate finishing. (Click here to read my thoughts on purchasing a spray gun).
Chop saw (compound miter saw). I do a mix of woodworking from furniture to built-ins and even finish carpentry, and I find myself regularly using the chop saw. Even if used for nothing more than roughly cutting a long board into two shorter ones to fit in a car, this tool earns its keep. It is especially useful (with the help of an outfeed table) on long pieces that are precarious to push through a table saw. But, since a table saw with a jig can perform many of the same functions, this tool doesn’t make it to the essential list. With that said, I expect to have a chop saw wherever I am working, whether it be in the shop or at an install. If this was a post about on-site woodworking and trim carpentry, the chop saw might be the #1 tool.
Impact driver. I am a giant fan of impact drivers. I have been using them for a while now and can’t really remember my life before them (Click here to read more about my introduction to impact drivers). This is the one tool that I always have with me, and I expect to be within easy reach. So much so, that I own three of them and could imagine myself with a couple more. Like the chop saw, if this was a list of on-site or installation tools, the impact driver would be near the top.
Tape measure. I know this isn’t a power tool, but it is the one tool that you should always have with you. It is a pet peeve of mine – if you are planning on building something, or you are actually building it, have a tape measure with you. If you are in the shop, on the job site, or even at Home Depot make sure you have a tape measure with you or at least one very handy (Home Depot probably isn’t the best example, since they have them widely available, but you get the point). Without a tape measure, not much beyond rough work can get done. (Click here to read about my favorite tape measure).
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.
Through the years I have dulled a lot of bandsaw blades on my sawmill, and for the longest time, I have struggled with keeping them sharp. I have tried multiple tools and methods to get this done, but only within the last year do I feel like I have found a good solution.
The problem starts with the bandsaw blade itself. It is a finicky conglomeration of bent teeth, cut from a thin piece of flexible steel that is somehow supposed to cut a straight line, not only from front to back, but also side to side, and if it isn’t well machined and sharp, there isn’t a snowball’s chance that this is going to happen.
Early in my career, when a new saw blade dulled and started to cut waves, I would try things like adding tension to the blade, slowing down my feed rate or even adjusting my blade guides. No matter what I tried, a dull blade would still make a wavy cut. However, if I used the exact same setup but installed a new blade, the cut would be perfect again. As a matter of fact, almost every other adjustment could be less than perfect and a sharp blade would still make a good cut. From 15 years of experience, it is clear that I need to keep my saw blade sharp and touch nothing else.
My standard course of action is to put on a new or newly sharpened blade from Wood-Mizer when my cut starts getting wavy. This is a great way to live. Nothing cuts like a brand new blade, and it feels like a treat to put one on. Even the resharpened blades cut great since they get a complete factory treatment, including cleaning and full tooth grinding and setting. I have always had great results from Wood-Mizer, and I highly recommend their new blades and resharpening service. (Disclaimer: I am not being paid by Wood-Mizer and Wood-Mizer doesn’t know I’m writing this post – they probably don’t even know I exist.)
The problem for me was that time in between cutting like new and cutting like crap. I would have a blade that was cutting great, but I could feel it pulling hard and on the verge of cutting poorly. I didn’t want to pull it off of the saw because it was running so well, but at the same time I knew my time was limited. If I could just get an edge back, I could keep cutting with the same blade and not have to mess with sending the blade off to be sharpened, and I would save $7 (by the way, I think $7 is a great price for the quality of service, but I would rather not spend it if I don’t have to). So, off I went, looking for a way to sharpen blades on my own.
In the past, I tried using a manual sharpener that came with my first bandsaw mill. It functioned like it was designed to, but the results weren’t great. Besides having to take the blade off of the mill and set it up in the sharpener, it used a stone that wore down quickly and wouldn’t maintain a flat, consistent face on the tooth (looking back, I probably should have tried some other stone options, but I didn’t).
Later, I tried a few other approaches. The first was using my chainsaw grinder, like the one below, which had a similar problem to the first grinder. The small stones would wear down quickly and the thin bandsaw blade would basically cut the stones in half.
The next attempt used a sanding disc on a drill. I liked the idea of using sandpaper because it maintained a flat surface during grinding – it would wear down, but not change shape. This one showed potential, but it was incredibly hard to control because the spinning motion pulled the drill up and away from the blade.
I finally gave up, feeling like I had exhausted every option cheaper than buying a fully automatic grinder like the factory has, but I never gave up on the idea of sandpaper as a good abrasive that doesn’t change shape.
Up to that point, all of my attempts focused on sharpening the saw by grinding the front of the tooth. There was nothing else I could think of that would fit between the teeth and grind the front of them. But, then I thought about grinding the top of the teeth. This surface is easier to get to and taking material off of the top will still lead to a sharp point – it doesn’t really matter which face gets ground down.
I started off with my 3″ Porter-Cable belt sander just to try things out and it worked great. I could sand the top edge of the tooth with control and the speed was slow enough to not feel like I was burning the metal (which softens the teeth). The only problem was the weight of the belt sander, which might as well have been 1,000 lbs. because there was no way I could hold it to sharpen all of the teeth on the blade.
At the time I didn’t own a small belt sander, so I took a gamble and purchased a Porter-Cable 371 compact belt sander. I figured that even if it didn’t work for the blade sharpening I would at least have another tool in my woodworking arsenal and that there were going to be plenty of times when a small belt sander would come in handy. Finding other uses for the new sander hasn’t been much of an issue though, because it works great to sharpen blades, and it is always parked (plugged in) right next to my saw, ready for the next dull one to come along.
I simply leave the blade on the saw and grind just enough off of the top of each tooth to get the edge back. I use my free hand to steady the blade and to advance the saw to the next tooth. In a matter of just a few minutes I can be back to cutting, feeling like I have beat the system.
Now, there are limits to sharpening your saw like this. First off, no matter how good you get with the sander, the blade will not be as good as a new one or one that has had a full factory grind and set because this grinding is changing the geometry of the already finicky blade. And, it will do nothing to improve a blade that was just generally running badly or running badly for a specific reason like hitting a rock or metal (all of these problem blades get sent out for a full resharpening). It will, however, make a blade that was running well continue to run well and make flat, straight cuts for much longer.
Generally, it seems to work out that I touch up a blade with the sander a time or two and then send it out for full service or, for some of them, they keep working great and I keep sharpening them with the sander until they break. For all of the others, I hit something along the way (dirt, rocks, concrete, nails, hooks, cable, wire, screw-eyes, barbed wire, fence posts, screws, license plates, horseshoes, railroad spikes, chain, conduit, hangers) that either destroys the blade or dulls it enough that it needs a full regrind.
Even if I don’t use this method all of the time, it is nice to have another option to get back to cutting. If nothing else, I personally love the comfort of knowing that when I get down to my last new blade (and forgot for the second week in a row to order new ones) that I won’t be stuck cutting wavy lumber.
I just had a chance to talk about WunderWoods at the monthly meeting of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild as a featured speaker. It was billed as “The WunderWoods Way”, where I was going to talk about what I do related to milling and drying lumber and whatever else I wanted to talk about. I talked a lot about the milling part, showed a bunch of photos of big logs and finished woodworking projects, and realized when I was done that I had really covered the history of WunderWoods sawmilling. One of my favorite things to read on other websites is a history of the company, and though I don’t really feel old enough to have a “history” page, I decided to put one together for the other two people out there that like to read about history. I have been doing this for a while now, have been through a few sawmills and I thought, if nothing else, that others traveling down a similar path might find my history helpful or even a bit entertaining.
One of the questions I get from almost every new visitor to the shop is, “How did you get into this?” They go on to ask, “Is it a family business? Did your dad own a sawmill or work at a sawmill?” The answer is no, it is not a family business and my dad has never worked at a sawmill. The closest I can come up with is that my Grandpa Wunder, who died when I was pretty young and probably didn’t influence my life direction much, worked in Springfield, OH for several different companies in the lumber and woodworking field.
The inspiration I did get from my family came from my dad and his willingness to work on and fix anything mechanical and from my mom’s dad, Grandpa Moore, that also liked to build and work on things. Overall, I grew up breaking things, fixing them and breaking them again. The best example I can think of, is when I turned sixteen and my mom found an old truck for me to restore. After it was towed to the house, my dad asked, “Do you want to start working on it?” Of course, I enthusiastically said, “Yes!” Then he said, “Well, go ahead and take out every bolt, so we can work on it.” That through me for a loop. After all, it was a machine with a lot of parts and not something that you just completely tear apart. How would we know how it all went back together? In all fairness to the story, my dad worked a lot on cars and had even owned a garage before, so we had a better chance than others of getting it back together, but it was still shocking. It was, however, not as dramatic as I thought because after only a little bit of time working on it, I realized that most of the rusted bolts weren’t going to come out anyway. I would have plenty of time to get to know the truck as I struggled to get at least one bolt out without breaking it. Still, that one conversation stands out in my mind and replays in my head every time I am about to work on something, and it reassures me that it probably won’t be as scary as it first sounds and that there is a good chance that I will get it back together without too many extra bolts. That hands on approach to working on the truck has carried over to almost everything I do and is what keeps me at it on a regular basis.
The answer to, “How did you get into this?” is also a bit murky, but I very vividly remember what I call the beginning of my sawing career. I was reading a woodworking magazine (I think it was Fine Woodworking, even though I haven’t been able to find the original), and I came across an article about a father and son that traveled into the woods with a big chainsaw and cut big slabs to make table tops. At the time big slabs weren’t in style as much as they are today, but I remember being surprised that you could cut your own lumber. If you asked me, I could tell you that lumber came from trees, but I still associated lumber with the lumberyard, not trees. This is where things changed.
I fancied myself as an artist, winning outstanding artist in high school, getting a degree in graphic design and working as an art director for a nine-year stint, near the end of which I read that chainsawing article. Even though I liked to do woodworking when I wasn’t at my real job, I didn’t build much because lumber was expensive. I was buying expensive lumber from the big box store because I didn’t know at the time that there where stores specifically selling hardwoods (I had a lot to learn).
Not long after I read the chainsawing article, my boss at the ad agency offered me a raise. I didn’t take it because I always pictured myself having my own business, and though I liked my job, I didn’t want to make so much money that Chris (my wife) wouldn’t let me quit. He still wanted and tried to give me a raise, so I came up with a great plan. Instead of a raise, he could buy me a chainsaw. He, or any other boss, has never had such an odd request, and he gave me a slight look of bewilderment as he told me he would try to figure out how to make that happen. Well, he made it happen and my milling career started.
I purchased an Alaskan sawmill, which is an attachment that bolts on to the bar of the chainsaw. It basically works like a cheese slicer and controls how deep the chainsaw cut is from the previous cut. The Alaskan works fine and produces flat and straight lumber. However, the drawbacks are that it is physically demanding and very slow. It was so slow that I would plan on milling just one 20” diameter log per day, including travel and cleanup. If things went well I might be able to cut more, but I never planned on it.
At that point I didn’t really have any source for logs, and I would find them one at a time from homeowners. Still, I found logs on a regular basis and quickly got to the point that I was finding them faster than I could mill them. While I was using the chainsaw mill, I also started drying lumber, first outside and then moving it inside to finish up the process. I was worried that the drying would cause problems since I didn’t know what I was doing, but the lumber that I milled came out great and went into all of the projects that I built from then on.
I began milling wood that I had never used and had never seen for sale, like American elm and silver maple. The elm dried a little crooked (elm always dries a little crooked), but it was beautiful. I am still an elm advocate, even though it can be a bit cantankerous. I had never seen silver maple anywhere and worried non-stop that I must be missing something, and milling and drying a wood that was completely useless or bad for some reason that I would probably only find out later. Turns out that silver maple is one of my current favorites, and I use it for everything from a showy primary wood to a low-class secondary or utilitarian wood.
I continued to cut woods that I knew, like oak, poplar and walnut, and also cut many other new species like osage orange and black locust. Milling just one tree per day and being able to really focus on it helped me to quickly learn how each species of wood milled, smelled, dried and worked.
The Alaskan mill phase didn’t last long (it was so short that I don’t have any photos of it). As soon as I started getting finished lumber for free, I started looking for a faster mill. I wanted to mill every tree in St. Louis and the Alaskan wasn’t going to get the job done. So, I spent my lunch hour at my art director job looking at different sawmills on the internet and sending off for sales literature. I liked the bandmills, but I was looking at lower-cost units that were all manual, and I concluded that they wouldn’t work for me because I didn’t have a way to move logs at the time. While looking at mills in the $5,000 – $10,000 range I came across the Lucas Mill, a crazy new mill from Australia that looked perfect for me, even though it was a little out of my price range.
I was worried when I first found the Lucas because it seemed so new and untested, and I was sure they would go out of business the second I ordered mine, leaving me with no way to buy replacement parts. However, my worries were completely unfounded (and still are today). When the mill showed up, I felt like I overpaid because there wasn’t much to it, but the lacking parts are just a byproduct of good design. The Lucas sawmill is simple to set up and simple to use. It transports easily in a pickup truck, mills accurate lumber at a good pace and can mill big logs where they lay.
I started off with the 6” Lucas because it was the cheapest. The mill came standard with a circle blade that could cut up to 6” x 6” lumber, unless you flipped the saw head around to cut 12” wide. It also had a slab attachment as an option, but slabs were not in style at the time, so I never bought one. I used the Lucas to cut a lot of 6” lumber. It was great on big logs because I could work by myself and knock out 1,000 bf., if I had a big enough tree. If not, I could still mill several logs in a day and get in the 800 bf. range by myself. These numbers are based on milling only and nothing extra, like clean-up and stacking.
After having the Lucas mill for a few years, we moved to a new house in Hazelwood, MO. I picked it out because it had a big, detached shop on a one acre lot. It looked clean from the outside, and I told my wife that if the house didn’t suck on the inside, we were buying it. Well, it didn’t, so we did.
I first set up the Lucas in the 24’ x 40’ pole barn and ran it with the doors open. It worked fine since I was only bringing home little logs that could be moved by hand into the barn. I was still milling all of the larger logs on site because I still had no way to move them. That all changed when I found and purchased my 1977 Chevy C60 flatbed truck with a crane and dump bed, affectionately named “The Creampuff” by my favorite mechanic Roger, at Roger’s Truck Repair. I bought if for $3,000 and have done nothing to make it look better, while still spending plenty of money to keep it running. It basically looks the same as it did when I bought it, just with bigger rust holes and more cab ventilation. I used to think I would make it look better cosmetically, but then I would just feel bad when I dinged it up. Now, I can drop trees on it and it doesn’t bother me too much. I must admit, however, that I have recently dolled up the crane a bit with new paint and hoses. I figure if I ever do get a new truck I will have a crane to put on it, as long as I take care of this one. Plus, I need the crane to work pretty much all of the time, so it is a good place to put my money.
Once I got the log truck, I started getting logs, lots of logs, lots of big logs. I moved the mill to the back edge of the yard and began to transform the pole barn into an actual shop with spray foam insulation, lots of electric and finished floors and walls. At the same time, I built a kiln on my side of our two-car garage, which was already full of lumber, figuring it should be full of drying lumber. It was a Nyle dehumidification kiln, which I still own and use today. It comes as a mechanical package minus the kiln structure, so I was able to build the box to fit snuggly in my available space.
As I got deeper and deeper into this milling thing and started driving my log truck to the back yard and began to use the shop for more serious production, my already cranky neighbor got more cranky. He complained to the city about the noise, but later admitted it wasn’t a noise thing, I was just getting a little out of control.
Since I don’t like cranky neighbors, and I agreed that I needed to get the sawmill away from the house, I started shopping for the new future home of WunderWoods. I located it quickly and easily, just a few streets away, on the property of T&L tree service. When I found the place, I couldn’t believe how close it was, how perfect the site was and how many logs were piled up that I didn’t know about. I was flabbergasted by my incredible lack of log hounding abilities.
I started out just renting a spot in the open to run the Lucas sawmill. They have a pretty large property with trucks, equipment sheds and wood in different states from logs to chips and mulch, so I found it easy to fit in. Tim, the owner, was also nice enough to let me use his Bobcat when it wasn’t out on a job. That along with my logging truck really put my milling into full swing. I continued to mill at the tree service while I set up my shop at the house to do woodworking and to store all of the new lumber I was producing with the Lucas, all while still working full time at the ad agency.
I loved the Lucas. I thought it worked great. The only shortfall I found with it was the inability to cut wider than 6” lumber. Even the wider saw kerf (3/8” with the circle saw compared to 1/8” on a bandsaw) didn’t bother me that much, but cutting 24” clear white oak logs into 6” wide boards just started to get stupid after a while. They were perfect 6” wide boards, but they were only 6”, and I knew I could do better.
While I had the Lucas, I started using kiln services from Oak Leaf Wood and Supplies in Moweaqua, IL. The owner, Paul Easley, ran an operation like mine, though he was a few years ahead of me. He had built a nice little business in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, using a Kasco bandsaw mill. Paul also happened to sell the mills that he used, and it didn’t take long for Paul’s infectious love of cutting wood to inspire me to purchase a fancy new Kasco bandsaw mill with power feed and power height adjustment.
After that, the world was my oyster. I could cut any size log to any dimension and pick the best mill for the job. Giant logs went to the Lucas and logs under 30” went to the bandsaw. Or, if I just wanted really straight dimensional lumber, I would send it to the Lucas, no matter the size. Sometimes, I would start on the Lucas and finish on the bandsaw – I had all of the bases covered.
While I was at the tree service the logs kept piling up. The piles grew because I had plenty of storage room and the equipment to move the logs, but my mills weren’t fast enough. I did (and still do) want to mill every log in St. Louis and I knew that there was no way I was going to do that with the mills I had. They both worked alright, but a full day of milling, stacking and cleaning up a little would, on average, yield about 500 bf. If you read the literature on similar bandsaw mills, they will tout higher numbers, but they are based only on milling and nothing more – every now and then, even I have to clean up. On a personal level, 500 bf. is a lot, and doing all of the work to produce that 500 bf. is a lot, but it is nothing compared to the fact that I can haul about 1,000 bf. on my truck in log form and I could probably get a load a day if I pushed for it. There were plenty of days, especially if I was working at a land clearing site, that I would get a few loads a day and still lose logs to the grinder because I couldn’t get them out fast enough.
Knowing that faster mills existed, I became more serious about getting one and spent a lot of time shopping. The fastest mills by far are high-horsepower circular sawmills that just rip through logs. They have a wider saw kerf, which wastes more wood, but I decided it was worth the trade-off because I was already losing lumber that I wasn’t able to process since the milling was so slow. After all, I wasn’t paying for logs, so it really didn’t matter how much I wasted, I just needed to get it cut.
The other reason I was excited about a circular mill was the ability to cut straighter lumber. Band saws, especially ones with narrow blades like those found on portable mills, notoriously cut wavy lumber once they start to get dull, and if you cut low-grade hardwood logs with lots of knots there is virtually no way to cut quickly without producing some wavy boards in the process. On bigger and tougher logs it isn’t uncommon to need to put on a new band saw blade after just one log to keep things straight. I had seen plenty of videos, especially from Hurdle, that showed their circular mills chewing through those same pain-in-the-ass logs in just a couple of minutes and not even breaking a sweat.
I specifically was attracted to industrial mills and mill manufacturers like Hurdle, Cleerman and Corley. All of these manufacturers make mills found at large producers. New models were way out of my budget, so I turned to looking for used mills. I said looking, but I was mostly dreaming. I had no real reason to push for another sawmill except for my own hunger to process more logs.
I finally got the push I needed to buy a circular mill when I met a customer that was looking for a supplier of grading stakes. He was having trouble securing the stakes consistently and at a reasonable price and he said that he would take all I could produce. I teamed up with Tim from T&L Tree Service to make the stakes. I produced the rough lumber and Tim had his employees do the secondary processing of cutting the points, resawing and packaging.
As part of our partnership, Tim agreed to help me set up a circular mill on his property, which we did after I sold my Lucas and Kasco mills. I looked at several automatic circular mills, which are more expensive and operated with the sawyer just pushing buttons to make everything happen, all from the comfort of an air-conditioned cab. The automatic mills I found in my budget where in pretty bad shape, so I settled for an older handset mill that was better cared for and less expensive. A handset mill cuts the same, but the carriage is more mechanical with a lever to advance the log for the next cut.
The mill I found was a Corley from the 1950’s, however the carriage was upgraded in the 1970’s to include air dogs (they hold the log) and tapers (they adjust the log on the ends). Those upgrades really sped up the mill and made it sound super cool. It reminded me of a roller coaster getting ready to launch with puffs of air and loud, clunky clanks as everything engaged. The rest of the mill was 100% antique, but it worked great. Even the prehistoric log turner and the carriage drive, both of which worked with friction feed, were super smooth and a pleasure to operate.
The plan was to take all of the low-grade logs from the tree service, especially pin oaks, cottonwood and sweetgum and make them into stakes. I wasn’t milling those into lumber, so it seemed like a great outlet for the logs that needed to be disposed of anyway.
After about a year of building the barn and setting up the mill, we jumped into it and started cutting lots of stakes. Even with the circular mill I had trouble keeping up because I was cutting logs that were knotty and had a hard time producing clean stakes. I originally thought that we could produce the stakes, many of which are short, between the knots. But, it became clear that to produce efficiently we really needed clear logs, which is where things began to fall apart. It wasn’t part of the plan to pay for high-grade logs for stakes. High-grade logs should go into high-grade lumber and low-grade logs should go into stakes, at least as far as I am concerned. We stuck with it for a while, but we never made it very profitable. Besides the log issues, it also ended up being more work than we imagined on the back end to process the stakes. Tim put a lot of manpower on it to give it a fair shot, but at the end of the day it was too much work for the money, and we decided to move on.
I kept running the Corley for my own needs after we shut down the stake production, mostly working by myself. From time to time, I would employ some extra help to tail for me (pull boards off of the mill), but I didn’t pay that much and tailing is hard labor. Every one that offered to tail just because they thought the mill was cool and wanted to see it run, only tailed once, and many times even the people I was paying only tailed once. There were a few hot days when I came close to killing the guys tailing for me because I was working them too hard. No one on the back side of the mill was as excited as me to be there, so I started working more and more by myself.
The mill could be run with only one person, but not as quickly. Cut a few boards, walk around and unload, cut a few boards, walk around and unload is how it went. Even running the mill inefficiently by myself was still faster than the bandsaw, so I stuck with it. The Corley mill was fun to use and I thought it was quite cool, but the more I used it the more I realized just how potentially lethal it was. It wasn’t the type of tool that was just going to remove a finger, it would cut you in half and not care. And, since I had a handset mill, which put me working even closer to the blade, I began to feel like my time on earth might be more limited by using the Corley.
There was one time specifically, that I was milling 2″ x 12″ x 12′ white oak for dump truck sides and I made a slight, but potentially deadly error. I was working by myself, cutting a few boards and then walking around to unload, and getting in a nice rhythm. Usually, I would cut a board, then it would drop down and fall over away from the blade. This time, I made the cut, the board dropped down and looked like it was going to fall over, so I backed the carriage up. However, the board stayed standing up and then the back end started to pivot around towards the blade. Normally, if I was doing things correctly, this wouldn’t happen because I would leave the carriage in place until the board was removed or fell over, while the log on the carriage kept the board from swinging around on to the back of the blade.
I had just enough time, once I realized what was about to happen, to throttle the engine down and jump out of the way. The back of the blade grabbed that white oak board and hurled it right where my head was just seconds before. The 100-pound board blasted through a metal safety shield and lodged itself against the end of the building 30 feet away. I wasn’t hurt, but that is not the type of thing that you want flying at you – ever. After that incident and realizing that a faster mill didn’t necessarily translate to more lumber when working by myself, coupled with rising rent and a need to reduce overhead, I sold the Corley and moved out of T&L tree service.
A friend, whose family owns many parcels of land about 5 miles away in Florissant, offered to let me rent an open space with a couple of old buildings hidden in the woods for a fair price (free at first), so I took him up on it, planning to use the property the same way I did when I started at T&L. I bought a used Timberking 1220 bandsaw mill on eBay and started using it outside. Even though it wasn’t too expensive, I split the cost of the mill with a friend of mine that used the mill on the weekend when I wasn’t there.
It was a nice little setup. Things were simplified. I still had my woodworking shop behind my house, and now I had, what felt like my own little place in the country. There wasn’t anywhere inside or covered to run the mill, so we set it up outside. That left me running the mill only when the weather was decent, but since I do an equal amount of milling and woodworking it wasn’t much of an inconvenience. I just stayed home and worked in the shop if the weather wasn’t cooperating.
After a few years and the birth of my daughter Mira, we decided to move back to St. Charles, where both my wife and I grew up. I wasn’t eager to move from my big yard and shop at my house in Hazelwood, but I did have nine acres and a couple of old building to work with in Florissant, and since I like improving things, I thought it sounded like a fun new adventure. My plan was to fix up the old buildings and then consolidate my shop and sawmill. It wasn’t as convenient as having the shop at my house, but it did make sense to have everything in one spot.
The building that I was using as my shop was basically a four bay garage and I kept my lumber and kiln in a cobbled together pole barn that was within 75 feet. The shop building was in poor shape with a fading foundation. I often thought about improving the structure, but the foundation was so bad and everything was so crooked that I was only able to summon enough excitement to reshingle the roof. It pained me to spend even a little bit of money on a roof that was so unstraight, but I had to do it to keep my tools dry.
I don’t need much to be content, and since my shop was hidden from view and I had almost no visitors, the condition of the buildings wasn’t a big deal. I imagined that I would improve things as necessary and maybe even put up a new building if things worked out and I stayed for a while. This work-on-it-as-you-go plan quickly changed into a better-do-something-now plan, when the shop building burned down on the night of November 20, 2011. (Click here to read the long version of the fire story and how it happened).
In the fire, I lost all of my tools except the one bucket of on-site tools that I usually keep in my truck and a chop saw, which just happened to be in my truck from an earlier install job. The fire also burned up my sawmill and a lot of lumber that was on sticks around the outside of the shop. The fire was stopped by the fire department before it moved to the other barn with my dry lumber and kiln.
After the fire, I didn’t have any electrical service at the burned shop, so I couldn’t just start rebuilding right away. And, since I don’t own the property that burned I was leery to sink money into a project that someone else would officially own. It was one thing to slowly improve what was there knowing it wasn’t mine, it was another to build a new building from scratch for a landowner that didn’t want to sign a lease.
While I started my search for a new shop space, I took over our three car garage at home, bought a few homeowner caliber tools and got back to work. Luckily, I didn’t have any major projects half-built at the time, so I didn’t lose any in the fire. My next project, which was the first to be built in the garage, was a large set of kitchen cabinets. Though it was a big project, it was a perfect one to build with only a few tools and a table saw.
I looked at a lot of options for shop space. Most of them were what I would call incredibly overpriced. The going rate was $1,200 per month for about 1,000 sq. ft. Now, keep in mind that at my house in Hazelwood I had a 1,000 sq. ft. shop for free. Granted, it was rolled in to my house payment, but it felt very free and way less than $1,200 per month. Plus, once I got looking, 1000 sq. ft. felt small. I could make it work, but I would be tucked in some strip industrial center with neighbors on both sides and no room to breathe or make sawdust. It just didn’t feel right, so I didn’t rent anything for a while.
During the year or so that we had lived in the new house, I drove past a large building everyday that looked perfect for me in my rule-the-world scenario, where I am the proud owner of a giant industrial shop. It was very big, appeared to be very well kept, and most notably, had been very vacant for as long as I was paying attention. This was during the great recession and companies were going out of business, not looking to expand, so it stayed vacant. I drove by all of the time, never even considering it as a space for the new shop because of the size, until one day, for no special reason, I decided to stop by and write down the phone number on the “For Rent” sign. I called the number, and since it was my lucky day, the owner, who was already there for another reason, showed me around.
I didn’t realize it, but the building, which features plenty of additions, was broken into several smaller areas. In total, the building is 75,000 sq. ft., but there was one spot in the back which was the smallest at about 5,500 sq. ft. Now that I have been in the building for a few years it is obvious that it was the least desirable of the available spaces, but at the time, all I could see was that I almost couldn’t see the other end of the shop, about 200′ away. It seemed to be never-ending, and all I could imagine was having lots of room to put lots of wood (and a few tools).
The rent was higher than I had budgeted, but I was getting lots more room with the deal, which I considered room to grow. The other benefits that made it worth the extra rent was that it was close to my house, it had three-phase power, and it had good access to the highway. My other property was not close to home, it only had single-phase power, and it was miles away from the highway (customers often complained about the long drive).
After a month or so back and forth with lease papers, I started moving in to the new shop in January 2012, a couple of months after the fire. The fact that the recession hit other woodworking shops hard benefited me with plenty of tools available locally at good prices. I was able to outfit the new shop with almost all of the necessary big tools from one going-out-of-business sale for around $5,000.
It was at that same sale that I picked up my first set of factory carts, which started a period of cart restorations to sell as coffee tables. I was still doing custom woodworking, but the carts really started to take over for a while. Currently, I am pretty much done making carts into coffee tables, mostly because I think the trend is fading, and I don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of carts that I can’t use.
After I settled in and got the woodworking side of the business going in the new shop, I rebuilt the Timberking sawmill that was damaged in the fire. I converted it to three-phase power from a gas engine and moved it inside, so I could mill with a roof over my head. Around that same time, a friend of mine that owns an 8″ Lucas mill with a slabbing attachment started letting me use his mill. He never uses it, but he doesn’t want to sell it, so I am it’s current guardian. That works out fine for me because the current trend is towards large pieces of natural-edged wood, which is right in the Lucas mills wheelhouse.
It seems like almost everyone has discovered the natural beauty of wood and wants some of it in their house or office. I am still doing other custom jobs, including the occasional wine cellar and other built-ins or furniture, but more than half of my business now is custom wood for tops, usually on a metal base. There is also a calling for the same type of rustic look in mantels, shelving and seating.
To fill the need for more natural looking wood, I am cutting lots of big logs into slabs with the Lucas mill and leaving edges on everything, even the smaller slabs from the Timberking bandsaw mill. Almost all of the wood is in the 2″-3″ thick range, assuming that it will become some type of top. The crazy thing is that I remember not too long ago when even my very best looking slabs would spend a long, long time waiting for a buyer, and now they are selling as quick as I can process them. As of yet, I don’t see this trend slowing down, so I am going to stick with cutting natural-edged wood, while at the same time keeping my eyes open for the next trend. The good news is that even if I cut all of my logs into slabs, I will still have a lot of 8/4 thick lumber, and I have always been able to sell that.
Currently, I am doing most of my work and selling lumber and slabs out of the shop in St. Charles, although I still rent the property in Florissant to store logs and to house my original kiln. I like having the option to use the extra space if and when I need it, and sometimes it is nice to work outside and feel like I am in the country. I imagine that I will continue to rent both spaces for the foreseeable future, mostly to make sure that I always have somewhere to store and mill logs. After all, I still want to cut every log in St. Louis.
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.
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.