Not All Trees Are Created Equal

Recently, I got a call about a walnut tree which fell in a storm. The homeowner knew it was a walnut and gave me a call to see about doing something with it, hoping to sell it. I get these calls regularly, especially for walnuts, and I always follow up so I don’t miss the good ones.

Even though most of the calls are about walnuts, most of the walnuts aren’t much to talk about. I’ll ask questions about the diameter, where they and their tree live and why they took it down, and though these questions will get answered, the overwhelming theme is, “It’s a walnut”.

Well, just because it is a walnut doesn’t mean it is a good walnut. I have received plenty of calls where I never bothered to pick up the tree because I could tell that the tree wasn’t great and the owner was way too attached, and often, they want me to take down the tree.

I only pay for a few trees a year. I don’t really mill that many logs overall, and they are readily available just for the asking, so there isn’t much incentive for me to spend money on them (really, almost all of the logs I get are free). But, this one was different. It met all of my criteria for a tree to both spend the time and effort to retrieve it and to also pay the homeowner.

Click the video above to see a great walnut tree and how to get your chainsaw stuck.

So, what makes a tree stand out from the rest and why is this one worth paying for?

First off, yes, it is walnut. You now have my attention. Species does matter and walnut is at the top of the food chain for our local trees here in the St. Louis area. For example, walnut currently sells for $12 bf. while other hardwoods like hard maple, white oak and cherry are in the $4-$7 bf. range. But that doesn’t make it a good tree, that just makes it worth a good close look.

Diameter is currently the biggest driver for me deciding how bad I need a log. The bigger the diameter, the more options there are and the more wood overall. I draw the line at 24″ in diameter on the skinny end of the log, inside the bark. Any smaller than that is a tree which I can easily find and usually procure without spending money. Though smaller logs do still have value, they don’t have enough value and I will not pay for a log under this size. The 24″ size gives me the option to make bookmatched dining room tables (usually 42″ wide) out of only two pieces. If we end up going to a three-piece table top, I only really need an 18″ diameter log and those are widely available at no cost. This walnut was over 24″ in diameter at 30′ from the ground, so it was the perfect size for what we do. Length isn’t usually a problem, but I do sometimes get calls about big diameter trees with very short trunks which branch off close to the ground. The longer the main trunk the better and this tree had a super long trunk.

This walnut tree was more than big enough.

Location is the second thing I ask about when discussing a tree because it affects so many aspects of the growth and my ability to process it. First off, the location affects the way the tree grows overall. A tree which grew in the open is usually short, wide and branchy. This one obviously, started its life with trees around it and reached up, producing a nice long trunk. I am cutting this tree into slabs, but it would also produce very nice, straight-grained, knot-free lumber.

Location also affects what is in the tree, specifically metal like nails, screws, hooks, chains and wire. Trees which grew in a bad neighborhood, in a small yard usually have a tough life and are full of problem-causing metal. This walnut spent its life in a nice, big front yard in a happy neighborhood on a street which I know has produced a lot of nice trees and shows no signs of metal.

A nice yard in a nice neighborhood is a nice start.

Location also affects how easy it is to access. I get a lot of calls about trees at the bottom of a hill in a back yard with a little gate and no way to get to the log. This tree was in the level front yard right next to the driveway with nothing around it. Access couldn’t be easier.

Overall health of the tree and quality of the logs is the last thing I look at. In this tree I looked for scarring from lightning strikes, busted branches, possible hollow spots and rot. The roots showed a little bit of decay, which could have led to some hollowness in the bottom of the tree, but it was minimal and ended up not affecting the logs. There were some busted branches from the fall, but all of the main pieces showed no signs of breakage. It was entirely solid and sound. On walnuts, the speed of growth also affects how wide the sapwood (white outer layer of wood) is on the log. If it grows very slow, the sapwood may only be 1/4″ wide, while on super-fast-growing trees in a wet, wide open yard might have sapwood which is over 3″ wide. I’m looking for a good balance for live edge tabletops with the sapwood about 1″ to 1-1/2″ wide, and again, this tree was perfect.

A very solid walnut log with the perfect amount of sapwood.

Everything about this tree was as I would have specified and the fact that it was already down and most of the top cleaned up made my assessment easy. It was nice to be able to get a look at the cut branches at the top and the busted roots at the bottom to get an idea of the quality of the inside. I could have only had a better look at the inside of the log if it was cut to length, but I told the homeowner that I wanted to decide where to cut it and do that myself. Besides getting my chainsaw stuck and my crane giving up at the end, this experience and this tree was as good as it gets in my business.

Back to the River

We are still finishing up our move from St. Charles to O’Fallon and trying to get as many jobs completed during the move as possible. It has turned out to be more roadblocky than the optimist in me is willing to admit, but we have been able to deliver a couple of things which were wrapped up before the shop was completely disassembled.

Our latest delivery was to Golden Eagle, Illinois, just across the Golden Eagle ferry from St. Charles. It is mostly farmland on rolling hills overlooking the Mississippi River and into St. Charles. The view is great and the feel is right for me. I even entertained putting the new shop and/or sawmill in that area to make a destination operation, but ultimately decided it was just too difficult to get to on a regular basis, and at $18 per round trip ferry it would be quite unaffordable.

Even so, I still think it is a pretty cool area and thought everyone might like the view from the other side of the river. Click on the video below to see this live edge walnut table delivery.

We’re Moving: It’s Officially Official

After 10 years in St. Charles, MO we are moving a bit west to 821 Midpoint in O’fallon, MO. We started moving in earnest last week, and this past weekend I officially pulled the plug on the tools in the old shop. There is no turning back now! The new building is a 12 minute drive west of the old location on Highway 70. It is a nice stand-alone building which can easily be found by just Googling the address. No need to aimlessly wander around a giant building trying to find the wood shop buried in the back corner. We don’t have a sign yet at the new location (of course), but you won’t need it.

This Saturday will start our conversion to the new shop. By then, all of the wood and most of the slabs will be at the new location. So, if you are planning to visit on Saturday morning (open 8-12), please report to the new shop. From then on, 821 Midpoint will be our official location.

To kick it off, I put together an announcement video so you can see the outside of the shop (that was the day I got the keys) and our first moving video. Click on the video below to check out the progress.

Installing a Spalted Sycamore Fireplace Mantel

Years ago, I posted a video of me installing a mantel which was shot by my daughter Mira, who was nine years old at the time. The video did a fine job of covering how to install a mantel and has gotten a lot of views through the years, but it has also been heckled quite a bit. Most of the criticisms (which I have since deleted) revolved around the lack of a tripod and the poor videographer.

I was attempting to get my daughter involved in the business even though she had no interest in woodworking, so I thought shooting video with the big camera might do the trick. Though the video is indeed shaky, we had a fun time doing it and it has served its purpose, allowing customers to have a reference to watch so they can see for themselves how to install a mantel.

Ever since the negative comments started rolling in, I have wanted to reshoot a mantel install video and now I have finally done it. This time, I used a tripod and Mira wasn’t involved, so if anyone has a problem with the video, they probably just have a problem with me.

This install video is specific to the piece of spalted sycamore I used and the fireplace it went on, but all of the techniques are the same ones I use on most mantel installs. If you are installing a mantel and have any specific questions on how to do it, feel free to ask. I will respond and add it to my next mantel video. In the meantime, check out the video below to see how I do it and the small changes I’ve made through the years.

How To Install a Bartop

One of the trickiest parts of making a new bartop is installing it. The biggest problem is we can’t, or at least we probably don’t want to, just drill through the top. If we could, the job would be much easier and this blog post and video would be much shorter.

Assuming that the bartop is going to be placed on a half wall and not on a run of cabinets, the two areas of concern are giving the top support and providing a way to anchor it down. Adding steel plates underneath, solves both of the problems. We use 3″ wide x 1/2″ thick steel plates attached to the top of the half wall, which then fit into recesses routered into the bottom side of the bartop. We use a CNC router because we have one, but this can be done just as well with a handheld router and a jig. We cut the slots 1/2″ deep, 3-1/2″ wide and 1/2″ longer than the steel. The length of each piece of steel and the placement is up to you and different with every top.

We first fit the bartop to the space using cardboard templates made to fit the existing conditions. Once the tops fit, we then mark the locations of the slots, remove the tops one last time and secure the steel before putting on the tops for the final time. You will be tempted to skip this step by just measuring the layout, but I can tell you from experience, nothing in the world lines up where you think it will and there is a great chance that you will be removing the top again anyway. Of course, if the top is giant and hard to move, or if you are just feeling lucky, go ahead and measure and see what happens. Your odds of getting the steel to fit in the slots the first time will be increased with bigger slots. However, I personally lean towards a tighter fit because I think it looks more professional, despite the fact that it will probably never be seen.

After the steel is in and the the bartop is back in place, it just takes a few minutes to screw down the top. We drill all of the holes in the 1/2″ thick steel on a drill press to make it easier, but it can be done on site with a handheld drill (it just takes a bit longer). A screw at each end of the steel plates is all it takes to hold the bartop in place.

In the video below, the bartop is L-shaped, so each piece gets some additional support from the opposing piece. The two pieces are aligned with loose dominos and pulled together with dogbone connectors, which are commonly used for countertops. Click on the video below to see how we do it and to see how the top was built.

Installing New French Doors

Installing doors isn’t the quickest and easiest thing to do. They need to fit well, with even gaps all around and they need to shut securely, but easily. It is a demanding task, which I decided to make even more so by adding a second door to the mix.

While challenging, you’ll get no complaints from me. I like this little finicky stuff almost as much as I like sanding. And, while that sounds like sarcasm, it is true. I really do like both. I find it rather relaxing to just chill out and get into the work. When I was working on these doors and shooting the video for it, I even thought about making a “slow” woodworking video, with the beautiful weather and the birds chirping and me just chiseling away. Maybe that will be for another video, when everyone is clamoring for me to slow down the action a bit and make the videos much longer (I expect that to happen on the 12th).

In the meantime, click on the link below to see my zen video on installing a set of mahogany french doors at regular speed.

Milling Curly Q Logs

I just milled a short hollow maple log for a customer which ended up having a fun curly Q shape. The log clearly had a wound along the side, running up the length of the log and it was never able to heal over. In the log’s attempt to close the wound, it added extra growth which made the fun shape.

While I was milling the maple log, it brought to mind a sycamore logs which I milled a couple of years ago. They produced some slices with the same curly Q shape, but they were much larger. I clearly remember being quite sad when I cut into the giant logs and discovered they were hollow. Just when I was about to make them firewood, I got a clear view of the curly Q shape and decided to save them.

There really aren’t many practical uses for these cuts, but they attract viewers like crazy in the shop and as far as I can tell have all ended up as pieces of artwork. Check out the video below to see the final product.

Quartersawing a Large White Oak Log: Part 2

It’s official. I’m going to end up with three installments about quartersawing. In an effort to not bore everyone to death in this video, I had to keep out all the important details, like why are we even bothering to do all of this extra work? There are a couple short answers (it’s pretty, it’s more stable) but since I like to give long answers, I’m going to need more time.

My focus for the last video was to show how I deal with oversized logs and this week I show how to actually quartersaw. I think it will help a lot for everyone to see, in a video, how riftsawn and quartersawn lumber are produced from the quartersawing process and see how I tackle the task.

Quartersawing a log takes much more time because each log essentially produces four individual logs (quarters) and each one needs to be processed separately. Throughout the process, lots of decisions need to be made to produce the most and best lumber.

Click on the video link below to see how the quartersawn lumber is cut and to see some really pretty boards.

Quartersawing a Large White Oak Log: Part 1

I spend a lot of time talking about quartersawn lumber with customers and have always wanted to get my thoughts about it into one place. Turns out, it is probably going to be in at least two places when I get done covering it. There is just too much to know and the more I try to explain it, the deeper in the weeds I get, and staying out of the weeds is not my forte.

Since I have spent over twenty years discussing it with customers, studying it on my own and generally just worrying about if I am producing the best quarter sawn lumber as efficiently as possible, I have come up with a lot of talking points. Luckily, for you, I am not going to get too deep into it until the second installment, when I finish producing the quarter sawn lumber.

In this first video, I was most excited to show how I get a log which won’t fit on the sawmill prepared for quartersawing and to get a chance to use my chainsaw (which I do whenever I can). Click the link below to see how I get the large logs ready to be milled.

Building and Installing a “Very Pretty” Barn Door

I just finished installing a barn door to cap off a bar area of a basement remodel. During its construction everyone visiting the shop talked about how pretty it was, and I agree. It’s weird because I didn’t imagine I would like it so much or get so wrapped up in terms like “pretty”, especially since I prefer to use the word “cute”.

Originally, we thought we might add some color to the individual boards, like maybe some washes of blue to go with the cabinets, but it turned out to be unnecessary. We wrangled up some wood in the shop from several different barns, and all of them stood on their own with no paint necessary. They were different enough that Tom, who built the door, even named them to keep them separated. The most textured gray pieces, which were sycamore, he called “dragon skin” and the smoother brown ones he named “Douggie Fir”. I think getting to know the wood really helped Tom pass the time at the chop saw.

The door is extra wide and turned out to be quite heavy, with two layers of hardwoods and a core of 1/2″ thick MDF, which required the wall hardware to be custom made and beefed up a bit. I got to visit one of my favorite places, Shapiro Metal Supply, to get the material and browse for a bit. The video below was shot just days before their recent fire.

While I did need extra muscle to get the door in the house (luckily they had a walkout basement), I was able to hang the door on my own. Click on the video below to see how it came together and see just how “pretty” it is.

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