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.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

7 responses to “Not All Trees Are Created Equal”

  1. Tom says :

    Thank you, Scott. Learned a lot. Enjoyed the video.

  2. Mike says :

    Great write-up Scott. Very interesting to hear when a walnut is worth it and when it’s not. I’ve talked to people who say they have a walnut that wants to come down, and they think they’re going to get thousands of dollars for it. I try to break it to them softly but they didn’t want to hear it. They’ll find out on their own, LOL

  3. Wes Fordyce says :

    Really nice specimen! I usually count the rings just to educate myself about “a (this species) tree this big is about (this many) years old. I thought cherry were the most valuable?

    • wunderwoods says :

      I am definitely going to check to see how old it is after we get it milled. Cherry was in great demand a few years ago, but walnut is in more demand now and has always sold at a higher price during my career.

  4. Lesa says :

    Love reading your insights . Beautiful tree! Love walnut

  5. Jerry Meyer says :

    I enjoy your reading your posts almost as much as i enjoy talking to you at your shop, keep them coming!!

Leave a Reply to Wes Fordyce Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: