Natural Playground for Preschoolers
The final touches have been put on the natural playground structure for Immanuel Lutheran preschoolers and they have already been putting it through its paces.
The deck, climbing wall and steps are made from white oak, the posts are eastern red cedar, and all of the twisty branches are osage orange. The three species of wood were chosen for their ability to weather the elements, while the white oak and osage orange have the added benefit of being exceptionally strong.
Thanks to the staff at Immanuel for being great hosts. They always greeted me with a smile and sometimes, even with cookies.
The Shop and Sawmill Fire Story: Long Version
Now that I have the new shop/lumber store up and running in St. Charles, I am getting new customers that don’t know me yet. I tell them about milling local trees, building wine cellars, the story of how I ended up in St. Charles and the fire that prompted my move. For those of you that haven’t heard it, here is the “long version” of my fire story.
My shop, since I have been woodworking full-time, was always in a building behind our house in Hazelwood. While we lived in that house I always paid to rent other property for the sawmill. The shop and the sawmill were always in separate locations (I now recommend this). In August of 2010, we moved to St. Charles to a house that didn’t have room for a shop, so I decided to move my shop to the sawmill property. The building that I moved into wasn’t great, but I worked on it when I could, and I made it into a feasible shop.
I set up and used my sawmill in front of the shop. Between the two was my scrap pile. This setup worked great. Sawmill scrap and shop scrap would meet in the middle, easily chucked into a pile that I would move with the Bobcat when necessary.
Just before the fire, I was working on the “Augusta Project”, milling a lot of cedar. My Bobcat was out in Augusta so the scrap pile didn’t get moved. Cedar is really lightweight, so I was able to heave the scraps up higher than normal, and the pile grew. I impressed myself with how much wood I cut and how high the stack got. On both ends of the mill I had lumber stacked with sticks in between each row to allow air movement for drying and, as the firemen pointed out, for burning. They said it was nice how I had a little wood, then a little air, then a little wood, then a little more air, and then more and more wood.
The day of the fire was a Saturday that I had set aside to repair my sawmill. I met my ex-neighbor Alan at his house and he welded some new parts for me early in the morning, then I headed to the mill to install them. Everything went great and I had the new parts installed in no time. I had some extra time and thought to myself, “Boy, that went well, why not try to make the new parts look just a little better and do a little grinding and painting before I leave?” (I didn’t say anything to myself about burning down the place.)
I grabbed my grinder and started cleaning up the welds. They were looking good, but then something caught my attention. A couple of spots in the sawdust surrounding the sawmill were smoldering and not going out. It had been dry for a while and the wind was strong that day. Normally the sawdust and scrap pile would be wet from being on the ground and being sawn from wet wood, and they wouldn’t even think about catching on fire. The bonus, in this case, was that cedar is a very dry wood and burns like it has gas in it.
As soon as I saw smoldering sawdust I stopped grinding. After all, everything I was doing was cosmetic, I didn’t have to grind anything. First, I stepped on the smoldering spots to put them out, which may have been my most costly move. Then, I reconsidered and decided to shovel out the sawdust and spread it on the driveway, away from danger. I would have doused the whole place with water, but I don’t have running water at the sawmill, so that wasn’t possible. I did have a water jug with me, that I poured on the questionable areas, but it must have just angered the fire gods (should I capitalize that?). I continued shoveling the sawdust and looking for smoke. After finding no more signs of fire, I cleaned up and put away my tools, checked again for signs of fire, and started to leave.
I got up the road a bit and realized that I didn’t really have anywhere to be and that it made sense for me to go back and make sure the place wasn’t going to burn down. Understand, that this was a big move for me. I am normally very cavalier about such things, but I thought I had better check, just to make sure. I told myself that I was going to stay until I didn’t see any signs of fire for at least one hour, which I did.
After one hour of doing odd cleaning jobs and checking in on the potential fire area, I left. I don’t know exactly what time I got home, but I know it was before lunch at 12:30 p.m. The fire department was called by the neighbors that night at midnight, about twelve hours after I left. I wasn’t there when the fire started, but my best guess is that one of those first couple of sparks that I tried to snuff out with my shoes got buried, smoldered quietly all day, and then finally made it to the surface where it flamed up. Since it was late and the building was well hidden from the road, the fire had a chance to really get going before the fire trucks arrived. The firemen said they could see the flames above the trees about a mile away (literally). Needless to say, the building and everything inside was completely destroyed.
Leading up to the fire plenty of visitors to the sawmill joked about lighting that pile of scrap and how great it would burn. Looking back, I should have taken it as a serious warning.
The “Augusta Project”
I have been working on a project for a year or so,nestled in the rolling hills of Augusta (MO) on 200 acres of land that makes me question going home at night. After all (I ponder), if I had a tent I wouldn’t need to drive all the way home just to drive all the way back in the morning. There is a never-ending chunk of woods surrounding a never-fished pond at the end of a never-seen-before creek bed. I picture myself catching fish for dinner and sleeping off the aches of a long day alongside the crackling fire. Of course, I come ill-prepared to camp and don’t really have permission to do so, but I think about it – then head home.
Now that winter has rolled around, I think less about camping and fishing and more about the project at hand, and it is a good thing now that it is finally coming together. There have been a few bumps in the road, but it is on track again and it is time to show some photos. Everyone I talk to has heard about the “Augusta Project”, and I am sure that they are starting to wonder if there really is such a project. Well, I have proof now.
The “Augusta Project” is a timber-frame house that is being built with an earth-friendly approach, though the homeowners aren’t going out of their way to get any particular green certification. I got in on the action through the architect, Dan Hellmuth, from Hellmuth & Bicknesse. I worked with Dan a couple of years ago on a project for Washington University, where the Living Learning Center was crowned one of the greenest buildings in the country. This job has much less paperwork (none, to this point), but I am doing very similar work.
So far, I have been contracted to harvest the trees and manufacture specific products for the building. The exterior decking is made from 5/4 thick white oak and is the first finished product that has been delivered to the job site. The land has a lot of nice white oaks (some that I can actually get to) that I felled, milled, dried and then had molded by Fehlig Brothers in St. Louis. The material was profiled with grooves down both sides to receive hidden fasteners. I have also cut a lot of cedars which are going to become the siding for the parts of the house not covered in stone. There was also a mix of hard maple, hickory and ash that I milled for purposes yet undetermined.
I cannot take credit for the major installed work to this point, which is the timber frame being installed by Trillium Dell Timber Framers. It is made from Douglas Fir and mostly cut in the shop, though some of the trickier cuts are being done on site. I snapped some photos this week of the frame, which is almost done. Be sure to enjoy the view! Click on the photos to enlarge.
“The” White Oak
Today, I was working on the large white oaks from the previous blog post, and I had a chance to snap a quick photo of an interesting phenomenon. On the stack of white oak lumber that I cut yesterday, I added some fresh lumber from this morning. It just worked out that I had two boards next to each other that clearly demonstrated a color change in white oak. This doesn’t happen in just any white oak, it happens only in “The” white oak, the one that is commercially sold as white oak.
You see, there are many different species of white oak in the white oak family of trees, like burr oak, swamp white oak, post oak and others, but none change color like “The” white oak. The change starts quickly after the lumber is cut. The wood goes from a tan color to a tan-pink or even just pink within an hour. However, don’t get too attached to the color because after the lumber dries for a day or two the color migrates back to the original tan color.
“The” white oak is not the only one to change colors after being freshly cut, but it is the only one where the color change is a key identifier. Others that change color include walnut, which goes from a green-brown color to a medium-dark brown color with no hint of green. Another one is cedar, which goes from a vibrant pink/purple to a medium-dark brown. The only other one that changes color like the white oak is ash, which develops a pink cast to it that then fades away in a day.
“The” white oak is in the white oak family and called white oak. This is tricky because it doesn’t have another name that clearly identifies it. For example, in the red oak family, the most desired species is called Northern Red Oak. But in the white oak family, the most desired species is also called white oak. I know that many people, including myself in the past, may be cutting a tree and wonder if it is “The” white oak. If it turns pink shortly after you cut it, it is.
Bigger Isn’t Always Better When It Comes To Sawmilling Cedar Trees
Currently, I am working with a green builder in St. louis on a project where we are using eastern red cedars from the site to make siding for the house. A couple of years ago, I worked on the Tyson Living Learning Center, which is one of the “greenest” buildings in the country, and I also milled cedars for the siding on that building. In total, I have milled hundreds of cedars logs and have learned a lot about them.
Cedars are light, easy to cut and usually fairly small. I was excited to cut the cedars at Tyson because many were quite big. A few even maxed out the 30″ bar on my chainsaw when I felled them. The cedars on my current job are not as big, but are actually better because of it. It seems counter-intuitive, and for all of the milling I normally do, it is. I always want the logs big. In hardwoods, big logs have more clear, high-grade wood – but, not cedars, or at least the bottom logs of big cedars.
Here is the problem. Big cedars have big trunks that tend to have two major defects. The first is bark inclusions. As cedars get bigger, they get more furrowed near the base. These furrows turn into wrinkles and then the wrinkles turn to big waves. As these waves increase in size they roll over nearby bark and seal it in the log. The log keeps getting bigger, but this bark works like a perforation in the lumber and makes the lumber fall apart, similar to ring shake. It is very frustrating because you can have a big wide board and then it just falls apart in your hands.
The second defect is dead branches and knots. If the tree grows in the open this is usually less of a problem because the lower branches don’t die off. But, in trees growing in the woods or in tight proximity to one another the lower branches do die, and since they are cedar and last a long time outdoors, they only very slowly drop off. While the branches are still attached and dead, the tree keeps growing and tries to cover them over. What ends up happening is that the lumber has knots in it that will fall out. Even if they don’t fall out right away, they will eventually. This is a problem when running cedar through a moulder to make siding, since the knots will fly out and at least clog the machine.
When working on the Tyson project (which had big logs) a good percentage of pieces would have a knot fly out in the moulder and make that part unusable. Luckily, there were a lot of windows and other places to use short pieces. The logs that I am working on now are from younger logs and have live branches along most of the stem. The average diameter is probably 10″ on the skinny end, but most of the lumber is sound, which will yield more than 20″ logs with only half of the wood being solid. When I look back on the Tyson project, there were several logs that weren’t even worth the time to mill since they were so full of defects, but it is hard to pass up a 18″ cedar log without cutting it first. On the upside, cedar burns really hot, but that is for another post.