I am a man. I like to build things and I like to burn things. Heck, I have even been known to build something just to burn it down or blow it up (especially around the Fourth of July).
Fire mesmerizes and bewilders me. I find it amazing that it can come from virtually nowhere, you can’t really touch it even though you can feel it, and it makes things disappear into thin air. Heavy things, really, really heavy things, like a whole stack of wood, can be gone in no time.
I know this, of course, because I have burnt a lot of things in my lifetime, including my last shop (a complete accident, by the way). What was amazing about it was the fact that just the day before, I had a shop filled with tools, and the next day I had a shallow pile of charcoal mixed with rusty metal. I remember going there the morning after the fire and looking for anything to salvage and being amazed at how rusty the metal was. It looked like it had set out in the rain for years and it was only hours since the fire department was there.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I was just cleaning up the debris and throwing the chunks of rusty steel into the scrap pile. But it didn’t take long for things to click. You see, rusty metal is a very desirable finish in these days of worn, industrial, antique, distressed furniture – a style that I find myself doing on a regular basis. Even if it’s not officially a rusty finish that I am looking for, it is usually something that looks not new in some way. And, I have to tell you that burnt, rusty metal does not look new. It looks very, very old.
All of this was a welcomed revelation because I have spent lots of hours in the past trying to get the “not new” look. I had used paint stripper to remove the protective clear finish from new hardware. I soaked steel directly in salt water and in salt water towels so it would get more air, and hopefully, rust faster. I’ve tried a lot of things on brass too, like ammonia and vinegar. But, I never considered heat until the shop burned down.
Heat makes sense. Heat is what they use to make the metal, so it seems like it could work to “unmake” it a bit. And after I saw the magic that happened to all of the metal in my former shop, I gave it a go. The first batch worked great. I was doing a cabinet with very small hinges, so even if I destroyed them it would only cost me a few dollars. I made a little fire and threw them in. I put the fire out with a lot of water and just let it sit in the water-logged charcoal mix for a day and it looked just like the rusty metal from my shop.
The second attempt was as amusing as it was informative. Now that I had one burning under my belt, I confidently came home, started a fire in the fireplace (it was winter time), and nonchalantly threw them in like I had done it a thousand times. Chris (my lovely wife), of course, questioned my actions and I, of course, acted like she was the idiot this time. Turns out, I was the idiot again. Why do I always have to be the idiot? Mostly, because in this case, I threw what appears to have been aluminum or some other metal that easily melts into the fire. It burned in a beautiful rainbow of colors, which told me that the metal was actually being consumed by the fire. After the fire died down, I dug around and found only the screws. Everything else vanished. I made myself feel better by saying that they were cheap and I didn’t want them anyway.
Because of that, I now make sure that my victims are made of steel or something like steel, something that can take the heat. I would recommend testing one piece before you throw them all in the fire if you aren’t sure about their metal content. Besides that one bit of caution, all you have to do is build a fire and throw your hardware in. Make sure that you act like you have done it before and don’t even bother to take it out of the packaging (it all disappears).
Let the fire burn until all of the wood is charcoal and the metal looks discolored. While everything is still hot, put out the fire with plenty of water, just like the firefighters would do it. At that point, you can immediately dig out the hardware if you don’t need the metal to rust, or you can let it sit in the wet charcoal for a day or two and get rusty. The amount of time will depend on the metal. Better steel, hardened steel with more carbon, will rust quickly.
When the hardware comes out of the fire it looks very different. If you like the look you are done, but for me it looks a little rugged on most pieces. I usually put a thin coat of lacquer on the hardware to make it look more like an old piece, but one that has spent more time indoors than out. Depending on how it looks when it comes out of the fire, it may only take a little bit of cleaning to have the right look.
The beauty of the burning process is that each piece comes out different and looks authentically aged. Compared to “antiqued” hardware from many large hardware makers, which often look like a lackluster attempt at aging, the difference is night and day. And, the best part is I have a reason to burn things. Now, I need to find a reason to blow things up.
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.
Black Friday Blowout took on a whole new meaning this year. Unfortunately, the black was from all of the charcoal that needed to be cleaned up and the blowout was from, well, you know, the blowout. It worked out pretty nice because Friday was like a holiday/workday/freeday, so I didn’t feel so bad about working on the mess. There was no real plan except to pull out the tools that have some scrap value and to get the wood stacked and restacked (the fire department tore the stacks apart to put out the fire). I had help from Chris Law and Mike Stevens (thank you both), as well as Mark Soest who is donating the use of his loader, and we got a lot done. By the end of the day, the wood was stacked, the scrap was loaded, and most of the building was out of the way.
The only large tool that I plan to salvage is my sawmill. It is burned badly, needs a new engine, and it is missing almost everything that melts, but it was on the edge of the fire and didn’t get as hot. All of the other tools were inside the shop and are no longer straight, if they exist at all.
I took advantage of this shopping weekend to purchase my first replacement tools; a 6″ orbital sander, a Fuji hvlp system, and a few clamps. These are tools that I know I want new. Most of the rest, especially the bigger tools, I expect to replace with used equipment. I hope to again stumble on deals like a 12″ Crescent jointer for $300, or a 14″ Delta bandsaw for $25, or a Jet 13″ planer/molder that came with four sets of knives for $300.
I am in need of a 10″ tablesaw, a 20+” planer, a 12+” jointer, and/or Crescent Universal Woodworker (the coolest power tool ever). If you know of any of these available at a reasonable price, I would greatly appreciate a “heads up”.
The plan now is to work out of my garage at home, while I work on putting up a new shop. The concrete pad of the original shop is not in good enough shape for a shop floor, but will work well for parking trucks or lumber, so I am building the new shop adjacent to the pad. Next up is to get the electric back on, since it was roasted too.
I want to thank everyone that has offered their support, help and workshop. It is nice to know that I have so many places in St. Louis that I can stop by and make sawdust. Thanks again! Enjoy the slideshow.
This afternoon I got a call from a friend that lives near my sawmill/shop and he asked if I had been up there today. Well, the rest pretty much writes itelf.
We went up to check out the damage and maybe see if we could salvage anything, but the salvaging didn’t take long. Everything was vaporized, except the heavy iron, which is still pretty dead. I was amazed at how my tool boxes, which had drawers so full that you couldn’t close them, had almost nothing in them. I have saved a couple “C” clamps and a carpenter’s square so far, but that may be it. It was raining (about 12 hours too late), so we just left. Will find out more soon.