A couple of years ago, I was called by Dan Hellmuth of Hellmuth and Bicknesse Architects to work on a new green building that they were designing. I had worked with Dan previously on Washington University’s Living Learning Center and was glad to hear from him again. For me, the new job was similar to the Living Learning Center – trees from the property were going to be milled and the lumber was going to be used to make finished products throughout the house. The new building wasn’t trying to be the greenest building in the U.S., like the Living Learning Center, but it was designed to be very energy efficient with structural insulated panels (SIPS) and geothermal heating and cooling.
The property had about 80 acres of forest comprised of eastern red cedar, oak and hickory, along with a sprinkling of sugar maple and ash. The best trees were white oaks in the 24″ diameter range, some of which had veneer-grade butt logs (which means they were perfect, straight-grained and knot free). Most of the trees were slightly lower-grade and smaller, but still nice. The smallest were the cedars, which are considered invasive and were scheduled to be removed.
My choice of logs to harvest was limited by the terrain, which ranged from hilly to mountainous. Only one inclined ridge allowed reasonable access to the better logs. The rest of the forest housed bigger trees that will probably never be cut – it is just too difficult to get the logs out. Even spots that looked reasonably flat were only so in relation to the steep drop-offs. Often it was so steep that I had trouble getting the Bobcat back up to the landing, even if I wasn’t moving a log.
Once I got the logs out and back to my mill, I cut them and either air-dried or kiln-dried the lumber depending on their final use (kiln-dried goes inside, air-dried goes outside). The white oak was used for the deck, the boat dock and interior doors. The cedar was slated to be used as siding for the house, but that was changed to reclaimed barn siding and the cedar was moved indoors to be flooring in the loft areas. The smaller amount of ash, maple and hickory haven’t been used yet and are waiting their turn, most likely for future furniture.
Interestingly enough, two areas of woodwork in the house that I am most proud of, did not use wood from the property. We built the entertainment center cabinets from a mix of the customer’s cherry and cherry that I provided, while we made the front and back doors from WunderWoods walnut.
Overall, the project is nearly complete (I am finishing up the wine cellar racks), and since I never remember to take photos, I thought it was about time.
Here are some photos I took last time I was there (click on any photo to enlarge and view the slideshow):
Special thanks to John Stevens and Dan Draper for their help on many aspects of the job. Also, thanks to Scott Allen and his crew, who took over the general contracting of the house and made sure I always had an extra hand when I needed it.
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.