Tag Archive | hardwood

Multiples Stack Up or Measure Up (you pick)

I am a woodworker, and as a woodworker I live by a certain set of norms which dictate that I be accurate, but not ridiculously accurate. After all, wood changes size all of the time, so there is a limit to how accurate we can be and how much we should really worry about it. For most of us, a few measurements in a job are critical and the rest of the pieces are fit to look good. We may use measurements as a jumping off point, but it isn’t uncommon to trim a bit here and plane a bit there.

When I am in the shop, I always have a tape measure hanging off of my pocket for anything that needs to be measured. I use it a lot, but mostly for rough measurements, like making sure a piece of wood will be big enough for what I have in mind. I also use it for more critical measurements, but I try my best to find ways to not use measurements when things start to get critical. For example, instead of measuring, I will use a scrap piece of wood as a spacer. That way I don’t need to worry every time about reading the tape measure wrong, and I know that all of my spacing will be very consistent.

As much as I try to avoid being fussy about my measurements, sometimes they need to be a little more accurate. One of the tools where accuracy is important is the planer. If I want 1″ thick wood, I want to know that it is 1″. Now, more engineery people might reach for their calipers, but for those of you like me, with only a tape measures on your belt, I have a very accurate way to make perfectly sized parts – just stack them up.

The target for this table saw run was 1″. The samples from the cut were close, especially the one in the middle, but adding all of them up confirms that they are a bit wide.

Here’s the logic. If your measurements are just slightly off, you may not notice it in just one piece, but as you add up the pieces you also add up the differences and they become much more obvious. Just run a scrap piece of wood through the planer, chop it into 3, 4 or 5 pieces, stack them up and measure them. 5 pieces of wood that are 1″ thick should measure 5″ – simple de dimple. If your 1″ thick board isn’t exactly 1″ thick, you will see it, even without calipers, and then you can adjust the thickness.

That’s better! Three pieces measure 3″ wide. The average is 1″. Let’s run some parts!

The beauty of this system is two-fold. First off, you don’t need to worry about having calipers (after all, those are for kids that work at Boeing and have really clean floors). Second, it gives you a more accurate real-world reading of what is coming out of your machine. We all know that a board coming out of the planer has dips and doodles in the wood and can range in thickness depending on the spot that you measure. Adding up several pieces of wood gives you not only a measurement that is accurate, but it is also closer to the average. We are only talking small amounts here, but if you are setting up to plane a bunch of lumber, it is great to know what the bulk of it is going to measure.

When running enough wood through the planer to make thousands of little sticks with thousands of little spaces, as in this wine cellar racking, accurate tool setup is critical and easy to verify by stacking up multiples.

I use this system to double-check measurements on other tools as well. It works great on the table saw to make sure that your 3″ wide board is really 3″. Instead of cutting just one sample board 3″ wide and determining that it looks really close, cut 3 or more and add them up. Assuming that you can do a little simple math, you will be able to tell if the 3″ mark is consistently spitting out 3″ boards and not 2-63/64″ boards.

When using my fancy measuring shortcut, there is one important rule to follow. Make sure the tongue on your tape measure is accurate or don’t use the tongue at all. If you don’t trust the tongue on your tape measure then take a reading starting at the 1″ mark to check the distance and then just subtract 1″ from your reading (and then hope that a holiday is quickly approaching that might lend itself to the arrival of a new tape measure).

Random Width Flooring: Efficient Use of a Valuable Resource

In the normal course of my business, I am sometimes asked to make flooring out of my customers’ logs. Because I mill the logs into random width boards, I would often get stuck with trying to determine the best width to make the flooring, knowing that no single width would have that great of a yield. No matter the width I chose, there would always be plenty of boards with lots of waste. If I chose 3″ wide flooring, I can guarantee you that an astonishing number of the rough cut boards would just happen to measure 8-3/4″ wide, which would yield two 3″ wide boards and one wide scrap piece, absolutely killing me.

This random width hickory floor was rough cut in 3", 4' and 5" widths. I made it from trees harvested on site at Tyson Research Center in Eureka, Missouri.

This random width hickory floor was rough cut in 3″, 4′ and 5″ widths. I made it from trees harvested on site at Tyson Research Center in Eureka, Missouri.

In the past, I have tried to decide the width ahead of milling the logs and pick out which cut was going to be flooring and which was going to be another product, like siding.  It seemed simple enough, if the board I was cutting was long and clear with no knot holes, I would cut siding, and if it was knotty and was going to produce only short pieces that were good, I would cut them for flooring. All I really had to do was sort the lumber into two piles while I was working. But, it wasn’t that easy.

Some logs would have a side that was good for producing siding, but the next side was only good for flooring. When I flipped the log over to a new side, my width was determined by how much I cut off of the last side, and it was always random. So, no matter what I did, even if I was cutting for a specific product, I would get stuck with lots of random width boards.

As I mentioned, wasting lumber kills me, and every time I ripped random-width boards down to some set width, leaving wide scraps on the floor, I thought about how to stop wasting so much wood – then it clicked. Many years ago, a friend of mine showed me a floor he made for his own house out of random width boards. As far as I know, he only did it because he thought it would look different and make his house have a special touch that would only come from someone who made their own flooring. His floor was white oak with tons of character, in three different widths. It was beautiful, and it seemed to me that I could use these random widths in some form to stop wasting wood.

I don’t remember a specific moment when I had the epiphany (though I am sure I must have had one), but I figured out that using just three widths, 3″, 4″, and 5″ would cover every width of board I could produce and always leave me with less than 1″ of waste per board.

Think about it. 3″, 4″, and 5″ wide, rough lumber is covered right off of the bat since they are already useable widths. After that is a 6″ wide board, which will just be ripped into two 3″ wide strips. A 7″ board gets ripped to a 3″ and a 4″ strip, while an 8″ board turns into two 4″ strips or a 5″ and a 3″, whichever is preferred. Any width of rough lumber over 6″ wide can be broken down in some way with just the three target widths of 3″, 4″ and 5″. By the way, these are the rough cut widths. The finished tongue and groove flooring will end up with a face about 1/2″ less in width.

This classroom at Tyson Research Center, features random width maple flooring, I also rough milled it in 3", 4" and 5" widths.

This classroom at Tyson Research Center, features random width maple flooring, I also rough milled it in 3″, 4″ and 5″ widths.

Random width flooring looks different, but not too different. At first glance, the viewer only notices the beautiful wood, and then after closer inspection notices the three widths, which lets them know subconsciously that the flooring is special. It stands out because it isn’t all one width like typical hardwood flooring, and most people have never seen or even thought of using random-width flooring. But, I say, “Don’t be scared of it.” It is different and not typical, but in a good way, especially when it comes to waste.

Kiln-Dried Walnut Is Not Steamed Walnut

I mill, dry, and use walnut on a regular basis, especially now that walnut is back in style. It wasn’t that long ago that everyone was tearing out dark cabinets and putting in the maple to lighten things up. Now, walnut is used regularly and often stained to an “espresso” color, which means really dark. Some folks would swear off staining walnut because it is naturally so nice, but I am not one of them. I, personally, almost always stain walnut, even if I just want it to look like walnut (more about this in a later posting). This got me thinking about the color of walnut, and no discussion about walnut color can start without talking about steaming.

This walnut sample was not steamed before drying. Notice the distinct line between sapwood and heartwood.

Steaming has one purpose and one purpose only – to change the color of walnut. Here’s the deal. Walnut logs, like the one shown in the first photo, have a rich, chocolate-colored heartwood and light vanilla-colored sapwood. The contrast is stark and to those that want all dark heartwood, the light sapwood is seen as a defect, something to be removed or hidden. But removing it can be costly to mills in that they will be discarding the outside of the log, which usually has the clearest lumber with the fewest knots. Additionally, the sapwood can be inches thick, and not using it results in a loss of board feet production. So, to make the sapwood more acceptable, mills use a separate process to steam the lumber after it is cut to darken the sapwood.

When I say “mills”, I mean larger production mills, those that are focused on efficiency and willing to spend the money to steam the lumber. At smaller mills like mine there is no steamer and much of the sapwood is removed on the mill. If a piece of lumber has a significant amount of sapwood, I usually grade it lower because I know it is less desirable.

In this steamed walnut panel, the sapwood can be seen as a lighter stripe down the middle.

The steaming process, as shown in the second photo, makes the walnut lumber more uniform in color – but at a cost. The sapwood does darken, but at the same time the heartwood lightens and the entire board turns to a washed-out gray color. Compare this with the walnut heartwood that is not steamed and is usually a medium-dark brown which will lean in color towards red, green, or even purple.

The idea of steaming walnut (at least my guess) must have come from sawyers that milled walnut on a regular basis. They surely noticed that when walnut logs sat for awhile before being milled that the sapwood would begin to darken. In these types of logs, much like the third photo, the colors can become quite homogeneous. In some cases it is difficult to distinguish between the heartwood and sapwood if the logs are milled at the right time. Somewhere along the line, this natural process was forced along with steaming.

This sample was not steamed, but the log sat for months before milling, causing the sapwood to darken considerably.

Steaming, as mentioned before, is a separate process. Lumber is milled, then put in “dead” stacks (without sticks to separate the lumber), and then put in a steam chamber. After steaming, the lumber is stacked with sticks and put in a kiln to dry.

I have met many customers that were under the impression that the kiln changes the color and this is not the case. The steaming changes the color. Kiln-dried walnut and air-dried walnut look the same if they haven’t been through the steamer. Just remember that steaming is an entirely separate process from the kiln.

The last thing you should know is that there is a lot of more detailed information available about steaming walnut (optimum temperatures for best color, optimum timing, etc.), but most of it is geared to those that are actually doing the steaming and can get boring in a hurry. Since most of us won’t be steaming our walnut, I think it is best to stop here.

Walnut steamer at Mueller Brothers Timber with walnut just unloaded. Notice that all of the wood is brown with no light sapwood.

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