How to Find the Center Without Doing the Math
Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like to follow convention. I swear I don’t do it to be ornery (though my wife might disagree), I just enjoy viewing things from different angles. I always take a different route when I can and like to approach life the same way. One of my differing viewpoints is on measuring. For some people the measurement is the measurement and that’s it. For me, not so much. It doesn’t seem like much of a hill to die on, but I think it is at least worth discussing. Measuring with tape measures and using some system like imperial or metric to communicate those measurements with others is important, but it isn’t the only way to accomplish many tasks. One of the most common places to subvert mathematical conventions is in dividing spaces evenly, and a great example is finding the center of a piece by dividing a space in two.
Finding the center with math can be simple – half of 24″ is 12″. But, it can be hard too. Real quick, tell me the center of 157-13/16″. The answer will take some math and possibly a calculator to get to 78.90625″ or 78-29/32″, and then you need to find that on a tape measure – more math to figure out that 29/32″ is just between 7/8″ and 15/16″and isn’t even marked on your tape measure. The conventional approach would be to do the math, mark the measurement, and double check the math by measuring from each side to verify that the center mark is the same distance from each edge. But, I am here to tell you that you can skip the math part.
The measurement or the actual number on the tape measure is somewhat arbitrary at this point. All that is needed is for both halves to be the same, whether or not it lines up with a mark on a tape measure doesn’t matter. Think of it like this, that center point is going to be in the same place no matter what measuring system you use. The measuring system is just a way for you to communicate a number from piece to piece or to someone else.
So, how do you find the center without doing the math? The answer is pretty simple. Skip the math part and just go straight to the verifying part. All you need is a tape measure and one good eye. Here’s how to do it:
1) Look at the piece and put a mark in what looks to be the center. Maybe you have a great eye, maybe you are done.
2) Measure to that mark from one side. It will most likely be a wacky, non-conformist number like 28-15/16″, plus a skosh. Simplify your life and move that mark to something easy and something on the tape measure, in this case 29″.
3) Measure from the other side towards the center and mark 29″ again. Now you will have two marks on your piece. If you have a good eye, those two marks will be very close together. If not, pick another number that will get those marks closer together. For example, those two marks might be about 6″ apart, so add 3″ or subtract 3″ (depending on if they overlap or not) to each side and remark. Now they will be close together. Still no math.
4) If you are only roughly splitting the piece in two, it is easy enough to eyeball and mark the center at this point, since there is very little distance between the two marks. If you need to be accurate, just change your measurement a little. If your marks are about 1/2″ apart, change it by 1/4″ on each side. At some point the numbers will be exactly the same or they will be 1/16″ or less off. Once you get to that point, you have no choice but to eyeball it and put a mark in between the marks.
I love to use this system and smile a little bit inside when I do it, feeling like I know some secret no one else does. I know it’s not the case, but I still think it is fun to find the center without all the official math. Heck, I could even do the same thing with just a random stick if I needed too. On a recent project, I was cutting it very close on length and needed to make sure my layout was in the middle of the slab, and I got a chance to use my “no measuring” system again, and this time I got it on video. Check out the following video where I show my measuring marvel in real life:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Badass live edge walnut conference room table
We just delivered a walnut conference room table and I have been doing my best to describe it. I feel like it’s a bit aggressive and perhaps a little braggy, but after I show the photos, I get agreement on the word “badass”.
It started with a sketch from the customer (a pretty good one, by the way) of what he envisioned. I didn’t know at the time how it would go together, but I don’t worry about pesky details, so I just got to work.
Up first was how to fasten the top to the base and second, whether or not the base would need to break down for transport. Although it isn’t necessary for it to breakdown, I thought it would be cool if it could. After Jeff, our resident builder and CNC guy had the idea to use bed rail hardware, I realized the base could go together and break down without tools or visible hardware, and I knew I had to do the same for the top.
I messed with lots of different ways to attach the live edge top(s) and finally ended up with a sliding spline joint that allowed it to completely assemble without tools. As I worked on it, I got more drawn into and obsessed with the assembly part and didn’t really get a chance to appreciate how pretty it was until the final assembly at the customer’s office. Even if the design isn’t for you, I think you’ll agree – it’s badass.
Click on the link below to watch the video of the table build from picking out the wood through the delivery.