Not too long ago, I got on a kick milling wide slabs on the Lucas Mill. I was milling some pecan branches from a giant tree and the slabs were coming out great. The crazier the section was, the better the slabs were. Then I got to this last branch. It was the smallest in diameter, but I thought it still had potential. My plan was to clean it up and make it more “log like” without the extra branch and then mill the slabs. The problem was that every time I tried to move it with the forklift it kept rolling off of the forks. The forks of the branch made it want to spin, and every time it landed in the same position. It was almost yelling at me to leave it alone, so I did. For awhile, I just kept moving it out of the way so I could work on better logs, and it kept flopping off of my forks.
It took me awhile to clue in, but then I realized that the final piece was going to be a bench cut from the branch and not slabs cut from the branch, and the way it kept landing was the way the bench was going to sit. So, I stopped fighting it and made a few cuts. I ended up with this excellent outdoor bench (and one bonus slab). I milled both the top and bottom to make it sit level at 18″ tall. The widest flat area is 24″ wide, while the entire bench is about 10′ long. I don’t know how much it weighs, but it is very heavy and will require a Bobcat for loading and delivery. The top has been sanded and then finished with Sikkens Cetol, which I have found to be the longest lasting outdoor finish. I expect that the bark will fall off, but so far it is staying on pretty good.
I have never made a bench like this before, and I am quite proud of this one. It looks nice, functions well and is hard to steal. And, the best part is that now, for some reason, it doesn’t roll off of the forks. I guess it is just the way it was meant to be.
Last week, I was asked to speak at the annual conference for the Midwest Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (a surprisingly lively bunch). While I was working on my presentation and looking through old photos, I came across photos of the kitchen at our last house and was reminded of a story that I think is worth retelling. The kitchen at our last house was made from quartersawn sycamore and all of it came from one giant log. This is the story of that giant log.
One day I was out looking for logs and stopped by St. Louis Composting, where they see a lot of logs that they turn into mulch. Every time I have been there I can have my pick of logs as long as they are not desirable in any way to anyone else, especially someone who might pay for them. That normally leaves me with short, rotten, crooked, hollow and busted pieces from undesirable species of trees (mostly sweetgum, pin oak and cottonwood). But this day I got lucky. I found a log that looked bad on the outside, but was great on the inside.
It certainly did not look like a log of my dreams, but it caught my attention because it was big. For some reason, probably because it was so big, no one had cut it to firewood length yet. From all aspects it deserved it. The log was old and gray with no bark and plenty of cracks, and it was rotten in spots. Maybe it wasn’t cut up yet because everyone thought it was too rotten or because they somehow knew it was a sycamore and thought it wasn’t good enough for firewood (you would be surprised how snobby people are about their firewood, even when it is free).
No matter what the reason, it was there. It was long too. Big and long, now you really have my attention. The log was 13 feet long and scaled at about 1,000 bd. ft. It was giant.
I knew right away I wanted it. Heck, as long as it wasn’t a cottonwood, pin oak or sweet gum I wanted it. But, I also knew that my crane wouldn’t pick it up. Luckily, they have very big loaders at St. Louis Composting and for $20 they agreed to load it for me. After I paid the loader operator he scurried over with the loader and scooped the log with his bucket. The log didn’t fit in the bucket, but it rested nicely on the front while he maneuvered over to my truck. This guy apparently had a lot of other material to move and was in a hurry. He moved quickly to the side of my truck, but slowed down like I expected when he got close.
What I didn’t expect him to do was to dump the log on my truck from a couple of feet in the air. When he did, I sank to my knees, all the way to my knees, completely in sync with my truck. Both of us quickly squatted to the ground and very slowly bounced back up. “Holy S—,” I thought. My heart was jumping out of my chest. I couldn’t believe it. Was it this dudes first day? I was sure that my truck was now destroyed, if not permanently disfigured. There was just no way on this great earth of ours that my old 1977 Chevy C60 could take a hit like that. But, somehow it did, and it bounced back.
My first thought (once I could breathe) was to ask for my $20 back, but as far as I could tell nothing was broke. I knew my truck could handle a lot of weight, I just didn’t think it could take it all at once and with such force, but I guess I was wrong. I threw some straps on the log and headed back.
On the way back I was something to see. I felt like the coolest kid in school. I could feel everyone staring at me. Ill-informed do-gooder dads were pointing out my truck to the kids in the back seat and explaining how long it takes a (insert tree name here, as long as it isn’t sycamore, or it won’t be funny) tree to get to that size. Policeman were stopping gawkers at intersections worried that they might be too distracted by looking at my huge log (could have gone so many ways with that one). Other drivers pulled up next to me and yelled, “Did you load that yourself?” By the way, that last one really happened. All was right with the world. At least for a time.
When I got back to the sawmill, I jumped out to open the gate and noticed a smell of something burning… maybe rubber, I thought. I took a walk around my truck and all six of my tires were still good. The smell got stronger when I came back around to the front of the truck, and now smoke was coming out of the front end from under the hood. Quickly, like a really slow jack rabbit, I opened the hood and jumped up on my bumper to see what was burning. To my surprise, it was the battery, but I wasn’t surprised to see why. The battery was now laying on my exhaust manifold. The truck was bounced so hard that the battery (which was not properly secured) was flung out of the battery tray and onto the exhaust manifold and it was very melty.
That guy at St. Louis Composting with that giant loader managed to dislodge my battery from its cute little tray with one whack. In all of the time I have driven this truck (all without the battery properly secured) it has never popped out of that tray. And, I have hit some big bumps, many of them way too hard and way too fast and the battery has always stayed put. I just wish I had some video of it, so I could see my truck go all the way to the ground and bounce back up and say, “Thank you, Sir. May I have another?”
After it was all said and done, I had a new battery and after even more was said and done I had new kitchen full of cabinets made from one giant sycamore log.
I was meeting with a customer last week and we were going over the details of the job and discussing the wood that I was going to use for their bookshelves – cherry, as you might have guessed. I was going on about how much I like cherry and was making sure to plug the fact that I mill my own trees. During our discussion, which was mostly me talking and him nodding, he asked,”Well, how big do cherry trees get?” I knew then that he was wondering what I was wondering when I started cutting trees. How do you get big boards from such little orchard trees? I explained to him that it wasn’t the type of cherry tree he was picturing. It was an American Black Cherry, which grows in the forest, mixed with other hardwoods. His next question was, “But, it doesn’t have cherries does it?” As a matter of fact it does. They aren’t big and they are in a cluster that looks like grapes, but they are fruit that birds love to eat, and they are definitely cherries. Then I thought and quickly asked, “Are you ready to be shocked? I bet that you have one right here in your yard and don’t even know it.” I wasn’t going too far out on a limb because I had just driven down a long gravel drive with upland hardwoods to get to his house. I hadn’t specifically spotted a cherry tree, but I could smell them (not literally).
As we talked more, our discussion went back and forth from the piece of furniture that I am going to make to the wood that I am going to use, and we talked more about how big the cherry trees get. I explained that they get big like any hardwood lumber tree, but are on the smaller end of the scale overall. An average log size in this area is about 14″-15″ in diameter, inside the bark, on the skinny end. However, it isn’t uncommon for them to be larger. The main problem with larger and older logs is that they tend to have punky/rotten areas in the center of the log, so many bigger logs don’t get milled. For fun (as always) and to prove that they get bigger than orchard trees, I thought I would share a few photos of my larger finds. Notice that we are not phased at all by the size of the larger logs. It’s routine for us.
By the way, as I left his property, I saw a couple of small cherry trees and I am sure that there are more.
A while ago, I attended a Jeff Jewitt finishing seminar hosted by the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, and we were encouraged to bring pieces of wood that were presenting us with problems. Jeff intended the problems be related to finishing, but a couple of members brought wood that they needed to have identified.
We spent some time looking at the wood, examining all the characteristics that could help in identification. Color, weight and grain all came in to play. Next we moved on to other clues like age of the samples (which would affect color) and from where the wood came (to determine if it was domestic or exotic).
The first member, Tom, had a sample that looked like sassafras. We looked at all the above characteristics and then smelled the piece. It didn’t have an obvious scent because the sample was not fresh. Tom’s board was a scrap, so we cut it to expose new wood and a new scent. Sassafras has a strong scent, similar to Murphy’s oil soap, and is indeed used as a scent in cleaning products. The smell test was conclusive and the scrap was confidently labeled as sassafras.
That is all well and good, but sassafras has a very strong, unique scent. It is easy to identify by the smell alone.
Next up was Cecil with his wood. We had the advantage of knowing that the piece came from Mueller Brothers sawmill in Old Monroe. They only mill certain species, so it was already narrowed down for us. We looked at the wood and it looked like poplar, but they don’t mill poplar at that sawmill. Cecil’s piece was scrap, so we cut it and smelled the end. It smelled like popcorn, not buttered or salted, just popcorn. It was cottonwood. A lot of the time it burns in the saw and then smells like burnt popcorn. Not the best of smells, but it is a good indicator of what wood you have.
After this, I realized that most of the logs that I cut could be identified just by the smell. It helps to have a days worth of sawdust from one species in your nose for proper training, but it can be done. Other examples that came to mind were cherry (very sweet and fruity), hard maple (butter cream icing), white oak (wine), sycamore (apples) and walnut (bitter and burns). And these are smells that I can describe. Other woods have distinct smells that can’t as easily be put in to words, but can still help identify a species.
Think about it next time you are trying to identify a wood, make a fresh cut and take a whiff. It may tell you what wood it is or at least tell you what wood it is not.
I own and run a TimberKing 1220 manual sawmill. The manual part means that it is not automated and less expensive than other bigger models. I have had several other sawmills, and overall I am happy with this one, though I would always like a bigger and better one. It is a small entry-level mill, but can still cut a log up to 30″, which is big.
In most ways my TimberKing mill is strong enough to handle the bigger logs, even though it is not really made for them. However, there is one area that I have found severely lacking, and that is the log supports. You see, when you put a log on the mill it may roll off, so the mill has two or three posts that can be raised into a vertical position to catch and hold the log during milling. They also can be lowered out of the path of the bandsaw blade when needed. The posts need to be strong enough to support the log in a resting position, and be able to handle the pressure placed on them when turning a log. They also need to be square to the bed to help make a round log into square lumber.
The log supports on my mill don’t do any of these things well. They are made from dainty little pieces of steel that can bend quite easily and are never square to the bed. Through the years I have bent them back – never to square, but back enough to support the logs. When I want a square cant (squared up log), I take the time to shim the log and use a carpenter’s square to make sure that everything is copacetic.
Well, this week I finally did it. I put a large elm log on the mill, and I was adjusting it with a big loader when the log just rolled over the supports and off of the mill. It didn’t even notice they were there. The uprights looked like limp noodles, and it is obvious they aren’t going back to any acceptable shape. I bent them more than enough to finally provoke myself into making new ones.
The good news is that I bought the steel to do it a while ago, but have just never taken the time to do it. Looks, like now is the time.
Many times customers will call to discuss having a log milled and how much it will cost. The answer is often based on how many board feet (12″ x 12″ x1″) will be produced. So, the first thing I ask is, “How big is the log?” Usually the answer is, “Well, I can’t get my arms around it.” And, while this may be helpful, there is a more accurate way to determine the size of a log and how many board feet will be produced.
There are three common scales or rules used in the industry (Doyle, Scribner, and International), but the Doyle scale is the most commonly used around the St. Louis area. All three of the scales estimate logs closely in the medium to larger size range, but the Doyle underestimates footage on the smaller logs. Because of this, it is advantageous for buyers of logs to use the Doyle scale to make up for extra log handling on small logs. Since the buyers like this scale, it is what they use and therefore, what the sellers use.
All buyers have a Doyle scale on them at all times, usually in the form of a folding rule with the footage marked at each inch. The printable version above has more increments on it, but it is basically the same and is used in conjunction with a tape measure. I always have a tape measure on me, so I usually use the printed version (they are also cheaper).
The formula for the scale is based on a tapered cylinder, milled with a 1/4″ kerf. Straight logs, with little taper and cut on a thin-kerf bandsaw will yield more lumber than the scale predicts. It usually averages out, because logs are usually not so perfect, and often have boards that are below-grade and end up in the firewood pile.
To use the scale, first measure the average diameter of the small end of the log inside the bark (in inches). Locate that row on the scale. Next, measure the length of the log (in feet). Move over on the scale to that length column. Where those two measurements intersect, you will find the board footage for that log. The process must be repeated for each log. Deductions are made for defects, like rot and curved logs.
Since sawmills usually charge by the board foot, this scale will help you determine the amount of lumber you will have and what you can expect your bill to be. Make sure to accurately measure your log and not just guess the diameter. The logs seem bigger than the actual measurement. My customers are usually off by about a foot in diameter on good-sized logs when they guess.
A little perspective on log sizes:
• A respectable diameter on a hardwood tree is 20″.
• A large diameter on a hardwood tree is 30+”.
• The smallest diameter most hardwood mills buy is 13″.
• The largest logs I get on a once-a-year basis is about 45″ diameter (8′-10′ from the ground).
• The largest hardwood I have ever milled is a 54″ diameter (20′ from the ground) Burr Oak.
I get all of my logs from the St. Louis area, and most of them come from yards. After the tornado that went through this spring, I picked up a lot of cherry and a few nice walnuts. Two of them, which happened to be from the biggest walnut I have personally been involved with, I sold to David Stein, a custom woodworker in Illinois. David was happy to get the logs because of their size, which would work well for his large slab tables. There were, however, some blue/gray stains at the end of the bottom log that indicate metal within and were the main reason I didn’t sell it to a larger commercial veneer/log buyer. Luckily for me, David was willing to give the log a go. Unluckily for David, it was the most metal infested log he ever milled. He planned to have a few pieces with metal, but ended up with metal in every one. Hopefully, David will be able to get something useable out of the two logs (I don’t think the top log had metal in it, but it was much lower grade).
So, yesterday, with David in mind, I put a large walnut on my mill that came from only a few yards away from his (interestingly enough, I found walnuts in only one block in the entire city of Ferguson). It was a bottom log, so I got out my metal detector and scanned the log – nothing. I scanned again, this time focused about five feet from the ground where at least one nail was sure to be found – nothing. This tree had a swing in it and it came from an open back yard with only a couple other trees. It was a perfect candidate for a good hook or screw of some sort. Maybe higher – nothing. Lower – nothing. I milled this entire log and amazingly, hit only a few bullets near the base, which the mill didn’t mind.
I was astonished once the walnut was milled that the lumber was so nice and produced without incident. There are no photos of giant hooks protruding out of the log or broken bandsaw blades, but I thought you might enjoy some photos of the milling anyway. The log was busted a little at the bottom when it was uprooted, but I was able to work around the cracks and only lost the ends of some lower grade boards in the middle of the log.