I’ll admit it, I am not as fast as I’d like to be. I always think that I will get things done quicker than I do. And, I always say that things are done when I mean they are “basically done”, which means that I still have a few things left to do (therefore not done). I like to think of it as being optimistic. Well, while I am being “optimistic”, a lot of other things aren’t getting done (mostly because I am busy working on the thing that I thought was already done).
The one thing usually not getting done is sawing. After all, the logs aren’t going anywhere and a lot of them are just getting better with age. I’ll let them sit for a while, depending on the species, and try to play it just right for special things, like spalting, to happen. Sometimes I push it too far and the log rots and becomes unusable. Species like ash and maple, which have a lot of sapwood, need to be milled sooner than the rest. They (especially maple) will quickly stain, spalt and then rot, while others will be fine. I often use this rotting process as a gauge to decide which log to mill next. I like all of the logs I bring in, and I don’t want any of them to turn into dirt before they get turned into lumber.
Through the years, as I have kept tabs on the disintegrating logs, I have learned what it means to be “durable”. In the books about different species of wood, they always list their durability, which I thought meant how they handle wear and tear, like from a hammer, but they mean from the weather. Turns out some woods last longer outside than others. I knew this, of course, but only from reading it. Now, after all of my “wood collecting”, I know it from watching it happen. Some woods go fast, but some never seem to go. And, they are not necessarily the first ones to come to mind.
I was inspired to write this because of the two that are extremely durable, but no one ever thinks to use outside – two of my best friends – walnut and cherry. These two just don’t rot. I should say the heartwood doesn’t rot. The sapwood on both of them rots as fast as any other sapwood, but the heartwood doesn’t rot. I commonly find old logs with no bark and sapwood that just flakes off in my hand, but the heartwood is fine. It might have cracks in it from the log drying out or bug holes from sitting too long, but the heartwood will be just as solid as the day it was cut down.
Of the species I mill, these are not the only ones that perform great outside, but they are the surprises. I bet almost no one would think of using walnut or cherry outside. They always end up inside because they are so nice, maybe too nice to put outside. I will tell you that this one has me baffled, and as of yet, I have no idea why this is. However, my main interest is to spread the word that walnut and cherry are great outdoor choices. Walnut may not be the best because the price is going up, but cherry is becoming an even better choice as its price is on the decline. If you don’t mind a few knots in your outdoor work, common-grade cherry is very affordable. And, if you are doing a high-end outdoor piece clear walnut may make sense. It is more expensive than Ipe (an imported wood great for outdoor work), but it is easier to work with and it just feels right to use an American wood.
Again, the sole reason I know that these woods are durable is from my own experience. If I have a walnut or cherry log and it doesn’t get cut right away, I don’t sweat it. I know that years down the road that logs from these two species will still have solid wood in them, while others have rotted away. The best example I have is from a recent post about a walnut that I found on the Missouri River. It was the driftiest piece of driftwood you will ever find and the inside still looked like new (click here to check out the post and video from the picture above and to see the inside of the log).
Working with wood is most enjoyable to me when I can just grab a tool and get to work – forget the tape measure, the jigs, and the worry. It is one of the reasons that I really like to work at the sawmill. One of my favorite things to do is bust up big logs with my chainsaw so they will fit on the sawmill or to prepare them for quartersawing, or better yet, just to move them.
I have an old 742 Bobcat that is rated to work with 1,500 pounds, which isn’t much when the logs get big. But, that doesn’t stop me. I just cut the logs lengthwise to lighten the load. People always ask me how big of a log I can cut (in reference to my sawmill). And, I always tell them, “As big as I want if I have my chainsaw.” By the way, my TimberKing 1220 sawmill will process a 30″ diameter log without any chainsaw work and cut boards up to 24″ wide. To a lot of people it seems crazy, like I am cutting the tree the wrong direction, but it works. It takes a little while, but it works.
When I get ready to break down a log, I only use the chainsaw (nothing on the bar to guide the cut). This gives me maximum flexibility, even if it is daunting at first. Daunting or not, you would be amazed how good the freehand cut can be with just a little practice (that doesn’t mean that I haven’t made some terrible freehand cuts).
When it comes to chainsawing a potentially valuable tree, I wasn’t always so cavalier. I would mark, remark, cut, check, recheck and cut again to make sure I wasn’t screwing it up. Now, after some practice, I realize it isn’t so hard, and rarely do I mess it up too bad. To help you not mess it up at all, I have some advice. It starts with only a minuscule amount of planning and a micron of forethought. After that it’s just you and your chainsaw.
Here is the plan of attack (This works for all lengthwise cuts on a log, but is shown on the flat face of a half log below):
First, decide where you want the cut to start and make a mark on the top of one end that you can see from the other end (I just make a small chainsaw cut). Then, swing around to the opposite end and make a mark where you want the cut to finish. Next, make a shallow marking cut using your entire bar. Start with the back end of the bar on your original mark and drop the front end of the saw on to the log in line with your mark at the other end. The idea here is to start your straight line by aiming at the finish point. After you mark the log, swing back to the side you started on and do the same thing.
At this point the log will be marked on both ends the length of your bar. Sight down these two lines to make sure they are in line with each other and then connect them. If they aren’t lined up, adjust now, before you get to deep. Trust your eye, it will tell you all you need to know. Imagine you are eyeing up lumber at Home Depot, but now you can fix the crooked wood. If you don’t trust your eye you can use other guides, like a straight board or a chalkline if you want, but I say trust your eye.
After you have scored the log, it is time to start cutting. I like to work the entire line, going back and forth and dropping a little deeper each time. I keep doing this until my chainsaw is at a pretty steep angle, and I feel like I have a nice cut to guide the saw. After that, I aim the bar down as deep as necessary to finish the cut. I work myself along the log and make sure to leave the end cut for last. If you cut the end first then you have to finish in the middle of the log. This is dangerous because your body will be next to the log when it breaks apart and squishy things could happen. Finish with your body off to the end of the log.
That’s all there is to it. With a little practice your cuts will be straighter than you imagined. Trust your eye and let the sawdust fly.
Note: There are chainsaw guides available like the Beam Machine and the Alaskan Mini Mill which guide the chainsaw along a piece of lumber or track. These work fine and give a straighter cut than freehand cutting. I find that they work well for shallow cuts but are harder to use with a big saw making deep cuts. They are much easier to set up on the flat cut face of a log half compared to the round outside of a log for the first cut. I am not against using these guides and I know that I lose a little bit of lumber because of imperfect freehand cuts, but I like the freedom of being able to do whatever I need when I need it with just my chainsaw.
I met David (Dave) Moore about a year ago, and I knew we would hit it off. From our initial conversation, I could tell that he loves wood and has an artistic sensibility. He showed up at the mill with his video camera and wasn’t afraid to use it. I knew nothing about his video-production capabilities, but wasn’t expecting much when I realized his video camera looked like a regular digital 35mm SLR camera. Needless to say, I underestimated the final results. That little camera produces an excellent picture and Dave knows his way around the editing room, as well as he does the woodworking shop.
Dave wanted to build a table for a customer out of quartersawn sycamore. I used quartersawn sycamore to build the cabinets in my last house, and I quarter-saw sycamore whenever I get the right logs (they need to be big in diameter, free of ring-shake, and preferably have a lot of dark heartwood), so I told Dave I was up for the challenge. Dave wanted to document the whole process, so he showed up to the mill just after I chainsawed the log in half to get us started. Dave can take it from here:
In case you were wundering, this is how the kitchen looked with quartersawn sycamore cabinets:
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.