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.
A friend of mine sent me an e-mail recently and said he had a line on a couple of logs. He gave me no details. I responded quickly telling him that I was not currently chasing logs because I had to focus on work that would make me money quickly, and collecting logs was not it. He let it go until I saw him at the next St. Louis Woodworkers Guild meeting when he brought it up again. This time he talked about the trees being big, which caught my attention. Then he said the magic words – Burr Oak. It wasn’t an accident that he knew the magic words for me because they were magic words for him too. See, a few years back he built the front door for his house out of Burr Oak lumber that I milled, and we both want more like it.
I knew it would be hard to duplicate, because that tree was, by far, the biggest that I have ever milled. It measured 54″ in diameter, inside the bark, 20′ from the ground. It was ginormous.
Unfortunately, the bottom 12′ where the clearest lumber would have been was rotten, but I still got an 8′ log that was pretty clear from the top. That particular tree was very close to my last home in Hazelwood, MO and I had admired it from a distance for a while. It was in a fenced in area on the IBM campus, so I never got right next to it to appreciate just how big it was before it fell. It was a perfect looking tree, the kind that you draw in school, with a short trunk and a big round top. I specifically remember saying to myself, “That is a big tree, too bad the bottom log is so short.” That short log was 20′ long, which shows you how wide the tree was. After seeing the photos of it on the ground and actually working on it, I imagine that it would have set some sort of records for size.
To mill that log, we cut it first into quarters with a chainsaw, lengthwise. Then we milled each quarter on the sawmill to produce quartersawn lumber. I always tell customers that size is one of the key factors for deciding whether to quartersaw a log or not. Sometimes I have to think about it, but this log left me no choice. We had to quarter it to get it on the mill and then still had to take a deep first cut on my old Corley circle mill to get things started.
The log produced quartersawn boards without bark or pith up to 20″ wide, which is crazy wide for quartersawn white oak lumber. I still dream about the lumber that would have come out of the base of that tree if we got it before it rotted. They would have been perfectly straight-grained and up to 25″ wide without a defect, and I would have retired on the proceeds. As it was, the bottom log was completely gone and the top log that I milled still showed some signs of decay in spots.
After working with that log, I heard Burr Oak and started picturing more of the same. I heard big and I pictured perfection in wood. I knew the potential and hoped for a repeat. Well, after picking up the new Burr Oak I must say it is nowhere near as big. It is big (about 36″ in diameter), just not ginormous.
It will have good lumber in it since it is solid to the ground, but it has a lot of branches and nubs that will make the lumber less than perfect. It doesn’t matter, though. I am a wood junkie and I can’t do anything about it. If I didn’t go get it, I can guarantee that it would have been bigger than the biggest Burr Oak and not rotten. The Burr Oak also came with a big cypress and a funky sycamore, both of which will also find a home on the walls of my shop. Thanks John, for letting me know about it (I owe you some lumber).
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:
When I build a piece of furniture I like to build my own drawers and drawer guides. The drawers make me feel like the furniture is more useful, like it has a reason for being. The key is that they must work well. I started out trying many different ways to make drawers operate, but have been using only one way for a long time now.
About ten years ago, I went to a presentation at a local furniture store about Stickley furniture. The one thing I keyed on that night was the video of a worker at the factory fitting a drawer and closing the drawer with just the push of a finger (video link below). I had been around plenty of drawers, especially old ones that don’t work properly, and I wanted to know more.
The secret at Stickley (which isn’t much of a secret), and now at my shop, is the side-hung, center-guided drawer glides or runners. The drawers hang on runners mounted to the inside sides of the cabinet which are made to fit a little loose up and down and not touch the drawer at all left to right. This set up alone isn’t enough though. Without the center guide the drawers would rack in the opening and bind. The center guide under the middle of the drawer allows the drawer to only move in a straight line in and out, and it eliminates the possibility for racking. In fact, the drawer can only go in one direction and can easily be pushed shut with one finger from anywhere on the drawer front. Forget using both hands to push in the drawer.
The system works great and doesn’t take much fussing to install. After I fit the drawers and make sure they are working, I wax the guides with Johnson paste wax, and they work as smooth as silk. One of the keys to extra smooth operation is the use of white oak for the drawers and guides.
I don’t know Stickley’s intent on using white oak for the drawers and guides. I assumed originally that he just used white oak in the drawer system because he was using white oak on the rest of the cabinet, so it just made aesthetic sense to use the wood that was in the rest of the piece. But now, I am starting to think that ol’ Gustav came to using white oak through the back door. I am thinking that he found the perfect wood for drawers and drawer guides that also just happened to be a great wood for furniture – an awesome 1-2 punch. Here’s why: White oak is a hard wood, a very stable wood when quartersawn and also a very slippery wood. That’s right – slippery. Slippery is not the first adjective that comes to mind when you think about white oak, but it is slippery after it is planed. I can’t explain it, but if you take two planed pieces of white oak and stack them up, it is hard to keep them together. Plenty of times in the shop, when I am planing white oak, I slide a piece on to the stack and it just keeps going.
I haven’t noticed this phenomenon with any other woods, just white oak. It doesn’t seem slippery when I am pushing it through the jointer, in fact, just the opposite. On the jointer, it feels like it wants to stick to the bed. But once that white oak touches another piece of white oak it wants to take off. So, I am thinking Stickley noticed that white oak repels white oak like a reverse magnet and thought it would make the best drawer guides ever. Then he looked at white oak and said quietly to himself, “If I am going to use white oak, it has to be quartersawn to be as stable as possible.” He also knew that quartersawn white oak looked more refined and that it was expensive to produce, all of which makes the finished piece seem more valuable. He then loudly exclaimed, “Quartersawn white oak all around.”
And the rest is history (maybe, kinda-sorta). This, of course, doesn’t explain why he used white oak for chairs, but I choose to ignore that for now.
So, now because of my earlier post, “Have You Heard About Shrinkage,” you’ve been thinking 0-1-2, 0-1-2, slow, slow, quick, quick (if you’ve ever taken a dance class with your wife you’ll get that one), and you are still a little confused. Most likely you got bored reading about the 0-1-2 rule I wrote about earlier and drifted off, but this is where it all comes together.
Lumber basically comes in three categories of cuts, which refer to the angle of the growth rings in relation to the surface of the lumber; flatsawn, quartersawn, and riftsawn. A board can be any of these three or anywhere between these three, and since the growth rings form a circle, the category can even change within a board. That’s right, wider boards can have centers that are flatsawn while the outer edges are riftsawn and possibly quartersawn. That is why I push for an understanding of the cut of lumber and worry less about the name.
To the right are the three cuts in their most pure form (the three in the top right of the log diagram) and others that are thrown in for fun. The “fun” ones are to show that it doesn’t matter what process was used to get the lumber from the log (flatsawing, quartersawing, etc.) or its orientation in the log, it is the growth ring direction that counts. The growth rings of flatsawn lumber are parallel to the widest surface, while the growth rings of quartersawn lumber are perpendicular to the widest surface. The rings of riftsawn lumber are at a 45 degree angle. Remember, these refer to their purest forms and there are many cuts in between (as demonstrated by the “fun” names like Nifty Rifty Flatsawn).
The next illustration shows the 0-1-2 rule in action. The three illustrations are table tops glued up from several pieces of wood. The first one is flatsawn lumber, the second is riftsawn, and the third is quartersawn. The numbers represent proportionally how much each piece will move in a given direction (remember that the length moves 0). In this case it is shown as shrinkage from a low-humidity environment, but it could also be expansion if the piece was stored in a high-humidity environment. Either way, the proportion of movement is the same. To make the proportions mean something, make them into fractions. Across the width, flatsawn lumber moves 2 over 1 when expressed as a fraction or 2/1, which simplifies to 2. Quartersawn moves 1 over 2 or 1/2. If you compare those two numbers (2 to 1/2), flatsawn moves four times as much as quartersawn across the width.
If I didn’t just lose you, then you can see by looking at the numbers and the second illustration that quartersawn lumber has the least amount of movement across the width, while flatsawn has the most. This makes the quartersawn the more stable of the two as far as expansion and contraction goes.
The other advantage to quartersawn lumber is its ability to stay flat. While flatsawn lumber has a propensity to cup, quartersawn lumber does not cup, and the 0-1-2 rule is the reason why. All of the heavy internal forces exerted on quartersawn lumber are in the thickness of the wood and going in only one direction, and they have little effect on the shape of the lumber. Those same forces on a flatsawn board are going across the entire face and in an arched trajectory. When these forces pull hard during shrinkage or push hard during expansion, they cause the lumber to take an arched shape that we call cup.
Quartersawn lumber will stay flat and move the least amount when in service. However, it is not so stable that the wood movement can be ignored in construction. When joining two boards, any movement between them that is not proportionally the same and in the same direction must be addressed by allowing the wood to move. Remember the 0-1-2 rule, and look at the boards you are joining to see if the numbers match. It is as easy as 0-1-2.
As woodworkers we have developed our skills worrying about shrinkage, many knowing that quartersawn lumber is more stable, but not really understanding why. We know a piece of wood is going to get fatter in high-humidity and skinnier in lower humidity, but to what extent, and how is that going to effect the shape of the lumber. If the lumber that is being used isn’t obviously quartersawn then what will happen? Is it flatsawn? Or, is it riftsawn? Or, maybe, kinda riftsawn?
I say stop worrying about, and trying to name, the condition of each piece of wood when trying to understand how it will move. A simple rule can be applied to the log to understand wood movement, which can then be easily translated to the lumber. Following this rule will tell you how the lumber is going to shrink, no matter which part of the log it came from or the direction it was cut. Just looking at the endgrain will tell you everything you need to now about the lumber you are using.
I call the rule the 0-1-2 rule, which is a simple ratio of wood movement in three directions in a log. The first direction is along the length of the log. Since the movement along the length is negligible the number is 0. Basically, lumber does not shrink in length. The next number, 1, is applied across the end of the log. In this direction the lumber does shrink, and in a ratio of 1 to the 2 in a circular direction, or half as much. The third number is the 2. In this circular direction, the log shrinks twice as much as it does across the log.
This 1-2 ratio is what causes all the kerfuffle in wood movement. Since the two directions aren’t shrinking and/or expanding at the same rate, wood can’t just be thrown together any direction and expected to stay together. These movement forces are great and will blow things apart or break lumber if not allowed to move.
There is a lot more to be said in a complete discussion of wood movement, but this rule lays the groundwork for all further discussions. Study this one and get to know it like the back of your hand. After you do, it won’t matter what the cut of wood is called, you can just look at the end of the board, envision where it came from in the log, and know how it wants to move.
It isn’t my main business, but I mill lumber for customers on occasion, since I have all of the equipment and I have a hard time saying no. Often they will have a log in mind that they found laying in the woods or even one that they intended to mill sooner, but just never got around to it. Anyway, the log looks less than fresh and they want to know if they should spend the money having it milled.
Of course, I need as much information as possible before I can answer them, but there are some rules that I use to decide. First of all, think of logs as produce. For the color to be the brightest, with as few defects as possible they should be milled quickly. If they have been sitting for a while, I try to determine, in this order, what species the logs are, how long they have been on the ground, what seasons they have been through, and the environment they have been stored in (shady and wet, high and dry, etc.) and finally what it will be used for (hopefully something rustic).
Species is first because logs decay at different rates. For example, silver maple starts to discolor in just a few weeks in the summer, while walnut can sit for years and the heartwood will show no signs of its age. Woods that are white are the first to go, because, as noted in an earlier post, the white wood is the sapwood and it rots
much faster than the heartwood. Next to go are some open-pore hardwoods like red oak and honey locust. Last to go are logs like cherry, walnut and white oak.
For fun, I have photos of a white oak that I just quarter-sawed that inspired this post. Notice that the sapwood has turned to foam, falls apart in your hands, and has big beetles in it (I have regular size hands).
The difference in the heartwood is amazing. It was like a brand new log on the inside. I don’t know how long this log sat, but it was definitely years.
After considering species, time on the ground is the next indicator as to the soundness of logs. Here are some estimations based on three groupings. White woods will be absolutely no good after about four years, show considerable age after just one and be off in color after a couple of months. The open-pore hardwoods like red oak will be worthless in about five years, show their age after two years and start to be off in color in the heartwood after four. The heartwood of the third and final group can definitely go much longer. White oak and cherry heartwood will begin to discolor after six years, but have sound lumber for much longer. Walnut, as far as I can tell, never rots. I’m sure it does, but very slowly. Walnut is the last log I cut because I know it will not go bad on me.
All of these logs can start to show some signs of age after a short time depending on the season. During the summer the logs will get bugs in them and the heat can quickly cause discoloration. These problems will be worsened if the logs are stored in a wet spot versus a spot that is dry. The
winter is the best time to store logs. If it is cold enough, almost no degrade happens and the bug issue is moot. If stored in a shady and dry spot, off of the ground, and in the winter the logs will last the longest.
The last thing to consider is what level of degrade is acceptable, knowing that logs that have sat for more than a couple of months will have some “character”. Worm holes and spalting are common and can happen quickly in the summer, but still leave the lumber stable. Even lumber that is structurally impaired can be used for panels and other areas just for show. If you are alright with less than perfect lumber than you can easily use logs that have sat for a long time.
When checking on a logs condition, simply cut the ends back a couple of inches to see what is inside. Logs rot more quickly on the outside and from the ends. Trimming the ends may reveal wood in the middle that is still good, or it may not. Look at the color and check the hardness of the wood. If the color is marbled or there are soft spots, the wood is decayed. If it seems too soft/rotten, trim back further, a foot at a time, until you get to solid wood. If you get done trimming the ends and the remaining log is firewood length, your log is too rotten to mill.