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:
What to Look for When Purchasing Used Lumber
I buy what I would call “used” lumber (even though it may not have been actually used) on a somewhat regular basis. Most of my purchases have come from barn finds because I like to buy in larger quantities and lots of barns are sitting out there with big stacks of lumber in them. I make sure to only purchase if the price is right because I have learned the hard way that the lumber is never as good as everyone thinks it is or wants it to be. And, there are many reasons for this:
- Not cut from high-grade logs: The lumber is cut from whatever logs were available at the time. There may have been some high-grade logs (from the bottom of the tree) in the mix, but there were definitely also low-grade logs (from higher up in the tree). This means the lumber will have more knots and other defects. In the hardwood industry, logs are sorted by grade. Low-grade logs are milled to make low-grade products, like railroad ties and pallets. They aren’t even milled at grade sawmills.
- Wood is more precious to the owner: Wood that should be trimmed off was kept simply because they weren’t ready to let it go and it didn’t hurt anything to keep it.
- People involved in the lumber production are not professionally trained: Usually the owner of the logs and the sawyer they employeed do not know enough about sawmilling to produce the highest quality lumber. Many sawmill owners do not understand how to cut for grade lumber, and even if they do, they are often given direction from the log owner to maximize yield and not grade. Beyond that, cutting for grade involves flipping the log in the sawmill many times, requiring more work and more time, so those steps are often skipped.
- Lumber hidden in a stack is always lower grade than everyone remembers: After the lumber is cut and tucked into a stack, it looks higher grade. It’s too easy to forget about defects and only remember the perfect boards.
- Lumber is cut thin and inconsistent: Often (almost always) barn find lumber is cut a little thin and inconsistent. People ask for 1″ thick lumber and the sawyer delivers, even though commercially produced 1″ thick (4/4) lumber is cut at 1-1/16″ to 1-1/8″ thick. Lumber rough cut right at 1″ thick often doesn’t dry, joint flat and plane entirely to 3/4″ or more in thickness. As well as being cut thin, the lumber is usually cut inconsistently – a result of inexperienced sawyers, poor-performing equipment and no real need to worry about consistency of cutting. It’s not easy (and more work) to make sure all of the lumber coming off of a sawmill is the same thickness from end to end of each and every board.
- Best boards already used: This one is self-explanatory and obvious. You would use the best boards first too. It just makes sense that the lumber which remains may not be the best boards out of a log.
All of these reasons explain why the lumber won’t be as good as you would hope, but it is also helpful to see examples of what makes lower grade lumber. Click on the video link to see a recent batch of walnut I purchased and what I found in the stack. And, remember when purchasing used lumber, just don’t pay too much.
Festool Domino Connectors Pull It Together
About two years ago we started using Festool Domino connectors in the shop because we were working on a trade show display which needed to pack flat for shipping. The metal connectors are made specifically for this occasion, and if you have ever put together a piece of breakdown furniture (think Ikea), you have probably used something similar.
The connectors work great, fit into a normal Domino slot and are easy to use, but since they do require an access hole to tighten the lockscrew, they can’t be used everywhere. And, just like a Kreg screw connection, there will be never-ending discussions about whether or not this is “real woodworking”. Regardless of how real they are, the connectors have found a place in our shop and recently we found another great use for them.
Jeff, our building and finishing extraordinaire (he can do it all), was working on a desk which came together at some funky angles and decided to try the Domino connectors for alignment and clamping, and it worked great. The corner joint, which he glued together, lined up perfectly and pulled together tightly. Previously, we used other variations of under counter hardware an/or wacky clamping setups to pull the joint together and they always seemed a bit amateurish, like we were just making it up as we went, and often we were. But, not now.
Now, we are using the Festool Domino connectors not only for pieces which need to breakdown, but also for connecting and clamping those hard-to-clamp joints. And, just recently, we built a big walnut bar which required both, in the same piece. We had several joints which needed to clamp together permanently, and since the bar was very big and U-shaped, it needed to come apart in the corner to be assembled on site. The Domino connectors worked perfectly in this case, and I am sure you will be seeing more of them in the future.
Click on the video below to see how the project came together and how the connectors made it all possible.
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.
Installing New French Doors
Installing doors isn’t the quickest and easiest thing to do. They need to fit well, with even gaps all around and they need to shut securely, but easily. It is a demanding task, which I decided to make even more so by adding a second door to the mix.
While challenging, you’ll get no complaints from me. I like this little finicky stuff almost as much as I like sanding. And, while that sounds like sarcasm, it is true. I really do like both. I find it rather relaxing to just chill out and get into the work. When I was working on these doors and shooting the video for it, I even thought about making a “slow” woodworking video, with the beautiful weather and the birds chirping and me just chiseling away. Maybe that will be for another video, when everyone is clamoring for me to slow down the action a bit and make the videos much longer (I expect that to happen on the 12th).
In the meantime, click on the link below to see my zen video on installing a set of mahogany french doors at regular speed.
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.
How Much is Your Log Worth?
How much is your log worth? The short answer is probably not as much as you had hoped, but you’re not here for the short answer, so I’ll give you the long one.
First off, you need a bit of background of where I come from on this subject. I mill, sell and work with lumber from mostly suburban settings with lots of yard trees salvaged from tree services and a decent number of logs from wooded settings, usually where a building is about to be erected. This means my log supply can range from barely usable to awesomely perfect and all with lots of wacky and wild in between. I normally pay nothing for my logs and only buy a couple of logs per year, which I just can’t live without. I mostly don’t pay for logs because I mostly don’t have to. There are lots of logs available to me, especially if I am willing to pick them up.
Since I work in an area with a large population (St. Louis and St. Charles, MO), I often get requests from homeowners looking to make money from their logs, especially after hearing age-old stories of walnut logs selling for thousands and thousands of dollars. These consistent requests and a recent article in the Missouri Conservationist magazine (click here to read the article) about Missouri hardwoods prompted me to put into writing what I have repeated probably hundreds of times.
- A log is worth as much as someone is willing to pay. This sounds like a smartass answer, but it isn’t. If you don’t know where to sell your logs or you can’t find someone in your area willing to pay, they aren’t worth much. And, if you can’t get your logs to the buyer they are worth even less. Especially, if you only have one tree, expect no excitement from someone who normally purchases logs. You won’t get a larger purchaser, like a big sawmill, to come out for less than a truckload.
- Your log probably isn’t as great as you think it is. You would be amazed by how many people call me and tell me about a walnut tree in their yard that is at least 40 years old or about the tree which has its first branch at 5′ from the ground. A walnut tree is a baby at 40 years old and is obviously a short, branchy yard tree with not much of a log if there are branches 5′ from the ground. A good tree, one worth really talking about, will have at least 10′ of branchless trunk, if not 14′ or 16′ or more. Just because it is a walnut tree, doesn’t mean it is a good walnut tree.
- Most high-dollar logs are veneer-quality logs. Almost all of the stories of logs selling for high prices are for veneer-quality logs. And, almost all of the logs out there are not veneer-quality logs. Veneer logs look like they came from the “log factory” and are perfect in every way; no signs of knots, straight, round, good color, good growth ring spacing, centered pith, no bird peck, no shake, no metal, fresh, and hopefully, big. I only get a few veneer quality trees out of hundreds per year and they almost never come out of yards. They are usually hidden somewhere in the woods.
- Yard trees have metal in them. This is no myth. Whether you remember doing it or not, there is a good chance your yard tree has metal in it. Metal, like nails, hooks, wires and chains mess up saw blades and make a mess by staining the wood. I expect trees I pick up to have metal in them, and I will work around it, but remember, I don’t pay for trees. Larger operations have no reason to buy logs with metal in them, especially if the next log truck in the gate is full of logs without metal.
- You don’t know what you don’t know. If you are reading this, it is most likely because you don’t sell logs on a regular basis (or, you just want to see if I know what I am talking about). Without doing this consistently, you can’t know enough about your logs to properly sell them. You can’t get it in front of the right people at the right time and present them with something they can’t live without, and you definitely can’t defend your product. You will be at the mercy of the buyer. They will know after the first thing out of your mouth that you do not know what you are doing, and even if they are fair, they will never overpay.
You can tell from most of these points that I am pretty sure you aren’t going to get rich from your single tree or a couple of logs (especially from me) and you shouldn’t expect to. With that point made, you should know that some do have value if you have a place to sell them and you have a way to get them to a buyer. So, if I haven’t completely dissuaded you from selling your logs, below are some pricing examples that you can expect if you were to sell your logs to a larger operation in the midwest:
Average price, based on 20″ diameter inside the bark on the skinny end x 10′ long = 160 bf.
Red oak $.70 per bf. clear saw log = $112, $1.00 per bf. veneer log= $160
White oak $.85 per bf. clear saw log = $136, $1.50 per bf. veneer log= $240
Walnut $1.70 per bf. clear saw log = $272, $3.50 per bf. veneer log= $560
Cherry $.90 per bf. clear saw log = $144, $1.40 per bf. veneer log= $224
Hard Maple $.75 per bf. clear saw log = $120, $1.25 per bf. veneer log= $200
Now, obviously prices will range from mill to mill, based on what wood is available in the area, what is selling well and if the mill specializes in any products or species. The above prices should just serve as a guidepost in determining if bothering to sell your logs is worthwhile. Most of the logs in the pricing example above would not cover the price of trucking on their own, so marketing one log most likely doesn’t make sense, unless you can haul it yourself.
However, you can see that if a landowner were to have a large number of trees, the money could start to add up. $112 for a red oak log doesn’t sound like much, but it starts to sound like something when there is a semi truckload of $112 logs. This is what most large timber sales are based on; a large number of logs sold at a fair price and not necessarily getting rich on one tree.
Usually, the phone calls I answer are about a single “big” walnut tree which will cost a homeowner lots of money to remove because it is large and right up against the house. They see a big log worth big money. However, the removal costs also jump up with the increase in tree size, negating any benefit of a larger tree. Their hope is that I will be excited enough about their tree to cut it down (safely, I presume) in trade for the wood, but the math doesn’t work out. A tree which costs $3,000 to remove probably won’t have $3,000 worth of logs in it, no matter if it is walnut or not.
Remember, the bottom line is that logs do have some value, but if you can’t do all of the work like cutting, hauling and selling yourself there is almost no way to make money on a single tree. Unless, of course, you just happen to have a tree like the ones below that I couldn’t live without.
Antiques Roadshow Find or Nakashima Knockoff?
Last week a friend of mine, John, was at my shop telling me about a chair that he found on Craigslist. It wasn’t in perfect shape, and the wood was stained with red blotches that he said looked like Kool-Aid, and he joked that they were more likely blood. It was, however, well built, in good shape overall and had not been repaired, so he shelled out the asking price of $20.
After getting the chair back to his house, John quickly got to work sanding on the chair by hand to remove the stains and then followed the sanding with a little Danish oil to make the chair look like new.
I’m not sure exactly how it happened and I don’t know that it is important to the story, but another friend of ours stopped by John’s house and between the two of them they realized that the bottom of the chair seat was signed. Luckily, John hadn’t sanded the bottom of the seat and everything that was written on it was still very clear. They found, in large letters, lightly written in pencil, an inscription that says “Cotton Rocker” and in bold, black ink what appears to be, “George Nakashima, March 1974”.
It didn’t take long after hearing the story for me to end up at John’s house, so I could see the chair for myself. I wasn’t expecting much and imagined that I would know right away that the chair wasn’t a legitimate Nakashima, not because I am a Nakashima expert, but because I know wood and something was bound to be obviously wrong with the materials or construction.
My initial concern was that John destroyed any possible value with a wild bit of overly aggressive sanding, but that wasn’t the case. The chair looked great, and after a little more interrogating, I discerned that it didn’t take much work to remove the stains. And, though it didn’t necessarily help, nothing John did permanently damaged the chair.
After I gave the chair a quick look, I plopped myself down and took it for a test rock. The chair is a bit low for me, but it makes sense for someone who is probably a foot shorter, like Mr. Nakashima himself. Both the seat and back are wide and provide great support while still being flexible and comfortable. As a matter of fact, it is probably the most comfortable, all-wood chair that I have ever sat in.
I sat and rocked for a short time while we talked more about the chair and my disbelief that he found it on Craigslist for $20. It was beginning to look like it was the real deal, but even if it wasn’t, the price was fantastic for a chair of this quality. He definitely did not overpay.
After I rocked for a bit, I decided to really do some detective work. I started by looking closely at the wood. The walnut had the right patina for being around 40 years old and the spindles were made of hickory, which later research verified was appropriate.
The only thing that seemed odd to me was the wood selected for the seat. When I think of George Nakashima, I think of wood and the way that he respected it and the way that he would make sure that the wood was selected with as much care as the actual construction – this seat seems to be less so. While not wrong, the seat is composed of seven pieces of walnut that appear to be selected on a Friday just before quitting time. I imagine Nakashima making his seats out of a single piece or two pieces of matched woods and it looks like this walnut wasn’t even from the same tree, which is a bit hard for me to swallow, especially knowing that Nakashima was known for having plenty of wood on hand.
Everything else about the chair oozes quality and makes me believe that it is a Nakashima product or was made by someone who appreciated his work and tried hard to duplicate it. All of the proportions are well-found, with a great balance between strength and delicateness. The hickory spindles are almost dainty, but offer more than enough support to the backrest, which is equally small, but more than adequate. The details that I really noticed and appreciated, are the two spindles that extend through the top of the backrest. They protrude so little that they are almost unnoticed, but they reach up just far enough to be a detail that connotes fine craftsmanship.
The overwhelming clue to me that this may truly be a Nakashima piece of woodwork is that the chair is 100% solid, with no signs of loose joints or repairs. It is a testament to the fact that this chair was built with care from the original maker, which I am guessing is George Nakashima or someone who spent lots of time with Mr. Nakashima.
While doing a little research on Nakashima and trying to find a photo of a similar signature (which I did not), I found some recent examples of authentic chairs that have sold at auction. It looks like similar chairs, like the one below, are selling currently for between $2,500 and $10,000. I assume that John’s chair will be at the lower end of the spectrum, even if it is found to be the real thing, since it is not in original mint condition. Even so, it is a heck of a find for $20.
John plans to keep the chair and enjoy it for now. I told him that I thought it was a great idea because I don’t see it going down in value and it will give him time to try to find out more about that specific chair.
If you have any insights on how to determine the legitimacy of this piece, we would love to hear about it. I know John would love to determine if it is an actual Nakashima chair. I guess he could always go on Antiques Roadshow and find out for sure.
John heard back from the kids at Nakashima and it turns out that it is an original. They even have the original paperwork and will authenticate it for him. Lucky John!
Why is Walnut Lumber Graded Lower Than Other Hardwoods?
A few weeks ago I ordered 300 board feet of 12′, #1 common walnut from a wholesaler that I use on a regular basis. The customer that I ordered it for doesn’t mind knots, so #1 common, which is not the highest grade, is usually a fine choice – except in walnut. In the order, none of the boards looked very good, many were so crooked that I had to cut them in half to get a straight board, only a couple of the boards were over 7″ wide with a good number of them only 3-1/2″, and half of them looked like pallet wood. They were painful to look at and painful to use. So painful, in fact, that out of the 300 bd. ft., I couldn’t find two boards that contained a 4″ x 7′ clear piece to finish up another order. Out of 300 bd. ft. of medium-grade walnut lumber, I couldn’t even find 5 bd. ft. of clear lumber. If that same stack was red oak instead of walnut, I would have been able to find those two pieces in the first layer of the stack. I may have even found the two pieces in one wide board, between the knots.
This wasn’t a randomly poor batch of walnut from a consistently good supply. Every time I order walnut, no matter which sawmill or distribution yard it comes from, the quality of the wood from any of the grades is always worse than I could imagine. The crazy thing is I know it is going to be bad going in, so I try to prepare myself for it, and I am still surprised when I see it. I do end up using it or selling it, explaining to my customers that it’s just the way walnut is, that it is graded by different rules and even though it doesn’t look great that it is indeed higher-grade lumber. I have a hard time with this explanation, but it is absolutely the truth – walnut is graded differently from other woods.
If you search the internet for the reason walnut is graded on a different scale, all you will find is something along the lines of, “Walnut is graded differently from other woods to make better use of this valuable resource.” This sounds like a quote from someone towing the company line and giving a politically correct answer, and it does nothing to explain why the grade is so different.
The only tidbit you will find that sounds like a real reason for the lower grade of walnut is that it is difficult to get good quality wood out of the walnut log supply. Most of the wording would make you believe that walnut trees don’t grow tall and straight and don’t get to a decent diameter, so there just isn’t anything good to pick from. This is partly true. There isn’t a lot of good quality logs to choose from, but it has almost nothing to do with the way walnuts grow – walnuts grow just as tall and straight and big as many reputable hardwoods. The real, full and complete truth is that, yes, the log supply doesn’t have many high quality logs, but it is because the high-quality logs never make it to the sawmill, it’s not that they don’t exist. I know that I find good-looking walnut logs all of the time, and I don’t have any special powers to find good logs.
So, where are the good logs if they aren’t at the sawmill? They are sold to make veneer, which requires the best logs, and they are shipped overseas where walnut is viewed as even more valuable because it is a fancy import. And, since the demand for walnut is so high, even the “not the best, best” walnut logs are being shipped out and sliced into veneer. Species other than walnut are being sliced into veneer as well, but not in the same ratio when compared to the number of available trees. Walnut accounts for less than 1% of our forest, so there just aren’t as many logs to choose from and since almost every decent walnut log ends up anywhere but the sawmill, the odds of a good board ending up in the hands of a domestic customer are not good.
The situation is very obvious if you visit a higher production sawmill with a big supply of logs, where you will probably find three sorting categories for logs entering the yard. The largest pile of logs will be smaller diameter (14″ and less) and low-grade. The second biggest pile will be larger diameter logs (over 14″), but they will still be knotty and/or crooked. The last pile will be hidden in the back, away from the hustle and bustle of the sawmill where the best logs wait for the veneer buyer. These logs don’t have a chance of being cut into lumber because the sawmill can make just as much or more money selling the logs for veneer instead of wasting their time cutting, drying and selling them for lumber. If the sawmill can purchase a walnut log at $2 per board foot delivered to them and sell it for $3-$4 or more per board foot just for loading it on the veneer buyers truck, it makes no sense to touch it more than once.
So, the problem with walnut comes down to simple economics, supply and demand, that sort of thing. But why are the grades different? Obviously, “to make better use of this valuable resource,” meaning so sawmills can cut the lower grade logs that are available at a reasonable price and still sell them at a higher price. Walnut is that much in demand.
I did some research on walnut grading rules by contacting the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), which is responsible for implementing the current rules, thinking that the rules must have started out the same as other species (called standard grade) and then changed at some point based on the increasing demand for walnut. I found no time when the rules made any sort of abrupt change, so it appears that even though walnut may drift in and out of style, it has always been in demand and in relative short supply. Working with the chief lumber inspector, we went back to the 1920’s and even then walnut had special exceptions to make it easier to achieve a higher grade.
The differences in the grading rules for walnut may not sound so aggressive at first, but when you see them applied in real life, it is easy to see how lower-grade walnut can slide through in the higher-grade categories. Hardwood lumber is graded by the percentage of clear area in each board, with higher grades having fewer defects and more clear wood. The assumption is that the lumber is going to be cut down to make a finished product, so it can contain a specified number and minimum size of imaginary pieces (cuttings) that can be cut out of a single board. The main differences between other hardwoods and walnut is in the additional number of cuttings allowed per board and the smaller size of the cuttings in each grade, meaning that you are allowed to cut a walnut board into more and smaller pieces to remove defects. The percentage yield of clear wood needs to be the same as other species in each grade, but the pieces can be much smaller. A great example is in the FAS (First and Seconds) grade of lumber, which is the highest grade in hardwoods. FAS lumber in walnut can have three cuttings instead of just the two in other hardwoods, and it can have shorter cuttings in lumber 8′ and longer, so the best walnut usually has a knot right in the middle of the board, where other species often won’t. That is great if you only need shorter pieces, but a real pain when you need 8′ of clear stock. You would be amazed how much FAS walnut you will have to go through to get a good amount of wide, clear and long stock, if you find it at all.
Another painful part of using commercially processed walnut is sapwood. Sapwood is the white wood on the outside of all logs, and it is a part of living life in the world of hardwoods, but since walnut heartwood is dark brown and contrasts so much, it is considered a defect (at least by the grading rules) and should be removed. Larger operations get around the sapwood issue by steaming their lumber to darken the sapwood. This is a separate operation, performed after the lumber is milled and before it is dried, that has moved walnut sapwood out of the defect category. In researching the NHLA grade books, walnut sapwood was not considered a defect, as long as it was steamed, as early as 1920.
Walnut with steamed sapwood may grade higher and look homogenous in a rough board, where it is difficult to discern sapwood from heartwood, but once the lumber is planed, the sapwood is often clearly visible, even though it has been darkened. This wouldn’t be the worst thing if it just kept a high-grade board with a touch of sapwood from being rejected, but it has allowed sawmills, while still meeting grade, to cut walnut lumber that may have up to a 100% sapwood face. No amount of steaming is going to make an all-sapwood walnut board look like anything more than an imitation of the original, and one that needs to be stained (with a walnut stain, crazy enough) to have a chance of looking acceptable.
Along with allowing the sapwood to be 100% useable introduces our good friend “Wane”. Wane isn’t a person, it is the area on the outside of a piece of lumber that is permissible to be non-existent and not reduce the footage of a board. It’s our favorite spot on the end of a 7″ wide board that only measures 5″ wide, when we really need that 7″. It comes into play now because lumber is being cut to the outer edge of the log since steamed sapwood is allowable. Sapwood and wane is allowable in other species as well, but in walnut it is just another obstacle in the way of producing a board that looks like it has no defects. A piece of walnut lumber can, and often will, have sapwood (as long as it is steamed), knots and wane and still make a high-grade.
To be clear on the sapwood issue, I am not against sapwood overall. I think the contrast between the sapwood and heartwood can be very pleasing. But some jobs require all dark heartwood or the customer would prefer all dark heartwood, and it is almost impossible to get it, even if you tried to specify it. Plus, while darkening the sapwood, steaming reduces the depth of the color in the heartwood, turning the entire board into a brown gray color instead of the deep-rich brown it is without steaming. Allowing steamed sapwood to not be a defect, just like the other special walnut grading rules is done, as they say, “to make better use of this valuable resource,” or maybe, just to sell more walnut.
I would argue that while there are written rules that clearly explain the different grades of walnut, it is unnecessary and extremely painful to have them different from other hardwoods. It is so painful, in fact, that both of my wholesalers told me that it wouldn’t break their hearts if they never sold another stick of walnut again, especially since they spend so much time listening to unhappy customers and dealing with a constant stream of returns. The point of having a grading system is so that everyone has a consistent and clear understanding of the products they are purchasing, and having such a great variation for one species does nothing but muddy the waters.
Again, it all comes back to economics. Sawmills can now pay a reasonable, if not low price (relatively speaking) for lower grades of walnut logs and sell the lumber as fast as they can cut it for a good margin. If sawmills had to move to cutting the high-grade logs to produce more truly high-grade lumber, the price of walnut, which is already high, would increase even more, probably to a point that it couldn’t be sold, at least that is what the custodians of the walnut lumber market would fear.
I personally think that the market would then just reflect what the real situation is. Just like gold, which is rare and very expensive, walnut lumber would go up in price commensurate with the demand because it wouldn’t be so easy to produce high-grade walnut. It already isn’t easy to produce high-grade walnut, it is just easier to sell it as high-grade walnut. The highest grade walnut might end up selling for twice the price it does now, but at least those paying for high-grade might actually get it.
There have been attempts to move walnut to standard grade, but they have fallen short with the walnut industry members voting to keep special rules for walnut in effect. The way the system is now keeps large walnut producers running their operations like they always have, which seems to be working, so there is little reason to change it. And, after some of my discussions with industry insiders, I found even one more reason walnut producers may want to stick to the status quo, and that is proprietary grades of walnut, meaning that producers can now sell “premium” or “super-premium” or whatever they want to call it walnut.
Since the highest grades of walnut are not that high, mills that specialize in walnut can now sell the clearest and straightest-grained walnut lumber for a premium (well beyond listed top prices) because no official grade exists for this product. They can ask higher prices and get it, as long as they deliver a product that they have the luxury of defining. It is a big win for the sawmill, but another loss for those on the other end just trying to purchase a good walnut board, because now a board that may have been beautiful and straight and perfect has even less of a chance to end up in a bundle of “high-grade” walnut. It just helps guarantee that your next FAS board won’t be clear and it will have a knot or three, probably right in the middle. Well, if nothing else, at least we are making better use of this valuable resource.
To be clear, I am not blaming any of my sawmilling friends for the current walnut situation. They are simply following the approved standards for the industry. I do, however, think walnut should be graded following the standard hardwood rules and without all of the exceptions. It reminds me a lot of playing a game with a first-grader that keeps changing the rules when they are not in their favor, and I just don’t want to play on that playground.
Walnut Bell Frame
Recently a customer called to talk to me about a woodworking project and asked if I have ever built a bell frame. I told him, “No, but I am pretty sure that no one else you are going to find around here has either.” That may not have instilled much confidence, but I got the job anyway (it may have also helped that he was a friend of a friend).
My customer gave the bell to his wife for their anniversary. It was made in 1908 and weighs about 450 lbs. The bell and the new headstock and wheel all came from Whitechapel bell foundry in England, makers of Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.
The frame is made of walnut, which is very durable outside, and is mounted on a slab of granite from New Hampshire. I was able to get all of the major parts from one log that was perfectly suited for the job. It was straight-grained on one end, which I used for the feet and top rails, and it was curved on the other end, which I used for the four legs. I loved using the sawmill to cut the thick lumber and chainsaw to do the rough work.
One of the most enjoyable parts of this job was being able to start with a log, and in a short time end up with a finished piece.