Don’t Forget the Chainsaw (mill)
I started milling lumber about 25 years ago with a chainsaw mill, which is just a chainsaw with an attachment to control the depth of cut. The simple device allowed me to consistently cut accurate lumber with a minimal arsenal of equipment. It was a great way for a guy who knew nothing about trees or logs or sawmilling to learn about producing lumber. And, even today, I still use a chainsaw mill (Lucas mill) to cut the live edge slabs which we sell at WunderWoods.
Customers are regularly impressed with the quality of the cut from the chainsaw mill, imagining that the chainsaw will necessarily make a terrible cut with a nasty surface finish, which it does not. As a matter of fact, the quality of the cut from a chainsaw mill is better than the bandsaw – it’s very flat and absent of dips and doodles (scientific term) associated with thin bandsaw blades. Don’t get me wrong, bandsaws can and do, cut just as well, but when they start to get dull or otherwise less than perfect, they will cut anything but flat. A chainsaw cut will remain flat as the chain dulls, it will just cut slower.
A chainsaw mill is commonly referred to as an “Alaskan mill” because of the brand name “Alaskan mill” attachment made by Grandberg International, the same way you might call any facial tissue a Kleenex, but it doesn’t need to be this exact type. As far as I am concerned, any mill which uses a chainsaw chain and bar is a chainsaw mill, no matter the setup.
The Alaskan mill is a simple metal frame, which attaches to the chainsaw bar and can be adjusted to change the depth of cut. It is so simple, in fact, that you could easily build one yourself. They have never been too expensive, so I think most people just opt to buy one. You have to set up two rails (many use a ladder) on top of the log to guide the first cut, but after that the Alaskan mill just rides on the previous cut. I am a fan of the Alaskan mill for its simplicity, and I have a warm place in my heart because it was my first mill. If you didn’t own a chainsaw and decided that you wanted to cut some lumber, you could be making your own lumber for about $500, for a small chainsaw and the Alaskan mill attachment.
I started with the Alaskan mill after reading an article about a father and son using one to cut logs in the woods. I thought it would be cool to cut my own lumber with a chainsaw, and I didn’t want to invest too much in the beginning because I didn’t have a source of logs. Plus, I didn’t own any land, wasn’t friends with any tree service guys and really had never even used a chainsaw before, so I wasn’t sure if it would take. The Alaskan mill promised me the ability to cut lumber anywhere and be able to do it with no heavy equipment – a small pickup truck was more than enough to get milling.
The Alaskan mill works just as advertised, but understand that it is not a production machine. The operator is the sole source of power, and as such, it isn’t an easy row to hoe. It would take me most of the day, by myself, to load up equipment, travel, set-up, mill one 20″ diameter x 8′ log, clean-up, load up equipment and lumber, and travel back home. That was fine with me at the time because I was young and I was tickled to end the day with more than 100 board feet of hardwood lumber. Using my simple logic, my equipment would be paid for in just a couple of logs.
Needless to say, this milling thing did take, and I kept on finding more logs and milling them. It didn’t take long for me to feel like I needed more production, so I moved up to a Lucas mill, but funny enough, not with a chainsaw slabbing attachment. I bought it only with the circular saw setup, which appeared to cut much faster. I then moved onto a bandsaw mill, then to a large circular mill, then back to a bandsaw mill, and only then back to the chainsaw mill attachment for the Lucas mill.
I always liked the Lucas mill and once wide, live-edge slabs started coming into style, it just made sense to use the Lucas with the chainsaw slabbing attachment to cut big logs. The mill I use now (a bigger Lucas mill) is a major upgrade to pushing a chainsaw through a log and really makes the process more enjoyable. I still have the noise of the engine and need to sharpen the saw quite often, but the sawdust and fumes aren’t directly in my face and I don’t have to work so hard to push the saw through the cut. The hardest part now is moving the slabs out of the way, since the Lucas mill can cut up to 60″ wide and they get quite heavy.
I was prompted to write this because even though I have upgraded to the Lucas mill for my sawmilling, I still do a lot of work with a chainsaw, and I want to remind or encourage everyone to not forget about their chainsaw as a means of milling. Don’t think that you need a “sawmill” to produce high-quality lumber or that if you have a “sawmill” that you no longer need your chainsaw. You won’t get dazzling production numbers, but you can still be milling at almost any time with just a chainsaw. I am reminded of this all of the time when I see posts from others of the big and beautiful wood they have cut, just by taking their chainsaw mill to the tree.
Even if I am not using it for the actual milling, there are plenty of times where the chainsaw still comes into play, whether freehand or on some type of mill, and I am still amazed by the simplicity of it all. I use the chainsaw to rough mill mantels which we haul out of tough locations by hand and to cut large logs into quarters for further processing on the sawmill.
Every time I do some sort of work with the chainsaw, especially if it is part of the milling process, I always think back to my early days and appreciate what it can do. I think I really like the idea of knowing that if I needed to, maybe if I was stranded on an island full of large trees (and plenty of gas), I could mill everything I needed with just a chainsaw – maybe one with an attachment, but still, just a chainsaw.
Feel free to send me a photo of your chainsaw milling, and I will be glad to post it here with a link. I am sure everyone would love to see what is possible with a chainsaw/chainsaw mill.
You Need to be a Badass to Brush a Finish
Most woodworkers that I have met, try to finish their own projects, and while they may do great woodwork their finish often falls short and lets the world know that their project was not finished by a professional woodworker or finisher. The typical look of the less-than-perfect finish is one of obvious and often errant brush strokes. While I think it is possible that some of these finishing jobs are seen as perfectly acceptable by less discerning eyes, I would like to think that the applier of these lackluster finishes knows and sees that they could do better, but are at a loss for how to correct the problem.
My first solution, and always my first recommendation, is to purchase a high-quality spray gun and start spraying your finish. A spray gun is quick, capable of producing a flawless finish and may even make finishing fun. There are lots of reasons why you may not feel comfortable spraying a finish, but there are at least 492 reasons why you should spray your finish–the first 485 being that you need to be a badass to brush a good finish.
Brushing a good finish requires an amazing level of patience, attention to detail and a willingness to not cut corners. It can be done, but often the person that relegates themselves to brushing a finish is usually the same person that struggles to produce a good finish because they aren’t patient, aren’t paying close attention and are trying to do as little work as possible to call the job done. It is a crazy irony of a situation, but it happens all the time.
Now, first let me be clear, I don’t have a problem with brushing a finish. I think it is perfectly acceptable and sometimes required, but it has to be done right just to not look bad, never mind looking great. Luckily, there really are just a few tidbits to keep in mind that are the keys to a beautiful brushed finish.
Apply Thin Coats
You will be tempted, at all stages of finishing and throughout your entire life, to apply a finish that is thick and wet. Often this is under the misguided notion that thicker is better and it will speed things up, but nothing is further from the truth. A thick finish coat is the first and deadliest weapon in the unprofessional finishers arsenal. No matter how well you apply a thick coat of finish, it will somehow, somewhere on your woodworking be less than perfect and scream, “This dude doesn’t know what he is doing!”
Thick finish coats show deeper, more obvious brush strokes because they are just that, deeper. Thicker coats also tend to run and, at very least, sag. And, the last thing, that shouldn’t be underestimated, is that thicker finish coats take much longer to dry, which allows more debris to get in your finish, lengthens the dry time between coats and often leads to blemishes from handling a piece before it is dry. There is, as far as I can tell, nothing to be gained by brushing on a finish in thick coats versus thinner coats.
Applying thinner coats can and should be thought of in two ways. The first is simply the amount of finish moved from your brush to the surface. When applying the finish, put on just enough material to cover the surface and nothing more – do not leave puddles. There should be so little on the surface that it is impossible for the finish to run or sag. The second way to think about thinner coats is in the viscosity or the thickness of the material itself. Thinner material will flow fast, like water and thicker material will flow slow, like syrup. Make sure your finish is not too thick by adding the proper solvent for your finish, like water, mineral spirits, alcohol or lacquer thinner if needed. Many finishes will be fine directly out of the can, but some thicker finishes will benefit from a little thinning. Be sure to read the can for proper thinning options and test your finish on a piece of scrap material first to see how it flows and lays down.
Pay Attention to Your Brush Strokes
No matter how well you apply a finish with a brush, brush strokes will most likely be visible at some point. The good news is that wood has a grain to it that can help hide the brush strokes. The secret is to apply the finish with brush strokes that follow the grain. Don’t go all willy nilly and just slop it on. This is where the patience and attention to detail really come into play and where you have to let your inner badass shine.
Plan out your brush strokes so there aren’t any unintentional stops or starts. Where parts meet make sure to stop and start where they stop and start. On mitered corners, start with the brush at a 45 degree angle so the brush marks only follow the grain of each board.
Lastly, make sure that your brush strokes follow the full length of the work. If a single piece of wood is 30′ long, your brush strokes should be 30′ long in a single uninterrupted and reasonably straight pass. It may sound a bit overboard, but that is what it takes to do this correctly.
Keep a Wet Edge
Working with a brush is not fast. While you are messing around with the application and focusing on your brush strokes, it is possible for some finishes (especially paints) to start to dry while you are applying them, requiring you to step up your game even more. It is important to keep a wet edge while you are working, so each new brush stroke blends with the previous one. If you move too slow and the finish has dried or started to dry, you will basically be applying two coats as opposed to only one. If you are finishing woodwork, this will cause the finish to have an unevenness about it, either because of a difference in the sheen or in the way it fills the wood pores.
When working large open areas, plan out your approach and move quickly. Do what you can to quickly get the finish on the surface and then focus on your brush strokes to finalize things. A small-nap roller can even be used to help speed up delivery to the surface before final brushing. If you have a choice, work in cooler temperatures (always out of the sun) and with reduced airflow to slow down the drying.
Any finish application, whether brushed or sprayed will benefit from being horizontal. Having your pieces flat on a work surface during finishing allows you to fully see what you are doing, especially with good reflected light and helps the finish to level out while drying. The other obvious benefit is that you should get no runs on a horizontal application unless you are extremely talented. You may find it worthwhile to completely finish your piece before assembly so you can keep all of your parts horizontal.
Choose the Right Brush
There is much to be said about brushes, but for me it comes down to one simple rule. Don’t ever use a cheap brush. Don’t even let them in your shop. If you have a cheap brush in your shop (you know, the one that you were only going to use for applying glue or something else non-technical), you will inevitably end up trying to use it for some sort of real finishing and it will not turn out well. I would argue that it is better to not finish at all than to try to finish with the only brush you could find in the shop which was purchased in a 10-pack at the dollar store. Using a good brush gives you at least a fighting chance. For those of you that want a bit more technical input, remember to use natural bristles only for oil-based finishes and synthetic bristles for either water-based or oil-based finishes. It all comes down to the fact that natural bristles don’t like to be soaked in water and synthetic bristles can be soaked in anything.
There you have it. Five simple little rules, all of which if you completely follow, still only give you about a 50% chance of producing a beautiful brushed finish. The other 50% is dependent entirely on your willingness to not take anything that resembles a shortcut and on you being a badass every step of the way.
How I Got Into This: A History of Sawmilling at WunderWoods
I just had a chance to talk about WunderWoods at the monthly meeting of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild as a featured speaker. It was billed as “The WunderWoods Way”, where I was going to talk about what I do related to milling and drying lumber and whatever else I wanted to talk about. I talked a lot about the milling part, showed a bunch of photos of big logs and finished woodworking projects, and realized when I was done that I had really covered the history of WunderWoods sawmilling. One of my favorite things to read on other websites is a history of the company, and though I don’t really feel old enough to have a “history” page, I decided to put one together for the other two people out there that like to read about history. I have been doing this for a while now, have been through a few sawmills and I thought, if nothing else, that others traveling down a similar path might find my history helpful or even a bit entertaining.
One of the questions I get from almost every new visitor to the shop is, “How did you get into this?” They go on to ask, “Is it a family business? Did your dad own a sawmill or work at a sawmill?” The answer is no, it is not a family business and my dad has never worked at a sawmill. The closest I can come up with is that my Grandpa Wunder, who died when I was pretty young and probably didn’t influence my life direction much, worked in Springfield, OH for several different companies in the lumber and woodworking field.
The inspiration I did get from my family came from my dad and his willingness to work on and fix anything mechanical and from my mom’s dad, Grandpa Moore, that also liked to build and work on things. Overall, I grew up breaking things, fixing them and breaking them again. The best example I can think of, is when I turned sixteen and my mom found an old truck for me to restore. After it was towed to the house, my dad asked, “Do you want to start working on it?” Of course, I enthusiastically said, “Yes!” Then he said, “Well, go ahead and take out every bolt, so we can work on it.” That through me for a loop. After all, it was a machine with a lot of parts and not something that you just completely tear apart. How would we know how it all went back together? In all fairness to the story, my dad worked a lot on cars and had even owned a garage before, so we had a better chance than others of getting it back together, but it was still shocking. It was, however, not as dramatic as I thought because after only a little bit of time working on it, I realized that most of the rusted bolts weren’t going to come out anyway. I would have plenty of time to get to know the truck as I struggled to get at least one bolt out without breaking it. Still, that one conversation stands out in my mind and replays in my head every time I am about to work on something, and it reassures me that it probably won’t be as scary as it first sounds and that there is a good chance that I will get it back together without too many extra bolts. That hands on approach to working on the truck has carried over to almost everything I do and is what keeps me at it on a regular basis.
The answer to, “How did you get into this?” is also a bit murky, but I very vividly remember what I call the beginning of my sawing career. I was reading a woodworking magazine (I think it was Fine Woodworking, even though I haven’t been able to find the original), and I came across an article about a father and son that traveled into the woods with a big chainsaw and cut big slabs to make table tops. At the time big slabs weren’t in style as much as they are today, but I remember being surprised that you could cut your own lumber. If you asked me, I could tell you that lumber came from trees, but I still associated lumber with the lumberyard, not trees. This is where things changed.
I fancied myself as an artist, winning outstanding artist in high school, getting a degree in graphic design and working as an art director for a nine-year stint, near the end of which I read that chainsawing article. Even though I liked to do woodworking when I wasn’t at my real job, I didn’t build much because lumber was expensive. I was buying expensive lumber from the big box store because I didn’t know at the time that there where stores specifically selling hardwoods (I had a lot to learn).
Not long after I read the chainsawing article, my boss at the ad agency offered me a raise. I didn’t take it because I always pictured myself having my own business, and though I liked my job, I didn’t want to make so much money that Chris (my wife) wouldn’t let me quit. He still wanted and tried to give me a raise, so I came up with a great plan. Instead of a raise, he could buy me a chainsaw. He, or any other boss, has never had such an odd request, and he gave me a slight look of bewilderment as he told me he would try to figure out how to make that happen. Well, he made it happen and my milling career started.
I purchased an Alaskan sawmill, which is an attachment that bolts on to the bar of the chainsaw. It basically works like a cheese slicer and controls how deep the chainsaw cut is from the previous cut. The Alaskan works fine and produces flat and straight lumber. However, the drawbacks are that it is physically demanding and very slow. It was so slow that I would plan on milling just one 20” diameter log per day, including travel and cleanup. If things went well I might be able to cut more, but I never planned on it.
At that point I didn’t really have any source for logs, and I would find them one at a time from homeowners. Still, I found logs on a regular basis and quickly got to the point that I was finding them faster than I could mill them. While I was using the chainsaw mill, I also started drying lumber, first outside and then moving it inside to finish up the process. I was worried that the drying would cause problems since I didn’t know what I was doing, but the lumber that I milled came out great and went into all of the projects that I built from then on.
I began milling wood that I had never used and had never seen for sale, like American elm and silver maple. The elm dried a little crooked (elm always dries a little crooked), but it was beautiful. I am still an elm advocate, even though it can be a bit cantankerous. I had never seen silver maple anywhere and worried non-stop that I must be missing something, and milling and drying a wood that was completely useless or bad for some reason that I would probably only find out later. Turns out that silver maple is one of my current favorites, and I use it for everything from a showy primary wood to a low-class secondary or utilitarian wood.
I continued to cut woods that I knew, like oak, poplar and walnut, and also cut many other new species like osage orange and black locust. Milling just one tree per day and being able to really focus on it helped me to quickly learn how each species of wood milled, smelled, dried and worked.
The Alaskan mill phase didn’t last long (it was so short that I don’t have any photos of it). As soon as I started getting finished lumber for free, I started looking for a faster mill. I wanted to mill every tree in St. Louis and the Alaskan wasn’t going to get the job done. So, I spent my lunch hour at my art director job looking at different sawmills on the internet and sending off for sales literature. I liked the bandmills, but I was looking at lower-cost units that were all manual, and I concluded that they wouldn’t work for me because I didn’t have a way to move logs at the time. While looking at mills in the $5,000 – $10,000 range I came across the Lucas Mill, a crazy new mill from Australia that looked perfect for me, even though it was a little out of my price range.
I was worried when I first found the Lucas because it seemed so new and untested, and I was sure they would go out of business the second I ordered mine, leaving me with no way to buy replacement parts. However, my worries were completely unfounded (and still are today). When the mill showed up, I felt like I overpaid because there wasn’t much to it, but the lacking parts are just a byproduct of good design. The Lucas sawmill is simple to set up and simple to use. It transports easily in a pickup truck, mills accurate lumber at a good pace and can mill big logs where they lay.
I started off with the 6” Lucas because it was the cheapest. The mill came standard with a circle blade that could cut up to 6” x 6” lumber, unless you flipped the saw head around to cut 12” wide. It also had a slab attachment as an option, but slabs were not in style at the time, so I never bought one. I used the Lucas to cut a lot of 6” lumber. It was great on big logs because I could work by myself and knock out 1,000 bf., if I had a big enough tree. If not, I could still mill several logs in a day and get in the 800 bf. range by myself. These numbers are based on milling only and nothing extra, like clean-up and stacking.
After having the Lucas mill for a few years, we moved to a new house in Hazelwood, MO. I picked it out because it had a big, detached shop on a one acre lot. It looked clean from the outside, and I told my wife that if the house didn’t suck on the inside, we were buying it. Well, it didn’t, so we did.
I first set up the Lucas in the 24’ x 40’ pole barn and ran it with the doors open. It worked fine since I was only bringing home little logs that could be moved by hand into the barn. I was still milling all of the larger logs on site because I still had no way to move them. That all changed when I found and purchased my 1977 Chevy C60 flatbed truck with a crane and dump bed, affectionately named “The Creampuff” by my favorite mechanic Roger, at Roger’s Truck Repair. I bought if for $3,000 and have done nothing to make it look better, while still spending plenty of money to keep it running. It basically looks the same as it did when I bought it, just with bigger rust holes and more cab ventilation. I used to think I would make it look better cosmetically, but then I would just feel bad when I dinged it up. Now, I can drop trees on it and it doesn’t bother me too much. I must admit, however, that I have recently dolled up the crane a bit with new paint and hoses. I figure if I ever do get a new truck I will have a crane to put on it, as long as I take care of this one. Plus, I need the crane to work pretty much all of the time, so it is a good place to put my money.
Once I got the log truck, I started getting logs, lots of logs, lots of big logs. I moved the mill to the back edge of the yard and began to transform the pole barn into an actual shop with spray foam insulation, lots of electric and finished floors and walls. At the same time, I built a kiln on my side of our two-car garage, which was already full of lumber, figuring it should be full of drying lumber. It was a Nyle dehumidification kiln, which I still own and use today. It comes as a mechanical package minus the kiln structure, so I was able to build the box to fit snuggly in my available space.
As I got deeper and deeper into this milling thing and started driving my log truck to the back yard and began to use the shop for more serious production, my already cranky neighbor got more cranky. He complained to the city about the noise, but later admitted it wasn’t a noise thing, I was just getting a little out of control.
Since I don’t like cranky neighbors, and I agreed that I needed to get the sawmill away from the house, I started shopping for the new future home of WunderWoods. I located it quickly and easily, just a few streets away, on the property of T&L tree service. When I found the place, I couldn’t believe how close it was, how perfect the site was and how many logs were piled up that I didn’t know about. I was flabbergasted by my incredible lack of log hounding abilities.
I started out just renting a spot in the open to run the Lucas sawmill. They have a pretty large property with trucks, equipment sheds and wood in different states from logs to chips and mulch, so I found it easy to fit in. Tim, the owner, was also nice enough to let me use his Bobcat when it wasn’t out on a job. That along with my logging truck really put my milling into full swing. I continued to mill at the tree service while I set up my shop at the house to do woodworking and to store all of the new lumber I was producing with the Lucas, all while still working full time at the ad agency.
I loved the Lucas. I thought it worked great. The only shortfall I found with it was the inability to cut wider than 6” lumber. Even the wider saw kerf (3/8” with the circle saw compared to 1/8” on a bandsaw) didn’t bother me that much, but cutting 24” clear white oak logs into 6” wide boards just started to get stupid after a while. They were perfect 6” wide boards, but they were only 6”, and I knew I could do better.
While I had the Lucas, I started using kiln services from Oak Leaf Wood and Supplies in Moweaqua, IL. The owner, Paul Easley, ran an operation like mine, though he was a few years ahead of me. He had built a nice little business in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, using a Kasco bandsaw mill. Paul also happened to sell the mills that he used, and it didn’t take long for Paul’s infectious love of cutting wood to inspire me to purchase a fancy new Kasco bandsaw mill with power feed and power height adjustment.
After that, the world was my oyster. I could cut any size log to any dimension and pick the best mill for the job. Giant logs went to the Lucas and logs under 30” went to the bandsaw. Or, if I just wanted really straight dimensional lumber, I would send it to the Lucas, no matter the size. Sometimes, I would start on the Lucas and finish on the bandsaw – I had all of the bases covered.
While I was at the tree service the logs kept piling up. The piles grew because I had plenty of storage room and the equipment to move the logs, but my mills weren’t fast enough. I did (and still do) want to mill every log in St. Louis and I knew that there was no way I was going to do that with the mills I had. They both worked alright, but a full day of milling, stacking and cleaning up a little would, on average, yield about 500 bf. If you read the literature on similar bandsaw mills, they will tout higher numbers, but they are based only on milling and nothing more – every now and then, even I have to clean up. On a personal level, 500 bf. is a lot, and doing all of the work to produce that 500 bf. is a lot, but it is nothing compared to the fact that I can haul about 1,000 bf. on my truck in log form and I could probably get a load a day if I pushed for it. There were plenty of days, especially if I was working at a land clearing site, that I would get a few loads a day and still lose logs to the grinder because I couldn’t get them out fast enough.
Knowing that faster mills existed, I became more serious about getting one and spent a lot of time shopping. The fastest mills by far are high-horsepower circular sawmills that just rip through logs. They have a wider saw kerf, which wastes more wood, but I decided it was worth the trade-off because I was already losing lumber that I wasn’t able to process since the milling was so slow. After all, I wasn’t paying for logs, so it really didn’t matter how much I wasted, I just needed to get it cut.
The other reason I was excited about a circular mill was the ability to cut straighter lumber. Band saws, especially ones with narrow blades like those found on portable mills, notoriously cut wavy lumber once they start to get dull, and if you cut low-grade hardwood logs with lots of knots there is virtually no way to cut quickly without producing some wavy boards in the process. On bigger and tougher logs it isn’t uncommon to need to put on a new band saw blade after just one log to keep things straight. I had seen plenty of videos, especially from Hurdle, that showed their circular mills chewing through those same pain-in-the-ass logs in just a couple of minutes and not even breaking a sweat.
I specifically was attracted to industrial mills and mill manufacturers like Hurdle, Cleerman and Corley. All of these manufacturers make mills found at large producers. New models were way out of my budget, so I turned to looking for used mills. I said looking, but I was mostly dreaming. I had no real reason to push for another sawmill except for my own hunger to process more logs.
I finally got the push I needed to buy a circular mill when I met a customer that was looking for a supplier of grading stakes. He was having trouble securing the stakes consistently and at a reasonable price and he said that he would take all I could produce. I teamed up with Tim from T&L Tree Service to make the stakes. I produced the rough lumber and Tim had his employees do the secondary processing of cutting the points, resawing and packaging.
As part of our partnership, Tim agreed to help me set up a circular mill on his property, which we did after I sold my Lucas and Kasco mills. I looked at several automatic circular mills, which are more expensive and operated with the sawyer just pushing buttons to make everything happen, all from the comfort of an air-conditioned cab. The automatic mills I found in my budget where in pretty bad shape, so I settled for an older handset mill that was better cared for and less expensive. A handset mill cuts the same, but the carriage is more mechanical with a lever to advance the log for the next cut.
The mill I found was a Corley from the 1950’s, however the carriage was upgraded in the 1970’s to include air dogs (they hold the log) and tapers (they adjust the log on the ends). Those upgrades really sped up the mill and made it sound super cool. It reminded me of a roller coaster getting ready to launch with puffs of air and loud, clunky clanks as everything engaged. The rest of the mill was 100% antique, but it worked great. Even the prehistoric log turner and the carriage drive, both of which worked with friction feed, were super smooth and a pleasure to operate.
The plan was to take all of the low-grade logs from the tree service, especially pin oaks, cottonwood and sweetgum and make them into stakes. I wasn’t milling those into lumber, so it seemed like a great outlet for the logs that needed to be disposed of anyway.
After about a year of building the barn and setting up the mill, we jumped into it and started cutting lots of stakes. Even with the circular mill I had trouble keeping up because I was cutting logs that were knotty and had a hard time producing clean stakes. I originally thought that we could produce the stakes, many of which are short, between the knots. But, it became clear that to produce efficiently we really needed clear logs, which is where things began to fall apart. It wasn’t part of the plan to pay for high-grade logs for stakes. High-grade logs should go into high-grade lumber and low-grade logs should go into stakes, at least as far as I am concerned. We stuck with it for a while, but we never made it very profitable. Besides the log issues, it also ended up being more work than we imagined on the back end to process the stakes. Tim put a lot of manpower on it to give it a fair shot, but at the end of the day it was too much work for the money, and we decided to move on.
I kept running the Corley for my own needs after we shut down the stake production, mostly working by myself. From time to time, I would employ some extra help to tail for me (pull boards off of the mill), but I didn’t pay that much and tailing is hard labor. Every one that offered to tail just because they thought the mill was cool and wanted to see it run, only tailed once, and many times even the people I was paying only tailed once. There were a few hot days when I came close to killing the guys tailing for me because I was working them too hard. No one on the back side of the mill was as excited as me to be there, so I started working more and more by myself.
The mill could be run with only one person, but not as quickly. Cut a few boards, walk around and unload, cut a few boards, walk around and unload is how it went. Even running the mill inefficiently by myself was still faster than the bandsaw, so I stuck with it. The Corley mill was fun to use and I thought it was quite cool, but the more I used it the more I realized just how potentially lethal it was. It wasn’t the type of tool that was just going to remove a finger, it would cut you in half and not care. And, since I had a handset mill, which put me working even closer to the blade, I began to feel like my time on earth might be more limited by using the Corley.
There was one time specifically, that I was milling 2″ x 12″ x 12′ white oak for dump truck sides and I made a slight, but potentially deadly error. I was working by myself, cutting a few boards and then walking around to unload, and getting in a nice rhythm. Usually, I would cut a board, then it would drop down and fall over away from the blade. This time, I made the cut, the board dropped down and looked like it was going to fall over, so I backed the carriage up. However, the board stayed standing up and then the back end started to pivot around towards the blade. Normally, if I was doing things correctly, this wouldn’t happen because I would leave the carriage in place until the board was removed or fell over, while the log on the carriage kept the board from swinging around on to the back of the blade.
I had just enough time, once I realized what was about to happen, to throttle the engine down and jump out of the way. The back of the blade grabbed that white oak board and hurled it right where my head was just seconds before. The 100-pound board blasted through a metal safety shield and lodged itself against the end of the building 30 feet away. I wasn’t hurt, but that is not the type of thing that you want flying at you – ever. After that incident and realizing that a faster mill didn’t necessarily translate to more lumber when working by myself, coupled with rising rent and a need to reduce overhead, I sold the Corley and moved out of T&L tree service.
A friend, whose family owns many parcels of land about 5 miles away in Florissant, offered to let me rent an open space with a couple of old buildings hidden in the woods for a fair price (free at first), so I took him up on it, planning to use the property the same way I did when I started at T&L. I bought a used Timberking 1220 bandsaw mill on eBay and started using it outside. Even though it wasn’t too expensive, I split the cost of the mill with a friend of mine that used the mill on the weekend when I wasn’t there.
It was a nice little setup. Things were simplified. I still had my woodworking shop behind my house, and now I had, what felt like my own little place in the country. There wasn’t anywhere inside or covered to run the mill, so we set it up outside. That left me running the mill only when the weather was decent, but since I do an equal amount of milling and woodworking it wasn’t much of an inconvenience. I just stayed home and worked in the shop if the weather wasn’t cooperating.
After a few years and the birth of my daughter Mira, we decided to move back to St. Charles, where both my wife and I grew up. I wasn’t eager to move from my big yard and shop at my house in Hazelwood, but I did have nine acres and a couple of old building to work with in Florissant, and since I like improving things, I thought it sounded like a fun new adventure. My plan was to fix up the old buildings and then consolidate my shop and sawmill. It wasn’t as convenient as having the shop at my house, but it did make sense to have everything in one spot.
The building that I was using as my shop was basically a four bay garage and I kept my lumber and kiln in a cobbled together pole barn that was within 75 feet. The shop building was in poor shape with a fading foundation. I often thought about improving the structure, but the foundation was so bad and everything was so crooked that I was only able to summon enough excitement to reshingle the roof. It pained me to spend even a little bit of money on a roof that was so unstraight, but I had to do it to keep my tools dry.
I don’t need much to be content, and since my shop was hidden from view and I had almost no visitors, the condition of the buildings wasn’t a big deal. I imagined that I would improve things as necessary and maybe even put up a new building if things worked out and I stayed for a while. This work-on-it-as-you-go plan quickly changed into a better-do-something-now plan, when the shop building burned down on the night of November 20, 2011. (Click here to read the long version of the fire story and how it happened).
In the fire, I lost all of my tools except the one bucket of on-site tools that I usually keep in my truck and a chop saw, which just happened to be in my truck from an earlier install job. The fire also burned up my sawmill and a lot of lumber that was on sticks around the outside of the shop. The fire was stopped by the fire department before it moved to the other barn with my dry lumber and kiln.
After the fire, I didn’t have any electrical service at the burned shop, so I couldn’t just start rebuilding right away. And, since I don’t own the property that burned I was leery to sink money into a project that someone else would officially own. It was one thing to slowly improve what was there knowing it wasn’t mine, it was another to build a new building from scratch for a landowner that didn’t want to sign a lease.
While I started my search for a new shop space, I took over our three car garage at home, bought a few homeowner caliber tools and got back to work. Luckily, I didn’t have any major projects half-built at the time, so I didn’t lose any in the fire. My next project, which was the first to be built in the garage, was a large set of kitchen cabinets. Though it was a big project, it was a perfect one to build with only a few tools and a table saw.
I looked at a lot of options for shop space. Most of them were what I would call incredibly overpriced. The going rate was $1,200 per month for about 1,000 sq. ft. Now, keep in mind that at my house in Hazelwood I had a 1,000 sq. ft. shop for free. Granted, it was rolled in to my house payment, but it felt very free and way less than $1,200 per month. Plus, once I got looking, 1000 sq. ft. felt small. I could make it work, but I would be tucked in some strip industrial center with neighbors on both sides and no room to breathe or make sawdust. It just didn’t feel right, so I didn’t rent anything for a while.
During the year or so that we had lived in the new house, I drove past a large building everyday that looked perfect for me in my rule-the-world scenario, where I am the proud owner of a giant industrial shop. It was very big, appeared to be very well kept, and most notably, had been very vacant for as long as I was paying attention. This was during the great recession and companies were going out of business, not looking to expand, so it stayed vacant. I drove by all of the time, never even considering it as a space for the new shop because of the size, until one day, for no special reason, I decided to stop by and write down the phone number on the “For Rent” sign. I called the number, and since it was my lucky day, the owner, who was already there for another reason, showed me around.
I didn’t realize it, but the building, which features plenty of additions, was broken into several smaller areas. In total, the building is 75,000 sq. ft., but there was one spot in the back which was the smallest at about 5,500 sq. ft. Now that I have been in the building for a few years it is obvious that it was the least desirable of the available spaces, but at the time, all I could see was that I almost couldn’t see the other end of the shop, about 200′ away. It seemed to be never-ending, and all I could imagine was having lots of room to put lots of wood (and a few tools).
The rent was higher than I had budgeted, but I was getting lots more room with the deal, which I considered room to grow. The other benefits that made it worth the extra rent was that it was close to my house, it had three-phase power, and it had good access to the highway. My other property was not close to home, it only had single-phase power, and it was miles away from the highway (customers often complained about the long drive).
After a month or so back and forth with lease papers, I started moving in to the new shop in January 2012, a couple of months after the fire. The fact that the recession hit other woodworking shops hard benefited me with plenty of tools available locally at good prices. I was able to outfit the new shop with almost all of the necessary big tools from one going-out-of-business sale for around $5,000.
It was at that same sale that I picked up my first set of factory carts, which started a period of cart restorations to sell as coffee tables. I was still doing custom woodworking, but the carts really started to take over for a while. Currently, I am pretty much done making carts into coffee tables, mostly because I think the trend is fading, and I don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of carts that I can’t use.
After I settled in and got the woodworking side of the business going in the new shop, I rebuilt the Timberking sawmill that was damaged in the fire. I converted it to three-phase power from a gas engine and moved it inside, so I could mill with a roof over my head. Around that same time, a friend of mine that owns an 8″ Lucas mill with a slabbing attachment started letting me use his mill. He never uses it, but he doesn’t want to sell it, so I am it’s current guardian. That works out fine for me because the current trend is towards large pieces of natural-edged wood, which is right in the Lucas mills wheelhouse.
It seems like almost everyone has discovered the natural beauty of wood and wants some of it in their house or office. I am still doing other custom jobs, including the occasional wine cellar and other built-ins or furniture, but more than half of my business now is custom wood for tops, usually on a metal base. There is also a calling for the same type of rustic look in mantels, shelving and seating.
To fill the need for more natural looking wood, I am cutting lots of big logs into slabs with the Lucas mill and leaving edges on everything, even the smaller slabs from the Timberking bandsaw mill. Almost all of the wood is in the 2″-3″ thick range, assuming that it will become some type of top. The crazy thing is that I remember not too long ago when even my very best looking slabs would spend a long, long time waiting for a buyer, and now they are selling as quick as I can process them. As of yet, I don’t see this trend slowing down, so I am going to stick with cutting natural-edged wood, while at the same time keeping my eyes open for the next trend. The good news is that even if I cut all of my logs into slabs, I will still have a lot of 8/4 thick lumber, and I have always been able to sell that.
Currently, I am doing most of my work and selling lumber and slabs out of the shop in St. Charles, although I still rent the property in Florissant to store logs and to house my original kiln. I like having the option to use the extra space if and when I need it, and sometimes it is nice to work outside and feel like I am in the country. I imagine that I will continue to rent both spaces for the foreseeable future, mostly to make sure that I always have somewhere to store and mill logs. After all, I still want to cut every log in St. Louis.
Today’s Glues are Super Strong
When customers stop by to peruse the lumber and slabs I have for sale, they inevitably end up near the back of my shop, where I do my woodworking. They like to see what I am up to and discuss woodworking in general. Lately, I have been making a lot of live-edge tops, so I usually have at least one being glued up, and I can guarantee you that the first question is going to be, “What do you use to join those two pieces of wood together?” They are expecting a dramatic answer full of technical jargon, like tongue and groove or sliding dovetail or dominos or even biscuits, but I always disappoint them and just say, “glue”. I like to say it in a sort of caveman fashion for dramatic effect and a bit of humor, but then I quickly jump in and fill the awkward silence with a more detailed explanation, especially since I can tell that just blurting out the word “glue” isn’t going to be enough.
I use Titebond original wood glue with the red cap. There is Titebond II and III for more water-resistency, but I usually stick to the original unless it is a project that is prone to getting very wet. I like that the original cleans up easily with water and that even dried glue can be soaked and removed from brushes and clothing. I don’t prefer Titebond for any special reason, except that it is widely used and widely available. I would just as confidently use other name-brand wood glues and expect similar results.
The glues available today are strong, super strong, stronger than the wood itself. To prove this, I always save the end cuts from my glue-ups, so I can break them later for demonstration purposes for customers and inspection purposes for myself. If the glue is fully dry (results are not guaranteed if the glue is still wet), the glued-up scraps will always break somewhere in the wood. Even if it does happen to spilt close to the glue line, there is always plenty of wood stuck to the glue to make anyone doubting the strength of the joint to become a believer.
In comparison, I have worked with plenty of reclaimed wood, especially old oak church pews, that have a tendency to split along the glue joints. When closely inspected, it is clear that the old glue had become dry and brittle, and though it stuck to both surfaces, the glue itself broke down, like old plastic that has been outside too long. Most likely, the older glues, while strong at the time, weren’t formulated correctly to stay flexible over time. Current glues are formulated to hold strong and not break down during regular indoor use. Note that I wrote “indoor” use – for outdoor use, all bets are off. From extreme wood movement to glue breakdown, there is simply too much wear and tear outdoors for the glue to hold a jointed edge together on its own without any eventual failures.
So, we know that the glue is strong and is more than capable of holding a joint together, but just how strong is it? There is probably some value on some fancy scale to tell you exactly how strong the joint is, but it doesn’t really matter, as long as you know that it is stronger than the wood. At that point, to know the strength for sure, you would need to know the strength not only of the wood you are working with, but the weakest point in any given spot in a board, which you just can’t know, so I say stop worrying about it. Just know that it is more than strong enough to do the job.
Now, for the glue to work correctly, your machining and joints need to be reasonably good. I say, “reasonably” good because I think there is a lot of wiggle room here. Obviously, if everything is perfectly square and straight, there is no question about your joint integrity. You can simply coat the joint with glue, apply just enough pressure to pull everything together, and you will end up with a strong, wonderfully impressive joint. But, what if your jointed edges are square but the boards are long and have a bit of a bow and they will require a bit of extra clamp pressure to pull them together, is that gonna work? Heck yeah! Did I mention the glue is strong? A little extra clamp pressure is fine.
What about a lot of clamp pressure? Now this is where the “reasonably” good part comes into play. I say if you are doing a glue-up and you feel like you have applied so much pressure to pull things together that it just feels wrong, then you should probably work on the joint some more. But, here’s the kicker. I can tell you that I have been involved in more glue-ups than I should admit to that have required an inordinate amount of clamp pressure, and to this day (knock on wood), I have never had a joint fail. Maybe I have just been lucky, since I have done tons of glue-ups, but I use this as a real world testament to the strength of the current glues.
The problem with needing a lot of clamp pressure to pull joints together is two-fold. The first issue is that there are built-in forces that are always trying open the joint with the same amount of pressure it took to close up the joint, which can be significant. The other issue, and the one that is commonly more worrisome, is that more clamp pressure means less glue in the joint. The concern being that if all of the glue is squeezed out then obviously there is nothing to hold the wood together. As far as I can tell, especially since I have not had a failure yet, is that this isn’t easily accomplished. I am not saying it isn’t possible, but it isn’t easy. Many woods have open pores that will hold glue no matter how much pressure you give them (think oak and walnut), and if you are fighting at all to pull a joint together, that means that somewhere along the line things are loose enough to hold some glue. Sure, it might completely squeeze out in one spot and make the joint a bit weaker, but in other spots the glue will hold like it is supposed to and keep things from coming apart.
With all of this cavalier talk about crappy joints with extra clamp pressure, you still have to show some restraint. There are going to be times when you can’t rely on just the glue, no matter how strong it is, to hold everything together and you will need to rework your joints for a better fit. A couple of instances come to mind. Some woods have very tight grain that is smooth and won’t hold much glue (think hard maple), so it is possible to end up with a joint that has almost no glue in it. The second instance where more jointing work will be required is if the boards are tight in the middle and loose on the ends. The ends are where a top will want to naturally split, so trying to use extra pressure in this case, is inviting an issue down the road. I feel a million times more confident closing up a gap in the middle of a glue-up than I do the ends, knowing that the entire joint is holding things together, not just the glue on the ends.
One last category that requires a little extra attention is exotic wood. Some have oils in them that just won’t glue properly. They need to be cleaned with lacquer thinner before gluing to provide a good surface and they are often extra hard, so they don’t absorb much glue. I have had problems with bloodwood in the past, which fell apart during my initial tests because I had not cleaned the wood enough. To be safe, I cleaned the wood even more and roughed up the surface a bit with sandpaper to give the glue something to grab. Before the sanding, the edges were just too hard and too smooth. Since then, the extra hard and oily exotics scare me, so I would never force a glue joint with them. I trust the current glues a lot, but there are limits.
Assuming that you have decent joints and wood that will accept glue, all you have to do is make sure that both surfaces are coated with wood glue and clamp them together until the seam is tight. That is really all there is to it and all that is done at almost every professional shop I can think of. You don’t need any special tricks at all, just “glue,” I remind you in my caveman voice.
Random Width Flooring: Efficient Use of a Valuable Resource
In the normal course of my business, I am sometimes asked to make flooring out of my customers’ logs. Because I mill the logs into random width boards, I would often get stuck with trying to determine the best width to make the flooring, knowing that no single width would have that great of a yield. No matter the width I chose, there would always be plenty of boards with lots of waste. If I chose 3″ wide flooring, I can guarantee you that an astonishing number of the rough cut boards would just happen to measure 8-3/4″ wide, which would yield two 3″ wide boards and one wide scrap piece, absolutely killing me.
In the past, I have tried to decide the width ahead of milling the logs and pick out which cut was going to be flooring and which was going to be another product, like siding. It seemed simple enough, if the board I was cutting was long and clear with no knot holes, I would cut siding, and if it was knotty and was going to produce only short pieces that were good, I would cut them for flooring. All I really had to do was sort the lumber into two piles while I was working. But, it wasn’t that easy.
Some logs would have a side that was good for producing siding, but the next side was only good for flooring. When I flipped the log over to a new side, my width was determined by how much I cut off of the last side, and it was always random. So, no matter what I did, even if I was cutting for a specific product, I would get stuck with lots of random width boards.
As I mentioned, wasting lumber kills me, and every time I ripped random-width boards down to some set width, leaving wide scraps on the floor, I thought about how to stop wasting so much wood – then it clicked. Many years ago, a friend of mine showed me a floor he made for his own house out of random width boards. As far as I know, he only did it because he thought it would look different and make his house have a special touch that would only come from someone who made their own flooring. His floor was white oak with tons of character, in three different widths. It was beautiful, and it seemed to me that I could use these random widths in some form to stop wasting wood.
I don’t remember a specific moment when I had the epiphany (though I am sure I must have had one), but I figured out that using just three widths, 3″, 4″, and 5″ would cover every width of board I could produce and always leave me with less than 1″ of waste per board.
Think about it. 3″, 4″, and 5″ wide, rough lumber is covered right off of the bat since they are already useable widths. After that is a 6″ wide board, which will just be ripped into two 3″ wide strips. A 7″ board gets ripped to a 3″ and a 4″ strip, while an 8″ board turns into two 4″ strips or a 5″ and a 3″, whichever is preferred. Any width of rough lumber over 6″ wide can be broken down in some way with just the three target widths of 3″, 4″ and 5″. By the way, these are the rough cut widths. The finished tongue and groove flooring will end up with a face about 1/2″ less in width.
Random width flooring looks different, but not too different. At first glance, the viewer only notices the beautiful wood, and then after closer inspection notices the three widths, which lets them know subconsciously that the flooring is special. It stands out because it isn’t all one width like typical hardwood flooring, and most people have never seen or even thought of using random-width flooring. But, I say, “Don’t be scared of it.” It is different and not typical, but in a good way, especially when it comes to waste.
My First (and Maybe Last) Turning Job
Believe it or not, until recently I had never done any turnings. I have been messing with wood for a solid twenty years and never once have I even turned on a lathe. I’ve seen Norm do it a bazillion times on “The New Yankee Workshop” and listened to plenty of other woodworkers tell me about their turning escapades, but I never felt inclined to do it myself. I guess it’s because I am not attracted to work that has turnings in it, so they rarely end up in pieces that I am building and if they do, I pay someone else to do them.
It wasn’t by my choosing, but I did agree to build a bench with multiple turnings after my customer changed her mind on what she wanted. She showed me a picture from Sawkille.com of their “Tall Rabbit” bench and asked if I could make one like it for her with a variation on the length. Since I already had her deposit on the previous project, I didn’t want to say no and send back the money, so I said yes. I looked at it this way, if I consider myself a real woodworker and I am interested in spreading real-world useable woodworking knowledge, then it can’t hurt for me to have more knowledge myself. After all, was it possible that I would consider myself a real woodworker and die one day never having done a single turning? Sounded pretty hypocritical to me.
First off, let me say that the work from the kids at Sawkille is very nice, and though I don’t know them from Adam, I do appreciate the attention to design details that show in their work. I spent a lot of time messing with small details and proportions, and there is no doubt in my mind that they have spent exponentially more time on those same details and slight variations than I did.
The picture above is in black, but my customer saw some other variations and decided to go with bleached maple, and though it didn’t seem necessary on maple, bleaching gave the wood a very different look. The maple went from a light yellow-white to bone white with a couple of applications of two-part wood bleach. That part was as simple as could be – the actual turning was not.
Actually, I take that back. The short turnings weren’t too bad. After I turned the first couple and started to get a feel for it, the next 17 went pretty fast and came out nice. I got my time down to about 15 minutes each, which didn’t set any speed records, but it was a pace I could live with. If I did them all at that rate, I could turn all of the pieces in about 6 or 7 hours, which sounded like a fine day of work.
As you might have imagined, I wouldn’t have much to talk about if it all went down like that.
My troubles started when I stepped up to the legs and long stretchers. All of those are in the 24″ range, and about three times as long as the easy-peasy pieces. Out near the ends, where everything is solid, the work went according to plan, but in the middle, I would simply say that it did NOT. No matter how I attacked the middle, whether it be with a light touch or a hard push or maybe a quick jab or a different angle or a different speed or perhaps standing on a different foot or even just squinting a bit more, nothing improved. The piece of maple just jumped and kicked like a bucking bull, and I couldn’t stop it.
Even though I knew my problems were the result of the longer pieces, I imagined that a better turner (or at least someone who had turned at least once before in their life) could overcome the bounciness with better technique. I kept trying different lathe tools and worked slowly to get the pieces as good as possible, and while the overall shape was acceptable, the surface was not. It was nubby, like off-road truck tires, and there were plenty of spots were the wood was just ripped instead of cut. To finish up, I finally dumped the lathe tools and grabbed the sandpaper. I decided to take full advantage of the easy sanding on the lathe and let the paper do the work. Of course, it took awhile, but it was the only way I could come up with to overcome the bouncing spindle syndrome.
After I had a few of the long turnings done, I talked/complained to random shop patrons about my lathe fun and one of them mentioned using a rasp. Apparently, he had more turning knowledge than me (I think everyone does), and he had used the rasp a lot. It made good sense – a rasp is really just super-aggressive sandpaper. Plus, by holding the rasp more parallel to the piece than perpendicular, the rigid flat shape worked great to form the gradual curves with no humps. It wouldn’t have worked so well on intricate turnings, but it worked great in this case.
After finishing this project, I have a new respect for wood turners and turning. After all, my turnings were simple and still provided quite the challenge. When I think about some of the turnings I have seen, especially in other works, like large hollow vessels, and I consider all of the issues that the turner might face in a project like that, it really makes me appreciate the craft of it. And, though I may never do another turned project in my life, I am glad I gave this one a go.
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.