American black walnut is one of the most beautiful woods on this planet. I like the way it doesn’t rot, I like the way it mills, I like the way it dries, I like the way it works, and I like the way it smells like money. Walnut is one of the most valuable trees, and right now, it’s the most requested lumber from my customers.
I sell walnut as fast as I can cut it and sometimes even faster. Whenever I have a chance to pick up a walnut log, I do it. There is nothing better than finding a good quality walnut log and turning it into lumber. Well, except for finding a veneer quality walnut log and not turning it into lumber. A veneer quality log is so valuable that I make more money by just selling it to a veneer buyer than I do by milling, drying and planing all of the wood from the same log.
To be veneer quality, a log has to be perfect or close to it. It needs to be straight, round, defect free, and, if it is to be very valuable, it needs to be large (24″ or larger on the skinny end, inside the bark). The log also has to have one other key characteristic – no freakin’ visits from a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
In the veneer business, they call it bird peck. I just call it bird _____ (you fill in the blank). Bird peck is a defect caused by a woodpecker called a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker digging holes in the tree to find bugs and to get the sap flowing out of the holes which attracts even more bugs. These holes eventually heal over, but they leave dark marks in the wood and make veneer buyers head the other direction. Bird peck can take a log destined for a veneer mill that would sell for $7 or more per board foot and make it only worth $2 per board foot when it ends up at a regular sawmill.
Even though I get a lot of logs, I don’t get veneer logs very often – maybe only a couple a year. Recently, I had what looked to be the most valuable log of my career, except for, you guessed it, the ol’ Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. The log wasn’t giant, but it was big and long (24″ x 13′) and straight. It could have been a little more round, but otherwise it looked great on the outside.
When I was cutting the tree and harvesting the logs, I saw a couple of bird peck marks in the top logs, but hoped that it wouldn’t be so bad lower in the tree. After all, birds should more often be up in the tree instead of down in the tree. I trimmed the top of the log more than a foot, but I couldn’t get the log to be clear. Every cut I made still showed at least a couple bird pecks.
At that point, I stopped cutting and decided to see what the veneer buyer had to say. I remembered selling logs in the past that showed a little bird peck and the price was lower, but he still bought it at a good price. I figured I had nothing to lose, and I couldn’t do anything about the bird peck, so it was time to sell it, or try to. The buyer, Damien from Tracy Export, had always treated me fairly, and I expected him to offer as good a price as he could.
I pulled in to the yard in Columbia, Illinois with the log on my trailer and expected Damien to be in awe of my big walnut and to start throwing money at me. I prepared by practicing my straight face and trying to not look too excited. Anyone that has ever met Damien can tell you that he does all of that naturally. He is always straight-faced and is never the giddiest of the bunch. Outwardly, he looks like he would break you in two for fun and not even blink. He has always been helpful and courteous and we have had some good discussions about wood, but he would never be accused of being soft. I imagine his rough exterior and no-nonsense approach serve him well as a log buyer.
It wasn’t the best day weather-wise and the cold rain didn’t help raise Damien’s mood. He grabbed his log scale and cant hook and headed towards the trailer. He was ahead of me and I couldn’t see his face, but I was sure he was saying to himself how good the log looked.
Within a micro-second of looking at the skinny end of the log, Damien’s cut and dry attitude somehow became even drier. He saw the bird peck immediately and had no interest in the log for veneer, not even a little. He said that the log would go to a sawmill and most likely would be cut into flooring and he offered me $2 per board foot. The same log without bird peck could have sold for as much as $2,100, but as is, the offer was only $600. At that price, it made more sense for me to cut it and make one of my customer’s happy than it did to sell the log, so I drove back to my shop with the log still on the trailer.
Since then, I milled the log and got a chance to see the inside. Much of the log was perfect, but there were areas that had bird peck. Buyers like Damien avoid these logs because they just can’t tell how much of the inside will produce high-grade veneer. Since they are paying top dollar for veneer logs, it just makes sense for them to only buy the best logs for veneer and avoid the questionable ones.
The good news for this log is that it made very nice slabs that will end up in some very nice furniture. Even the areas with bird peck are still perfectly usable, though they lend themselves to more natural pieces, which just so happens to be what most of my customers prefer. After all, it is actual wood produced in nature and not perfect wood that came out of a machine. At least that’s what I tell myself when the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker comes to town.