Harvesting urban lumber

This is an exercise in delayed gratification.  I have two more years to wait for this urban lumber harvest to come to fruition.   But the hard work is finished.


About a year ago, this tree fell in my neighbor’s back yard, crushing her cinder-block garage.  The tree finally gave up in the rain-saturated ground.  Luckily nobody was injured.

With my neighbor’s permission, I began the process of harvesting the tree for use in furniture. 

The tree trunk was on average 48″ in diameter – much larger than the deck of a portable bandsaw mill – so I had to split the log into quarters. The process was slow at first, but once I discovered this 30″ chainsaw available for rent locally, I got the job done.

Plan A involved bringing the bandsaw mill to the logs, but we soon discovered that the quarters were each as heavy as the average log, and much more awkward because of the geometry.  It was on to Plan B, which involved renting a skid steer loader and hauling the logs to the sawmill. 

The second truckload

These were the narrow boards, believe it or not.  I brought the first 15 boards, the widest of the bunch, home from the sawmill the night before.  The widest boards were well over 20″ wide.

I unloaded five boards and got them stacked before I gave up, exhausted.  I got up early the next morning, stacked the rest of the boards from the first load in the driveway, and drove back out to the sawmill to pick up this load.  It was one of the few times in my life when I was relieved to have some narrow boards to work with.

Finally, with a little help from my brother-in-law, I got all the boards unloaded and leaning against the back of my garage workshop.  The moisture content of these boards were enough to make the wider ones very difficult to manage. 

There was a long piece of iron, like a large nail, several inches long and coiled inside one of the four logs.  This caused staining on some of the boards, and ruined a few saw blades. 

Some iron staining

It’s hard to feel bad about it, because there was so much good lumber out of it.  I’m looking forward to experimenting with the stained stuff. 

One option would be to ebonize it, but I can also picture a more postmodern approach, making use of an Arts and Crafts design vocabulary appropriate for quartersawn oak, but tinting the pieces blue with a dye.  This might make for interesting children’s furniture, or even a hip update on a Stickley design. 

Don, the man with the sawmill and my go-to guy for urban lumber, asked me if I’d do it all over again.  “I think so,” I said.  That was before I finished unloading.  Still, I’d have to say yes.  It’s an amazing sense of acomplishment, taking the wood from tree to lumber.  Hopefully I’ll have the chance to see it the rest of the way through the lifecycle.  Knock on… well, never mind.

Here it is, all stacked and ready to air-dry behind my workshop, a time capsule to be ignored and forgotten until summer, 2010. This should be enough oak to last me several years.
Stickered and Stacked

Update:  Cross-posted at Moseley WoodWorks.

Stickley Writing Desk in Quartersawn Oak

Drawer detail This desk began as a reproduction of the Gustav Stickley No. 708 writing desk, as measured and drawn by Bob Lang for his Shop Drawings of Craftsman Furniture.

There were some interesting techniques involved in this project, including the mitered legs, which yield quartersawn faces on all four sides of the leg. Smaller mortises were chopped by hand. The drawer divider was joined to the rail using two Miller Dowels.

By the time I was wrapping up this project, I was feeling the need to give something of myself to the piece.  I chose to give the corners an upswept treatment with spokeshaves.  The result was a softening of the Stickley look, with gentle and subtle tool marks for a slightly faceted look up close.

The finish is an alcohol dye applied with a rag, followed by polyurethane. The polyurethane was rubbed out with steel wool to give a satin finish.

Drawer Dovetails

Here, drawer sides were joined to the front with half-blind dovetails, which were cut by hand. Secondary wood is soft maple.  The secondary wood is untreated; the reflection here is the result of the polished handplaned surface.

Details of Construction

Drawer bottom panels are edge-joined soft maple, their grain running parallel to the face of the drawers, so that seasonal expansion and contraction would not cause drawer sides to bow.

Details of Construction

The bottom panels are attached to the back of the drawers using a single brass wood screw.