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.

Exploring with the new router

I almost made it to Friday.  I purchased my new router, a Porter-Cable 895PK, and it arrived Wednesday morning.  My original plan was to wait until Friday to drive across the state line to the Woodcraft franchise in Lenexa, Kansas and pick one up in the store.  However, a free shipping offer from woodcraft.com meant I could save myself the sales tax.  That, and having a need for the new tool in one of my current projects was all it took for me to talk myself into it. 

Feeling less than heroic, I told myself I could play with it after mowing the yard and getting the kids to bed.  (Bedtime was a must anyway, but throwing in the mowing made it seem like I was accomplishing something.)

the kitI unpacked the tool with a certain amount of ceremony, laying out each piece on my workbench.  It came in the fixed base, but immediately I switched to the plunge base and made sure I knew what the basic controls did.

My first impression was positive.  The controls were straight-forward and the plunge action was smooth–a concern since Fine Woodworking had faulted it for being slightly less smooth than the Bosch equivalent.

exploration 1I thought it would be interesting to try a Krenov-style through-tenon.  Using a 1/4″ spiral upcut bit in the plunge router, I cut the mortise.  Here I began to have concerns.  The router did not come with an edge guide, so I had to do some creative workpiece holding to arrange for the flat side of the router base to ride against a reference edge to get an accurate joint.  Luckily, there’s a mail-in rebate that makes the accessory free with purchase of the router.

The other thing I noticed about the tool was the absolute need to use a vacuum to keep the dust clear as I ran the machine.  The plunge base includes a built-in vacuum port, which worked beautifully once I plugged in the vacuum. 

The tenon I cut on the table saw with a tenon jig.  I rounded the tenon sides with a Nicholson No. 50 Cabinetmaker’s Rasp and sandpaper.  I used a Stanley No. 93 shoulder plane to tweak the tenon cheeks for a friction fit.  I then cut saw kerfs in the tenon to accept the walnut wedges.  Next I cut out the wedges and drove them home.  I finished off the wedges to match the profile of the tenon.

exploration 4
After sanding the test piece to 220 grit, I applied a linseed oil and beeswax finish for deep, natural color.  The maple tenon really pops in the walnut, especially with the wedges establishing a rhythm.

I can imagine this as the apron and legs of a table or the base stand of a cabinet. 

Overall, I was pleased with the router and the results I was able to achieve on the first try.  This is a significant upgrade from my first router, but more on that later.

exploration 5
The oil and wax finish gave a great depth of color to the walnut, something I was looking for. I especially like the gradient effect of the sapwood as it blends into the heartwood. 

I’m not sure where I picked it up, probably thewoodwhisperer.com, but I used a piece of scrap maple from another project as my stir stick for the finish.  It really gave depth to the figured maple in the stir stick. 

These explorations are great uses for small scrap, and they also provide fodder for design choices later on.  Nights like these are less about moving my current projects forward, and more about charging my creative batteries.  View the pictures here.

David’s Bed

One of my current projects is a twin-sized bed made of walnut with birds-eye maple panels. 

 I envisioned this piece largely by imagining the combination of elements I wanted to incorporate.  I knew I wanted through-tenons in walnut, wedged with maple.  I knew I wanted square posts which stood proud of the rails, and I knew I wanted complementary wood tones.

You can keep up with this project here.

Study Time

Frame and PanelOne of the lessons GTD has taught me is that at any given unscheduled, unoccupied moment, I should take on the task I have time and energy for, the task that’s appropriate for the current context. So for example, I have a list of the phone calls I need to make when I have time and access to a phone, and a list of tasks I need to perform in the workshop to move my woodworking projects forward.

But it pays to think carefully about context, and how we really define it.  Lately I’ve begun thinking of my workshop more as a studio: as a place to explore, to express my creativity; as Merriam-Webster defines it, “a place for the study of an art”.  The interesting thing about seeing a woodworking shop as a studio is that it invites one to explore.  So if I don’t have an opportunity to move projects forward in my studio because I’m waiting for a finish to dry or glue to cure, what do I do in the studio?

A few nights ago, I had such a moment: It was too cold to finish or glue, I was too tired to do precision joinery, but mentally I was still engaged.

I began exploring, experimenting with my tools and materials: a scrap of cherry clamped in the vise, a spokeshave with a throat made fine with a thick aftermarket blade. Could I imagine an edge treatment more subtle and more sensitive than I could produce with a router? Could I make it curve gently this way, slope inward that way?

What other tools might complement the process? A few wooden planes, received gratefully from a friendly chap in Britain who keeps his eyes out for such things… They were so crisp and well cared-for that I nearly didn’t sharpen them for use, but this night, I realized they were begging for use. I sharpened them, working the concavity with a slipstone as one would a carving gouge. Sharpened, I put them to use in my experiment, the shavings spilling off to the right.

I didn’t move my projects forward at all that night, and I didn’t cross any task off my list. However, I developed an idea for a future project, and explored the potential methods for achieving the results I might want. Best of all, I did it when I had the energy and enthusiasm for that particular task, not when I was committed to some larger project with other tasks.

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.