Around the turn of the century (the 19th century) an Oregon farmer planted a walnut seedling in the front yard of his farm house in the Willamette Valley. It grew there and did well in part because it was his front yard and in part because the Willamette Valley is a wonderful agricultural area that is unsurpassed for its diversity of crops and fertile soil. Walnut trees can grow very well there.
However, long about 2009 that tree needed to be a removed. My buddy, Dave, was given the opportunity to harvest that tree. By then it had grown to over 60” at the base and the canopy covered a lot of area. From the accompanying photos, you can see what I mean. In fact, the first 12’ log was so heavy that the self-loading log truck hired to haul the tree away could not lift the log onto the truck. Dave had to split that log in half on site to get it out of the farmer’s yard.
Since then, the log has sat at Dave’s place waiting for its turn in the mill. Dave sent out a gang e-mail to all his buddies earlier in the week announcing that Thursday was the day.
It was a cold, humid day in Salem on Thursday. The temperature never made it to 40°. Likewise, the sun didn’t make an appearance until 2:30 in the afternoon and the valley was shrouded in fog ‘til then. In spite of being chilled to the bone, we gladly came and helped and watched as Dave split the log again…this time into quarters.
Why split it again, you ask? Well, in order for it to fit on Dave’s mill and for the saw to cut it into slabs, one dimension needed to be 30” or a little less. Dave’s mill will cut a 12’ long log. He takes care to cut to that dimension when he fells the tree. But this monster was well beyond 30” in places so judicious trimming was necessary.
Those of you who have worked with walnut know that there is quite a bit of sapwood on the outside of the log. The sapwood isn’t the desirable material. It doesn’t color up into that rich, walnut brown color until continued growth of the tree places it nearer the center. The sapwood is also a desirable home to such little guys as powder post beetles and other critters that like to live and eat their way into the wood. So, even though this is a very large log, the amount of heartwood isn’t readily discernable until the tree is cut down. The sapwood can be trimmed off prior to the log going on the mill in order to make it the necessary 30” needed to fit on Dave’s mill.
Years before Dave got his own mill, I had the privilege of joining him one day when he had an appointment at a local sawmill to get his logs milled. In those days, he would go to the mill once or twice a year to cut up the logs he had harvested. What a treat it was to see those huge circular saw blades slice up his logs! But saw blades of that size cut a kerf of 3/8”. Dave’s band saw mill cuts a kerf of less than 1/8”. Dave also takes the time to position and reposition the log on the mill as many times as needed to optimize the yield. The result is much less waste and higher yield.
Once the log is on the mill, an initial cut is made. This trues the log with the opposite side and removes the last of the sapwood. Thereafter, Dave cut this piece into 5/4” slabs.
If you look closely at two of the slides, you will see Dave’s notes written on the log. Dave does his own grading of the slabs as they are cut on the mill. There is a camera in the rafters above the mill that takes a picture of this surface and stores that image along with the pertinent data in a spread sheet. Dave can call up this information, send a potential buyer a picture of the slab, and know what its yield.
24A 1 B
5/4 x 21 x 12’
That means that this is log #24, first quarter, B face. The slab is 5/4 thick with 21” of useable width and 12’ length. There are little, if any, knots in the useable portion of that slab. Thus, the designation that the slab is clear.
The slabs go right back onto the forks of the forklift. Dave will sticker them later, seal the end grain of the slabs, cover them from the rain, and set them out to dry in the yard for a period of time. After that, when the weather starts to warm up, they will go into the drying shed for further drying. The final step will be when the slabs are put into the kiln.
Dave knows that this wood, though the log was cut years ago, still has a moisture content in the 30%+ range. The goal will be to bring that down to around 8% in the end. Allowing the slabs to seek that moisture content naturally is the best thing for the wood. The final step of drying the wood in the kiln brings the moisture content down the last little bit. The kiln also allows Dave to, at the very end, heat the wood high enough in temperature to kill all the little critters that may be munching somewhere within the wood.
Nothing goes to waste with Dave. The sapwood either gets cut up and stacked on pallets for firewood or, the better pieces may get cut into lumber for use in jigs, blocking, or what have you after they too have been properly seasoned and kiln dried. Even smaller limbs get milled into material for smaller items such as chair legs, etc.
What a great way to spend a day! There were five of us there to hang out with Dave. Some of the guys had been there the day the tree was cut down. But we came for more than just lending a helping hand. This was also about watching this great big log give up its secrets. You have no idea what that log is really like until you cut it up. This one had incredibly straight grain. You can see that in some of the pictures.
Then too, there’s the fellowship of six guys who all love woodworking and love the smell of sawdust. We don’t waste our time with trash talk. We talk wood all day long. Even when we sat down and shared lunch, it’s still all about the wood…and friendship we share because of it.
Until next time…spray on!
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.