Category Archives: Wood Stories

Wood is Good


Published :    By : Merle      Cat :    Comments : 0

One of my favorite Christmas presents this year was a bumper sticker that said, “Wood is Good”, which I placed on the rear bumper of my truck! I’ve been around wood for 37 years now and I’m still amazed by the many pieces of wood that we make things from and the unique history of each piece of wood. Sometimes the story is special because of how nature has shaped those pieces of wood; once in a while the history of it’s first use connects with our own lives in some positive or quirky way; and other times, we can see the work of the craftsman’s hands who shaped those pieces of wood into useful objects. I was walking around the shop last week and it occurred to me that we were privileged to share with our clients in the creation of new uses for these special materials.

 Custom Crafted Door, Hand Hewn Oak_Montana
 It didn’t take long to see a huge (55″) live edge Douglas fir slab made into a conference table. (see Image 1) This piece of wood came from standing dead old growth snag that was left over from initial cuttings on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The 6′ diameter tree wasn’t harvested initially because it’s not always easy to deal with a 6′ diameter tree in difficult locations…felling, skidding, hauling, sawing, drying, flattening, filling, finishing, and shipping…but here its final form reminds us that it is a complete slice of a once incredible tree!
In another corner of the woodworking shop, Scott had just finished an exterior door for a residential house project. This door was built with hand hewn oak skins that were laminated onto plywood cores. (see Image 2) The highlight of this door is the hewn texture that was initially done by a carpenter on the timbers of a southwestern Ohio barn in the late 1800′s. If one has ever swung a broad axe, you learn that it is hard work and takes some skill. Could you imagine the surprise of that carpenter if he learned that his 19th century axe work would be highlighted on a door project in Montana in the 21st century! 
 
 Custom Crafted Live Edge Shelf, Cherry and Oak_Montana
The sawdust has been flying in the timber shop as our timber framers scribe and fit the cedar snags (standing dead) that we purchased in SE Alaska to the reclaimed Douglas fir timbers that came from a number of sources, including: a Newark, NJ warehouse, a railroad roundhouse in Duluth, MN, a Sunkist packing shed in C, a Brunswick bowling factory in Muskegon, MI. (see Image 3) You can read about my blog post about the adventure of buying cedar logs in SE Alaska at http://bigtimberworks.com/road-trip-for-an-old-snag-3/. The most noticeable thing about these cedar snags is how they have been shaped by nature after standing dead for so many years in a temperate rain forest climate. The reclaimed fir timbers will retain their aged patina that was gained from the many years of service they provided in their respective industrial structures. 
The last little project that i’ll mention has a good wood story as well. Our friend and former employee, Dave Sheldon, has a mobile milling business in PA where he finds harvested urban and suburban trees (mainly in the Philadelphia area) and turns them into valuable commodities for folks like us. 
When he visited last fall, we purchased some live edge cherry boards that came from an overgrown fencerow bordering a new development in Collegeville, PA. We were able to highlight their natural form and beautiful grain pattern in a simple but elegant bookshelf. (see Image 4) Chances are good that these overgrown trees would have become ornamental firewood for some highly inefficient fireplace in some unremarkable house if not for David’s resourcefulness and perseverance!

 

You can see that we greatly appreciate the good wood stories of our wood. We’re glad that we have connections with history, nature and the humans who have created things we can reuse.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Road Trip for an Old Snag!


Published :    By : Merle      Cat :    Comments : 0

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If the truth was known, I’ve always lived for road trips especially when wood is involved! You can imagine my excitement in September when a colleague, Kim Hoelting, told me that he was planning a trip to SE Alaska. I wasn’t shy when I asked him if this native North Dakotan could tag along and being the kind and gentle soul he is, he agreed! His mission for this trip was to touch base with all the loggers who have supplied him throughout the years with amazing pieces of wood that he offers at Live Edge Woodworks on Whidbey Island, WA.. Our destination in SE Alaska was the town of Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island near Ketchikan, AK.. Prince of Wales Island is the 4th largest island in America (roughly the size of Delaware) and has a year round population of 6,000 people. We flew from Seattle to Ketchikan via Alaska Air and then has a 25 min. ride to Thorne Bay on a de Havilland Beaver float plane. See Image 1. I was reminded of the relative isolation of the island as we and our possessions were carefully weighed before departure so that important freight (bolts and hardware) could also be loaded to service the inhabitants of Prince of Wales Island. Once I was on the island, I was reminded that it had to be very expensive for the residents to get rid of their old cards and trucks, because I saw a lot of old Ford pickups in various forms of disassembly. This fondly reminded me of the parts of Montana and the need for parts of vehicles to keep your rig running! We also saw lots of used refrigerators being used as salmon smokers! “Waste not, want not” was drilled into me as a kid-it appears it is common practice in Alaska as well!

The Tongass National Forest covers much of SE Alaska and most of the Prince of Wales Island. Logging, fishing and mining have been the traditional industries on the island but less extractive industries such as tourism via the tour ships are bringing much needed income to many of these hardscabble towns in SE Alaska. Our trip was delayed in November because of the US government shutdown so we were assured of having nice cool rainy weather that contributes nicely to the 120 inches of precipitation yearly that makes this the largest coastal temperate rain forest in the world. Seriously, that’s like 1/3 of an inch per day! It’s no wonder that this part of Alaska can grow trees! In Bozeman where I live, we average around 20″ per year and that’s considered wet compared to most areas of Montana!

I remember reading extensively about the Tongass (America’s largest national forest with 17 million acres) in the 70′s when I was attending forestry school at the Univ. of Minnesota. It was a source of controversy then because of the old growth forests of Sitka spruce, Alaskan yellow cedar, Western red cedar and Western hemlock were being logged at phenomenal rates and those forest management practices had spawned a huge conflict with many skirmishes between competing political, industrial and environmental interests. See Image 2. The main issues have been about the use of clear cutting as the main harvesting tool because it also hurts the watersheds which are absolutely vital to salmon and the fishing industry, the selling of logs to industry at a loss by the US Forest Service thus requiring subsidies from the US taxpayer, and the exporting of whole logs overseas that eliminate processing jobs for Alaskans. The net result is that the logging industry in the Tongass has shrunk from 3500 jobs in the 1990′s to roughly 200 jobs currently. Little did I realize how much these issues would affect my experience as a potential buyer of Alaskan wood!

It just so happened that a couple of weeks before I was to leave for Alaska that BT received word that a project that we had priced in NC was going to happen. This project was significant in scope and featured a couple of semi-loads of exterior and interior logs that needed to be cedar because building codes required their rot resistance  for outside use and the architects were desirous to see the butt flare characteristics of cedar being used as interior log posts. In the bidding process, we had counted on using old cedar telephone poles for the exterior work and hoped to find cedar logs with butt flare somewhere in MT or ID.. As it turns out, both of these solutions were problematic. So now my Alaska trip had a real sense of purpose because we had a real project to build!

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We arrived in Thorne Bay early on Sunday afternoon and proceeded immediately to begin the search for wood by searching out Kim’s logger contacts. It didn’t take long to find Elwood the logger, who had a 10 acre clearcut (called a micro-scale)  on state land that was almost finished. It was very interesting to walk the boundaries of the clearcut because there were trees over 5′ in diameter as we slogged under and around them in standing water and ankle deep moss. As we looked at the deck of logs that had been shovel logged up to the road, I noticed these beautiful weathered standing dead cedar logs that were laying sprinkled throughout the Western red and Alaskan yellow cedar logs that had been cut green. See Image 3. I learned that these gnarly logs were called snags by the locals and were considered non-merchantable because of the loose knots that fell out when sawed into lumber. I was told that these snags had been standing for up to 5o years and the less rot resistant sapwood had vanished after thousands of wet/dry cycles. See Image 4. The wheels were spinning rapidly in my head because I could see the possibilities for our project in NC! 
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Now I could concentrate on other needs like the butt flare posts and unique pieces of wood that might stimulate our creativity. I learned quickly from Jake, our logger contact, as we looked as his log pile that most of the western red cedar (Thuja pilcata) couldn’t be sold unless he sawed it on all 4 sides into dimensional lumber thus eliminating its potential as live edge pieces. In other works, exporting red cedar logs was extremely burdensome because of restrictions that have been imposed to counteract the past negative effects of log exportation. Jake was able to export Alaskan yellow cedar (cupressus nootkatensis) so we were able to find the 6 main interior butt flared log posts. See Image 5. The disadvantage f these posts is that they were not as dry as the standing dead snags since they had been cut green about 3 years ago. As we looked through Jake’s log pile, we found tons of old growth red cedar logs that both Kim and I wanted to buy but we couldn’t do practically because the terms of their contacts with the Forest Service contract wouldn’t allow these logs to be exported unless they were sawed into boards. See Image 6. This was extremely discouraging since everyone would benefit if the logs could be bought as logs and turned  into a higher value commodity than deck lumber. So the very laws that were designed to protect the local Alaskan logger ended up hurting him from reaping the maximum value for his logs! It was pretty apparent that every logger that we ran into would be classified as “barely making it” and most told us the difficulty to find enough logs to cut and run their small sawmills and shingle mills. I never got the idea that these small operators were “cutting and running” which has often been the case in the wood products industry! I ended up buying a couple more loads of crooked Alaskan yellow cedar that again only had value as firewood in Alaska but had great potential for interesting pieces in log and timber trusses. It felt great to add some money to the loggers’ bottom line by purchasing snags, butt flares and crooked logs!

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Since I’ve returned and the logs have started to arrive from Alaska, I’ve had numerous conversations about my trip. Most folks who see the logs are intrigued by the time worn patina of the old dead trees and some are interested in the process of getting logs from an island 1500 miles away via barge and flatbed truck and trailer to Montana. See Images 7 and 8. Folks who know us well understand our now familiar habit of finding things no one else wants and then making things from them that have a great story. Some folks were surprised that we would buy trees from an old growth forest that was being clearcut! One person asked if there were any trees left for wildlife and bird habitat after the clearcut!?!

If the truth was know, we’ve never had an issue with cutting live and standing dead old growth trees to build our buildings. I think our buildings are worthy of the best fine grained, dense wood because we use the wood in an honest and honorable way. But we decided long ago (1990) that basing our building business on a constant supply of old growth wood directly from the forest was not sound business. Yes, mammoth clear-cuts are destructive and ugly to look at but this 10 acre micro-scale in Alaska is minuscule in the scheme of things and it gives forest managers a tool to deal with over ripe and dying forests. It provides honest work and a sustainable living for the smaller logger that toil away in the Tongass. I think that our use of wood is appropriate and responsible. So for 24 years now, we’ve been using old growth wood that was cut up to 100 years ago and put into industrial America. The best part of this is that the wood has also been drying for up to 100 years in their respective structures. Essentially we’ve had the best of both worlds plus great stories to tell about where we found the reclaimed wood.

The snags from Alaska seems like a great story too as they stand like lone dead soldiers hoping that someone will finally notice their beauty and intrinsic value and use them in an honorable way. The cycle of life marches on as these snags are replaced with vigorous new growth that provides increased wildlife habitat and more oxygen for the planet!

 

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“I can really relate to this snag story. Snags remind me of myself in many ways, such as:  We are mostly grey on top with a little sprinkling of brown mixed in! We both have deeply furrowed faces from our many years of experience! We’ve been wet and dry countless times! We’re often overlooked or looked down upon because we’re perceived as old, weak and boring!  But you just might be surprised when you polish us up!!!!!!”                                                                       -Merle Adams 

PS. The names of our logger suppliers have been changed to protect Live Edge Woodwork and BT’s future supply of snags and crooked logs! Guess what movie that I took the names from?