Tuesday, January 29

Lumber Prep

Some of the more often asked questions that we get have to do with our lumber; where we get it, are our sources ecologically minded and what grade the lumber is. Since we haven’t covered that in a while, I’ll go through that again briefly.

We purchase nearly all of our lumber from a local broker; Tommy. He runs a tree cutting service and is pastor of the local Church of Christ. He’s a good, honest man. People will call him when they need a tree or two, sometimes more, cut from their property. He is against deforestation and does not engage in large scale logging. Since most of the land around here is part of either the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Cherokee National Park or the Martha Sundquist National Forest, logging here is mostly small scale.

There was one operation up in Del Rio a couple of years ago where a large number of trees were cut and flown across the French Broad river to a spot next to Highway 321 by a huge helicopter because it was the only way to get them out of the remote location they were being cut without major ecological damage. That’s the only time since we moved here 6 years ago that I’ve seen more than a truck load of logs being taken from a single site.

Tommy buys lumber as standing trees – trees that need to be removed for one reason or another – and works with several local sawyers. He and a sawyer go in and fell the trees, cut them into logs and mill the logs into lumber on site with a portable mill.

If Tommy expects the logs to yield some especially nice lumber he will call me to see if I am in the market for that species. If so he loads the freshly milled lumber onto his truck and delivers it to me here, where we will sort it, count it up and cull out the useable stock. As to the grade of lumber -- because I buy the entire log, what I get is called log run lumber. In it we will get some choice and select grade lumber, some #1 and #2 common, and some that is pretty rough. Mostly the grade of a piece of lumber depends on how closely spaced any defects (knots, bark inclusions, rot pockets, wormy areas, etc) are, and somewhat on the grain pattern. Perfectly clear, very straight grained boards are select or choice grade. One or two small defects in a board would make it #1 common grade, more would deem it #2 common. Lumber that isn't suited for furniture making can be cut into stacking sticks or used in odd projects around our yard, so little is wasted. Even the shop scraps too small or gnarly to be used in any other way can be used in our fireplace to heat our home.

Hint: if you should decide to try your hand at logging, don’t park your truck under the tree you’re cutting! No, that’s not anyone I know. Really!

Before this lumber can be used in furniture making it has to dry. Fresh milled lumber is saturated with water. It normally takes around two years for the lumber to air dry to a useable state. During that time it must be stacked on a drying rack, each layer separated from the next by spacers or “sticks” so air can circulate all around each board. The stacks are then covered with sheets of tin roofing (if stored outdoors) and weighted. Now that our new workshop is in use, the old workshop building is being used for lumber storage. I hope to expand this "under cover" storage by building an open sided shed that connects the old shop and the new. That will keep rain, snow and the sun off of the lumber piles but allow the air to circulate freely.

As the lumber dries it will shrink. It will also want to cup (curl up on the edges) and bow (curl up toward each end) as well as split. By sealing the ends of the boards before stacking them I can prevent the open end grain from drying out faster than the rest of the board which causes splitting. If the boards are properly sticker stacked and weighted the cupping, curling and warping problems will also be minimized. If it is done properly.

Some want to know if our lumber is kiln dried. It is not; here’s why. Kiln drying *can* be an effective means of drying lumber more quickly than air drying, but if it’s done improperly, if it’s rushed, the lumber is ruined. It may not look ruined, it may look just fine until you cut into the board, then internal stresses created by the too-fast removal of the water content cause the board to curl off in weird directions. Sometimes the internal structure of the wood is so damaged that it honeycombs inside, rendering the board useless.

Kiln operators will tout kiln dried lumber as being superior for exacting uses (like furniture making) because they dry the wood to 6% to 8% water content. They claim that this makes the wood more stable, less likely to shrink up. Which has some truth to it… if you use the lumber as soon as it comes out of the kiln. But if the dried lumber is stacked and stored for any length of time, it *will* begin absorbing moisture from the atmosphere until it is back up to the 10% to 14% (or more, depending on humidity levels) that is normal.

Even if you do use the lumber right out of the kiln, the wood in the finished furniture will absorb moisture right through its finish and expand. If you have not allowed for this – if you think that “kiln dried lumber doesn’t ‘move’” -- then you will be popping joints all over the place. Wood never stops moving.

By air drying my own lumber I know that it was done correctly, my lumber costs are significantly reduced, and I have far fewer problems with case hardened or honeycombed lumber. I do have to keep ahead of my demand; have to keep enough lumber on hand to serve my needs two years down the road. And that my friends is a considerable amount of lumber. We stock 7 species; red oak, white oak, hickory (pecan), walnut, cherry, poplar and maple. We also bring in some specialty woods when they are available, at the moment we have ash, holly, sycamore, honey locust and some aromatic cedar in our lumber yard.

When I begin a project I go to the lumber stack and pull out boards that are well suited to the project at hand. A detailed discussion of what this entails would be beyond the scope of this little blog; it is something learned through experience… we call it “reading the wood”.

When I have the wood I need I take it into the workshop and allow it to acclimate for a while. Acclimation is just a snazzy word for adjusting to the new environment. The environment inside my workshop is different from that outside (thank God). As the wood’s water content and temperature equalize with that inside my workshop it may want to change shape. This time I allow it to do so. While this process is on-going, I can chunk the boards up into oversized pieces from which the parts will be made, but I must allow them to finish acclimating before milling them to finished size. That is what we’re doing now. This is in fact enough oak for Nance’s CD End Table, Ira’s TV Tray Table set, and a dining room table that I’m working on in the evenings for my own family, and probably enough to finish up the oak steamer trunk we began when we built the two trunks last fall. About time I got the other two finished up.

The lumber is inside now and I can go through the boards with my cut list and mark each board according to it’s intended purpose based on it’s coloring and graining. Sometimes it is necessary to surface plane a board a little to get a better look under the rough sawn surface. But if the sawyer used a sharp blade, I can usually see what I need to see as is.

I am also double checking to see that we have all the parts needed on hand and ready to use. The one part that gave me trouble on his project is the drawer pull selection. Nance really wanted antique brass library pulls. For some odd reason, none of the suppliers from whom I can buy library pulls offer them in an antique brass finish. But I did find a supplier who offers unfinished brass library pulls, which I can use an antiquing solution on, then lacquer them to preserve the finish and prevent corrosion. So that’s what we will do. This would not work on brass pulls that have already been lacquered (unless you removed the lacquer first) or on pot-metal pulls with a brass colored finish. Only on real brass.


I said I’d be brief, didn’t I? Sorry about that.


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