Go Where It’s At

Willie Sutton said you rob banks because “that’s where the money is.” Well, what if you’re looking for wood?

That’s right: you go to a sawmill.

A few months ago a fellow dropped by to ask me if I was interested in selling any timber trees. I wound up asking him whether he knew any sawmills in the area that do art woods. That came up dry, but he gave me the number of the boss of a sawmill, who I called and talked to, and that guy gave me the name of another sawmill boss who “does all kinds of stuff on demand.” So, I stalked tracked him down and explained that I was a wood-turner and project-doer and was looking for wood for bowls and stock lumber for art projects – specifically, quarter-sawn red oak.

Yesterday, I went to visit!

Sawmills are interesting: they’re usually a small area of activity where the trunks are sectioned, and then a couple kilns, maybe a shed, and piles of wood. Yes, it does smell great. They had just finished sectioning a big cedar log a few days earlier so the place smelled like a bath bomb.

As it turned out, this mill operation (Hemlock Hollow sawmill, in Tivoli PA)[hh] has a reputation as being a place that’ll saw exotic stuff, so people bring them exotic logs, which further burnishes their reputation, etc. I admit I was gobsmacked by some of the slabs of material they had stacked and drying – live-edge 2″ thick 20″x24″ slabs of apple or 10 foot long 2″ thick slabs of 12″ cedar. Casually, there was a table-top made out of a 3′ x 2′ 2″ thick slab of solid black walnut. See what I mean with the Willie Sutton analogy?

logs resting and waiting

I didn’t take pictures, specifically, of the saw because saws aren’t that interesting to me. But you can imagine the design: 2 rails with a slider that carries the log forward to a big horizontal or vertical bandsaw. Then, a power system for the bandsaw, and a driver for the slider. After that, you need something to move the logs, which is either a backhoe or skid-steer or bulldozer with forks. In this case, it’s a backhoe with a forks and the hoe-arm and a tow chain. It’s not a low-end operation but, seriously, you don’t need a huge amount of infrastructure once you’ve paid for the saw. [No, I will not be getting into milling]

Now, in the picture above it doesn’t look like much but – that’s solid maple, 8″ wide and 5″ thick. Look at the beam on the upper stack to see what I mean. It’s been sitting there drying for over a decade so it’s light, lightly spalted (aka: rotted) and some of the pieces have crazy grain in them. They cut two of those beams into 3 foot sections for me and we loaded them into my car.

“Oh you want live edge and burl? How about these maple slabs? Give me $25 apiece for them…”

Meanwhile, we were negotiating the set-up for them to part me out a red oak trunk. They have a trunk or two already, it’s just a matter of my coming down and we’ll explore the wood grain together to figure out the cuts. Usually a sawmill cuts the wood to get the most board-feet but I’m interested in getting the most crazy grain.

Right there is a couple years’ supply of wood. But, see, I own an old amish-built hay barn from the 1890s, which is designed so that air will flow through it to keep the hay from composting. It is, basically, a giant wood-drier. Storing a whole tree in there will not be a problem, other than the grunting and cursing part – wet oak is heavy. I am an expert at moving heavy things, though, and in the case of a stack of wet boards that means “a bit at a time.” I can park my pickup truck with a bed full of wood right inside the barn and work on emptying it a little every day. My little Honda CR-V is not such a great logging wagon.

All of the maple beams disappeared into the barn except for one piece of the spalted stuff, and a 3-foot chunk of one of the beams. The bandsaw went through it just fine after I set up a roller-stand to keep the end of the beam from flipping off the table, and that’s what it looks like inside.

There is still a huge distance to go with this stuff. Wood that is spalted/punky is dangerous to work on unless it’s stabilized somehow, which usually means cutting a bowl blank and rough-shaping it then giving it a vacuum soak in water-light poly resin, baking it, and then finishing the piece. It’s just steps, though, which can be done asynchronously. If I were a professional operation I’d do this assembly-line style – one day a week, do the vacuum soaking and baking and setting up blanks, and 5 days a week turning them down, but I don’t have to care and I know that the wood isn’t going anywhere.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    specifically, quarter-sawn red oak.

    That takes me back to my yout’. I was employed stripping and refinishing wood, and we got a job working in a nice house working on a staircase of quarter-sawn oak. I didn’t know anything, and my bosses, who were maybe in their 30s, threw around this term, ‘quarter-sawn’ as some mark of quality, but they didn’t know what it meant either. I’m sure it was an old guy who explained what it meant, and why it was a good thing.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    “live-edge 2″ thick 20″x24″ slabs of apple”
    Hokey Smokes! I assume that is plank-sawn and not quarter-sawn, but still, that is impressive. I’ve never seen an apple tree anywhere near that big, but then again, I have always lived in the western USA. Most of the planted trees I’ve seen are 75 years old or less. I suppose in Pennsylvania, you might still have some trees that Johnny Appleseed planted.

  3. kestrel says

    ***swoon*** What gorgeous wood. How on Earth did you stop yourself from bringing all of it home? I would have been tempted.

    Some magnificent grain there.

  4. says

    Well, I wished we had the Enterprise’s transporter, so I could send you some of the nice wood I have lying around: aplle and cherry, partly with burl and some fungal infection, aka the reasons we needed to have them felled.
    As it is, I’ll save a few pieces and the rest will be fire wood.

  5. Jazzlet says

    Oooooh lovely wood!

    I went with a friend to a good timber merchant and had a wander around while she explained what she wanted. Right up in the eaves of the shed I found a few huge slabs of mahogany and a couple of slabs of teak, absolutely beautiful under all the dust, but shocking too. I don’t know how long they’d been there. But those places just smell so good.

  6. flex says

    I guess I feel a little guilty. A couple years ago I moved into the house next to my parent’s farm, where I grew up. Now anytime I want some wood to play with I just raid the barn. Over the years Pops has had a number of trees taken down, and for many of them he had a fellow come out with a portable sawmill and plank them. So there is not only 100 years of scrap wood in the lofts, but a dozen piles of wood planked and seasoned for 20 years, mainly black walnut and poplar. It’s all plank sawn, not quarter-sawn, but when I need wood I just walk next door and rummage.

    Having grown up baling hay, I will say that keeping the hay dry is one of the most important parts. Not to prevent mold, but to prevent fires. Wet hay can decompose fast enough and generate enough heat in doing so to start the neighboring dry parts on fire. So yeah, hay barns are built to allow air circulation, not only the Amish ones. When we got high school kids who would work for a few days on the farm for a little bit of cash [not much, $0.10/bale divided among all the laborers, if you were lucky you might get $20 for a days labor], they would wonder why I would salt every layer of hay. I’d tell them it was to make the horses happier, but it was really to help absorb any remaining water in the bales.

  7. lorn says

    Years ago I used to hang at a bar where an older, I was but a pup in comparison, woodworker used to drink his beer. He said he had a working understanding with several local tree trimming crews and arborists. They would call him with interesting finds and he would hand the crew chief pizza and beer money for the crew. He had, over the years, collected a lot of interesting wood.

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