First of all, when it comes to using the entire tree, you can trust nature to waste nothing. Eons before the first axe took a bite out of a tree, the nutrients and organic material in dead trees returned to enrich and build up the soil. Along the way, the tree provided habitat to cavity nesting animals, food for insects, and nutrition to fungi before becoming mulch and again returning to the soil. So, even the small branches left in the woods to rot go to good use.
In the past, using as much of the tree as possible was seldom considered, since the resource was so immense, a shortage was unimaginable. But, unfortunately, this seemingly over-abundance of available wood is changing. We all need to do our part and be responsible with how we harvest and use trees. Using as much of the tree as possible is not just a philosophical idea – it makes good sense. Let’s start with the wood typically left behind by large logging operations. Many of these outfits often have expensive equipment to pay for and payroll to meet, so they take the best logs from the best trees, then move on. If you log, or have a chance to come in behind a logging operation to salvage what they’ve left behind, you may have the opportunity to salvage some unique wood. But how do you determine what is worth bringing back to mill on a portable sawmill, what to cut for firewood and what to leave behind?
Loggers leave large branches behind for a reason. Even though they may be large enough to go onto a conventional sawmill, they usually have tension in them, which causes them to warp during milling or drying. If you try milling branches, you must accept there will probably be a very low recovery and you will have gone to all the work of bringing the log back, milling and air drying it before concluding it would have been best left in the woods or cut up for firewood. The decision often depends somewhat on the species. Walnut, cherry and other hardwoods may have enough value to make it worth the gamble. Another way around this issue is to use the wood for products for which tension and warping are not issues. Small wood products, such as cutting boards, plaques and turning stock can make this type of wood worth salvaging.
Other logs may be too crooked, too short or even too big for conventional sawmills. Smaller mobile bandsaw mills, however, are ideally suited for the oddball stuff. For me, the most valued lumber is walnut and cherry crotches. Anything over 10” on the stem side goes onto the mill. A sharp “V” tends to be weak and have included bark. This can be very attractive for tabletops and even sculptures, but the best pieces are more “U” shaped. These have a feathered grain, so highly prized for gunstocks and bowls. The further down the stem the grain goes, the more valuable the wood. I like to cut them about 4” thick. Wood turners love these pieces.
Logs from higher up in the tree tend to have more defects and are more crooked. But it is possible to find fair-sized logs and you may be able to turn the defects to your advantage, if you call it “character” wood. If you don’t have the chance to see the log in the tree, you can get a pretty good idea whether it was a limb or part of the stem by looking at the growth rings. If they are centered in the log, then they were part of a vertical stem, and shouldn’t have much, if any, stress, which could cause warping when you cut or dry your lumber. I like to lay crooked logs on the mill so the bend is to the side and cut live edge slabs for curved counter tops or tabletops. People will pay a premium for them, because they are so unusual. And when it comes to knots…repeat after me, “Those aren’t defects—that’s character!”
One final part of the tree often overlooked is the root ball. If you are salvaging blown-down trees or trees bulldozed for land clearing, you may have access to the roots. The grain in roots can go off in every direction in a three-dimensional matrix, which can make milling tough and frustrates woodworkers. You may also find rocks embedded in the roots, as well, so if you aren’t willing to sacrifice a sawmill band blade or two, leave them in the woods. However, those who persevere can wind up with pieces of unmatched beauty, especially if the wood is polished to a perfectly smooth surface. Many wood turners in my neck of the woods pay a premium for walnut, cherry and hedge roots. One final note about the roots and working with blow-down trees in general; tension in the roots can cause the root ball to roll back into the hole with surprising speed. If you are ever in a position of doing this kind of salvage work, make sure no one is behind the root ball when you start working on the tree. I have heard of several accidents with tragic outcomes.
What about the remainder? It is possible to build a business around gleaning firewood from the treetops or to just provide yourself with a good supply of firewood. But if it isn’t practical to remove the firewood or any other wood to process on your mill, don’t worry. Nature will see to it all the left behind material goes to good use.
As always, we’d be pleased to hear or see how you’ve cut or used those “character” pieces of wood.
Logging image courtesy http://ontario.sierraclub.ca
I like how you said, “Logs from higher up in the tree tend to have more defects and are more crooked”. My wife and I saw some people cutting wood in the mountains. I wonder if they knew these tips. Perhaps, I could go find them and tell them about this website. How common is this in trees?