Harvesting Backyard Exotics: There’s No Place Like Home For A Bonanza Of Beautiful Woods

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Imagine walking into a lumber dealer’s show room and having first choice of all the best material–wide slabs of walnut, quartersawn sycamore, and cherry planks milled to exactly the right thickness for your next project, all with matching grain and color. Just down the aisle you encounter stacks of beautiful boards of exotic native species you’ve never seen before. Imagine all of this for less than 75¢ per board foot! If your property or neighborhood has a stand of trees, you may be wood-rich … maybe super rich.

Oftentimes (depending on where you live), urban, suburban, and acreage yard trees include the usual oak, maple, and ash, as well as less common gems–what I call “backyard exotics.” (See “Less Common Gems,” above) For those of you who have a variety of trees growing on your land, you may have all the woodworking woods you’ll ever need. All you lack is the equipment and know-how to transform the resource into usable stock. That’s why teaming up with a sawyer (as T. J. Palmer of Joplin, Missouri, did when he hired me to mill logs he had cut from his woodlot) makes sense and is the safest way to go.

By working with a sawyer, you can determine how you want to slice the wood for best effect. You may want to quartersaw a white oak log to mine impressive ray-fleck figure or slab the crotch wood in a walnut for a stunning accent table. Perhaps granddad planted a tree a half century ago, and you want to transform its wood into an heirloom bowl or furniture piece in his memory. The reasons abound for harvesting homegrown woods.

Harvesting Exotics

Less Common Gems: Here are just some of the woods I harvest around the Joplin, Missouri area. The samples include: Catalpa, Sassafras, Spalted Scamore, Mimosa, Osage Orange, Quartersawn Sycamore, Hickory, Honey Locust, Walnut, Quartersawn Black Oak, and Mulberry,

Identifying suitable trees

Start by finding a suitable candidate for harvesting, keeping these pointers in mind:

Size: Most portable sawmills can handle logs between 10" and 30" in diameter, but a few will cut logs outside that range. The ideal log length runs between 8'4" and 12'4".

Form: Straight logs give the best yield if you are looking for straight boards. Curved logs can be cut lengthwise to produce curved slabs with natural edges that make interesting benches, bar tops, and accent tables. Crotches can yield spectacular feathered grain.

Species and identification: Most sawyers know the local species, but all bets are off with ornamental trees, which may come from half-way around the world. Rely on the Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Trees as a reference for identifying native species.

What to avoid: Trees that branch out low make poor saw logs. If the tree has been dead, it may have rot or be hollow. Consider the tree’s origin (urban vs. forest.) Urban trees are notorious for containing metal. Scan suspect logs with a metal detector. They could have fence wire, nails, or even a steel post embedded. Finally, don’t mill branches, even if they’re big and straight. They contain stress and may warp beyond use.

Brush on a thick coat of latex paint or Anchorseal 2 to seal the ends of logs and prevent end-grain checking.

Finding trees

Make sure you really want to remove the tree for woodworking stock. I would never recommend an urban tree be cut down just to make something out of it. Still, if you have a dead or dying tree, or one that otherwise needs removal, why not make the most of it?

Beyond your property line, keep an eye open for trees marked for removal. Knock on a neighbor’s door to ask about a tree. Sweeten the deal by offering the owner a bowl or other piece made from the wood. I’ve offered split firewood to those who burn wood in their fireplace. Because you’ll have to haul the logs home, don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Felling trees

Leave the hazardous business of felling a tree to a bonded and insured tree service with the right equipment to do the job safely. Your portable sawmill guy may be qualified. In any case, avoid doing it yourself with a chainsaw. There are too many risks. Tree services can be expensive, but they earn their pay! Tell them what you want done. Once the tree is cut into usable logs, seal the ends (Photo A).

Finding a sawmill

There are thousands of portable and custom sawmills across the country. Do a web search for those in your area. The state forest products association, Department of Conservation,
and SawmillFinder.com are good resources.

Arranging for milling

When you talk to a sawyer, describe the size and number of logs accurately. Be up front about them coming from a yard. Many sawmills will refuse to cut yard trees because of the high probability of hitting nails and other embedded metal. Others take it in stride, but will expect you to pay for a new blade (around $30 for a bandsaw blade) if they strike metal.

Use a chainsaw mill to slice up a few logs or logs in heavily wooded areas that are hard to get to with a portable bandsaw mill.

Keep the logs clean. Dragging them on the ground crams dirt in the bark, which is hard on bandsaw blades. Lift the logs and carry them, if possible. Even lifting one end while moving them helps. It’s easier on your yard too.

Most sawyers charge from 30¢ to 50¢ per board foot, which works well for straight logs. Charging by the hour is the most reasonable way to deal with specialty cuts such as crotches, short pieces, and quartersawing, since they require more handling. The average rate is around $60/hour. Other charges may include transportation and setup fees if the sawyer brings the mill to you. Still, you should beat the 75¢ per board foot cited earlier.

If the customer is willing, I’ll put him or her to work off-bearing the boards. I generally enjoy having the customer work with me, especially when cutting unusual wood, because we can discuss the various possibilities. Some sawmill operators have strict rules about what a customer can do because of liability issues.

To get the most out of your logs, know ahead of time what you want as an end product.  The sawyer will cut accordingly, accounting for shrinkage as the wood dries and the loss of wood from planing. If you have a specific project in mind, make a cut list and let the sawyer decide the most efficient way to mill what you need.

Samill Options

Several choices lay before you when harvesting the bounty of backyard woods:

Hauling your logs to the sawmill

If you just have a few logs and a way to move them, you can save some money by bringing them to the mill. I schedule a log drop-off so that the customer can deliver the logs and return home with the boards all in one trip.

Just loading the log on a trailer can be a wrestling match, involving winches, ramps, and other equipment. And you’ll need straps. Heavy ratchet straps used by truckers are great. Hauling logs and lumber puts a serious responsibility on you. Make sure your vehicle has adequate towing capacity and that the trailer is rated for the weight of your logs. On the return trip, be sure the load is securely strapped down and that the straps put pressure evenly across the boards.

Harvesting Exotics

Run the log-bearing sled along the saw’s fence (or a clamped-on makeshift fence) for resawing slabs or cutting turning squares.

Have a portable mill come to you

If you don’t have a safe way to haul logs and lumber, find someone with a portable sawmill to come to you, as shown on page 30. To help the sawyer’s job go smoothly, pile up or line up the logs on level ground to give him plenty of area to work in–at least a 30' square. Provide logs for blocking and 1 × 1" stickers to air-dry the sawn boards. Stage the logs so that the sawyer cuts the best ones first. By day’s end, you may not get to all of them.

Do-it-yourself chainsaw mill

If you decide to mill your own logs, consider a chainsaw mill (Photo B). The minimum size saw recommended is 70 cubic centimeters (c.c.), but most mills run saws over 100 c.c. The bar needs to be longer than the widest diameter you will cut, and you need a special ripping chain. Add to this the safety gear (chaps, helmet, and steel-toe boots), and you have a significant investment (about $1,700). Many people use chainsaw mills to cut logs where they find them, which lets them move the log one board at a time.

Working with a shop bandsaw

Bandsaws of 1.5 hp or more can be used for milling small logs. I recommend a 1"-wide resaw blade with 3 teeth per inch, though 1.5 to 2 teeth per inch would work well for more powerful saws. The key is to use a sharp blade and to feed the log through at a steady pace. One way is to pass a manageable log over the jointer to get a good flat side, and then use the fence on the bandsaw to cut your boards. If you mill regularly, make a right-angle sled (Photo C). Secure the log with screws through the sled’s fence and into the log’s waste area.

Harvesting Exotics

I like to spread water on freshly cut crotch slabs to reveal the beauty of the bookmatched pieces or other figured woods.

Cutting Options

Wood can be cut so as to bring out the best grain and physical properties. The sawyer can figure out ways to maximize the cuts you want. As shown in Figure 1, here are your cutting and grain options:

Plainsawing cuts the wood tangential to the growth rings. This common cut yields V-grain patterns in most species. It can result in cupping, so you may want to cut wide boards thicker. Also consider ripping them down the center before planing, and then jointing and edge-gluing them back together. The cupping makes it important to kiln-dry the wood or otherwise bring it to a moisture content of about 7% for use indoors.

Quartersawing cuts the wood perpendicular to the growth rings. This “vertical grain” stock proves more stable, being less prone to cupping. For most species, quartersawn wood has a special shimmering quality, but in some species, such as oak and sycamore, the wood rays yield beautiful flecked or quilted patterns.

Flitch-cutting means sawing the boards while leaving the natural edges. This wood can be challenging to work with, since you do not have a straight edge for reference, but it is a favorite of rustic woodworkers and is becoming more popular in custom furniture. One advantage is that pieces can be book-matched to give a symmetrical mirror-image grain pattern that creates stunning tabletops. Flitch-cutting is especially useful for crotch wood, as shown in Photo C, and for curved logs.

Harvesting Exotics

Taking Care of Your Lumber

As soon as you cut a log, seal it as covered earlier. It’s best to mill the log as soon as possible after the tree has been felled. This is critical for species, such as hickory and sycamore, that decay quickly. Oak–especially white oak–is more durable. I have milled walnut that has been on the ground for at least eight years. The sapwood has rotted off, but the heartwood is still solid. If you can’t mill the logs within a few weeks, store them off the ground to avoid decay.

Air-Drying

Once you mill the wood, air-dry it. In hot, humid environments, fungus will be noticeable within 24 hours. The ideal location for air-drying wood is a level area out of direct sunlight with good air circulation. If possible, start with a layer of plastic on the ground to keep ground moisture from coming up through the stack. Then, place 4'-long 6×6 timbers, distributed evenly on 20" centers for 1"-thick boards (Photo D). Place a 34"-1" × 1" × 4' “sticker” (spacer) on top of each of the timbers. The 20" spacing is required to keep the boards from sagging. Now, place your first layer of boards. They should be of the same thickness so that the stickers will lie flat to support the next layer. The 34" or greater gap between the boards should guarantee good air circulation. When the layer is complete, place another set of stickers directly above the ones that support the layer below to distribute the weight evenly. If possible, put a tarp, metal roofing, or other material over the stack to keep moisture off. Weigh it down with cement blocks or water barrels to reduce warping. Now comes the hard part–waiting. The rule of thumb is one year for each inch of thickness, though this varies with climate and species. Note that this conventional stack disregards the cutting order of the boards.

Harvesting Exotics

Conventional stacking, left, disregards the cutting order, unlike the European method, above.

To maintain the cutting order, stack flitchsawn cuts using the “European” method (Photo E). This reconstructs the log with stickers between the boards for air circulation. The advantage is that it keeps the log together, making it easier to book-match flitches. This also makes it possible to mill to different thicknesses, since each flitch makes its own layer. The slab on top provides natural protection from rain. Use a ratchet strap between each column of stickers, and tighten it down once a week as the wood shrinks.

Kiln-Drying

The best way to keep track of the wood moisture content is to use a pin-type moisture meter, available for under $50. Once the wood drops to 12%, it will not air-dry further in most locations. For the moisture content to match the indoor humidity of your home, bring the wood indoors and use a fan for air circulation, build a small kiln, or send it out to be kiln-dried at 30¢ to 50¢ a board foot.

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