Each year, I devote a week to thinning my woodlot—cutting mostly firewood, along with some shiitake bolts and the occasional sawlog. Real poor quality stuff just stays where it falls to feed the soil and provide habitat. While I very much enjoy the ‘work’ (felling trees is fun in my book), my favorite part of the process comes at the end, when I get the chance to walk around without a chainsaw, and unencumbered by safety gear, just looking around to assess the results of that year’s efforts.
Thirteen years ago when I started working on this piece of property, the stocking was so dense that I could barely catch a glimpse of the dominant crowns, as they were almost always obscured by the suppressed understory trees, which in my case were mostly diseased beech. After years of dogged thinning, what once seemed to be a beech forest punctuated by an occasional maple has now begun to feel like a maple-dominant forest with some patchy beech problems.
As I cut more each year, I also learned more about the timber market, and so was initially dismayed to discover that while sugar maple is scattered throughout my woodlot, it is by far outnumbered by its less well-regarded cousin, red maple, which is very well represented here, from seedlings all the way through large mature stems. Over the years I have also had the opportunity to meet many fellow woodlot owners, a number of whom have seemed almost embarrassed to admit that red was the predominant maple in their woodlots as well: “Yeah, well, you know, I’ve only got red maples….” seemed to be a common refrain expressed by many of my peers, while they all but hung their heads in shame.
I felt much the same way until I accepted the fact that it is likely the best thing I will have to work with in many of my stands, and that after beech (which I am working to eradicate) it will be one of the species most likely to regenerate successfully.
So having reconciled myself to the fact that my woodlot really seems to want to grow red maple, and having noticed that it seems to be very competitive in all types of environments, I became curious about why this might be so and decided to do some research about the history and status of Acer rubrum in New York state. The following is a synopsis of what I’ve learned, and how, despite its often maligned character, I’ve gained a new appreciation and respect for red maple.
First, some population statistics:
And a few key aspects of red maple ecology:
THE NOT SO GOOD:
While the above list is a mixed bag of good and bad, based upon the population numbers red maple is clearly a tree with a successful strategy for outcompeting most of its neighbors in our neck of the woods (so to speak). Perhaps surprisingly, this was not in any way a foregone development, as early survey records show that red maple was only a minor component of most of the precolonial forestland of New York and the northeast.
So why is it so successful now? The answers that I found can be divided into two basic categories: 1) attributes of the tree itself; and 2) the nature of how we have managed (or not managed) the forests around those trees.
With regards to the tree itself, the key to its success seems to be its amazing adaptability—red maple has been called a “supergeneralist,” and has demonstrated the ability to grow on a wider range of soils (type/texture/moisture levels/pH) and elevation than perhaps any other tree species in North America. Whereas sugar maple will thrive and outcompete red on the best quality sites, and has higher tolerance so will outlive red in ‘climax’ type/uneven-aged stands, red maple is content to take advantage on the margins everywhere else, as it is found thriving on sites far too wet/dry/acid/infertile for sugar maple. Its nutrient demands are lower, it grows faster, matures sooner, has higher genetic diversity, and has roots that are adapted to the extremes of both dry upland and swampy (even periodically flooded) sites. Metaphorically speaking, red maple is blue collar, unassuming, and frugal in how it goes about its business while sugar maple is more akin to a demanding prima donna.
Another unique characteristic of red maple is its seed ‘phenology,’ or timing: it is our only upland hardwood that matures and drops its seed in the spring and early summer, which germinates immediately thereafter, a strategy usually only employed by riparian species. As most tree seeds drop later in the season and remain dormant until the following spring, this gives red maple seeds and seedlings a head start.
As far as what has happened around red maple that has led to its population explosion, the following have all played a role:
In sum, short of some new insect or disease (you never know these days), it seems that the ecological stage has been set for red maple to remain a dominant species in many of our woodlands for some time to come.
So if you’re like me, and have lots of red maple around, don’t despair. While it may not be the best (or even all that good) in any one given category, it ranks pretty high in most all of them, which seems to be the secret to its success. It’s an ok firewood, and currently has an ok value on the timber market, true to its generally ok nature. It’s reproducing like mad though, and will grow nearly anywhere, so next time you’re out wandering around your woodlot, take some time to get to know your red maples, as like it or not, they seem to be sticking around for the long haul, bearing many offspring, and humbly going about their business like the unpretentious, working class trees they are.
This red maple slab (above) came from a large specimen in my woodlot that was showing signs of crown dieback. I felled the tree and, since I own neither a tractor or a sawmill, milled it right where it fell with a chainsaw mill (satisfying but LOTS of slow work), and air-dried it for close to a year before beginning to work with it. The slabs dried very nicely, without much warping or checking. As the image depicts, they also handplaned quite nicely, with minimal tearout and great luster on the planed surfaces:
While the industry considers it a ‘defect,’ I really like the darker color of the heartwood in maple (which in this case is really wide, likely reflecting a combination of genetics and growing conditions). In most circumstances, trees like this would be cut into narrow boards of uniform blonde sapwood in order to maximize their dollar value on the market, while the wide multi-hued band of heart would most likely be cut into pallet wood, or chipped for pulp. Bummer.
Here’s a few more pictures of red maple that I’ve put to use, again all sourced from my woodlot, the last photo being a table that ended up destroyed by UPS on its way to a client in Maine a few years back (on Christmas eve, no less), but that is a story for another day………
I have long been in the habit of buying tools before I really ‘need’ them. Sometimes it has been because I found a really good deal on a unique or high quality tool; more often though it has been because I have felt the urge to expand my skill set into some new and different realms. On occasion this has almost been a subconscious process, as my desire for certain tools has seemed to arrive ahead of any distinct awareness on my part of the urge to start working in different ways. The upshot of this is that certain purchases have remained untouched—sometimes for years—before I get around to being ‘ready’ for them. It was in this spirit that I bought an adze a long while back, before I had any idea of what I would eventually end up doing with it. I had sharpened it, and used it to debark a few logs before running them through a portable sawmill, but mostly it had just hung on the wall and looked cool (in my mind anyway).
I finally got my chance last fall, when I started building a timber-framed front porch onto our house, and realized that I wasn’t sure how to go about shaping the large (3″x8″x6′) curved knee braces that I had designed as part of its structure. When working with curves in furnituremaking, I generally cut them freehand on the bandsaw before finishing them with convex-bottomed planes and/or spokeshaves, but working with timbers this large would necessitate a different approach, as my shop bandsaw isn’t near big enough for the job. I had briefly considered making a plywood template and using a router from each opposing face of each timber to cut out the shapes, which is another way a woodworker might approach cutting curves in a furnituremaking setting, but then remembered the adze—the dusty, lonely adze—hanging on the wall of the barn, and decided to give myself a crash course instead.
After the axe, the adze is likely one of the first wood-shaping tools developed once humans started working with metals, as opposed to stone, in toolmaking. With only slight variation, it seems to have developed independently in cultures all around the world, speaking to the fundamental ‘rightness’ of its design and functionality. In its most basic form, an adze is just 3 parts: the cutting head, an ergonomically curved handle, and a wood or steel wedge (or maybe sinew in a ‘primitive’ version) to hold the two together. Generally speaking, there are two different types of azde: the foot adze (such as the one seen here), with a long handle designed to be held by both hands while working a piece of wood down at ground level (between or under your feet), and the hand adze, which is much smaller, with a shorter handle designed to be held in one hand, for smaller, finer, more detailed work. Despite its simplicity, an adze is an amazingly versatile and refined tool, as well as a highly efficient one, as I was soon to discover.
Since I needed to make four identical braces, I did end up making a full-scale plywood template, which in addition to establishing the sweep of the curves to be cut, would also help me in laying out the tenons at the ends of each brace. Once that was done, and the profile was penciled onto both faces of each 3×8 oak timber, I used a skilsaw to cut out as much of the waste as possible in advance, though the entire process could have been done with just the adze, and maybe a little more time. Here’s a brace just before I started with the adze (note the layout lines in pencil):
From there, I took a deep breath, straddled the workpiece, and started chopping (adze-ing?) away, working in from each end in order to cut with the grain. With a heavy timber such as this white oak, it’s weight alone (along with the friction between it and the grassy ground) was enough to keep it stable and in position as I began to swing the tool. I quickly realized that I would need to experiment with my hand and body positioning, as establishing the correct angle of attack for the curved blade to make contact with each swing is infinitely variable, depending on whether your aim is to quickly remove lots of wood, or to finely finesse your way right down to the finished surface. Excessively shallow cuts will glance off without slicing into the wood (watch your shins!), while cutting too steeply will stop the blade entirely without removing any material. It is this very range of angles that makes for the tool’s versatility though, and in a matter of minutes I was already feeling daring enough to cut to within maybe 1/8″ of my layout lines:
Taking the first brace down to this point took me maybe 20 minutes. The next three went faster still. It was so much fun I was sorry to be done. Making chips like this is way better than making lots of airborne sawdust (like my other proposed methods would have). Excepting my chops, it was also quiet. I could periodically stop and rest and just enjoy the silence. I imagined what a woodpecker feels like working away on a tree in an otherwise still forest setting. The best part, though, was that using the adze connected me with the wood in a very unique way, as the ‘feedback’ received from each stroke guided the next one. Whereas the very nature of a ‘power’ tool—the use of linear brute force to do something to something else—generally alienates the worker from the material being worked upon, the adze is an example of a tool that by contrast requires a full and nuanced awareness and moment to moment connection between the worker, the tool, and the wood. It’s like a dance, rather than running a machine. That’s what makes it so much fun, and it’s also what makes it so effective. The luddite in me loves that.
Here’s a pair of finished braces (with a coat of linseed oil):
And here’s the finished product:
Often times, the only way to know where the middle lies is to get some experience at either end first. Generally, exploring the extreme poles is a youthful endeavor, as with age (so we hope) comes the humility to realize that the black and white ideas/ideals that we harbor in our heads have little bearing on ‘reality,’ which will forever stubbornly (or more accurately perhaps, indifferently) refuse to fit into whatever tidy box we devise for it. In the meantime, swinging wildly from pole to pole provides the lessons necessary (presuming one is willing to learn) for developing a mature perspective, usually in the form of failures and humiliations of one sort or another.
A particularly amusing/annoying characteristic of this process is that when at one extreme or the other—and it doesn’t matter which really—the person in question often decides that he or she knows everything about the subject at hand before really knowing anything about it. To illustrate, I’ll share just one example (of many, I’m afraid) from my own idealistic youth. In this case, a woodworking example.
My first experiences of working with wood as a teenager were in housebuilding, pretty much exclusively with power tools. While the journeyman carpenters I worked with owned—and seemed to occasionally even make use of—certain hand tools (such as planes, saws, and chisels), they never really discussed them, and certainly offered me no insight as to how to use and/or maintain them. Being a rebellious youth, full of authority issues that I would readily project onto most any adult in my vicinity at the drop of a hat, I soon decided that since these guys didn’t have much use for hand tools, that they must not be using them solely due to their own ignorance (rather than due to the fact that they were building houses, not cabinets, for instance). So, obviously enough, using hand tools must in fact be the REAL way to work with wood. What did these Yankee impostors know anyway?
I was able to double the dogmatism when I moved from New England to California and discovered Japanese woodworking tools, which I immediately decided were inherently superior to traditional European hand tools in all respects (I of course being of European heritage). I proceeded to buy all kinds of very expensive tools, with laminated, hand-forged steel cutting edges that I still did not know how to set up and sharpen properly. I ended up attending some workshops on the use of Japanese woodworking tools (which was, ironically enough, taught by a similarly dogmatic-minded Caucasian transplant from the East coast), and came away mainly with further certainties about the superiority of Japanese tools, as well as with the idea that there was only one right (and very difficult) way to sharpen all of them.
So rather than working much with wood (I was still working with power tools as a carpenter by day), I went through a phase of spending endless hours trying to figure out how to adequately sharpen any of my fancy tools so that they might display their inherently superior qualities while actually in use. When I eventually began to build small furniture pieces, they were, short of the initial milling of the lumber, constructed entirely by hand. I was quite proud of them, and of course of myself, for having reached this pinnacle of woodworking prowess. Or so I thought.
Time went by, and, as often happens, utility began to win out over idealism, as I now had my own business and thus had to stop worshipping my ideas about what woodworking was in favor of working in the most efficient ways possible. What this meant in my case was that I began to relinquish my ideas about tools, and began to actually just use them, and what this really meant is that I began for the first time to learn from them. Amazing what can happen when you simply pay attention to what’s in front of you, rather than to the endless stream of thoughts about what’s actually there.
What the tools taught me over time was that they were as individual as people, with unique strengths, limitations, and nuances. At this point I began to reacquaint myself with Western/ European hand tools, and even began a brief reactionary slide toward deciding that they were in fact the superior tools, before finding the middle ground where I can now choose the right tool for the job without arbitrary discrimination.
There are woodworkers out there who purport to do everything by hand. If they can make a living, and are enjoying themselves, good for them. At the other extreme are the many woodworkers who do literally everything with power tools, who are immediately at a loss without them, even in performing the simplest of tasks. In trying to break through the ‘purist’ handtool dogma that still reigns in some woodworking circles, a renowned woodworker once said that if his teeth were the best tool for the job, he would use his teeth. That’s about where I’m at these days. The tools themselves tell me which one to use.
Last weekend, we bicycled a mile up the road to visit with our neighbor Pearl Bush, to help celebrate her 88th birthday. Pearl (along with her now deceased husband, Howard) moved to our narrow valley in 1946, bought 160 forested acres, built a small home and barn, and began a largely self-sufficient homesteading life, growing much of their own food, raising a variety of livestock, and, for the next 15 years or so, generating income by running a small logging business. The “toolkit” for their logging operation consisted of little more than a crosscut saw (that is the saw she’s holding in the picture above), a few axes, rope, a horse or two, and a flatbed truck to haul the lumber to market.
It is hard to imagine today, but the portable one-man (or woman) chainsaw did not even exist until the late 1940’s, and would not become commonplace for another decade or more. A well tuned and razor sharp crosscut saw and/or axe—powered by strong and skilled human beings—felled pretty much ALL the timber ever harvested prior to the end of World War II (and all along I’ve thought that I was working hard in my woodlot with my chainsaws).
Here’s a shot of the two of us (for a sense of scale I’m about 5’9″):
Sixty-seven years later, Pearl is still here in Prospect Valley, living in the same house she and her husband built. She’s still full of life and energy, has a great (and occasionally vulgar) sense of humor, and tells unbelievable stories about her long and eventful life that serve as a reminder of how utterly different our world was a few brief generations ago, and of the dignity to be found in a life of honest physical labor in close connection to the earth.
Happy Birthday Pearl. May you have many more.
A brief profile of me, my wife Suzanne, and the ongoing work of managing our woodlot was published in the latest edition of The New York Forest Owner, the bi-monthly magazine of the New York Forest Owners Association. NYFOA is now in its 50th year, and continues to work in support of its mission: “To promote sustainable forestry practices and improved stewardship on privately owned woodlands in New York State.”
If you own woodland in New York (or beyond), and would like to become a better steward of that land and its forest community, NYFOA is a great resource. Consider becoming a member, and make our collective voice in support of sustainable, holistic forest management that much stronger—-go to the NYFOA website for more information about how to get involved.
Ten years ago, I started planting and tending a backyard orchard of about 50 fruit trees. From the outset I have been attempting to manage it organically, which in the northeastern U.S. is no small challenge, as there are a great many other life forms (mammal/bird/insect/microbe) which also would love nothing more than to devour the sweet fruits, if not the entire trees. While there are any number of systemic—and highly toxic—sprays readily available that I could be using to kill ALL (and I mean all) of the insects and disease in the orchard, poisoning the fruit prior to eating it has just never felt like a particularly smart choice (I know, call me crazy). While genocide in the orchard definitely makes it more feasible to grow a high percentage of the “perfect” shiny orbs that pass for fruits in the supermarket, such sprays also kill off most if not all of the insects, bacteria, fungi, and pollinators that colonize and/or utilize the trees in a benign or even beneficial way—the ones that are your dear friends should you try to work with nature rather than fight an endless uphill battle against it.
In any event, as I have struggled to learn about the various threats to my trees and how best to protect and nurture their delicate crops of fruit, I have made all kinds of mistakes, and have lost a number of trees over the years—to voles, deer, insects, disease, and winter cold (and if I’m going to be entirely truthful here, to a large Ash tree nearby, which I managed to fell right into my young orchard as opposed to away from it, but that’s a story best saved for another day…….).
My learning curve has flattened, but there is still a great deal that I have yet to understand about the complex ecological relationship between a fruit tree and its environment; despite this, I have managed to harvest incredible crops of heirloom fruit while using a super low-spray approach.
As my time for managing the orchard is limited, and as I have decided to forgo the “conventional” pesticide approach, I am always on the lookout for synergistic ways to encourage diversity in and around the orchard, with the goal of providing the conditions that will enhance the habitat for species that will help me out while doing their own thing—kind of like anarchist “mutual aid” in the orchard (which sounds cool at least). Insect-eating birds, pollinators of all types, companion plants that discourage pests/encourage beneficial insects/contribute to soil fertility, bacteria in compost making vital nutrients readily available in the soil, and mycorrhizal fungi in the root zone are all more than welcome in my orchard, and I do everything I can to make it a highly hospitable environment for them (the work of Michael Phillips has been invaluable in this regard; The Apple Grower and more recently The Holistic Orchard are two of the very best references should you be heading down a similar path). With another growing season on the way—with spring having just arrived—I have been making plans to expand my communal endeavor out back, and just this past week set the stage for inviting another comrade to the orchard, your friend and mine, the bat.
Bats are our only truly flying mammals (evidently “flying” squirrels are really gliding, not flying), and are tremendously successful insectivores, capable of eating up to 50% of their body weight in insects per night, which can amount to 600 or more insects per hour. It has been estimated that a colony of 100 little brown bats can devour 250 thousand mosquitoes in a single night, which is hard to even imagine (it’s also hard to imagine being anywhere in the vicinity of 250 thousand mosquitoes). This hunting takes place between dusk and dawn, so while bats have functional eyes—so are not “blind as a bat”, as the saying goes— they utilize echolocation to “see” their prey, even in complete darkness.
Interestingly, a bat “wing” is really a hand, with four long fingers connected by a thin flight membrane that connects back to their torso, and a little thumb tipped with a tiny claw (hence their classification in the Chiroptera order, which means “hand-wing”). As we’ve likely all seen after sunset, bats catch their prey in mid-flight, flapping rather awkwardly (averaging 15 wingbeats/second, at speeds upward of 20 mph) and catching insects directly in their jaws, or funneling them from their wing or tail membranes toward their mouths, which are full of tiny, but quite formidable looking, teeth. Speaking of those teeth, despite myths to the contrary, all American bats are insectivorous, so have no interest in sucking your blood, or getting tangled in your hair, and while they can carry and transmit the rabies virus, it is present in only about one in every 200 bats tested.
There are 45 species of bats in the U.S., and 9 in New York, which can be divided into two basic categories: cave bats, which hibernate to overwinter, and tree bats, which are migratory. This is a crucial distinction, as the six cave bat species, as you have likely heard by now, have been decimated by a fungal disease known as white nose syndrome. It has been estimated that 88% of all hibernating bats in our region have died since white nose syndrome was first discovered in a cave near Albany in 2006. It has been especially devastating to the Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus), which was previously our most common and numerous species here in New York. Unfortunately, the Little Brown overwinters in large, tightly packed colonies in the relatively few caves suitable for hibernation in the state, leaving it nearly no chance to avoid exposure to the fungus. The Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus) is likely now our most common species, as it has been less affected due to a tendency to overwinter singly or in small groups, often in buildings instead of caves.
As soon as I heard about white nose syndrome, I knew that I wanted to try and support the bats that spend the warmer months in my area. I usually see at least a few circling my yard each evening at dusk during summer. I never managed to make it a priority until just recently, though, when I discovered what amazing insect control they can provide. I mentioned the mosquitoes already, which evidently can be a significant part of the Little Brown’s diet, but bats also eat roaches, termites, ants, gnats, flies, June bugs, garden pests such as cucumber beetles and rootworms, and major orchard pests including the codling moth, oriental fruit moth, various budmoths, leafrollers, and leafhoppers. I would gladly provide free “housing” in exchange for this kind of nightly patrol.
There is a great deal of information about bats online, including how to go about encouraging them to move to your area. Bat houses can be purchased (they are relatively inexpensive) or built, using one of any number of free plans available (I used a simple design for a single-chambered house from Northern Woodlands magazine). With one sheet of 1/2″ exterior grade plywood and a few pine 1×2 strips that were laying around my shop, I was able to build six houses for under $30!
This is a backboard for a house, with shallow kerfs to make it easy for the bats to cling to while they roost or sleep (which they do upside-down):
Here’s a completed house (use exterior-grade glue!); note that the backboard hangs lower than the front edge to provide a “landing strip”:
Here’s a closeup of the opening, which should be no more than 3/4-1″ wide—bats like tight quarters, and it helps to discourage bees or wasps from nesting, which can drive the bats away:
Last step is to paint them a dark color (black here) to absorb heat if you live in the northern part of the country, as bats prefer warm accommodations; I also added “roofing” with some metal flashing I had left from my barn roof, which will shed rain and help preserve the house:
As I wanted to encourage the bats to spend time in and around my orchard, I mounted 4 of the houses on a long pole (15-20+ feet high is recommended) which I attached to one of my orchard fence posts; it’s like a bat “ecovillage”:
The other two houses I mounted on south facing trees at the forest edge, so as to maximize the amount of sunlight hitting (and warming) the boxes:
Bats in my region generally end their hibernation in March, and begin to arrive at their summer roosting/breeding spots in April, so hopefully over the next few weeks I’ll see some fuzzy little brown (or big brown) heads poking out of their new homes, which I am more than happy to provide, rent free. Meals are also included—all you can eat. I’m hoping that this is an offer simply too good to refuse.
It’s a little hard to see what’s going on in this picture. Well, what you’re seeing is a mistake. A repaired mistake. My repaired mistake. Sigh.
The piece is a 2″ thick cherry top brace for a trestle table I have been building for my dining room (and will be writing about in some detail shortly). The part in question is one of the two in the center of this photo:
As I was routing the slot that you can see in the image (which is the means of attaching the tabletop to the base, with one of the “buttons” seen in the lower left of the photo), my router slipped and ran out the edge, leaving an ugly 1/4″ wide scar and some tearout at the edge. If it was a more visible component, it would have ended up in the kindling pile (the expensive kindling pile). In this instance, the brace is under the table, and the damage was on the top edge of the brace, right up against the underside of the table top, so will likely be seen by no one, ever. But me. I’ll know it’s there. I’ll lay awake at night and agonize about it being there.
I once read that the mark of a craftsman is the ability to repair his or her mistakes. Fair enough, but it’s not the whole story. The mark of a craftsman is the ability to live with his or her mistakes, which is easier said than done.
All told, I think it’s a pretty good repair though. I especially like the penciled in gum streaks. Can’t even see it in the second image above. With the finish on, even I am pretty hard pressed to find it now.
But I still know it’s there.
When asked to sum up the nature of existence in a few words, a Buddhist master once replied “Everything changes.” Of the few things that we can be absolutely certain of in this life, one is that—at least based upon all empirical evidence I’ve ever seen—we will all die one day. It is interesting to stop and take note of, on the one hand, what a prominent role death plays in our daily experience (consider eating, for example, or maybe action films), and on the other how little attention we give in advance to such a fundamental truth as it applies to us.
Along these lines, I’ve long had the idea that I would build a coffin someday, whether for myself, or for someone in my family or community. I’ve always thought of it a rite of passage of sorts for a woodworker, yet in all the years I’ve been woodworking, I have never prioritized it myself, nor have I ever personally known anyone who had built one.
As in so many other realms of our society today, mass production and global commerce have largely taken over a role that used to fall to local, individual craftspeople. This is unfortunate, as what is lost in the process is connection: to place, to the local resource base, to the local economy, and most importantly, to the other people that make up the communities where we live. As I’m always more than ready to fight against that tide, I recently decided to design and build my first coffin.
Beyond those concerns, though, a more practical part of my recent motivation was to be well prepared for the moment should I be called on to build one. Designing and building anything on the fly is challenging; for something of such a personal and emotionally charged nature, and that is often on a strict (and potentially abrupt) timetable, I wanted to ensure that to the extent possible I would be able to work in a mindful way, putting intention into each step of the process, rather than working with a chaotic or stressful mindset. In this regard, preparing and testing a design in advance would be critical. I also would need to have an accurate sense of the materials required, where I could reliably source them, and what they would cost.
Once I decided to get started, the first thing I needed were some design parameters. An overall guiding principle would be ecological: all the materials would be 100% non-toxic and biodegradable. Right off I knew that I wanted to work with Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), which would have been a traditional choice locally, and is lightweight, reasonably priced, and readily available.
I put in a call to a local mill and ordered a quantity of #2 common pine boards, at a thickness of one inch, and in widths varying from 6-8″. These dimensions would allow me to resurface the boards as necessary, while still leaving ample material for strength and stability. My goal was to end up with 7/8″ thick by 5 1/2″ wide (or wider) boards, with some narrow rip cuts left over to serve as cleats and braces. Waiting for the freshly cut lumber to come out of the drying kiln would give me time to come up with a plan.
The first step I took in developing a design was to look for some “standard” dimensions online. What I found was all over the map—most of the search results related to Halloween props, rather than functional coffins, or caskets. I always thought the two were synonymous, but discovered that a coffin is a six-sided box, while a casket is in the more common four-sided rectangular shape. Having weighed the options, I decided to build a six-sided version, which is also evidently known as an “old world” coffin, or more amusingly, a “toe-pincher,” due to its taper towards the feet. This style would require gluing up a number of solid panels, as opposed to a casket, which could more easily be built in a frame and panel style. Maybe it’s because I watched a lot of westerns (or Dracula films) when I was young, but I had always envisioned building a toe-pincher as my first coffin; working out the angles would provide more of an interesting challenge than would 90 degree corners.
While there are some standard dimensions for a casket in the industry (84″ long x 28″ wide x 23″ tall), those are exterior dimensions, and so were of little help in designing my more austere unlined pine coffin. So I rolled out some kraft paper on the floor, laid down on it, and enlisted my wife to draw my outline and take some measurements: length, width at various points (especially the shoulders), and the height of various parts of my body in a prone position. At 5’9″ and 160 lbs, with size 9 feet, I’m pretty much your “average” American male with respect to height (and maybe shoe size), but about 20 pounds lighter; in any event, this gave a starting point. From there, I started working up a design with Google Sketchup, which was extremely helpful in experimenting with various dimensions and figuring out the angles with different configurations of length and width:
As opposed to building a one size fits all coffin, I decided to focus on the average height range, and ended up with a 73″ interior length, along with a shoulder width of 26 1/4″, and an interior depth of 13″. Construction was pretty straightforward:
Next came the finish, which was a few coats of linseed oil and beeswax, on the exterior surfaces only, as I wanted the interior to retain the resinous pine scent, and the handles, for which I decided to use natural jute rope (3/4″), as it was economical and more than adequately strong.
All told, it was a successful project, although I would like to build a rectangular casket prototype as well, as it would be much easier to assemble, and would be more amenable to having its dimensions altered as needed, without having to refigure all the corner angles. As for this one, the only remaining step will be to invite a group of friends over to ceremoniously carry it—with me inside— around the yard to test its engineering and ergonomics. After all the work, it will be gratifying (if only for a few minutes) to experience the view from the other side, so to speak. In all seriousness, though, it will be a great honor, and a humbling one, when I am called upon to put these new found skills to use.
Just ran across this article, which describes a statistically significant correlation between the presence (or absence) of trees and human health. In urban areas of the upper midwest most heavily affected by the Emerald Ash Borer—which has in the past 10 years killed over 100 million ash trees—human mortality rates from cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses have risen significantly. In another study, patients in post-operative recovery have been found to heal more quickly, and with less need for pain medications, when there is even a single tree visible through the window of their room. Correlations have also been found between reduced feelings of anger, sadness, depression, and chronic physical pain of all types with regular exposure to forested landscapes. Immune response has been shown to be increased (and stress hormones reduced) simply by walking in a woodland, leading to the practice of forest bathing.
Good article, but it’s unfortunate that the author (or editor) chose to focus on the negative, half-empty cup (“When Trees Die, People Die”); the title should have been “Regular Exposure to Trees found to be Tremendously Beneficial to Human Physical and Mental Health.”
As much as I like building pieces of furniture that rely solely on tight-fitting joints (and small amounts of wood glue) for their strength and durability, there are situations where using some form of mechanical fastener just makes sense. This small bookcase that I recently put together is an example of such a situation.
I had a few wide (12″+) Tulip boards left over from a previous project, and was looking to clear some space on my lumber rack in my shop. The boards were 4/4, and in the rough, meaning (for those who don’t know) that they were about an inch thick, and had yet to be surfaced flat and smooth. Unfortunately, the boards were significantly twisted, which necessitated removing a substantial amount of wood in the process of flattening them, so that by the time I was done face-jointing and planing, the pieces chosen for the case sides were down to 11/16″ in thickness.
Normally when I build a case like this, I choose to rout dadoes in the case sides, and cut short ‘tenons’ at either end of the shelves which fit into the dadoes, which, along with some glue, creates a pretty strong joint, despite the fact that end-grain is being glued to face-grain (optimally, a glue joint maximizes the long-grain to long-grain connection of the mating boards, as glue on end-grain has minimal structural strength). Unfortunately, with the reduced thickness of the case sides, I was not able to rout the dadoes deep enough to provide much glue surface in the joint, which would be especially important in a case such as this that has no back to hold it square and provide resistance to racking.
The solution I came up with was to rout dadoes as I normally do, but shallower (1/8″ deep), and to enhance the strength of the joints with screws. This, of course, would require drilling through the outer faces of the case sides, which became a design feature of the piece….once I added some Walnut plugs.
Cutting plugs like this is quite simple, providing you have one of these—
—a tapered plug cutter (note the subtle taper of the cutting edges), which will cut very clean and uniform plugs to fit snugly in a given diameter hole. The cutter shown is for 1/2″ plugs, but they are commonly available in 1/4″ and 3/8″ as well. This is an operation best performed with a drill press, but could probably be done just as well with a portable drill guide and hand-held electric drill. Starting with a squared piece of wood of uniform thickness (and of a species with desirable color and density for the plugs), cut a series of closely spaced ‘holes’ along the edge, to the depth required…
…I usually use 3/4″ thick stock for the plugs, and drill about 9/16″ deep or so. Definitely don’t drill all the way through, as this will cause each plug to stick in the cutter, which will slow things down significantly. Use a stop to maintain consistent depth; this will be important for the next step, which is to cut the plugs out of the board, as they are still attached on their bottom edge.
I usually use a bandsaw to cut the plugs out, but it could also be done with a handsaw, or, carefully, with a tablesaw. Whatever method you choose, it is pretty much self-explanatory, with one caveat: If using a tablesaw it is VERY IMPORTANT to tape over the heads of the plugs prior to running the board through (I use painters tape, which I burnish down to the face over the plugs), as otherwise the plugs may want to come exploding out of the board like popcorn in a popper (this definitely falls into the “don’t ask me how I know this” category….). You should end up with something like this:
So that’s the male part of the equation. For the case sides, it is important that you drill your holes as cleanly and of consistent depth as possible. I would highly recommend a forstner bit for this (and preferably a drill press). With narrow case sides, it becomes especially important not to drill these holes too deep, which would greatly weaken or ruin the connection, but still deep enough for the screw head plus the plug over top. Test cuts on scrap are a good idea, as is careful layout to ensure that your screws penetrate the center of the shelf thickness. It is also a very good idea to dryfit the case after drilling the plug holes, ensuring the case is clamped square, then pre-drilling for the screws with an appropriately sized bit, or even better, a tapered bit of appropriate size . I used #9 x 2″ screws.
After assembling the case and driving the screws, add a touch of glue around the circumference of each hole, and with a few taps with a hammer, you’re plugged.
Once the glue sets up, I cut the plugs off as close as possible to the case sides with a small handsaw (the spine on a Japanese dozuki provides a guide for a consistent cut, and the fine teeth cut cleanly without tearing out the grain of the plug), then plane and/or sand them flush.
Another way to use this technique is to drill plugs out of the same wood species as the case itself, and to align the grain, which makes for plugs that are minimally visible, but in this case (no pun intended), I thought the choice to accentuate the contrast worked well.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
The best lessons in life are often the most humbling ones. Here’s one of the best I ever got.
I first ran into Buddhism in high school, the way I ran into most things at the time—by reading about it. I found its ideas compelling, though if pressed I doubt I could have articulated the feelings behind my interest, other than some vague notions about discipline or self-mastery. I imagined being Buddha-like: to have perfect clarity of mind, to have complete mastery over emotions and desires, to be completely in control of body and mind, regardless of the situation at hand. That was appealing—my body, mind, emotions, and desires were all over the place—and that’s what I thought Buddhism was about. So, I continued to read about it, with the thought that I was coming closer to truly understanding it, at which point maybe I would be…………………ENLIGHTENED. Maybe the right combination of words on the page would finally unlock the mystery, and I would at last be able to see things as they really are, forever.
I tried to sit in meditation a few times over those years, on my own, but found it physically awkward and extremely uncomfortable, which were bad enough, but the worst part was that sitting still and silent for even a few short minutes was overwhelmingly oppressive mentally, as my mind maintained an unbearable torrent of thoughts the entire time. In short, I didn’t sit much, but boy, I thought about it a lot. So my practice, such as it was, remained an intellectual one.
That changed a few years later, when I moved to a city with a Zen center, where I received instruction in zazen (meditation) practice, and was able to sit with a group of fellow practitioners. The aura and rituals of the zendo were a strong motivating force, as was the need to remain silent and still for 40 minutes at a stretch, so as not to disturb those around me, so over time I became a semi-regular meditator. Yet all the old struggles remained; I just became better at enduring them for the requisite time period. Occasionally my thoughts would slow down, and my legs slowly adapted to sitting in half-lotus without hurting as much, but the thoughts (and the pain) always returned, sometimes with greater force than ever. Throughout, I kept my eye on the more senior practitioners, with their shaved heads, robes, and austere gazes, and tried to read them as I read books, trying to grasp their secret, to will myself to be more like them, or at least as I perceived them to be.
Then came the moment: One day after a meditation period, I was standing outside with a guest student at the zendo, commenting with surprise and dismay at what I perceived to be arrogant behavior coming from some members of the community. After a long moment of looking me in the eye, he asked me why I thought people at a Zen center would be any different than people anywhere else in the world. And he looked at me some more. The sun had just set, and a cold breeze had come in off the ocean. I remember an acute awareness of my shoulders being hunched against the cold, while he seemed impervious to it somehow. We were standing close together. He was from New Zealand, and spoke with an accent. He smiled at me. I was speechless.
It may not sound like much, but that moment remains one of the most vivid of my entire life, evidently because I was ready for it, and because of what it so plainly revealed to me about myself, and about this quest that I had been on for so many years. Buddhism wasn’t about being superhuman; it’s about being human. People at the Zen center weren’t there because they were uniquely evolved beings, but because they were uniquely suffering, just like everyone else in the world.
As the Buddha taught, the root of this suffering is our human compulsion to incessantly discriminate, to project our ideas about ourselves and the world out onto ourselves and the world, as if they had some objective reality. This is the trap of our having evolved the ability to self-reflect: not knowing how to stop objectifying all that we experience, based upon a mistaken understanding about the nature of the endless fountain of thoughts pouring out of our endlessly active minds.
The concept of enlightenment—-some kind of instantaneous (and permanent) transformation as presented in certain schools of Buddhism—-is undoubtedly the worst idea I picked up from my early studies of Buddhist philosophy. As long as you are busy looking for it, you are simply blinding yourself to whatever is happening now. What a meditation practice offers (to me at least) is the opportunity to notice and experience whatever feelings I’m having in the moment—boredom, pain, and oppressive thoughts (or bliss, pleasure, and ecstatic thoughts, for that matter)— so many times over that the impulse to believe in, indulge in, invest in, reject, or cling to them gradually diminishes. Which leaves—finally—some empty space to simply be present in. To see, hear, smell, taste, and touch without preconceived ideas. To maintain a beginner’s mind, despite what we think we know. Happy New Year.
For a woodworker, one of the great advantages of milling your own lumber is that it allows for the design and construction of pieces of furniture with boards all sawn from the same log (or at least same tree), ensuring matching colors, grain patterns, and working characteristics. Another great advantage, whether you hire the work out to a portable sawmill operator, or do the milling yourself, is the significant cost savings versus buying lumber from a hardwood distributor. The greatest benefits, however, are being able to work with wood of truly unique character, and knowing the story (and some of the history) of the tree supplying the wood.
When marking some trees in my woodlot to be felled in a Timber Stand Improvement (TSI) thinning in 2010, my forester and I came across a very tall and straight Red Maple, about 20″ in diameter (dbh), with a clear (branch-free) stem for the first 30 feet or so, and large crown. There are many like it in my forest. Historically, Red Maple was considered a low-value sawtimber species, and is a middling firewood with relatively low BTU value, so it was often spared during past harvests focused on higher value hardwoods, and often managed to grow into a dominant position in the forest canopy. By sheer numbers, Red Maple is the most common tree in New York state, and is a true generalist, able to grow and thrive on a wide variety of soils and sites. It can often be found as the only sizeable sawtimber species in forest stands otherwise severely degraded from repeated unsustainable harvesting practices.
If visually healthy and still vigorous, I am happy to leave such trees to continue to grow to their full maturity. In this case, the tree in question had suffered a substantial wound some years back; one of its upper scaffold limbs had died, or been sheared off in a storm or when a neighboring tree fell, and a visible rot column had developed along (and presumably inside) the trunk from the site of the wound downward—just how far down (and in), we couldn’t tell. In any event, this tree’s days were numbered, and its remaining value as sawtimber would only continue to decline over time. Felling this large stem would also release the crowns of some promising maples nearby from the shading provided by the substantial canopy of the wounded tree, so it was an easy decision to mark it for felling.
Once on the ground, it was clear that a significant portion of the upper stem was punky and rotten beyond use, either as firewood or sawtimber. The lower portion of the stem was sound, however, and I managed to salvage the two lowest 8 foot logs. While most commercial mills will saw a log ‘for grade’— maximizing commercial value by cutting around ‘defects’, leaving in most cases a large quantity of narrow boards with clear faces, even from large diameter trees—I sawed these two logs into full width slabs ranging from 1.25″ to 3.5″ thick, and stacked and covered them to air dry over the next year or so.
After drying the boards outdoors to the extent possible, I brought them inside to fully acclimate to the relative humidity of my shop. They would finally be at equilibrium—stable and ready to be worked—at about 7.5% moisture content. In the interim, I had come up with a few designs for tables that would take full advantage of their unique characteristics.
The primary point of interest of this wood—at least for me—was the wide band of chocolate brown heartwood at the center of the boards. Often considered an unsightly defect to be discarded, this tree’s heart would instead become a focal point.
Another distinct feature of these boards would be their natural edges, which along with the heartwood/sapwood contrast are a vivid (and tactile) reminder that this board was once a tree—-all too easy to forget when looking at or working with squared dimensional lumber.
One additional feature of some of the boards—one that developed during the drying process, and that is most often cut away prior to working with lumber—is the presence of dramatic end checks that occurred as the ends of the boards released their bound moisture faster than the faces or inner portions. While this can be minimized by sealing the endgrain (with paint or wax) immediately after sawing a log into boards (envision the ends of a fistful of drinking straws and you have a sense of the ability of endgrain to conduct water in or out of a board versus facegrain), or by shading your lumber pile and protecting it from strong drying winds, it cannot be eliminated entirely. Some species are more susceptible than others; about one-quarter of my Red maple boards end-checked significantly.
Rather than discard the cracked sections of those boards, why not accentuate them? While such a crack or check can cause instability or even failure of a wide board in a piece of furniture (most often used as a tabletop), this instability can be overcome with the use of an inlaid wooden ‘key’ (often known as a butterfly key) that runs perpendicular to the crack and serves to lock the two sides together. This technique, while certainly ages old, was popularized in the U.S. by the work of Pennsylvania craftsman George Nakashima in the second half of the 20th century.
In the years since some woodworkers have used the technique to excess for its visual effect (I have to admit that I was myself guilty of this on occasion earlier in my woodworking career); in my current approach, I have learned to use butterfly keys with restraint, and only for structural, rather than merely decorative reasons. Here’s what it looks like:
Here’s how it’s done (at least by me):
First, you have to cut a key. A common rule of thumb I’ve come across is that the key should not be longer than 3 or 4 inches, as it runs crossgrain to the board it stabilizes, and thus will move differentially with changes in humidity, and may want to work itself loose or otherwise cause problems. Nakashima often used very long and large keys in his furniture; my biggest have been around 4″ long with no evident problems. In designing a key, the angle is largely an aesthetic preference, though too steep an angle might make it more challenging to fit the key without damaging the corners. Nakashima seemed to prefer a shallow angle for his keys; the angle in the photos is ten degrees; I have also used 15 degree keys with no trouble.
So mill and square your key wood (I used Cocobolo here)—as accurately as possible—then layout the keys. I laid out two side by side in this case, as seen in the photo below, and cut them on the bandsaw, with a simple jig (made of 1/4″ MDF, with a notch cut at 10 degrees) that rides the rip fence (see photo below). With careful layout, flipping the workpiece end for end, and upside down, will get you equal and symmetrical (and square-edged) keys.
Next, carefully hold the key in its desired location and score around it with a sharp knife:
Be sure to mark and maintain the original orientation of the board and key throughout the process. Next, you could mortise entirely by hand, but I use a trim router with 1/4″ bit to remove most of the waste, staying clear of the edges. This saves time, and accurately establishes the depth of the mortise:
For this 1″ thick tabletop, I cut my keys at 1/2″ thick, and routed the mortises at about 7/16″ deep, leaving the key slightly proud to be planed off after glue-up.
Next, sharpen your chisels (!), then carefully pare up to your layout/scored lines. Use a knife to clean out the corners of the mortise as necessary–don’t crush the crisp angles trying to work your chisel in there. Test fit your key carefully (and shallowly). Some folks taper the edges of their key; I find it easier to test fit accurately if I keep it square; I subtly chamfer the bottom edges once I know it will fit snugly. What you want is not too loose, but not too tight. You will learn what this means with some (hopefully not too painful) experience. Take your time. I use a small brush to apply a light coat of glue to the mortise walls and bottom, and use a block (!) to drive the key home (you’ll be very unhappy with the result if you beat on the key itself—don’t ask me how I know this….)
This Lie-Nielsen 102 (great little plane!) made quick work of planing the key flush (although you could sand and/or scrape as well):
Here’s the final result, handplaned surfaces awaiting a first coat of finish:
Not exactly your ‘run of the mill’ tabletop………………….