“Go sit in the woods.” My friend Bobbie and I used to joke that if anyone ever complained to either of us about any type of malady or imbalance—physical, emotional, spiritual, whatever—that this would thereafter be our universal refrain and prescription, as we each had spent much time in the forest alone, and invariably found it to be centering and healing. For me, often even just a few minutes in the solitude of a quiet woodland can draw me out my brain and back into an awareness of the timelessness of the present moment, as well as awareness of (and connection to) my body. Just intuitively, but undeniably, this simple practice has always seemed to me to hold tremendous—and largely untapped—power and potential for healing.
Well, for those of you who may need a little empirical data to back up such non-scientific claims, the Japanese have been studying the physiological effects of spending time in the forest, and have found strong evidence of its healing effects. “Shinrin-yoku“, literally “taking in the forest atmosphere” or simply “forest bathing”, has been shown to reduce stress hormones, pulse rate, blood pressure, and sympathetic (fight or flight) nerve activity, while boosting bodily levels of immune system lymphocytes and anti-cancer proteins. Some of these effects occurred after as little as 20 minutes of simply looking at a forested landscape, while others have been shown to last a month or more after spending time in woodland. Much of the benefit has been attributed to phytoncides, or essential oils released by trees that contain anti-microbial properties, but to me there is something way more holistic and synergistic going on, which needs no more validation than what the experience itself provides. You can’t knock it until you’ve tried it, as the saying goes, so next time you’re feeling out of sorts, you know what to do.
I am pretty much 100% self-taught as a woodworker. I would glean what I could from the many carpenters I worked with over the years, some of whom were true masters of the trade, while a great many others taught me by example what NOT to do with handsaws, chisels, planes, and wood. Over time, I found that for the most part there was an inverse relation between true skill and verbosity— the gregarious ‘talkers‘ (a lot of them great guys, with good stories, and lots of jokes) almost always had much less to offer with respect to the craft than the more reticent ‘doers’. So I realized early on that if I wanted to learn anything on the job, I would have to 1) find the quiet ones who seemed absorbed in their work; and 2) watch them like a hawk, as they weren’t about to tell me how to do anything.
The upshot of this was that most of my learning had to take place through reading—I would voraciously devour any wood or woodworking book or magazine I could get my hands on. Translating that information to actually working with wood required that I reinvent many wheels, as you can imagine how many crucial details got lost in the process. This would not have been the case had I grown up in an era where long-term apprenticeship to a master tradesman was the norm. I think most young people today interested in pursuing a career in the trades, short of those fortunate few who have access to a ‘doer’ who is also a ‘talker’, have to similarly bootstrap themselves forward through sheer determination. In retrospect, I can say that there were larger lessons about patience and humility that some ‘old-timers’ were trying to convey through their ‘non-teaching’ (lessons I actually desperately needed at the time), but like most impetuous youth, I knew better, and had to do things my own way. I am actually astounded that some of them tolerated my hubris and incessant (and I’m sure highly annoying) questioning as long as they did. In any event, while this path definitely instilled in me a strong sense of self-reliance and an aptitude for problem-solving (I wouldn’t have gotten far otherwise), it left me without any rites of passage that would normally mark steps along the path in a traditional apprenticeship. So I invented, or in this case perhaps I should say borrowed, one when I made my first handplane.
James Krenov was one of the most influential woodworkers of the 20th century. Before his death in 2009, he inspired countless aspiring woodworkers, primarily through his books, which dealt at least as much with the philosophy of craftsmanship as with the work itself. He also founded and ran the cabinetmaking program at the College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg, CA, for 0ver 20 years before he retired (the program continues today), at which students learn to make many of their own tools, and in particular, their own wood-bodied hand planes, which to me were (and are) as much works of art as highly refined (and highly efficient) woodworking tools. Learning to tune, sharpen, and work with iron-bodied planes is enough of a challenge to have deterred many a would-be woodworker, but to be able to create a plane (in the inherently unstable medium of wood no less) capable of shaving a few thousands of an inch in a pass, this was a challenge I knew I would have to accept.
I had harbored these ideas about plane-making for a number of years prior to attempting my first, so was fortunate to have put aside some 4×4 blocks of straight-grained Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) far in advance. I sealed the ends of the blocks with latex paint to minimize checking and cracking as they dried, put them in the back of a closet in my shop, and basically forgot about them for a few years, by which time they had thoroughly dried and acclimated to the ambient humidity of my shop space. This acclimatizing process is vital to any woodworking project (as anyone who has attempted to do refined work with unseasoned wood can attest), but is especially key to plane-making, as any residual instability in the plane body will cause movement (bow/twist/cup) that will render it completely unable to do its job—an interesting paperweight, perhaps, but not a functional tool.
I wanted to work with a local species, and while locust is not native to this part of New York, it has thoroughly naturalized after being planted in countless farm woodlots over the past two centuries. It is a highly rot-resistant wood, so makes a great fencepost or natural substitute for pressure-treated lumber for use in construction. It is also a very heavy and dense wood, which makes it a superior firewood species. This weight and density, as well as its toughness and wear-resistance (despite a somewhat open-grained character), made locust a superior choice for this plane.
If you’re going to attempt one of these yourself, the best way to learn would be to seek out someone who has built a bunch of them, and to pester them (and maybe throw money at them) until they agree to help you along; however, if you’re at all like me, and would rather spend your hard-earned money on more wood to work (0r maybe more tools) than on the expense of a teacher, an alternative recommendation would be for you to get your hands on a copy of Making and Mastering Wood Planes by David Finck, which was invaluable to me in making my first. I got my copy from the library, so was able to get my hands on the necessary information free of charge (maybe there were some late fees, as I was hesitant to part with this dense, well-written book until I had thoroughly digested it, but you get my meaning). You can also find relatively brief but highly useful instructions on how to make and use these planes in the most hands-on of Krenov’s books, The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking.
In his instructions, Krenov urges the planemaker to put much care into the first attempt, as once discouraged, many are reluctant to try again (true of a great many endeavors in life). He also states, in his characteristic understated manner, that “…the balance between success and something less is often delicate.” Translation: Be patient and mindful at every step, or risk fucking things up (custom hardwood paperweight, anyone?). This is an excellent apprentice level (or higher) exercise for precisely this reason. As someone once said (in a different context), in mastering one trade, you master them all. So, by approaching this challenge with the care and exactitude required, the foundation is built for a much broader level of mastery that extends far beyond the world of woodworking.
While one can get hardcore and make or adapt their own iron (blade) for the plane, I took the easier way and bought a high quality, laminated steel blade and chipbreaker set designed for this purpose from Ron Hock, which takes and holds a razor sharp edge.
Here’s a photo of the plane bottom, showing the tight tolerance of the ‘throat’ opening that allows for clearance of shavings while maintaining the fineness of work desired in this type of plane (the cutting edge is at the top, and you can clearly see the lamination line dividing the hard from soft steel that gives this iron its combination of hardness and strength):
Interesting thing with this type of plane—despite its fine tolerances, the depth of cut is adjusted by tapping either the top of the iron or the back of the plane body with a hammer (see top photo)! Seems kind of crude, but with practice this type of adjustment works quite adequately. As wood-bodied planes move with changes in humidity, a perfectly adjusted plane one day will need a little tuning the next, which keeps things interesting. Another great thing about these planes is that they can be made in all different sizes, depending on the job that they will perform, from small block planes, thru smoothers, and even long jointing planes. The one I made is about 11″ long x 2 1/2″ wide, putting it in the mid-range as a smoother. For comparison’s sake, here’s a photo of it next to a small block plane (Lie-Nielsen–GREAT plane), and a Stanley #5 Jack Plane (good all around workhorse in the shop):
A wood-bodied plane has a whole different level of responsiveness to the lumber being worked than does an iron plane, something that Krenov would wax poetic about regularly in his books. When built successfully, working with these planes is akin to driving a sports car instead of a more utilitarian vehicle that would get you where you’re going, but without the same subtlety and nuance of experience. Some folks actually make them to look as sleek and polished as a sports car, which seems more than a little fancy to me for a tool—in my view, the proof is in the pudding, or in this case in the planing, not in frilly aesthetics. Also, a rough finished body is easier to grip without slipping in your hand. In the end, my first plane ended up in the very good but not great category—for those in the know, it takes a shaving of 4/1000 of an inch, which for me puts it in the class of refined surfacing, but not final finishing, of most of my projects. Not bad for the first time around. After I make a bunch more, I look forward to the day when I can share this hard-won knowledge with an eager young buck like I was back in the day—but he’ll have to pester me for a while first.
With all the warm weather of late, as well as the practically non-existent ‘winter’ that just ended, my fruit trees are breaking their dormancy VERY early—frighteningly early. I have kept some records of bloom dates and spring frosts for the past 9 years in our narrow valley here in Willseyville, New York (historically a zone 5 climate), which show that this year the trees are budding out almost a full month ahead of ‘normal’, whatever that is. We generally can expect our last spring frost to come in the second or even third week of May—-7 or more weeks from now! Our house and orchard are sited pretty much at the valley bottom, so if anyone around here is going to get a late spring frost, it is us. For some perspective, while the young foliage of fruit trees is quite cold-hardy, most fruit tree blossoms will be killed with exposure to a temperature of 27 degrees F or less during bloom time. Right now, all the buds are still tightly closed, so are pretty well protected, but after the record heat of last week the forecast calls for a low of 17 degrees tomorrow night. If that happens again even once in the next two weeks or beyond, once the trees start blooming, we won’t be eating any fruit this year.
In my orchard, the early bloomers are peaches, nectarines, some of the pears, crab apples, and summer-ripening apples. We had hard frost during bloom in 2009 and 2010, and subsequently had no crop; by contrast last year we had bumper crops of apples, pears, and stone fruits, with no frost at all after the end of April, which was a first in our time here.. In an interesting side note, in ’09 and ’10 many of our forest trees also suffered, as tree species that had leafed out early in the unseasonable heat (in my area the hardest hit were maples, ash, walnut, locust, and sumac) had to start over after their first flushes of leaves were killed by subsequent frosts.
The photo below (taken earlier today) shows ‘Wickson’ crab apple fruit buds at the stage known as ‘tight cluster’:
These are the rapidly swelling fruit buds of a ‘Reliance’ peach:
…and this last photo shows clusters of ‘Chojuro’ Asian pear buds ready to burst.
I’m thinking it’s time to start crossing my fingers, or maybe praying to the fruit gods………………………..
In the early years of owning my woodland, when out in the woods, I had a tendency to look at each of my trees in isolation—without the context of their immediate surroundings. “Here’s a Yellow birch, here’s a Sassafras, here’s a Red Maple”, etc….I truly couldn’t see the forest for the trees, as they say (or maybe more accurately, I couldn’t see the trees for the tree). So, when selecting a tree to harvest, I focused on the characteristics of that tree alone, which wasn’t wrong, per se, but was somewhat random (I certainly felt like there was no consistent method to my madness at the time), and really didn’t allow me to use my time in the forest very effectively. This all changed after a visit from a state forester, who came to assess my woodlot, and to help me in developing a long-term management plan.
As we walked and talked, we came upon some trees that I had previously selected and marked for removal. When he asked me how I had come to the decision in each case, I quickly realized (as did he, which soon became painfully obvious to me) that I didn’t really have any solid or sound answers. As we continued on, he began to point out groupings of trees, and discussed how he would go about selecting those to cut, those to encourage, and why. None of it was in the proverbial realm of rocket science, but almost immediately gave me an entirely new lens with which to view my forest.
What he encouraged me to see that day that so transformed my approach were a few simple ideas: 1) that the most important tree is not the one you plan to harvest, but the one you leave behind—that the focus of your efforts in the woods should always be with an eye toward future productivity, rather than merely on present value; 2) that (as discussed in a recent post) all the real action with regard to tree growth rate and competition between trees is happening in the crowns, so tree selection should be made with the objective of freeing the crowns of superior trees from shading; and 3) wherever possible, any cutting done should achieve multiple objectives at once— that improvement thinning (or harvest for any reason) should be targeted only toward specific groupings of competing trees, where it will achieve the maximum benefit for the residual stand—and therefore that random cutting of non-competing trees, even if their harvest meets some other objective, is at best counterproductive in an overstocked timber stand. Each of these ideas run counter to the common practice of harvesting only the biggest and best trees, without regard to the fate (or the future) of those that remain. By cutting only the best trees, too many landowners are killing the goose that could have laid them a lifetime of golden eggs, as they are either willfully—or unwittingly—sacrificing a future of sustained harvest and income for the sake of immediate profit.
The method he was describing that day, and that I have continued to use since with great success, is known as crop tree management, and was developed specifically for amateur woodlot owners, like me—and maybe for you, too. Click here for a link to the Forest Service publication Crop Tree Management in Eastern Hardwoods. A key benefit of the crop tree paradigm is that it is non-technical by design, so is readily understood by your average landowner, and can be applied at whatever scale desired, from focusing on a few individual trees on a small property, to improvement of woodlands of 100 acres or more. For woodlots that were neglected or mismanaged in the past, focusing on crop trees allows for the corrective work to be undertaken at whatever pace best suits one’s needs, without feeling obliged to engage in drastic stand-wide measures that may require more time, energy, or financial resources than you as the landowner are able (or willing) to devote.
Here’s an example: The photo below shows a pair of trees growing in close proximity. The tree on the left is a Red Maple; on the right is a Red Oak. For a number of reasons, the oak is of more value to me as a crop tree, so I have marked the maple to be removed.
Here’s a view of their crowns, clearly in competition, thus hindering the ability of each to photosynthesize. With the maple removed, the oak crown will be able to expand into the now empty growing space, and will result in rapid diameter gain for the oak stem.
For the past six years, I have volunteered with the New York State Master Forest Owner program, which has allowed me to meet a number of local woodland owners, and to walk their properties with them, offering thoughts on woodlot management. On one of my first visits, I met a friendly, middle-aged man who had recently purchased a 100+ acre property that included a very promising young stand of Sugar Maple. The trees averaged maybe 6″ in diameter, and it was nearly a pure stand (almost all Sugar Maple). When he asked my opinion of the stand, I told him that I thought it was great, as many woodlots in this area are dominated by Red Maple, a lesser value species, and that, if he were so inclined, he would be looking at a very lucrative timber harvest in about 60 years. He looked at me like I had 3 (or more) heads. I think I even saw a flash of anger in his eyes. Evidently he was hoping that those trees were somehow going to quadruple in diameter before he retired in 10 or 20 years.
Unfortunately, I had burst his bubble—unlike investing in a tech startup, or winning the lottery, growing trees for profit is a long-term enterprise, even under the best of circumstances. In the case of Sugar Maple—a relatively slow-growing species—it can take 125 years or more to reach maturity. That being said, there are a number of steps a woodland owner can take to dramatically increase the vigor and growth rate of a stand of timber, which I’ll finally start to get into the nuts and bolts of in the next post. Unfortunately, none of them involve a magic wand, and all require hard work—and still require patience. Here’s a photo of a middle-aged Sugar Maple, taking its own sweet time…………………………..
I am a big carrot eater, so have become the default carrot grower in our household. If you have ever grown carrots yourself, you may know that one of the challenges in sowing the seed is to spread them thinly yet evenly over the soil of the growing area. In our case this task is complicated by the fact that we raise our vegetables in raised beds instead of rows. The seed is tiny, and in broadcasting them over the soil surface it is all too easy to end up with some areas without any seed, and others with way too much. The bare patches become the perfect medium for weed growth, and the oversown areas produce carrots about the size of toothpicks. So the ideal is to either sow the seed very meticulously (I never seem to succeed at this), or to repeatedly and mercilessly thin the patch until the proper spacing is reached, allowing each carrot ample growing room.
Tired of growing spindly carrots, one year I decided to transplant them individually onto uniform, wide spacing (6″ apart), and achieved some (at least for me) unprecedented results:
So I wanted to share this story for two reasons: 1) I wanted an excuse to post this photo, which I love—quite proud of that monster carrot; and 2) because when I talk to landowners unversed in the art and science of silviculture (the theory and practice of guiding forest establishment and growth), I often use the story above as an analogy— for a basic lens to use when viewing a forest with the intent of growing bigger, healthier trees. Because of the scale, we don’t often think of it this way, but trees—whether or not they benefit from any human intervention—are a crop, albeit a massive one, with a much longer maturation cycle. And whether or not you as a landowner (or recreational forest user) have any interest in woodland management for timber harvest, don’t we all want to see our forests becoming healthier, more diverse, bigger and taller?
I attended a chainsaw safety class a few years ago, after having spent nearly 20 years cutting and felling trees without any sort of formal instruction. Humbling to realize how much you don’t know. First time I used a chainsaw was in August of 1991 in the aftermath of Hurricane Bob, a storm that brought 100 mph winds to Cape Cod, where I lived at the time. In my ‘spare’ time outside of my 50 hour per week carpentry job, I managed to spend maybe 40 hours or more over a few weeks cutting and removing downed trees and limbs from the manicured yards of the well-to-do. I was running a pretty big Stihl that I had borrowed, no safety gear of any sort. That chain wasn’t sharpened ONCE the entire time–I probably ran it into Cape Cod’s sandy excuse for soil within the first 5 minutes; I wouldn’t have known what ‘sharp’ or ‘dull’ chain felt like anyway. I had never heard of kickback, and had no idea of how it occurred, or why. Didn’t have any knowledge of what causes a tree to ‘barberchair’—snapping suddenly and violently into the direction of lean—or how to avoid it. You get the picture. There was some luck involved, as I was regularly cutting above my head, climbing trees and cutting way up off the ground, cutting thick brush by wading in with my saw’s 20″ bar flailing every which way, and the like. The thing I remember most about that week was getting stung, as many colonies of yellowjacket wasps had lost their homes in the storm and were extremely short-tempered. Lucky indeed.
So chainsaw safety courses: I recommend them wholeheartedly, whether you’re an old hand, or just starting out. Learn how to sharpen your own chain (and please don’t call it a ‘blade’, it’s a chain, ok?…personal pet peeve) and to maintain your saw: a dull chain makes for dangerous cutting, as you’re trying to force the issue. I remember a time I brought a small saw (Husky 141: great little saw, especially with short bar) to a friend’s house to help cut up a few small ash trees. His jaw dropped when he saw the chips fly—a sharp chain will throw small wood chips, NOT dust—evidently he had yet to experience the ravenous wood-eating capability of a good saw with sharp chain.
So I called this post “look up part 2” because, of all the things I learned in the safety class, the one that has stuck with me most was the reminder to always assess potential hazards from above BEFORE STARTING TO CUT. This can include: dead branches, neighboring trees with intertwined branches that could snap while felling your target tree, or just wood lodged in the crotch of a tree that could fall on you in the earth-shaking felling process—collectively known in certain circles as ‘widowmakers’ (see photos below). Despite the very real dangers of working with a chainsaw, most fatalities in the woods happen not due to severed limbs, but to the blunt trauma of being clobbered in the head by hundreds of pounds of wet, dense wood swinging through the air at high speed. So be sure to give a good look around, before you start the saw. Then you won’t need to get lucky.
When I first started looking at my forest with an eye toward managing it for increased health and faster growth—for MORE BIG TREES, basically—I was still in the habit of assessing a tree primarily by looking at its trunk. “Hey, that’s a big one!” or some variant of “This tree is only 8 (or 10 or 12 or 14) inches in diameter, so it really doesn’t merit my attention right now”………(insert phallic joke here). It took a walk of my woodlot with a State Forester for me to begin to see where the action is really going on—in the upper canopy.
It is estimated that in the forests of the northeastern U.S., of the 5000 or so tree seedlings that germinate per acre, only 100 will live to full maturity. Put another way, if you were to lay out a square on the forest floor with 25 feet per side, that area would ultimately be claimed by one mature tree. This makes for some pretty merciless competition, as ultimately only the trees best adapted to their specific circumstances are going to be able to outlast their fellow competitors to claim a portion of the sky—to gain direct access to sunlight. This process creates a feedback loop, as the tree that overtops its neighbors maximizes its photosynthesis and capacity for growth, while the neighboring underlings struggling in varying degrees of shade are simultaneously crippled in their abilities to make food at a time when they most need it to be able to compete. So a multi-tiered canopy structure usually develops, consisting of four crown classes: dominant (the tallest, broadest crowned), co-dominants (receiving full light from above but little from the sides), intermediate (shorter than co-dominants, receiving still less light), and suppressed (shorter still, receiving no direct sunlight).
It is a common (and forgivable) misconception that tree size correlates directly with age: that a forest consisting of trees of differing heights and diameters is by definition a forest made up of trees of all different ages. While uneven-aged forests exist (and once were the norm), they are generally a product of many centuries of undisturbed tree growth—old-growth character forests. In the northeast most of the land was either cropfield or pasture 100 years ago, so the forests around us are relatively young, and are overwhelmingly even-aged. What I’m getting to here is the fact that the majority of the ‘small’ trees in a forest are in fact the same age as the biggest ones. There are a few major lessons to be taken from this: 1) if you want to assess the true health and future potential of a tree, don’t be fixated on the size of the trunk, look up at the crown; 2) in most cases, the suppressed trees have already lost the race, and will never become dominants themselves, so cutting all the biggest and best trees will not lead to another stand of ‘best’ trees (this is the fallacy leading to the patently unsustainable practice of “high-grading”, a topic to be explored further in another post); 3) that managing a forest by selectively thinning to maximize sunlight to the crowns of the most desired trees can bring about exponential increases in growth. For now, I often find myself with a stiff neck after walking in my woodlot, as I’m constantly fixated on looking upward (I trip a lot too). One last note: assessing and comparing tree crowns is a lot easier without leaves on the trees, so get out sometime soon and see for yourself, as springtime is right around the corner.
I spent some time in my woodlot a few weeks ago, marking the trees that I will harvest for firewood this year. As I worked my way through each stand, inspecting trunks and crowns in order to find the trees best suited to end up in the woodpile—and ultimately the woodstove—I was thinking about engaging in this same process a decade ago, when I first became a forest landowner in need of a steady supply of dry, hot burning wood. Never having been in the position to be the executioner, so to speak, of so many trees all at once, I was quite daunted, and more than a little unsure of myself. How to pick the right trees? What size should they be? Can I cut any big ones? What age? What species are best? How many can I cut each year without depleting my forest? With this in mind I thought I might offer a few ideas based upon what I have learned over the years—-at least as pertains to the hardwood forests in my neck of the woods.
A general rule of thumb for the forests of the northeast dictates that 1/2 cord of firewood can be taken per acre/per year on a sustainable basis. Stay within this parameter and you will be living off the ‘interest’ your forest generates in annual growth, rather than cutting into the ‘principal’. The actual sustainable cut will vary depending upon the history and past management of your woodlot, as many forests in this area are actually overstocked—were not adequately thinned over time—and thus can support (and even benefit from) initial firewood cuts at higher rates—provided that the proper trees are selected. As far as what to cut, this can either become a highly technical scientific inquiry (which has its own merit), or it can simply be approached with a little knowledge and some common sense. When in doubt, I generally prefer the latter, as what better way to learn about something than by actually doing it?
First off, you’ve got to know how to identify the choice firewood species in your woodlot by sight, and the relative Btu or heating values of each. My friend Akiva, who used to work for a tree service, tells me that he has as many as 30 different species of wood in his woodshed. Most of us will have a much smaller number of core species to work with. In my forest, Sugar Maple, Black and Yellow Birch, Red and White Oak, American Beech, White Ash, and Eastern Hop Hornbeam are the top tier firewood species. Of these, I probably cut and burn over 80% Beech, as it is uniformly infested with Beech bark disease (or scale-nectria), an insect fungal complex which causes the trees to decay rapidly once infected, and often to snap in strong winds —as shown in the photo below.
So the primary criteria in my situation is to search out trees—and in this case an entire species of trees—that are wounded, diseased, dying, or dead. Sometimes this is obvious, sometimes it takes some careful examination. Fungal growth is a sure sign of internal decline, as are dead/dying limbs in the upper tree crown, and loose or otherwise damaged bark is often indicative of a tree with compromised health (much like our skin actually). Another reliable sign of a tree under stress is the presence of ‘epicormic branching’ or branch suckering from dormant buds found on the trunk, as seen in the declining ash tree in the photo below:
Some folks harvest only deadwood, and with enough acreage (or minimal fuel needs) are able to meet all their fuelwood requirements without ever even considering healthy trees. If you find yourself in this scenario, I would encourage you to leave some standing dead timber dispersed throughout your woodlot as wildlife trees, as a great many species will benefit by finding food and shelter there.
So that’s the easiest step—working with trees that are standing dead, or that are in obvious decline. This one criteria for selecting your firewood trees may keep you going for years, or it may not get you anywhere. If you fall into the second camp, upcoming posts will address criteria for tree selection from among the healthy tree population.