Source Material II

I realized that the initial post was a tad long, so I decided to divide it into two chunks, fleshed out a little bit in this second half, possibly improving digestion…

Giving up on Eugene, I went to another local sawyer, this fellow advertising ‘gorgeous boards’. At this point, all I needed were 2×8’s for the rafters, as I was short about half of the number needed. Now, as many of you know, ‘2×8’ is the nominal dimension – the actual dimensions are 1.5″x 7.5″. These are an entirely standard product that you would think be something that any sawyer would cut on a near-daily basis and be well-practiced at providing. I explained to the ‘gorgeous boards’ folks that I wanted FOHC material, which clearly was a new and radical request that caused some brow-furrowing, but they said ‘no problem’. This wood was coming from standing dead timber, so it was pretty dry. All good.

What showed up a few days later, while I happened to be away for a week, was not exactly what I had ordered. Somehow they managed to cut me some 50-odd rafters at 1.75“x 7.375“. The fact they were too thick could be easily dealt with, and in fact the gorgeous boards fellow came by with his planer and spent 2 days re-thicknessing the wood. The fact that the critical dimension, the height, was 1/8″ under size was however a big deal. I had already cut the ridgepoles and purlins with housings to seat the 7.5″ rafters, and had placed half the rafters (at the correct 7.5” dimension) in the roof already. These under size rafters were a total headache. I couldn’t believe frankly that the mill was unable to fulfill such a simple request.

A friend of mine up in Maine has related similar episodes with sourcing timbers up there, where local sawyers seem highly resistant to producing anything other than what they are used to doing. So, in short, I’ve had my frustrations with the local sawyer scene, and it doesn’t appear that I have been subject to special treatment.

Concurrent with the aforementioned events with the drum maker’s building project, a neighbor of a friend of mine had suffered some damage as a result of a windstorm, and a 100-year-old Black Locust had keeled over in her yard. She said if I would remove it I could have the trunks, and I jumped at the opportunity, Black Locust being a wood I esteem greatly. I was out there a few days later with my chainsaw, and bucked the tree into several usable lengths. I asked Eugene if he would mill it for me, and he agreed, and came out with a trailer to collect the wood. All very nice, except that over the following years time Eugene never actually got around to milling that wood, regardless of how many times I called him, or what I said, how I cajoled, or even threatened. Eventually I had to leave B.C. and come out here to Massachusetts, and those Black Locust logs still sit in Eugene’s yard, buried under a pile of fir logs. Sigh!

So, my point being, that while using local sawyers sounds like a great idea, it doesn’t always work out that way in reality. The loss of knowledge since the industrial revolution in the sawyers trade is paralleled by that in the carpentry trade, it seems to me.

One thing about British Columbia that many folks don’t realize is that it is a heavily-logged environment, with clear cuts so extensive they can be seen from outer space. I’m not kidding. The northern half of Vancouver Island (this is a huge island folks!) is pretty much a scalped wasteland, and a common experience many hikers suffer is that to get to some patch of unspoilt beauty they must suffer hundreds of km’s of driving through moonscape-like clear-cuts. I remember well trying to convey this scene to a friend of mine from Montana (also fairly heavily clear-cut from what I have seen, not to mention the mining issues there), who really thought I was exaggerating and being a little hysterical about the whole matter – until the time he happened to be in a plane with me coming from Japan to Vancouver. We passed over the Northern half of Vancouver Island and he was able to see for himself how bad it is – his eyes opened wide and he realized that I had not been exaggerating the scope of the problem at all.

It’s funny to live in a place like B.C. and be a user of wood – guilt and uncertainty surround almost every purchase of material. The forestry industry pretty much owns the province. And those forestry companies are big multinationals, not local players, thus the bulk of the profits from the sale of the forest leaves the province.

Here on the East coast, the massive clear cuts happened a couple of hundred years ago. Where I live now used to be completely cleared for farming, and now the trees have been growing back for at least the past 70 years so it is quite thickly forested. But finding patches of original ecosystem, with big old trees, is pretty tough here in New England – I’ve come across just a couple of tiny patches so far. It’s pretty cool seeing a Black Cherry tree well over 100′ tall with a 30″ thick trunk at the base. I’ve seen just one like that here in MA.

Going to the local lumberyard, Cowls, I was astonished to find that the 2x material in the yard all comes from Latvia. Evidently that is to be preferred to anything local, or is simply cheaper, I don’t know. Cowls also has their own sawmill. In fact, during the great depression, the owner of Cowls bought up large tracts of land from financially distressed owners, a fact that still has some locals grumbling. Cowls logs locally and has done so for the past 100 years or so. They are currently logging a 50 acre piece just up the street from where I live. It’s nice to see they selectively cut instead of clear cut. Perhaps local regulations are the reason, I don’t know for certain. A few years back in B.C. they changed the Forest Practices Act to prohibit such large clear cut blocks. Sounds good, but the fine print is everything. The way the new regulation was structured essentially encouraged the logging companies to bulldoze roads up into as many areas as possible, every single untouched valley they could get into, as fast as they could. And now they log in pleasant little patchwork quilts of cut blocks, but the net effect is that more logs are removed from the forest than ever. Landscape architects are employed to shape the cut blocks so that from the road the forest looks the same. Deception plays a big role, as public perceptions need to be carefully ‘managed’. What they are managing in fact, is to cut the forest down at an astonishing and unsustainable rate. Short term gain over long term planning prevails once again.

One time I drove a logging road from the East coast of Vancouver Island to the West coast, to visit some relatively unspoiled coastal beaches. The dirt road I took was, as expected, in a moonscape and was an active logging road. In that 2-1/2 hour trek through the belly of the beast, I crossed paths with a 40′ long loaded logging truck heading out of the cut every 10 minutes or so. Do the math – this cutting is going on 24/7, 6 trucks per hour say… that’s 144 truck loads a day, every day, just from that one cut area. It’s sobering and a little horrifying. For some of course, it is their livelihood. The loggers hate environmentalists because they see their jobs as under threat from the ‘tree huggers’. In fact, a bigger threat to their livelihood is the industry conversion to mechanized tree harvest with feller-bunchers, but I think it is easier to focus rage on what are widely perceived by some loggers as ‘out of touch urban enviro-whackos‘. That’s another topic. That beach I got to was magical, but I couldn’t help notice it was but a 100 meter strip of land, and clear cut right up to the boundary. It muted some of the joy of the place for me.

Hiking up in remote Cape Scott Provincial Park at the northwest tip of Vancouver Island also entails a long drive through the clear cut, and the first hour of the hike into the woods has the sound of chainsaws in the background. One has to learn to filter such things out of the over all experience of course. I guess.

I also have used wood that comes from tropical regions, as many readers might have noticed in my posts about furniture. Anyone who hasn’t been under a rock for past years is likely well aware of the devastation of the Amazon, called by some the ‘lungs of the earth’. It would seem that buying wood from the tropics is directly in support of such practices, but, again, the picture is more complicated than that. I believe the vast majority of trees cut in the Amazon go for pulp and paper, and many of the tree species are on the CITES list and thus banned for trade.

My local hardwood lumber dealer is Forest Products Associates, up in Greenfield, MA. They are a family run business, in operation since the 1940’s – I met the old fella that started it the other day in fact. They deal in both domestic and imported hardwoods. I was chatting with the buyer there, who has lots of experience sourcing wood from Central and South America, including many trips to the region to visit the mills. He pointed out that in many cases the mills buy logs from private individuals who cut them from their own property. He said to me, what could be wrong with a local farmer with 10 acres wanting to cut down 5 mahogany trees and sell them, given that the money earned will keep his family afloat for a year? How can I say it’s wrong for such a farmer to cut down the trees on his property, when such practice is commonplace in my own neck of the woods? In fact, a common form of real estate ‘development’ these days in B.C. is to buy land from a logging company, already thinned of it’s first growth trees, then scalp it, netting a tidy profit, and then turn around and sell the lot for suburban development. We all live in clear cuts, after all, here in the forested zones of North America.

Especially when people are poor, cutting trees on their own land, either for wood fuel, or to sell the logs, or to increase arable land, is perfectly understandable, and who would be in favor of laws banning that?. When I buy hardwoods from other countries, I ask a lot of questions about the chain of custody of the logs, whether they are cut sustainably, and so forth. Nowadays, FSA-certification is available, and this does serve to set my mind at ease.

That said, it is well known in the lumber supply business that end runs sometimes can be made around regulations. Burmese Teak for instance is banned in trade, however, some get past this ‘problem’ by shipping the teak from Burma to Taiwan, then calling it ‘Taiwanese teak’ and thus importing it into other countries without restriction.

So, I’ve looked at this issue from a lot of angles, and choose to put my trust in international trade conventions, and ask questions where and when I buy material. I also think, in the ‘big picture’ view, that all plant life is part of the natural carbon cycle, and thus using trees does not violate any sort of natural process. At any given moment, forest fires are laying waste to thousands of acres around the globe, and in B.C. pine beetle infestation has killed huge swaths of the pine lands in the province’s interior. Now, digging stored carbon out of the earth and releasing it into the atmosphere in massive quantities, well, this is not so natural, and the effects of that are becoming well known.

I also realize that my use of wood as a raw material, if I’m building furniture and structures to last for a long time, is a good use of the resource. Wood is a renewable resource, if the forests are managed intelligently and without greed. A counterpoint to the B.C. clear-cutting practices I mentioned earlier would be Merv Wilkinson’s 55 ha. woodlot, which he has carefully managed for over half a century: Wildwood. After 65 years of continuous logging, he has the same volume of timber he started with, and no environmental degradation. He’s a real inspiration, and his experience and wisdom points the way forward.

I feel that using material in a respectful manner is the key. If a tree grew 100 years, at a minimum I make something from it that should last 100 years. I also realize that the sum of my life’s work in wood will likely not equal the output of a 6 hour shift at an Ikea factory, so it seems a bit of a moot point to worry about the environmental effect of using wood in such a small scale.

Also, I refuse to use veneers. While, on the surface (couldn’t resist the pun, sorry!), veneers might seem like a good use of wood, using just a minimum to cover a large area, in fact the reverse hold true in practice: veneers are a wasteful use of wood. This is very much an effect along the lines of Jevon’s Paradox: the result of technological progress towards the efficient utilization of a resource often leads to ever greater consumption of that resource. The technology that makes it possible to peel very thin sheets from a log and apply them to particle board panels seems to allow a little to go a long way. In fact, it makes possible such odd things as paneling an entire room in a scarce material. In solid wood, only the ultra rich could afford to panel a room in clear perfect Claro walnut or Bubinga, etc. People like to emulate the rich, of course, and thus the relative cheapness of veneer allows a greater number of people to cover their house interiors, wall to wall with veneered panels. Veneers also find favor in large scale furniture manufacturing, given the stable predictable working qualities of veneered sheet goods. When something becomes cheap and easy to use, and enables the imitation of things only the ultra rich could do previously, then the consumption of that resource climbs dramatically. Then factor in the effects of fashion trends on interior decorating, and wood choice, and the limited lifespan and poor durability of veneered items, and the horror becomes apparent soon enough.

This really hit home to me during the vanity project described in a previous thread: the condominium was wall-to-wall Walnut, along with every piece of furniture, virtually all of which were veneered. I knew that once the current owners died in 20 years, or perhaps decided to move to Portugal (or some other warm clime), the likelihood of the next wealthy tenant of the space wishing to decorate in the same manner is close to nil. Maybe at that time Anigre will be the rage, or Peruvian Cherry, or…), and thus all that veneered walnut will be ripped out, and given that it has next to no recycle-ability, and can’t even be used for firewood, so to the land fill it will go.

Veneers are made from the absolutely best logs, and from the best parts of the log – the clear un-tapered lower part of the trunk. I see the veneer industry and its use of precious materials as some giant voracious monster consuming the best wood and churning it up and spitting it out into the landfill just a few short years later. Although this is just another manifestation of the carbon cycle, I find it horrifying and lacking in integrity.

A lesson I take from Chinese classic furniture involves a particular type of table, often composed of a single large plank for the top, and supported by two smaller framed assemblies at each end. In tough economic times, as in the cultural revolution, it was not uncommon for these planks, reservoirs of wealth, to be sold to buy food, or at worst, chopped up for firewood. At least the solid plank has some inherent worth, even in the most desperate of circumstances. The loss of these table top planks was rather common, and thus to find an intact table of this type, a survivor, is rather rare – usually just the small support frames survive, often converted into smaller individual tables.

As a maker one of the unfortunate realities I have to contend with is having no control over the pieces I make after they leave my shop. I can make with the best intentions, but what if the client dies the next year and her son Tommy decides that they prefer some chrome and glass piece, and sticks the piece I made in the basement to collect dust, or in the trash, or keeps it and mistreats it? I once made a little building, a well pump shed in Yellow Cedar with a Japanese hipped roof, and came to see how it was doing a few years afterwards – the new owners had painted it lavender. I don’t believe I will be going back!

Maybe the house catches fire the day after I finish building it and it burns to the ground. That happened to a company I used to work for with a building in the San Francisco area.

All I can have left, really, is intention in my work. Intention to make items of quality, usefulness, of as much beauty as I can imbue an already beautiful material with, and of respect to that material. I work wood with a clear conscience, though not without the occasional soul-searching moment.

I’ve decided that when it comes down to it I simply love wood, in all its diversity. I want to work with all kinds, hard and soft, vivid and quiet, elastic and brittle, light or heavy, etc. Each species has some particularly perfect use or application, and I like to try and design around the qualities inherent in each material I use. I used to live in softwood ‘heaven’ back in B.C.; here in the Northeast I am in hardwood heaven and very much look forward to getting to know the woody denizens of this corner of the world. Ideally, in time there will be the opportunity to harvest wood from my own land, selectively, or will at least be able to follow the tree to log to board instead of simply buying the boards at the store. That’s really the best, when you can have direct connection with the process from tree to finished piece. It’s a rarity in today’s world, and a loss of wisdom compared to past practice in a lot of cultures and places.

4 Replies to “Source Material II”

  1. Chris
    I stumbled on your blog from Alex Gilmore's site and greatly enjoy the vigor you've put into your posts.
    This post makes me think of some of the things I've read in the past about , say, the last of the mastodons on far northern russian islands. Being stranded there by climate change they changed from “Gigantism” to whats termed “Island Dwarfism”. Basically to survive the species gets smaller to cope with decreasing habitat. Today thats happening with some species of fish that are being over harvested, and as result reproduce sooner and dont grow as big ( slip through nets). There was even a photo study of 20 century sport fishing showing the shrinking size of regular catch.
    I've become a fan of the free TEDtalks videos to keep up with “whats happening”. Apparently we only had 1 Billion people circa 1900 and are looking at 9 Billion some time this century. So Island dwarfism might need to get renamed Global dwarfism.


    jeff stafford

  2. Ever tried sawing your own lumber with maebiki-oga? Its slow, but beats the hell out of running a chain saw mill any day. Besides, what is slow? You get the chance to read the tree, know the boards as they are cut, know each knot as the saw goes through it. Definitely worth it if you get the chance to own one. There is a great deal of standing dead beetle kill where I live in Colorado, I have the chance to mill really beautiful local lumber that would go to waste otherwise. Nothing huge in size, but challenging none the less with kobiki tools.

  3. Jeff,

    somehow your comment, like those smaller fish, slipped through my response net – sorry! Your comment was much appreciated all the same.


  4. Gabe,

    no, I haven't tried sawing my own lumber with an oga. It's not really of interest either, however I'm glad you are enjoying yourself!


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