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Monday, November 14, 2011

Why Woodturners Love Bad Storms

 Western Massachusetts has had a record year in 2011-- an F3 tornado ripped a 39-mile scar; a microburst hit Wilbraham a month later, toppling trees the tornado narrowly missed; a mild earthquake rumbled through; hurricane Irene swept into the neighborhood; and now, at the end of October, a freak snowstorm has dumped a load of extremely heavy, wet mush that was the worst thing to happen to our trees in my memory. A late fall meant lots of leaves were still clinging to the branches, and an early snow meant trouble- lots of trouble.

It started snowing on Saturday afternoon; the wet, heavy, snow stuck like glue to the leaves and branches, forcing even the largest of limbs into descending, ominous arcs. POW! It began to sound like the 4th of July around the neighborhood, as limbs strained against the snow load, then gave out. By 5:30 pm, the power was out over vast areas of the northeastern U.S. The storm paused, then restarted with a vengeance around 9 pm. All through the night and into Sunday morning, there was a continuous series of explosion-like sounds... CRACKKK... POW ... THUD !, as limbs crashed down onto rooftops and yards. 

Siberian Elm Stripped of Most Branches
Sunday morning brought an end to the snowfall, and a bright, sunny day. But it wasn't a pleasant sight for homeowners or travelers; it was an incredible tangle of downed limbs, utility poles, and power lines. Like nothing we've seen in my lifetime. Power was out just about everywhere, across many states. No stores were open, gas stations all closed. Travel was difficult, to say the least. It would be 8 days before electric power was restored to my area, and even longer for many others.
 Heaps of Fallen Branches

As just a typical resident of the area, I felt overwhelmed by the sight of the devastation to our trees, and the huge amount of woody debris dumped on my property and house. Two 70-foot Siberian Elms that flank my house were stripped of most of their small- and medium-sized branches, which completely buried my front yard.
Garage Buried Under Honeylocust Limbs

Deb Saves a Dogwood

But, as a woodturner, I knew this storm was likely to be a bonanza for those of my ilk, as was the July tornado. And so it was.

My friend, Al Richmond, has brought me a small truckload of eclectic, mixed species... Yew, Chinese Chestnut, Amur Cork Tree, Mulberry, Hawthorn, Umbrella Pine, and even a hunk of old Privet Hedge. All were taken down by the overwhelming weight of soggy snow.

Black Willow Burl Harvest
Bob and a Black Willow Burl
Fellow woodturner Bob Labrecque and I have made more than one foray into forests and backyards to harvest woody victims of these storms. One of the recent hauls was a truckload of Black Willow burls from a tree that came down in a New Hampshire backyard. This tree had followed the latter option of "Live Free or Die", having blown over and crushing a large wooden play structure. 

We spent hours, much of it in the rain, surgically removing the burls that covered this trunk from one end to the other. Thank goodness Bob had borrowed a sawmill's chainsaw with a 30-inch bar, because we'd have been lost without it! 

Of course, the largest burl was at the base of the trunk, on the underside, the toughest place to get at. The trunk was about 3 feet in diameter in that area, and it took some doing to liberate that section from the base of the tree, which was still rooted but leaning over at a severe angle. The quest for the elusive burl is not a pursuit that precludes work!

Yours Truly, Loading Willow Burl into Pickup
Black Willow is a lightweight wood, generally without remarkable figure, but we'll see what the burls have in store. It's all about the anticipation.

Partial Load of Willow Burls

We returned to Western Mass from New Hampshire tired, wet, filthy, hungry, and smelling of chainsaw exhaust fumes. In other words, we were happy woodturners.


The Northampton Monster Apple Tree
Our most recent adventure was to the wilds of a backyard in Northampton, MA, where a monstrous old apple tree had met its match in the snowstorm. The owner said she had been told it was the largest apple tree in the state. We haven't been able to confirm that yet, but it certainly was a contender. A double-trunk beauty, it had stood two and a half stories tall, each trunk being somewhere in the 30-inch diameter range. You can see from the photo at right that the combined diameter of the two trunks is easily 5 feet. 

I Think Bob's Meditating Here ...
Another woodturner from New York had already been there and slabbed off all the burls (George, we're onto you!!). But there was plenty of gorgeous, large diameter wood left. We set about liberating as much of the crotch wood as we could, in the expectation that it would be the best-figured of the lot.

Naturally, as is our karma, it began to rain. With hundreds of pounds of saturated apple to load into the truck, we had to leave as much wood as we took. But look at the photo below ... the color of that wet heartwood doesn't get any richer. I just love the contrast between sapwood and heart.  

Apple, and more Apple !

The requisite carpenter ants were of course occupying galleries in the center of much of the trunk, and, being lethargic in the cold November temps, they weren't quick to leave the security of their dark recesses. But we did evict most of them.

Although Apple is notoriously difficult to successfully dry without cracking and checking, I'm sure the gods will look down on us with a smile. After all, we didn't cut the tree down. And who would want this spectacular wood to get chipped up into mulch, or unceremoniously chucked into a stove? Besides, we advised the owner that what remained of the standing tree didn't have to be removed; it would undoubtedly sprout new growth next spring, and can live on. She was thrilled to know that maybe she hadn't lost her beloved old Apple after all.

Bob Contemplates an Apple Harvest Bowl (or a back brace)
As we finally finished loading our treasure into Bob's pickup (need I say it...in the rain), I turned around to take a last look at the tree. Bob was stepping over the tailgate from the bed of the truck, where he had been rearranging some of the slippery load. As suddenly as a thunder clap, I heard a whoosh, then a solid whump! I spun around to see my buddy flat on his back on the wet ground, motionless, a grimace on his face, a groan in his throat. The first thought that raced into my mind, of course, was "man, am I glad we were done loading this stuff, and I don't have to do it alone !!".  Can you believe I've actually been called callous for that ??

But Bob was ok. He just likes to play the crowd for pity over a splattered spleen and a few shattered ribs. Well, sorry Bob, there was no crowd out there in the rain that day. Just me, and I'm wise to it.

So, off we went back home-  tired, wet, filthy, hungry, and smelling of chainsaw exhaust fumes. In other words, we were happy woodturners. Again.

American Elm Burl
And the ride home wasn't without more excitement. On many a country lane, we were taunted by the sight of burls of all sizes, proudly protruding from trunk and limb. But these were for another storm adventure, and that's a good thing. They were all on trees that had withstood the tests that nature inflicted.

The finest one of all, happily, was a behemoth on a wonderful American Elm, a graceful species from grand avenues of the past.

As much as we'd love to see what's inside it, we don't ever want to be standing over this beauty with a chainsaw in hand.

And now you know why woodturners love bad storms.  



Here are photos of some of the first bowls off the lathe from these two adventures:

New Hampshire Black Willow Burl Bowl
Pair of Apple Wood Bowls

The Black Willow Burl bowl has a natural-edge rim that retains some of the bark; the rest of the rim has been flame-scorched to heighten its definition. You can see the varying tones in the swirls of the burl's grain. The large dark patch is a bark inclusion. This is a very lightweight bowl, owing to the low density of Willow wood.

The Apple bowls are a "mother and daughter" set, the smaller having been cored from the inside of the larger bowl.

These bowls are available for purchase at Bowlwood.com.


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