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Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Big Butternut Bonanza

Woodturners have an inherent affliction. We're wood hoarders. I think it's a function of the same gene that makes us woodturners. Pity us, we can't help ourselves. Well, that's not exactly true; we do help ourselves--  to as much free wood as we can haul home!

So, even though I knew better, when wood hound and craigslist crawler Bob Labrecque called the other day asking if I was interested in picking the bones of a huge fallen Butternut tree, I said "of course!".  Another road trip! Breakfast out. Chain saws. Sawdust 'n' sweat. Male bonding. A sunny day outdoors. All that good stuff.

So how did it all pan out? Ok, so the breakfast was, um, awful. Next time Bob talks me into getting the waffle topped with mixed frozen berries, I'll do as he does and get eggs. (When the waitress asked how my waffle was, and saw the look on my face, she said "nobody gets the mixed frozen-berry waffle, but as a waitress I couldn't tell you that"). 
The road trip was only about 5 miles, and in local traffic. Bob's big-boy chainsaw threw the chain and chewed it up shortly after starting. The wood had to be hauled uphill.

But none of that stopped us. I survived the breakfast. We had other saws. And Matt Collins, in whose backyard the Butternut behemoth lay, turned out to be a great guy who brought the wood up the hill for us.

Matt and his family live on an attractive piece of land in western Massachusetts. The ample, grassy backyard slopes downhill to a relatively wet, lowland wooded area.
The fallen Butternut
The plentiful ground moisture helps grow a pleasing mixture of New England hardwoods, such as Black Cherry, Sugar Maple, Silver Maple, Catalpa, Red Oaks, and, until recently, a grand, double-trunk spreading Butternut.

A storm last October toppled the smaller, 3-foot diameter half of the duo, then April brought the demise of the larger twin, which measures in the 4-foot range at its base. That's the largest Butternut I've encountered, and I'd much rather have seen it standing proudly than lying prone. According to
Matt, topside, while Bob explains...uh .... something important, I'm sure!
Matt, it was the most prominent feature of his landscape, and his family is saddened by the loss of this familiar old friend. He now wants to see the tree's wood put to good use, and has offered it to any woodworkers who can create something with it. Matt would like to have a keepsake in memory of the cherished Butternut, so we'll see to it he gets a nice bowl or two.
Bob, excising a burl

Read on ...

We spent the middle hours of a beautiful August day with Matt and his two young sons (Aidan and Cam), reducing half of the 3-foot trunk to bowl blanks. We didn't put much of a dent in the wood supply, but filled Bob's pickup above the gills with fresh Butternut log sections. While Bob and I cut, Matt loaded his Jeep with the results and hauled them up the hill to his driveway, then transferred the Jeep's contents to the pickup for us. That Jeep (and Matt's efforts) saved us a heck of a lot of work we would have been too pooped to do.

The two trunks had blown down in opposite directions; the 3-footer went west, the 4-footer went east. The larger of the two still had roots connected to mother earth, and green foliage in its crown, though now at much lower altitude. There are clusters of butternuts hanging within reach too. Such a shame this tree is no longer standing upright.

Yours truly, hard at work!
The first thing Bob and I noticed was a burl on one of the logs. We zeroed in on that, since neither of us has seen the inside of a Butternut burl, and Bob went to work removing it. It will be interesting to see what it looks like after being turned on the lathe.

We quickly realized there was way more wood here than the two of us could use in a lifetime of turning. Matt's goal was to recover as much of his backyard space as possible, so we decided to concentrate our efforts on the 3-foot diameter log, and reduce it to as small a footprint as we could. As far as Bob and I were concerned, there was plenty of good quality wood in that log, so there was no need to touch the other. Someone else might be interested in sawing boards out of the larger log, so we didn't want to cut it up.
Crown end of the larger log

Plenty of bowl blanks here!
Before long, we had dozens of log sections cut, more than we can use, I'm sure. We wanted to cut up as much of the log as we could, to help Matt clean up the yard. The problem is, when you have all that cut-up wood lying there, it's hard to not take it all home! Luckily for us, we only had one pickup truck. But if Matt hadn't hauled those huge chunks up the hill in his Jeep, we would have gone home with far less than a truckload of Butternut. We split a few of the heftier log chunks in half with sledge and wedge, but, out there in the sun, that speedily reminded us why "work" is a four-letter word.
Aidan Collins, ready to haul wood

Butternut is a close relative of the Black Walnut (both are species of genus Juglans); in fact, it's sometimes called "White Walnut", due to the lighter color of its wood, which has a rather unusual quality-  the annual rings have a scalloped shape. That translates into some interesting grain patterns in products made from it.
Butternut's scalloped annual rings

One big reason why it's disheartening to see a Butternut's life end, particularly a large specimen, is that the species is under siege. Butternut canker disease, caused by a fungus, is quickly killing the trees across their entire range. The U.S. considers Butternut a species at risk, due to the high toll the blight is taking. Butternuts are not particularly plentiful in the forests of New England in the first place. It's not that easy to find them in western Mass, so losing a nice one is especially frustrating. As of 2008, Vermont reported 60% mortality in the trees.


Wood Available

It seems the least we can do is to celebrate the wood when it does become available. And Matt would really like to see that happen. If you're a woodworker who can put the wood to good use, it's yours for the taking. What we cut was completely sound and of good quality, and there's much more still there that we didn't cut. Bob and I will turn bowls from what we took. If you're interested in hauling some of it home, contact me, and I'll put you in touch with Matt.
It's yours if you want it !

First bowls rough-turned from the tree

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