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Monday, May 26, 2014

How Sweet It Is!

It's doubtful that Jackie Gleason had sugar maple in mind when he used to make that proclamation; nevertheless, the classic New England tree certainly deserves that praise, in more ways than one.

Who isn't familiar with (real) maple syrup, maple cream, or maple sugar candy  (if you fall into that group, I do feel sorry for you) ?

But this is about figured sugar maple wood, and it sure is pretty stuff. Think birdseye, tiger stripe, quilted, fiddleback, and curly maple (not to mention burl). Tiger, fiddleback, and curly all refer to essentially the same kind of parallel stripe-like figure; some would say fiddleback stripes are closer together (more stripes per inch) than curly. I don't know of any scientific explanation of what causes a tree to create figure in its wood; different theories have been voiced (insect damage, physical stress, growing conditions, etc, etc), but are unproven.





All types of figured maple (and other species) are valued by those who put sharp tools to wood. Musical instrument makers, furniture builders, and woodturners, among others, cherish these special woods. Most any type of tree can produce figured wood, but it happens in relatively few individual trees. Some experienced observers can look at a standing tree and predict whether it contains figured wood or not; most have no idea until they hold lumber in hand.
The typical wood hound just stumbles upon figure in a log every now and then, and wears a big toothy grin when he does.

Which brings us to Bob Labrecque, a not-unusual wood hoarder/turner with whom I've enjoyed a number of "road trips" in a quest to procure large quantities of irresistible wood for turning projects. He recently issued the customary announcement to several of us that he'd located another treasure trove for the taking; it's usually burls, but this time it was curly maple. Two of us (Terry Murphy and I) answered the call to cut.

We met on a sunny morning for breakfast, to fuel up for the day's work. With bellies full, we quietly took a circuitous route to the clandestine location, so as not to give away the secret. Ok, so it was the town log dump.

The bigger sugar maple log
There they were. Just lying there. Easily a half-dozen fat sugar maple logs. Bob had already taken a huge chunk off the end of one three-foot-diameter bole, so he knew where we should begin our harvest of curly cellulose.
Bob (l) and Terry (r) working maple logs

He and Terry came armed with, oh I don't know, maybe twelve or twenty chainsaws each, so they told me to leave mine in my truck at the restaurant and ride with them. No problem... I took that as license to stay out of their way while they toiled in the hot sun. I'd take a few photos so I couldn't be accused of loafing (that seemed entirely reasonable).

So the two of them fueled up saws with long bars on them, and bellied up to a couple of the logs to dissect them. Bob took on the bigger one, since he had already previously lopped off a hunk of it. Terry, who apparently has learned to overcome obstinance, chose the smaller log, ie, the one without all the hardware embedded in it.

Let's see, which one is sharp?
That newly sharpened chain on Bob's saw, well, it just wasn't up to the task of slicing through hardened masonry nails. Oh it kept on spinning around the bar alright. But it wasn't throwing wood chips out of the kerf anymore, which I'm pretty sure is what Bob wanted it to do. Not to worry, more saws in the truck. Smaller ones.





Meanwhile, Terry's got a twenty-inch length lopped off his log, and is proceeding to dice that into bowl blanks. But there's something a bit curious looking about the end of that log... it has a stain pattern in its outermost wood that looks like ambrosia red maple, not sugar maple. Did we call it wrong upon first inspection? No, wait- those are stains from old tap holes; someone had tapped this tree to make maple syrup (see the arrows in the photo).
Arrows point to old tap holes

Terry, extracting bowl blanks





Bowl blanks almost done


























Back at Bob's log, things are progressing, but slowly. Restricted now to a much shorter chain bar, he's got to peck away at the cut because the bar doesn't reach all the way through the log. And there are more nails lurking in the log. Arghhh.

Maybe we can use wedges driven into the kerf to break the piece off the end of the log? Limited success with that strategy. It's hot under the sun, and swinging a sledge hammer gets old really quickly. But Bob managed to actually break one of my steel wedges in two before quitting. Never saw anyone do that before. The next tactic will be to slice the end of the log into bowl slabs, instead of trying to cut the huge chunk off the log.

New tactic: slice blanks off end of log
This is a beautifully figured maple log, and no one is going to stop Mr L. from bringing at least part of it home. Not as long as he has at least one saw left!


This is turning into a lot of work, and there's no shade to do it in. I get the feeling these guys don't appreciate that I have to stand around in the hot sun while they play.








Small saws can still make big blanks!
I'm starting to visualize the nearby pub. I know it's much cooler in the pub. I know there's food and drink in the pub. I now know I want to be in the pub. The pub is where we should be.

But there are two chainsaws still howling in the sun. The breeze is welcome, but why does it always change its direction and push wood dust in my face? Don't these two guys know it's time to quit and go to the pub?

They do know. But there's still curly maple in log form. And if you're a woodturner, that gnaws at your bones like a beaver putting teeth to tree. You just don't walk away from it till the dam job's done (to prolong the beaver reference). However, come the dawn, the beaver does walk away, retiring to a cooler place out of the sun. And it's now beginning to dawn on Messieurs Murphy and Labrecque that there's enough of the job done for today. Well, almost.
Get it rolled over ...

There's still a couple big log hunks that need to be broken down into bowl blanks, because there's no way those things are going to get picked up and put in the truck as is. Why is it we always forget to bring ramp planks?

Using two cant hooks, and any energy they have left from breakfast, they roll the hunks into position.


Bob's idea is to score the end grain with the saw, then use wedge and sledge in the kerfs to split it, rather than saw all the way through. Terry prefers a clean sawn surface to a split one, for ease in mounting the blank on the lathe. Hmmm.

That gets resolved quickly, thank goodness... they'll do some of each. End result-- a pair of pooped people pondering pub products.

It took all three of us to lift the slabs of their labors into two trucks. Throw the saws in there too, and we're out of here, tired, sweaty, dusty, thirsty, hungry, and pubward bound.


Slice 'n' dice
"Let's try splitting it..."

Some of the haul
A couple days later, I completed a small turned and carved hollow vessel from a piece of this curly maple log Bob had given me earlier (see photo). It's pretty stuff!

Bob and Terry have rough-turned several bowls from their haul, to be dried and completed later. They look quite promising. 

One of Bob's bowls, rough-turned
Another of Bob's... notice the curl !


So that's the end of this story, for now.

Oh-- and we're going back Tuesday for more.
One of Terry's roughed-out curly bowls










Tap hole in a bowl by Terry

























Curly Maple vessel - Bowlwood.com























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