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Monday, February 23, 2015

Growing Salad Bowls

Being a wood turner and bowl maker means, among other things, that people will contact you with questions like "I have a tree that came down, and was wondering- can you make something for me from the wood?"

Such was the case last December when Greta called. "We have a large Norway maple that's been growing for many years at the corner of the house. It's going to be taken down in a few days; it's too close to the house and we're taking it down before it falls on the house. I was hoping to have some bowls made from it... can you do that?"

Greta said she'd be away for several days, but the tree crew would be dropping the trunk in the morning, so I told her to ask them to leave me a few lengths of the trunk. The following day, I took the 40-minute ride to her home to cut up and retrieve the log sections to make her bowls.

When I arrived at her home (it was several days before Christmas), it was raining (of course... it's always raining when I do this), it was cold (of course... it's always cold, or sweltering, when I do this). There was the Norway maple as described; there was the tree crew; there were the trunk sections. Just one complication- the trunk sections were still connected to each other and vertically stacked, forming a formidable tree-like structure. Dangling at the end of a rope from an upper limb, high above the roof,
The Norway maple, Patrice dangling from above
was Patrice, the arborist, who was still removing limbs one at a time with his chainsaw. The trunk was still standing, rather stark looking with its leaves and many of its limbs gone.

Deciduous trees, unless graceful of form, don't look their Sunday best at this time of year; something reminiscent of a plucked bird. This one appeared to have been an attractive shade tree that framed one end of the large home. But here it stood, at least for a few more hours, in the gloomy gray of an early winter day, a jumble of its branches littering the ground at its feet, fresh wounds showing as bright spots along its trunk.

I find it disappointing to see large trees like this come down, especially in places where the impact of their disappearance so changes the ambience. I don't like that kind of change. It takes a lifetime to grow a reasonably large tree, and its demise can be all too quick. Big trees give a sense of permanence to a setting, often dominating the scene. They belong there. Everything else can be transient without dramatically altering the feeling of the place. But when the tree suddenly becomes empty space, the effect is negative. Maybe you never really noticed that huge, living  structure, but now that it's gone ...

It's not a small tree
I watched Patrice and his crew work for a little while, then, like a spider on a silk thread, he descended to earth. The trunk wasn't going to come down that day, just the crown, so we discussed what I needed from the tree, and he graciously agreed to cut suitable lengths for me to pick up on another day.

This was a substantial tree. And it's uncanny how it got bigger and bigger as I got closer and closer to it. Nevertheless, when I returned, the tree was down, and Patrice had kept his word. There were many hefty log sections on the lawn, among a logjam of limbs. Patrice was there, and wheeled his fork-fronted tractor over and deftly plucked several chunks out of the pile. He gently placed them down in a clear spot alongside the driveway, where I could work on them at my leisure. (Did I say leisure?)

A portion of the trunk and limbs
I went to work on them as Patrice and his crew were leaving. The logs were much too large in diameter to split them down the middle with sledge and wedge. Oh, I tried. If you've ever split wood, you're likely familiar with those green, fat bolts that spit a steel wedge right out at you upon the first whack from the sledge hammer. They're not going to make the job easy for you. It's like trying to split an inflated rubber truck tire. Not going to happen.

No, this was chainsaw work. I could barely move these things, let alone lift them into an suv. So they'd have to be sliced and diced into large bowl blanks then and there, just to make them small enough to get into the truck by myself.
The chunks to be worked on

This being Norway maple, its wood was a pretty consistent white color, virtually no usable dark heartwood; what little there was had cracks already started. The tree had a bit of rot visible in the trunk when it was still standing, and I had hoped to find spalted wood in it, but found none. That would have added interest to the plain wood.

I spent several minutes contemplating the best orientation of the blanks I'd extract from these logs. I decided that natural-edged salad bowls were called for; the contour of the outer surface of the log would yield wavy-edged bowls which I reasoned would be more interesting than flat-rimmed bowls of this plain wood. A couple hours later, after careful cutting, I had a few hefty bowl blanks ready to go home with me. The wood still had plenty of sap in it, so the blanks were quite heavy.

Reducing them to blanks (one is at right)

Top (bark) side of first bowl blank

One blank roughed to round
Back at my shop, I quickly roughed out a set of salad bowls from the wet wood. I needed to get these big chunks of wet wood reduced in volume before they began to crack from the stresses that occur as the wood dries and shrinks.

Wood this wet literally sprays you with a shower of water as it spins on the lathe, due to the centrifugal force which ejects sap, like when a soggy dog shakes the water out of its coat.

The bowl walls were left thick at this stage because as the wood dries it will shrink and distort to an out-of round shape; hopefully, the bowls won't crack, but that's entirely possible. With thick enough walls, the dried bowls can later be put back on the lathe and re-turned to a round shape, and to final thickness.

Two months of drying, more turning, and voila ... salad bowls!

A 17-inch salad bowl

With a renewable finish of beeswax and mineral oil, they're now ready to go.

And that's how you grow salad bowls.

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