Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Weathered Chestnut Vases

American Chestnut Vase
The American chestnut tree, once a major component species of the eastern forest, was tragically wiped out by an accidental introduction of a fungal blight in the first years of the 1900's. Our chestnut had not evolved with this fungus, and had no resistance to it; thus, it succumbed quickly to the blight, which raced through the eastern U.S. forests. By about the 1950's, the American chestnut tree was virtually gone. Its root system is not killed by the blight, so the chestnut is still sprouting new above-ground growth in the forests, but despite that, the new saplings are quickly infected by the blig
ht, and die off. Repeated sproutings sap the energy of the roots, and eventually they peter out too.

Chestnut wood is highly rot resistant, so the remains of long-dead trees are still occasionally found on the forest floor, though they're usually pretty far gone now. Here in central New England, I still find small bits of the once great trees in the woods. Most people would never give these weathered remnants a second look, not realizing they're all that's left in the forest of a cherished, historic American species. Those who are aware of the significant part that chestnut played in the building of America are delighted to see and handle a piece of its weathered remains when I show it to them; their eyes brighten and a look of wonder and awe washes across their face.

When I find such pieces of chestnut in the woods, they're often too far gone to make much of anything from them, so I leave them there in their surface graves. But once in a while, thanks to the chestnut's impressive decay resistance, a piece is sound enough to make into a rustic vase. Pieces like that go home with me to become a treasure for someone who will appreciate it for what it is, and was-- truly a part of early American history.

I just recently found a remnant branch of chestnut that was thankfully suspended above the forest floor, so it hadn't totally rotted away yet; as resistant as the wood is, it doesn't last forever out there in the elements.

The characteristic appearance of weathered chestnut is unique, and instantly recognizable to me. Beneath the grizzled surface is the highly prized, warm glow of American chestnut wood, as sound as ever in some cases.

The few "fencepost" vases that I can glean from this most recent find will be available on the Timberturner website. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

New Nature/Wildlife Blog

Though this blog began as a place where I could elaborate on projects related to my woodturning activities, it eventually also became a convenient journal for topics that are somewhat related to woodworking and turning (as far as I'm concerned), but not strictly so.

Since I spend a lot of time in the woods exploring and photographing New England forests (especially old growth) and their inhabitants, I like to share information about those subjects and experiences. Realizing that "woods and wildlife" isn't particularly relevant to woodturning, I've decided to start a new, separate blog devoted to that other passion. The new blog is entitled "New England Forests", and can be accessed by clicking that link, or via www.neforests.com.

There is also a companion Youtube channel with the same name (New England Forests), where I'll be posting videos of wildlife and forests of New England.

I do hope, if interested, you'll take a peek at these two new sites, enjoy them, bookmark them, and leave your comments.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ornaments of Sea and Forest

Do you get a kick out of seeing a look of wonder and enchantment wash across the face of a visitor to your home? That wide-eyed child who's asking, "what is that?!"  If you do, here's something for you: delicate hanging ornaments, handmade of sea urchin shells and turned wooden "icicles", or finials.

These charming decorations will evoke that kind of reaction from youngster and oldster alike. Adults unfamiliar with sea urchin shells will be delighted to find that these oddities were living creatures from the sea. I know I was, when I first saw them.

The shells are hollow, some being very lightweight and fairly fragile. Probably the most intriguing species of urchin shell is the more robust
Sputnik Sea Urchin Ornament
"Sputnik", shown in this photo.

This species has reddish or violet coloring in the vertical stripes between the "spikes", which are nodes where there were spines attached to the live animal. The icicle and cap in this example are made of maple that has been dyed deep purple to complement the shell's natural color. This shell is 13/4 inches in diameter; the total length of the ornament is 4 inches. Many shells are larger, some are smaller.

These ornaments are very light, weighing less than one ounce; so, they would be ideal for use as Christmas tree decorations, but of course they can be appreciated in a non-holiday setting too.
Another Sputnik

Here's another Sputnik ornament, with reddish stripes; the wooden parts are of dyed Black Locust.

Green Sea Urchin Ornament

This piece (left) is a Green Sea Urchin, a really attractive shell, mated to a Cottonwood cap and icicle. This species has hundreds of tiny bumps on the surface of the shell, giving it an interesting texture. The color is a fresh forest green.
 Another green shell example is this Tiny Green Sputnik, with a hand-turned ebony icicle. The body is 1 inch in diameter; overall length is 33/4 inches.
Tiny Green Sputnik
And finally, while not a hanging ornament, this 31/2 inch Alphonso Sea Urchin shell mushroom is, well, ornamental. This is one of several "mantle mushrooms" I've "grown". Its turned wood stalk emerges from a gnarly hunk of elm burl.
Alphonso Sea Urchin Shell Toadstool

These ornaments are available for purchase at Timberturner.com.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

What's That in the Wood Chips?

It's been a memorable winter in Massachusetts, as in most of the other 47 lower states. Record cold. Record snow depths in some places. Reports of many birds, deprived of adequate foodstuffs, dying in the merciless below-zero conditions.

A potbelly woodstove is one of the most comforting possessions you could own when the thermometer's unable to muster more than a couple degrees above zero. Did you ever wonder how there could be temperatures below zero? Doesn't "zero" suggest there's just no heat left? What could be colder than that? Well, we've been supplied with the answer to that many times lately: 15 below zero is colder than that, a lot colder! Yikes. Let's not even mention wind chill.

The thought of going out to the woodturning shack when the needle on the thermometer can't get out of its bed is, well, of the negative variety. That potbelly stove out there may be a godsend when it's aglow, but when its belly starts out at 20 below frostbite, eh, not so much. It's a lot easier to catch up on chores in the house then, where coincidentally it's dozens of degrees above frostbite.

So this morning, I was pondering the universally important things... why do I have two identical pairs of socks that don't match?; what's for breakfast besides oatmeal?; if snow is water, why isn't it clear?; how are the woodchips I dumped on the compost pile yesterday faring?

That last question seemed to be the most pressing, so I peered out the back window toward the aforementioned pile (trying not to focus on the outside thermometer, which peripheral vision determined was shivering around 10° F.). This is what I saw:


Somehow it's nice to know someone is guarding the woodchips.

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.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Woodworking Show, New England - Jan 9-11, 2015

  Come see us at the New England Woodworking Show, to be held at the "Big E" fairgrounds, West Springfield, MA. The annual event draws woodworkers of all kinds from around New England and elsewhere.

I'll be joining other members of the Western Mass Woodturners club in our booth there. We'll be promoting woodturning, and doing some turning for you to see. If you're new to turning, or are curious about it, this is a good opportunity to ask all those questions you've thought about. And you're more than welcome to join the club, no matter what your turning skill level may be. We help each other learn more about the craft, and are happy to help newcomers get started. The club holds monthly meetings, which include a live turning demo to learn from.

This national show is a great chance to see woodworking equipment vendors and demonstrators up close and personal, and to go home with some good buys too. There's plenty to see (and buy!).

The show runs Friday 12-6, Saturday 10-6, and Sunday 10-3. I'll be there Friday and Saturday, but the club booth will be manned all three days.

Hope to see you there.

Update, Jan 12, 2015

The show was a success, and we kept three lathes busy for three days. Here are a few photos taken of our booth and members.

Mark Lisowski turns for onlookers
Paul Lajoie at work on a beech bowl
A very determined Dawn Kessel

Bob Beauchesne makes a bowl
Al Czellecz spinning a bud vase
Scott Duncan and onlookers
Bob Labrecque and a blurred bowl
John Wellman at work

A pen being turned by John Spinks

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Big Search for Big Birch

We've all heard the old idiom, "You can't see the forest for the trees." But sometimes, we can't see the trees for the forest. Have you been for walks in the woods when you're too busy yacking, or so deep in thought about life's pesky burdens, that you take no notice of the individual trees standing sentry along your path?

That's understandable. Even those of us whose purpose in a sylvan safari is to seek out the finest, largest, and oldest stationary dwellers of the forest can sometimes be guilty of same. We might overlook a tree, rather than look it over.

Some twenty-five to thirty years ago, on one of my first jaunts with Bob Leverett and his son Rob (both zealots on the quest to find and document the biggest and best of each tree species east of the Rockies), I recall us descending a forested ridge in the Connecticut River valley and coming upon a fat, handsome tree I didn't immediately recognize. Actually, it might be that I didn't recognize it at all; that, I can't recall for sure. But the image of that tree stamped an impression in my memory that has lasted to this day. What was that tree? It was a black birch, Betula lenta, also commonly known as "sweet birch".
The young and familiar black birch

 I, like most others in the northeast, was accustomed to black birch being a bean pole of a thing, tall perhaps, but typically no more than 6 or 7 inches in diameter, occasionally maybe 10 inches. And instantly recognizable with its smooth, dark bark (any doubt could be removed by scratching the bark off a twig and sampling that wonderful wintergreen aroma).

Bob has spent every available moment of the last thirty-something years, and more, exploring older forests all over eastern North America, painstakingly measuring the tallest and biggest trees he can find. He was never much impressed with the spindly black birches so typically encountered here in New England. But, being especially tuned in to tree heights, he did take note that there are at least two places in Western Mass where they have attained much greater heights than most sources would have us believe. And the fact that the generally reported height statistics quoted for a tree species are inaccurate and understated finally weighed upon his conscience, I guess, and he has set out to correct the birch's record.

Bob, measuring Black Birch
If you consult field guides or internet sources, you'll likely find a range of maximum height specs for black birch of 40 to 80 feet or so. Well, 40 feet is ludicrous for a black birch max height; 80 is much more reasonable, given the current state of our typical second growth forests. But Bob and cohorts have already located many black birches that easily surpass 80 feet, and soar to well over 100 feet.

So this year, we've begun searching out the biggest and best of the Bay state's black birches. Bob is assembling a growth profile on the species. Other tree enthusiasts in the Native Tree Society are on a similar mission in other states. As a result of this hunt, several of us have come to appreciate the beauty of older specimens of this attractive tree. And that's what prompted me to write this.

The Past

Historically, black birch was valued for an extract of its wood known as oil of wintergreen, which was used as a flavoring agent. Enter modern chemistry: we don't need a forest anymore, just a well equipped food additive lab.

Its aromatic sap was fermented into birch beer. Not at the top of the beverage list these days.

Today, there's a bit of a resurgence of interest in tapping these trees to boil sap down to birch syrup, but it takes over 100 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Economics declares that a folly.

Black birch lumber was harvested heavily in days gone by, and many an Appalachian sawmill prospered from it. The wood, when aged or stained, was considered a substitute for mahogany by furniture makers, and led to a couple  of the tree's common names, "mountain mahogany," and "mahogany birch". In those now-nostalgic days, Appalachian cove forests were home ground to gorgeous virgin birches, which were quickly exploited. The big ones are gone.

The Second Growth


Black birch has a habit of rocketing upwards into whatever openings in the canopy there may be above it. Accumulating girth seems to be a secondary goal.
A left turn puts it in the sun up there

 It will bend and zig-zag its way up to flutter its foliage in sunlight, and it apparently can do that very quickly. When it has gained its place in the sun at canopy-top level, it slowly begins to put on girth, but it can be in the neighborhood of 150 years old or more before its diameter will impress anyone, particularly the lumber trade. That fact explains the relative lack of interest there is today in harvesting black birch for lumber... there aren't any left of large enough diameter to bother with! And it explains why, when we encounter black birches in the forest today, they usually don't command our attention. But time will change that, if we can refrain from culling them from our forests. Economically, it's difficult to justify granting trees a 150 or 200 year lifespan. But aesthetically, and ecologically, it's more than worth the wait.

Now that our virgin forests have been cut, the black birch we have today is mostly of small diameter, up to maybe 10 or 12 inches, occasionally a bit more. They may be rather tall however, due to their habit of soaring up to the canopy; that makes them appear spindly, for the most part. On these thinner trunks, the bark will still be youthfully smooth, or in the initial stages of breaking up into plates. This is the image most people today have of black birch.

There are, though, some places where they've had enough time to fatten up a bit, and acquire a more fitting stature. Those are the kinds of places we're searching. The older, larger trees sometimes tend to be in the kind of place that most people won't go: steep slopes and boulder fields, or at least off-trail in the less traveled woods. Black birches appear to be on the increase too, taking the place of some of the American chestnuts that have been wiped out by the blight. And with the loss of many hemlock stands to the woolly adelgid, the birches are gaining more territory there.

The birches have very tiny seeds, which require contact with mineral soil to successfully put down roots. They don't have the stored energy to sink roots down through the forest floor duff to reach soil. They therefore sprout on exposed soil, such as the "pillow" mound created when another tree is wind thrown and uprooted; or on the thin layer of "soil" that may have accumulated on a rock ledge or boulder. Sometimes on a stump.

A birch perch
Where'd the stump go?
When they've put their roots down on a pillow mound, it often happens that the exposed soil mound gets washed away from under the tree with a little time, leaving the growing tree "on tiptoes". Or, if on a stump, the stump rots away.
Yellow birches are famous for this, but it's not unusual to find black birches in the same comical predicament. More commonly, black birches seem to be drawn to boulders (at least in western Mass), often wrapping roots on and around them, seemingly
clutching the rocks tightly in their talons. We've seen so much of that, that I've taken to declaring "every black birch has its rock." If it isn't wrapping around the rock, it's at least standing right next to it. They can often be found growing out of the crevices of boulders.
Black Birch "on the rocks"


 Reading the Bark

A close look reveals that young black birch bark has a pattern of horizontal bumpy ridges, called "lenticels". These are pores that allow the tree to exchange gases with the atmosphere. The inner bark can carry on some photosynthesis, as the leaves do, and takes in carbon dioxide through the lenticels in the process, and gives off oxygen.
Lenticels on young tree

Bark beginning to split
As the young tree grows and adds to its circumference, its smooth bark is stretched and begins to split. The cracks expand with time and growth, breaking the bark into plates that tend to curl away from the tree at their edges. Lenticels can still be seen on the plates at this stage.
Lenticels still visible on curling plates

New bark is being grown under this initial layer, and can be seen between the plates. Many trees have a shaggy look as the plates slowly curl and slough off.

The shaggy look

Eventually, the curled, loose portion of the original plates are shed or eroded away. I suspect that the area of the plate that isn't curled away remains in place for a long time, resulting in a look of smaller, scaly strips. Each year, new bark tissue is added by the cambium layer under the existing bark (as in all trees), thickening the bark, and lenticels are no longer so apparent. With time, the bark takes on the look of the tree shown below ("A very old black birch").


An older black birch


A very old black birch

    On many older black birches, a wonderful greenish-blue color of algae and/or lichen appears on the bark, particularly close to ground level.
The greenish-blue look, and moss

Here and Now


Luckily, we in western Massachusetts have a small treasury of really handsome black birches, in at least several locations. There are plenty of sites with the typical young trees, those dusky black poles we're accustomed to. But then there's the exceptional trees that many probably wouldn't recognize as black birch. Their bark has been stretched by expanding girth to the point where the once-smooth skin is now cracked and broken into strips and plates.  A very few old trees we've found so far have aged beyond that stage, and the bark is more rugged looking, and tighter to the tree once again.

Black birch favors rich, moist soil, and so is generally found in cool Appalachian mountain coves and hills. The older, larger trees we've found in western Massachusetts often have symptoms of those cold, wet conditions, in the form of moss moccasins on their feet, and algae aprons on their hides. Set against the dark bark, the colors are stunning.

These trees, these special ones, are so much more pleasing in appearance than the youngsters. They've acquired that certain, yet uncertain, look. You can't quite describe it adequately, but these old-timers have seen some years, and they speak of that. They've survived the elements, having been shaped and colored by them. They lean, they recurve. They glow with cool hues. They spread their toes in moist leafy earth. They clutch the rocks in a tight grip on their precarious perches.

If you know where older black birches can be found in New England, we'd like to hear about them. Enjoy now some of the best we've been lucky enough to come to know ....

The Green Giant
Arnie Paye, Frank White measure a beauty
Barbara Bosworth, Bill Finn at 9.2 ft circumference birch
In an old growth Berkshires forest
Another old growth forest birch

Bill Finn admiring an old forest denizen on a talus slope

A tall black birch beauty in a cove

A black birch and its rock