Friday, June 21, 2013

The Tulip Tree

Tuliptree flower
Tulips are flowers, right? Yup. For us woodturners though, when someone says "tulip", we think "big tree". The mighty Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) has the reputation of being the tallest growing hardwood in the eastern North American forest. It's also known as the Tuliptree, or Yellow Poplar, but it's not really a poplar; it belongs to the Magnolia family. 
Tuliptree Leaf (underside)

Here in southern New England, Tuliptrees flower in June. They produce fairly large tulip-like flowers that are quite pretty, but most people are probably completely unaware of them, since they tend to appear on lofty branches and go unnoticed by the masses. Even the outline of the large leaves suggests a tulip.    

While these trees are not rare in this area, they're not exactly plentiful either, and it's not often that we wood hoarders, er, turners, get an opportunity to acquire sizable chunks of tulip wood. So when I recently saw a bucket truck crew lopping the very top limbs off a huge one on a busy road, I knew it was time to call Bob to tell him there would soon be (literally) tons of large-diameter tulip on the ground. We were both already familiar with this big tree, since it was located 5 minutes from Bob's home, and we've admired its stature before. 

Sadly and surprisingly though, someone somewhere had decided this monster was a threat to something somehow, and it had to be unceremoniously brought down. And down it came. 

Read on ....

Bob made a phone call to a town official, and was given permission to take as much of the wood as he wanted; the rest would go to the town dump. So much for a beautiful, huge specimen of a tree that measured 4 feet in diameter at its base. I don't know how tall it was, but it was impressive as a street tree.

Bob in a sea of Tulip wood
When I arrived with chain saw in hand later that morning, Bob was already at work in a sea of tulip logs. We scanned the broken bones of the once-grand tree for the choicest log sections; there was more wood on the ground than a dozen woodturners could use. We soon set our sights on a 42-inch diameter, 8-foot log, and began extracting bowl blanks-to-be.

A day that had begun as a moderately nice, overcast, fairly cool kind of day soon became an outdoor oven. We were both transpiring water to the atmosphere, and losing enthusiasm for hard labor quicker than a Georgia convict.
Bob preparing bowl blanks
Tuliptree, 4-foot diameter at ground level

So we sectioned a few of the large chunks for bowls and called it quits. 
A hint of purple in the heartwood

I had hoped the heartwood of this tree would yield some "rainbow" poplar pieces, which is multi-colored with hues of purple, green, brown, yellow, and black. But that wasn't to be. A few pieces had tantalizing hints of purple stain, but nothing substantial. For the most part, the bowl blanks we extracted from the scene will have creamy white sapwood and greenish-brown heartwood. 

A 35-inch bowl blank?

With several hundred pounds of wood loaded up, we headed home, both wondering whether or not we should have taken more wood while it was available. That's how we woodturners think. We know we already have more wood at home than we could ever transform into "objets d'art" , but hey, this stuff doesn't grow on trees.

But the work wasn't over. Quite the opposite. The waterlogged cargo had to be unloaded at home. Then each chunk had to be cut to more manageable sizes, and rough-shaped into blanks for bowls, vases, or whatever else we might want to transform them into. 
Purple stain on rough-turned bowl set

In our respective shops, Bob and I spun up some blanks on the lathe. I'm sure he's working on either bowls or platters, or both. I roughed out a set of 5 nested bowls from one 19" diameter hunk, and set them aside to dry out; when they're dried, they'll be finish-turned on the lathe. I also made a hollow vessel of another piece, again setting it aside to dry.

Five days later, I checked on the bowls I had roughed out; they were in a large paper bag, in my dehumidified basement. I was surprised to find purple stains on the rim of each bowl (see photo). It was what I had hoped would be in the heartwood of the tree, but I suspect this is just on the surface, probably a result of some fungal activity. It wasn't apparent when I bagged the bowls, so that's most likely what's causing it. But it was a pleasant surprise nonetheless.

 All these pieces will be somewhat darker when they've been sanded and have a finish applied, and the heartwood will stand out from the sapwood; at this point, the pieces look quite blah. When eventually completed, they'll be available at Bowlwood.

Rough-turned hollow vessel

July 16, 2013 update:

The first piece of this Tuliptree lot is completed... the hollow vessel seen above. It looks a lot different with a finish on it, doesn't it? The grain is enhanced and the colors deepened. A collar of Purpleheart has been added to the top, and the base narrowed to its final configuration. The wood was a joy to turn, and I'm very pleased with the results. More pieces are in the works! 

Completed Tuliptree Hollow Vessel
The vessel is available at Bowlwood





August, 2013 Update:

 More vessels and some bowls have been completed. See them at Bowlwood.

18" Salad Bowl
Rainbow Salad Bowl, 13 x 10

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