Words of the Wise…or maybe not

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Wood Species

Backyard Bowls

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Wells Shoemaker MD

Santa Cruz Woodturners Club, March, 2019

When Sandie and I moved to Aptos in 1975, we looked out our back window to a leaning Coast Live Oak tree with one determined limb that stretched out into the sunshine over a steep slope.  Our two older daughters learned the visceral meaning of Whee! when I strung a swing onto that limb.  They’re still here and still welcoming exultation, thankfully, but the oak tree no longer stands.  However, there’s a modest oak bowl with wild crotch grain from that tree that lives on.  It’s a happy memory. 

Last vestige of the Swing Tree

I’m guessing that most turners, once intrigued by the lathe, spent a bit of money on wood from commercial sources.  Sometimes those were nicely wrapped in plastic, sometimes a little disappointing with defects, but one thing was constant…we had to trade one wood product (paper folding money) for the other.  The allure of exotic woods with legendary hardness, extravagant colors, wild grain, and mysterious names was, shall we say, impossible to resist…for a while.

Unfortunately, we’re also aware that harvesting of these woods in Africa, Asia, and South America has wreaked unspeakable havoc upon fragile environments and endangered species, including tribes of native people. 

Living in a forested county as we do, and living in areas where trees were planted 50 or 100 years ago to enhance domestic tranquility, we have local resources without going broke or clearcutting the jungle.  The winter rains tend to bring them down to our level.

This article sings the praises of wood you can find in your own backyard, at small cost and great satisfaction.

Coast Live Oak defines the open hillsides of our county.  Some trees are old enough to remember when California was part of Northern Mexico before aggressive immigrants from the United States usurped the land in the late 1840’s. 

Twin Coast Live Oaks in the Moore Creek Open Space between UCSC and the Pacific

When live oaks have room to spread, these Ents use mythical engineering genius to send 10 ton forks horizontally.  When these superannuated trees fall, it’s not a trivial matter to harvest a chunk to make a bowl.  They have been cracked, bent, invaded by termites, and attacked by fungi.  They’re always a long slog from the truck, of course.

Smaller, less iconic trees are coming down all the time, often for the energetic firewood trade.  It’s not hard to find rounds which allow you to use a full 16” capacity on your lathe for bowls.  A warning though:  Ingenious, energetic, flying oak borers attack fallen oak within days, and if a tree has been down two weeks, you will have company.  Look for little sawdust piles on the outside of the bark.  Borers appreciate saw cuts, which make their work easier. You really don’t want those insects in your shop…trust me.  If you are getting not-so-fresh oak wood, tear off the bark right away, wrap the wood up in a plastic tarp, set off a fogger (Ace hardware has them) in the “tent.”  Rough turn it promptly within a few days, coat with sealer, and store scrupulously out of sunlight. 

Live oak cracks early and cracks a lot…an intuitive inconsistency for such a legendary hardwood.  Yes, you’ll lose some pieces.  The artistic contrast between mystical, dark heart patterns and lighter sapwood tends to fade as the wood dries and oxidizes.  Still, it’s gorgeous, and it’s local.  The flashy patterns of the radial rays(tyloses) caught tangentially in sunshine can release hearty woody poetry.  Beyond that…it’s bulletproof.

Douglas Fir trees, at least up our canyon, reach full maturity at 150-200 years and 4-6’ diameter, at which time they start looking for some manmade structure or a new car within range, wait for a big wind after a month of rain, and Ka-Bam!   

Vertical grain fir never got the respect it deserves when it was plentiful and used for studs, joists, and rafters.  Contractors still dump clear, foot long 4×12 beam cutoffs in the throwaway pile. Turns out that Douglas fir makes enchanting grain patterns in a bowl that, had they come from some gasping rain forest, would be regarded as, yep, exotic.  If one goes down, get a couple rounds!  It tends to become available in March. 

Douglas fir, 15” diameter bowl, Ghost Symmetry

Redwood.  Not so vulnerable to premature decrepitude as the firs, redwood nevertheless suffered the same “Rodney Dangerfield” don’t get no respect regard for its beauty during the 100 years when it was plentiful.  Redwood trees do come down, sometimes as an Act of Fate, but more commonly on purpose.  It’s staggering how tree services, county road crews, and busy contractors just buck it up to get it out of the way.  Yes, it’s soft, but it’s beautiful, and the tight grain, purply original growth wood is a wonder of the natural world.  Throw in burl figure, and it’s a national treasure.  A redwood bowl will get a few dings over the years, just like the woodturner who made it, but it’s a perfect way to show respect for your neighborhood.

Virgin Redwood about 2000 years old in Northern California

Redwood…beautiful every way you see it

Big Leaf Maple grows fast, with a penchant for the moist soil and filtered sunlight of riparian corridors.  Inside the bark, that tree can do some remarkable things in a short time.  They come down every now and then, and other species of maples sometimes surrender to suburban progress such as granny units, RV garages, and sidewalks.

Black walnut needs no introduction to fine woodworkers, and it’s certainly a favorite of turners.  Commercial walnuts are grown on English walnut wood grafted to a disease-resistant, native black walnut rootstock…usually a few feet above the ground.  That’s a resource if you have an orchard connection.  However, a fair number of ungrafted black walnuts live near homes where they were planted for their shade and regal stature.  They don’t often make it much longer than 100 years, which is enough time in our climate to reach 3 or 4 feet in diameter.  They start dropping limbs…a bad habit.  The organic growth retardant (juglone) from the roots and leaves makes it difficult to grow lemons and daffodils under the canopy.  If you can make friends with a tree service, you may be able to score some of the glory before it disappears.  Homeowners usually want the stump ground up to mulch in order to plant those frustrated flowers and veggies, but the first several feet above the ground can be the most spectacular of the whole tree.  See if you can get the tree guy to save the bottom 2-3 feet, and offer to help pay for the stump grinding of what’s left.  You’ll never be sorry.

English walnut, light tan and soft, lacks the toughness and the renowned color of black walnut.  It doesn’t reach large diameters, but the grain can be intriguing, especially those burly birdseyes!  Orchards in transition probably toss it on the burn pile.  Keep your eyes peeled, and check out what your neighbor is doing when a tree service parks in the driveway.   Process it promptly, as termites think this wood is candy.

Madrone is plentiful in Santa Cruz County…one of the creamiest of all woods to turn, with a wee caveat.  Madrone shrinks, warps, and cracks like nobody’s business.  The trees grow crooked, so when that tension is released with a saw…it moves like a prisoner unchained.  You need to cut your blanks the day the tree comes down, rough turn within days, coat the entire object with sealer, and store it in a cool, dark place.  It’s worth the effort!  If it does warp, it either becomes a Salvador Dali platter on LSD…or firewood.  In fact, you can find neat spindles in any load of madrone firewood!

Snakelike Madrone seeks sunshine at the edge of the dark, coastal forest.

Snakelike Madrone seeks sunshine at the edge of the dark, coastal forest.

Bay Laurel…also known as California Myrtle South of the Oregon border and Oregon Myrtle on the other side…likes the shady recesses of our county.  If you have a chance to score a small diameter branch, but better still a 2 foot section of the trunk, you are going to have a wonderful experience.   Bay turns easily without chatter, and it sands smooth as silk.  The blends of gold, gray-green, brown, plus lavish grain are different for every piece.  Wear your mask, though!  The wood is pungent, and for some people, the less commonly used name, “pepperwood,” is worth remembering.

Manzanita…especially the root burl…will batter the edges of your chisels, but what a joy to behold what’s inside!   It’s part of the chaparral…everywhere on south and west facing hillsides.  If you spy any grading along a rural roadside, go look to see if a mature manzanita has been rooted up and dumped to a discard pile.  Rescue it

Eucalyptus is part of a genus with well over a hundred, dramatically variable species.  Some of the ones in Australia yield  hard, dark, exquisite, furniture grade lumber.  Ten years ago, I left a drool trail in Western Australia between woodworking shops.

The Blue Gum, as the Aussies call it, is most prevalent variety in California.  It was imported in the latter 1800’s in hopes that it would make fast-growing railroad ties.  Sorry.  It rots too fast.  Well, maybe it could be milled as lumber.  No.  It warps and twists diabolically and can’t be used for construction.  Well, maybe paper pulp.  Nope, too gummy…read the label!  So, aside from creating widow-maker limbs that crash onto young lovers on calm Spring days, Blue Gum is really mostly good for firewood. 

Among the hundred or more species, however, others were imported for beautification, and some of those have hidden charms.  There’s a red one with a seductive, quilted grain which Steve Jackel, founder of Jackel Lumber and urban forestry, suggested was the robusta species.  I’ve found some dazzling samples in loads of eucalyptus firewood.

Once again, the secret is creating relationships with tree guys…firewood vendors…and neighbors.  If a tree is down…or coming down…you might get a first look at it before the chipper and the forklift sweep it all away in a swirl of diesel fumes.

Technically an invasive species, this Eucalyptus grove in Wilder State Park was executed by lethal injection. Who knows what lumber might lurk underneath that peeling bark?

Black acacia is another Australian import with truly fantastic potential for woodturners.  It’s not renowned, an injustice perhaps, but helpful in a selfish way.  There’s a lot of it growing on our side of the Santa Cruz Mountain ridgeline.  Because it grows fast, some 30-50 year old trees have disrupted driveways, shaded hot tubs, and intruded upon sewer lines…so they get taken down.  That’s an opportunity, Friends!  

For turners, black acacia is a dreamy wood.  When wet, it roughs out fast, and, as long as the center pith has been deleted, it stays quite stable.  Peel off the bark to reduce bug depredations, store where temperatures and moisture are steady, and it dries without vexing tendencies warp or split.  The familiar loci of intrigue (crotches, angles, and tension points) can yield gaudy figure.  The contrast between chocolate brown heartwood and creamy sapwood persists even with drying, oxidation, and time.  It has no odor and no toxicity…and little, if any, cost.  It’s a brindle and cream joy ride. Hop on!

future fun

Common acacia—the gaudy yellow flowering ones in February, with their bushels of pollen on your windshield, are plentiful in rounds with 8-12” diameter.  It dries fast and displays a pleasant, yellowish-tan color.  Any lot that’s been vacant for a decade will have acacia somewhere waiting for the site prep crew.  It’s perhaps not the most exciting turning wood, but do grab some and practice, or else it all goes into the chipper.

Tan Oak—under siege from Sudden Oak Death, the contemporary scourge that followed the previous century’s predation for its tannin-rich bark—is a rather soft hardwood, a beech relative, not a true oak.  However, it has radial rays that make great shimmery patterns just like oak, and it drops acorns that could take down a Philistine!   It has an intriguing propensity to form magical spalted patterns after it’s been down a while.  There should be plenty of it around for any turner willing to develop a relationship with the park rangers, PGE’s tree maintenance folks, or homeowners clearing a 100 foot radius around their woodsy homes.   It looks like ash and oak when treated with courtesy.   It’s just too good looking to relegate to firewood.Tan oak with character in the back reaches of Nisene Marks, probably 130 years old.

Tan oak with character in the back reaches of Nisene Marks, probably 130 years old. I fear tan oak will have gone the way of elms and chestnuts within 50 years.

Monterey Cypress is a tree which we take for granted despite its photographic notoriety.  It grows huge—4-6’ diameter—but the canopy catches wind like a kite when it blows from the South.  Some cypress trees go down almost every winter.  Clearing personnel are not often enchanted by the artistic potential of the fallen wood.  Additionally, cypress often grows in fencelines in agricultural locales where hidden staples, nails, and barbed wire plague the sawyer’s prized first 6-8’ of vertical trunk.  Cross cut slabs make tables with enchanting, lobulated contours.  Urban foresters like Jackel Lumber have cut 3-5’ wide, 8-10 foot tall live edge slabs that pop your eyes…and sell for 4 figures.  Try to get involved in the early discussions!

If you stay tuned to the underground chainsaw telegraph by developing the right connections, it’s possible to find cypress logs which allow a turner to make an 18-24” diameter bowl.  Expand a shopping center parking lot?  Widen a boulevard, or put in a right turn lane?  Somebody with a yellow tractor is going whack a cypress that’s older than the state of California.  Who ya gonna call?  Make sure they know your number.

Cypress has an enchanting…I’ll say outright seductive…aroma when opened.  It cuts cleanly with a bowl gouge, making you feel better than you really are.  (Hey, that’s not so bad!)  A skilled turner can take cypress down to a centimeter thickness for a large bowl, and it stays resolutely solid.  It’s harder and more durable than you would expect…not to be confused with Monterey Pine, which is, charitably said, worthless.

If you work with cypress, save any scraps and take them to your truck camping trip.  It is the most aromatic, long burning campfire wood of them all!   Make somebody smile!

Beach Wood.  Tan oak may be a beech wood variety, but our sandy ocean beaches know wood, too.  Winter storms and relentless rushing water litter the beaches of Monterey Bay and the North Coast with timber.  Depending upon jurisdiction, authorities often welcome careful people with chainsaws to clear away some of the logs.  (Ask.)

Alder, a prevalent Santa Cruz Countyriparian tree, shows up on the beach reliably, having been uprooted from its streamside berths.  It often floats up in short segments that you can roll over the sand.  Get help, Tom Sawyer.

Alder is a deciduous hardwood, but its rapid growth makes the lumber fairly soft and lightweight once dry. However, if you find a 12-18” diameter round, one of those makes a splendid pair of salad bowls.  The color verges upon orangey red when wet, drying to a warm gold.  It will demand quite a dose of penetrating oil to seal pores with the first finish, and it may “fuzz up” after a while.  Dedicate a couple cycles of wet-and-dry, 220 grit sandpaper slurried with finishing oil, apply some elbow grease, and they should last as long as the turner. 

Lignosaurus mosslandicans

Redwood root balls, ancient slabs, and occasionally priceless burls wash up on the shore…which transforms a casual beach hike into a fervent treasure quest!

If you don’t rescue them, somebody is going to toss those heirlooms onto a bonfire.  

Who knows what you’ll find!   Just be philosophical about the sand and your chainsaw blade.   File, Baby, File.

Celebrate Diversity!  Make Friends!   There are so many other possibilities—Magnolia and other ornamental flowering trees in the flats, Chinquapin up in the hills, hedge trees like Privet, invasive trees like Holly, fruit trees of all varieties, imported decorative trees that outgrew their welcome…almost any wood is worth a turn.

After a storm, some tree somewhere will have surrendered its grip upon the Earth, and somewhere else, somebody is going to reopen a road.   It’s convenient if the fallen comrade really lies in your back yard, but remember that a neighbor may feel sad about losing a tree in her backyard.  You can brighten somebody’s day by delivering a lovingly crafted bowl as a memento, and meanwhile courteously clearing away the rest. 

Municipal workers may not have luxury of time or the crafty inclination to become wood rats like we are.  This toppled redwood could have made elegant 2×12” planks 16 feet long…banquet tables or spirit lodges…a destiny betrayed.  However, the bucked rounds are begging to become backyard bowls.  Answer the call!

Chain Saws and Gravity. Santa Cruz woodturners are, inevitably, chainsawyers, too.  Keep your chains razor sharp and tight.  Wear those funky Kevlar chaps, protect your eyes, and muffle your ears.  Lace up your high top, steel toe boots, and don’t trust worn out gloves.

Neighborhood riff raff in full Stihl regalia

Wet wood seems heavier to me than it did 40 years ago.  150 pounds is a lot to elevate. 200 pounds is absurd.  If you don’t have hydraulics, see if you can introduce a strapping lad to the intrigue of team wood lifting.  Then teach him…or her…how to turn.

Enjoy your work!

Wells Shoemaker MD

March, 2019