I grew up in Connecticut, where large trunk hardwood trees were in abundance. Split vertically the grains visible on their flat surface run as long and with as much grace and purpose as the highways crossing this country. I now call the Bitterroot Valley in Montana, home. I work off the grid, running an entirely solar-powered shop. I work almost exclusively with massive oak and maple, walnut and cherry trees, finding the designs naturally hidden within them, and realizing those designs in a traditional style – using hand tools.
Call off the lumberjacks!
I don’t harvest these big trees from the forest. I focus on finding reclaimed wood from urban areas and turning slabs of hardwood into fine furniture. Trees in cities stand further apart than in forested areas, and are more exposed to damage from storms. This, in part, is the reason there are so many places to obtain large, good hardwood trees that don’t require you to cut them down before hauling them away.
As the availability of wood shrinks, reclaiming lumber becomes a much more viable option. So much so, that in recent years it has become an occupational specialty — providing builders and craftsmen with recycled trees. There are a handful of companies devoted to ensuring that trees in more densely populated areas are used, and not tossed into the refuse pile. One such business is John’s Urban Timber located in Whitmore Lake, Michigan. They just don’t supply lumber to furniture makers like me, their slabs and strips of wood they rescue are sold for flooring and dimensional lumber as well. Check your local classified listings or search the web to locate a wood salvage yard, recycler or reclaimer near you.
Work it…work it again!
For those who don’t have the time or a place to air dry or cure wood for their projects and don’t have a wood mill at their disposal, there are plenty of ways to reclaim lumber. Old barns, shipping crates, skid pallets, salvaged flooring and old fencing to name a few. For large timbers, once again barns are ideal but if you have boatyard within a reasonable drive, they often have boat carcasses that can be salvaged.
In the end, however easy or difficult, the decision to re-purpose is yours, and you’ll have to find the source that suits your needs. I have to admit that while it pays off, it’s not a walk in the park to have slabs that weigh as much as a small car transported halfway across the country, or to then load them onto a flatbed trailer in small loads, or to haul them on a dirt road to where they must rest for years and years until they are ready to be used.
Everyone has their own preferred methods when it comes to finishes, and I’m no exception. Personally, I keep several options on rotation, so that I can take each case as it comes, and put the right finish to each project.
Sunlight and humidity variables are the chief factors in making a decision about which finish to use (in conjunction, of course, with which wood we’re talking about). My preferred choice is non-toxic finish called Land’s Ark, which uses beeswax and linseed oil to treat and protect wood. Its shortcoming is that it is not a super durable finish. In some instances, I opt just for boiled linseed oil, and depending on the density of the wood, I thin it a little so that it can penetrate the grain.
In sunlight, woods like cherry and walnut bleach quickly, though, and so some more UV protection is needed. There are two problems that arise here. The first is that a regular polyurethane finish isn’t nearly as ecologically friendly as I would like it to be. The second is that poly finishes yellow in sunlight, and though some people consider yellowing, cracking finish to add a nice “vintage” quality to their furniture, most would have it otherwise.
For various reasons, I continue to use Old Masters finish. They have gel poly that’s easy to apply, dries nicely, and does fairly well with sunlight. To be quite honest, though, nothing keeps hardwood from getting sun damaged as well as keeping it out of the sun.
Some efforts are worth themselves
I certainly won’t laugh off the time and effort it takes to design and construct, by hand, the gorgeous beds, chairs, tables, desks, and bookcases these massive slabs have the potential to become—but I will say it’s worth it. It’s been a long time since I first realized that the Lincoln logs were my preferred plaything, but the journey has been dotted all along with jewels that, while they may not shine or glitter in the light the way diamonds, rubies, or emeralds do, still display the same splendor and glory.