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 Sustainable Woodworking

Wood is a fantastic, beautiful, versatile and renewable construction material, but the rapid deforestation of our planet is contributing to increasingly erratic weather behavior that many, including myself, attribute to the greenhouse effect. I am not going to go into various aspects of the greenhouse effect, rainforest protection, Green Party politics or other global issues. You can find information about that all over the place.

The rainforest alliance has a sustainable harvesting certification program called SmartWood. If you are not a woodworker, but want to buy products that are made from sustainably harvested materials or using processes that are ecologically sound, look here for a listing of manufacturers and information about what too look for in a "green" product. I am working on my SmartWood certification for "rediscovered wood" which is defined as wood recycled from demolished buildings and lumber from residential trees.

What I will focus on is methods of using and obtaining wood that minimize your environmental impact on a local and regional scale. This is by no means a comprehensive essay, just an overview of some methods I have found that work. I don't save a lot of money, after you factor in the time and tools that it takes to mill, stack, dry and process the lumber, but it is less expensive than buying hardwood from a dealer. On the other hand, where else can you get 12 foot long quartersawn redwood or oak 2" thick and 12" wide? Not likely. Of course, to get gems like this, you need a network of friends to keep their eyes open, be aware of weather events that might make trees fall down, and do some driving and knocking on doors, but you'd be surprised how much usable wood is just thrown in the dump or goes up the chimney.


I was inspired to begin woodworking with whole tree trunks when I read "The Soul of a Tree" by George Nakashima. His approach to woodworking is to begin with the tree, use primarily full-width slabs of the trunk and major branches, and obtain inspiration from the color, grain and texture of the wood to determine what the final piece will be like. Of course this ideal must be tempered with the reality of having to actually sell furniture and make things that are useful, but that has largely been my approach to woodworking, and especially in making art bowls. Two weeks after reading this book, I bought a chainsaw and started collecting tree trunks.

Another fine book by Eric Sloane is "A Reverence for Wood". This little gem discusses the history of woodworking in America, tool design, trees, how to identify the age of a board by the nails, type of saw marks on the surface and overall construction of a barn or house.


Finding Wood

Living in Los Angeles (or any large city for that matter) can be taxing, especially for someone who grew up in natural wetlands in Michigan. Although the summers are long and the winters mild, the dearth of trees in the urban landscape is sometimes shocking and often depressing. Despite this, many people have trees in their yards that have to be removed for a variety of reasons. It may have died of drought or insects or fungus, it may be in the way of a house addition, or it may simply be planted in the wrong place and has become a bigger nuisance than a benefit. Regardless of the reason, most homeowners can't be discouraged from removing a tree they want to kill. That is not to imply that I don't try. If the tree isn't obviously destroying the house or dead already, I always feel out the owners to see if I can convince them to let it be. Failing this, I usually recommend replacement trees that may suit their situation better.

Often the tree will already be cut down and the trunk or pieces of it will simply be placed on the curb for anyone to take. It's preferable to get to it before the tree service does, because they will just cut it up into firewood sized pieces and often haul it away to burn or sell as firewood.

One thing that homowners often need to be educated about almost every time is that in the city their trees have zero dollar value. It's a shame, because it actually reduces the incentive people may have to recycle their trees, but the fact is if I had to pay for the trees I collect, I couldn't make boards for less than it costs to buy them. On the other hand, it is possible to run a profitable business doing urban tree milling, but I haven't found anyone in LA that has been able to manage it. The tree cutting business is just too competitive and there aren't enough useful trees. Most of the businesses that do this are in more rural areas, but I think a wood exchange cooperative is a viable and valuable enterprise for a big city. Small Sawmill and Woodlot Management Magazine has a great deal of information on this subject.

Once you find the tree, you need to cut it up and take it home. Usually it will be too heavy to move without cutting it up first.

Milling Logs

If you are only turning your wood, it makes life easier at this stage, because you can probably cut it up with a chainsaw into smaller pieces, but if you want boards, you will probably want to get a portable bandsaw mill. Ripping logs with a chainsaw can be done by hand or with an Alaskan mill, but it will waste a LOT of wood. There are several portable sawmills on the market: Wood Mizer | Logosol | Enercraft | Timberpro | Baker | and several others not on the internet (yet).

The ones I am most familiar with are the wood mizer and the Rip Saw. I have a Rip Saw, which is a small hand held job with a chainsaw engine. It will only cut boards up to 13" wide, and requires some practice, strength and a very sharp blade. I have had people that own Wood Mizers cut up larger logs for me, and they are fantastic. Try the Sawmill Exchange if you are looking for a used portable sawmill. They publish a comprehensive book on the subject with lists of manufacturers and buying tips.

Drying the Lumber

So you get the wood home and then what? Well, stack it with 3/4 to 1" spacers between the boards, paint the ends with sealer, glue, paint or the like so that it doesn't dry too quickly and check. If you air dry the lumber, it will take 1 year per inch of thickness, and then it will only be as dry as the outside air, say 15% moisture content. Most wood stabilizes to about 5-9% in a house. I use a solar kiln that I designed using elements of several other plans I found in various resources. You can find plans for solar kilns in a number of places:

Fine Woodworking

US Forest Service Publication numbers FPU-7, FPL-GTR-117 and FPL-GTR-118 are all very helpful for drying wood.

Information Services

US Forest Laboratory

1 Gifford Pinchot Drive

Madison, WI 53705-2389

Mother Earth News (Sept/Oct and Nov/Dec 1984)


Wood Mizer's SolarDry Kit


Planting Trees

Despite the fact that you are now no longer buying hardwoods, it is a good idea to plant trees to replace what you use, and mitigate the carbon dioxide you produce driving a car, etc. Plant in your yard, organize plantings along your streets in your city. Find (or start) a local non-profit group like TreePeople to plant trees with.

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