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A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert A. Heinlein


Good Boy Benito

The title comes from a Swedish death metal band called Comecon.  You listen to some weird stuff (only infrequently by choice) when you live in a barracks, okay?

Anyway, so you have your dead ash tree cut down, and you managed not to drop it on yourself…or the car…or the power lines…etcetera.  But when this landscape feature hits the ground and literally shakes the ground beneath your feet, it’s something of a revelation: this thing is big.  A doubting glance over your shoulder at the pickup as you hear the woeful reflection: we’re gonna need a bigger boat.  But you start in and before too long the trunk is in manageable sections.  Timber for the woodshop and fuel for the hearth.  But what about the slash?

Slash is the logging term for all those sticks that inconveniently come attached to your timber.  What do you do with it?  In some places they just lop off the butt log (the bottom-most, biggest section of trunk) and leave the rest.  It’ll rot down, eventually.  And in the interim it provides wildlife habitat.  Well, that’s true but here in central Ohio, and especially for me since I work in people’s backyards or along the edges of fields, leaving the splintered tops of trees lying hither and yon isn’t really an option.  It’s also NOT a good idea for forest management.  All those little sticks lying around provides a tinder nest for a forest fire to start.  Periodic, small-scale fires historically cleansed the forest of all this detritus.  In fact, some trees require there to be flame to spread their seeds.  But if a few yahoos with chainsaws come through and pile all this dead wood around the forest floor, it provides the fuel for a much larger conflagration.  Foresters even refer to this buildup as “fuel load”.  It’s one of the reasons that forest fires out west are so bad: they’ve got forty or fifty years worth of dry fuel piled up on the forest floor.  So when a fire starts, it’s much worse.  So that slash has to go somewhere.

For many years, and for some today, a burn pile was the go-to option.  Just take all the slash from a cut, put in piles and burn a little bit at a time.  It will all end up as ash, and problem solved.  Well, that sort of works, but it also has problems.  First, until you get out twenty miles or so from town, open burning is actively discouraged.  Like, illegal.  Second, it’s not as if burning isn’t work.  Somebody has to keep tending the fire and keeping watch because of reason the Third: there’s very real possibility of catching things on fire by accident!  Sparks travel on the wind, roots of nearby trees smoulder and ignite, any number of vectors for disaster exist.  And fourth, many times bonfires will burn so hot that they sterilise the underlying soil.  Not a very “green” option.

But I have a way to take care of all that slash: Say hello to my little friend!


The BCS 853 with the chipper attachment solves these problems.  You may call it il Duce.  These piles you see is the complete top of a 60 foot tall ash tree, after cutting out and removing all the branches that would cut up into firewood.  It’s also the pruning from five other trees (3 hackberries, 1 red oak, 1 boxelder) that filled up a fourteen-foot trailer to overflowing and then some.


This is that same pile of branches.  Elapsed time?  An hour and a half.  And all on three-quarters of a gallon of diesel.  Now this mulch can be put to a variety of uses.  I use it as bedding for my wife’s chickens, which eventually turns into compost for my garden.  One of my sisters-in-law sponges shamelessly off my labour uses it for paths in her strawberry beds.  If I’m in the woods, and can’t get the truck over to the brushpile, I’ll just spray it out over the forest floor.  All that biomass goes right back in the forest, and fire risk becomes effectively nil.  It also makes the woods less muddy come spring.

The BCS tractor, made in Italy, is a really wonderful tool for working in the woods.  Thankfully my dad lets me use it because it’s pretty well invaluable.  It’s sort of like a motorised ginsu knife.  It chips (see above), grinds stumps, splits logs, cuts and bales hay, mows (the flail mower on brambles is a treat), tills, snowplows, pressure washes, and even functions as a backup generator.  They might have come up with more stuff since I looked: you can find out here.  Not only that, but it’s agile enough to get over little trails that a pickup with a towed chipper couldn’t negotiate.  I might not say every horse trail would work, but if an ATV will go over it, so will this.  This makes it easy to get it up into the woods right up to where you’re felling trees.

So if you are tired of burning brushpiles, give this a try.  I think you’ll find that it’s definitely a better way.



Chestnut, Elm, Ash…

All of these trees have had it rough, here in the US.  Chestnuts are down to a handful of individuals.  I don’t remember the last time I saw an elm tree.  On the other hand ash trees, at least around here in central Ohio, are easy to pick out: they’re the dead ones.  All of these species have been the victims of one thing:


Now, I know it sounds like I’m about to run off on some tinfoil beanie rant about how the UN wants to force everyone to wear the Mark of the Beast, and line up to receive their Soylent Green ration before trudging off to the local collective farm.  But that’s not it!  At least, not at the moment.  Anyway, the point is that none of these native trees would have suffered the fate that it did except for globalisation.  All of them suffered attacks that came from literally oceans away, to wit: East Asia.  Chestnut Blight, Dutch Elm Disease [described by a Hollander, not from there], and the Emerald Ash Borer all come from East Asia.

Now there are other trees suffering similar fates like dogwoods and white pines.  But those mentioned are the big three around here.  All were thought to be infected by accident.  Packing crates are the usual suspect.  There are “analog species”, e.g. the Chinese Chestnut, in East Asia for all of these afflictions, but they have immunities not present in American species.  So when these beetles and fungi got to America, it was like opening a buffet, to the detriment of our native species.

How this ties in with me here in central Ohio is with ash trees.  The Emerald Ash Borer is present here, and you can certainly tell.  Trees just about reach sexual maturity, and are struck down (about 10-20, usually).  Remember a picture like this from science class?


The part of the tree that’s still living is the cambium.  All that wood is previous layers of cambium that have been laid down over the years.  But that cambium is incredibly thin.  The borers eat only the cambium, leaving trails full of frass (bug poop) behind.


Eventually, all those little trails munched through the living part of the tree meet up around the trunk.  This girdles the tree, severing the connection between the roots and leaves, and the tree dies.

So all these dead trees have to go somewhere.  Blowdowns occur, but they’re wasteful.  I heat with wood, and all those dead ash trees keep me warm in the winter.  But at the moment, they’re keeping me excessively warm.


That’s three ash trees back there.  I HATE doing timbering in the summer.  It’s hot and muggy and the bugs make life miserable.  But where these had to come from was across a field that is pretty swampy most of the time.  After a recent dry spell, I was able to get the truck over to them without getting stuck, so carpe diem and all, before the winter winds knocked them over in an inconvenient manner.  I’ll use most of this for fuel, but I should be able to get some nice timber out of it for use in the woodshop.

And what about the slash?  Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion!

If it’s stupid, but it works…

…then it’s not stupid.  It’s innovative!  Sort of like how a weird person with money is merely eccentric.  Guess I’m doomed to be weird.

Anyway, it’s been pouting buckets lately.  Since my garage is all woodshop, and little room for that, I have a wheelbarrow and a mower that usually sit outside, cable-locked.  Good as I get at the moment.  But I didn’t want water ponding in the wheelbarrow, or getting in the motor of my mower.  Soooo…..


This is not an attempt to make a hybrid!  What would that be, anyway?  A lawn-barrow?  But it works pretty darn well.  So if you find yourself bereft of sheltered storage space for your equipment, this might work!


Too laboured a pun?  Sorry.

Anyway, once the blade has the bevels done, it’s a relatively straightforward matter to pencil in some flats, cut them off, and then round over with a fine rasp.


Once the rounding is done and the shape is what you want, start sanding at 80 grit and progress through 400, again whiskering between grits.  The difference from last time is that at any given grit, we’re starting with the flat parts and then sanding the curved areas.  This will help to blend everything together into an organic form.  In cross-section, it would be a flattened ovoid, rather than rectangular with round corners.  It’s a minor difference, but one that is noticeable in the hand.

Dust with a mineral spirits dampened rag, and goop on the finish.  All done, and you now have a functional tool that is also quite fetching.


A small spatula

As we left yesterday, the stillborn cutting board was marked up with the spatula pattern, and ready to saw out the basic shapes.  Though there is room for four spatulas in the cutting board’s area, they are only 3/8″ thick.  Since we used 4/4 (3/4″) stock, that gives us a total of eight small spatulas when we go over to the bandsaw.


Once we take out the bandsaw marks, we need to bevel off the blade.  We’re trying to go from 3/8″ down to about 1/8″.  I usually use my #4 plane for this; easy on one side because it’s with the grain.  On the other, I still use a plane usually, but stop a little short of where I want and finish the rest with a coarse rasp to tame the tearout.


When the primary bevel is done, then we can put in a secondary bevel that will go right to the edge with a fine rasp. Just as a secondary bevel on a English style mortice chisel provides a sturdy (but precise) working edge, this secondary bevel keeps the spatula from being coarse during use, but not so fine as to chip off.  It may seem a minor detail, but it has proven to be an important one.IMG_20160816_105823_491[1]




I can hear the gears stripping from here.  The general mutterings are something along the lines of “First he’s talking about woodworking and now he’s talking about Sun Tzu?  How do those two things go together?”

Well, the principle meshes nicely.  First of all, we have the “enemy”.  In this case, we can equate this with the wood we’re working with.  Do we know the characteristics of the species we’re dealing with?  For instance, pine and other softwoods compress somewhat under stress.  This means that when we dovetail in pine, we can make an extremely tight fit, knowing that the wood will compress when it is brought together.  Try that with something like oak or especially some of the tropical hardwoods, and the dovetails will splinter apart under the stress.  Some species, such as oak or ash, split readily and can be riven closely to size (almost exclusively so until better metallurgy allowed for pitsaws and sawmills).  On the other hand, elm and eastern cottonwood don’t want to split for love or money.  But that very feature makes them invaluable for, respectively, wheel hubs and oxen yokes.

The other side of the Sun Tzu’s equation is you.  Like Alan Ladd said in Shane, a person’s got to know their limitations.  Now, what I’m not saying is to give up in frustration before starting.  Instead, design for failure.  Setbacks and mistakes happen.  But allow for them to happen, so that you can learn from them.  A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

If you know that a particular point is going to hang you up, don’t shy away from it.  Instead, do it first.  Whether it’s making sure that your dovetails go together well, or using a skew chisel to turn beads, start with the point that you are most likely to mess up, as soon as possible (of course lumber has to be dimensioned and a turning blank has to be turned from a square to cylindrical cross-section, but don’t belabour the point).  In this way, if you make a mistake, you don’t lose umpteen hours of work, only the little bit that went wrong.  Start with an undifferentiated box instead of drawer.  If you have to cut a quarter-inch off the box to redo a series of dovetails, it’s not likely to be a big deal.  A quarter inch missing from the side of a drawer is another matter.  Allow room for experimentation and mistakes.  I’m constantly experimenting, in both breadth and depth, trying to better understand the craft.  It doesn’t mean I’m always successful.  But I make allowances for it, and my workload isn’t affected.

So that’s how the Art of War is also woodworking.  Knowing what the wood is likely to do, and knowing what you are able to do, will let uncertainty become habit and chaos become merely an inconvenience.

Where this ties in with what we’re doing here is where last week I mentioned that for any order that I had to fill, I always made cutting boards first.  The reason came up in the last batch I made.  When I cut out the blanks, one of them turned out to have a big dead knot in the handle.  Once it was cut back far enough to remove it, the handle was spindly and off-center.


But because I allowed for chaos to occur, it wasn’t that big of a problem.  Instead of a cutting board, the same lumber will yield eight small spatulas, our next project.


In this way, waste is minimised, and what may have seemed like a tragedy was simply an obstacle to flow around.  Wood is not a uniform, lifeless substance.  It is laid down fiber by fiber by a living thing: responding to light, to rain, to pain, to cold and heat.  Therefore it behooves us to be flexible enough to adapt to its vagaries.