From Stump to Stand

The city is my forest for many reasons. First, for the variety. People plant whatever grows. Looking out my window I see trees from Europe, Australia, China and the Eastern United States. What is native falls into the minority. Second, it feels right.  As a city grows its trees, the least mobile of its inhabitants, often suffer the most. Why waste such a wonderful resource as woodchips in a landfill? I get many of my most interesting logs within blocks of my home. Crafted into fine furniture the trees live on for centuries to come. In my view the results are well worth the effort, yet this isn’t always the most cost effective of practices.

Milling stumps is a logistical nightmare. First you must dig- a lot. Even a small tree requires a 6’ by 6’ hole to get it out of the ground in one piece. Once at the mill things get even worse. Sand and small rocks devastate blades. Over the course of a trees life its roots grow and encapsulate innumerable pockets of these little surprises. No amount of cleaning is sufficient, you can only hope against hope. Countless times I have sworn never to mill another stump, however the payoff can be spectacular. Stumps often exhibit extraordinary color and figure.  So when presented with the opportunity to harvest a burled walnut stump, I didn’t hesitate to grab my shovel and start digging.

 A full day of digging. (From left to right) The stump as I came to it, after severing the main roots and cutting it into more manageable chunks, the crater left behind, and the pieces loaded up and ready to be taken to the mill. 

A full day of digging. (From left to right) The stump as I came to it, after severing the main roots and cutting it into more manageable chunks, the crater left behind, and the pieces loaded up and ready to be taken to the mill. 

In this particular case I was lucky. The tree was growing in a clay-based soil, not abrasive sand, and I was able to mill the entire stump with only a single blade. By comparison I have milled stumps that required a new blade for every cut.  The slabs were then carefully stacked and left to slowly air dry.  At this point nothing is certain. The wood is saturated with water, and as the water evaporates the wood shrinks and shifts. The more erratic and irregular the grain the more exaggerated the movement in the wood. Again the stump, with its contorted and confused grain, is a recipe for disaster.

 Cutting slabs at the mill and slabs neatly stacked and ready to dry for a year or two. 

Cutting slabs at the mill and slabs neatly stacked and ready to dry for a year or two. 

Up to this point the process is akin to farming. I can know if a log has potential and I can anticipate the complications in processing the lumber. I can do my best to mitigate all these issues; yet in the end only fate will determine if my efforts are rewarded with lumber or firewood. I consider myself lucky that Nature is kind to me more often than not.

As the wood dries its color, which is often muted when freshly milled, slowly begins to emerge though still cloaked beneath a layer of saw marks and grit.  It wasn’t until after the slabs were dry, shaped and sanded that I realized the stump had actually been two trees fused together. Through the process of grafting an English walnut tree had been grown with Black walnut roots. At the point where the two trees meet the color of the wood instantly changes.  There are always surprises. I love it.

 Freshly milled (left) the grain is interesting, yet only two tone. Once fully cured (right) a vast array of colors are revealed. The graft can be seen on the right side of the right image where the color suddenly lightens. 

Freshly milled (left) the grain is interesting, yet only two tone. Once fully cured (right) a vast array of colors are revealed. The graft can be seen on the right side of the right image where the color suddenly lightens. 

This marks only the start of the process. All my efforts up to this point yield only raw material, it is still up to me to craft beautiful objects from the lumber I have just created. This requires an entirely different set of skills and presents many new challenges that can easily thwart success.  Many woodworkers are content to simply go to the lumberyard and relieve themselves of half the burden.  For me however, the magic of woodworking begins with the tree. 

 The finished product displays the beauty of the tree for generations to come. 

The finished product displays the beauty of the tree for generations to come.