Wooden Boat Construction

Harvesting Wood for Boatbuilding


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I have been an outdoorsman as long as I have been a woodworker, which is to say as long as I can remember. Having spent countless hours hiking our country’s wild places, I became steadily more aware of the damage that irresponsible logging causes to our environment. I am the first to admit that forestry can be practiced responsibly and with little long-term impact to the environment. Unfortunately this is rarely the case, and all too often the manner in which timber is gathered borders closer to rape than stewardship. I know trees are a renewable resource; but in all reality a thousand year old cedar is not. Yet I knew I was supporting these destructive practices when I went to the lumberyard to buy stock for my work. This dilemma came to a crux when I began building boats. Yes, that old-growth fir was wonderful stuff to plank with, but the cost was too high, both monetarily and morally.

Fortunately a solution presented itself at about the same time. While apprenticing at the Arques School of Traditional Boatbuilding in Sausalito, CA, Bob Darr taught me to use a chainsaw mill to harvest my own timber. Using this simple equipment I could assure myself that the wood I used had been cut responsibly and with respect to the resource. I quickly bought my own saw and took things a step further by establishing a policy of cutting only windfall and standing dead trees. Since then I have cut Black Locust, Black Acacia, Maple, Elm, Cherry, Apple, Eucalyptus, Pepperwood, Ash, Walnut, White Oak and Cedar. I found that I can more than meet my material needs as a woodworker utilizing this portion of the forest, obtaining an exceptional quality and variety of stock in the process.

Once I learned the basics of using a chainsaw mill to harvest timber I kept my eyes open everywhere I went. Good trees were going to waste all around me, I just had to find them. A fellow student at the Arques School, Seamus Walsh, also expressed interest in cutting his own wood. We quickly teamed up and spent several weekends driving north of Sausalito into the ranch country around the Russian River. We were looking for windfall from the El Niño storms that winter. In general, windfall is more likely to produce good wood than standing dead. Usually a tree that is standing dead had a long slow death, which is almost synonymous with insect and/or fungal attack, whereas a tree knocked down in a storm is likely to have significant healthy wood even if hollow at the base. This is not to say an old dead log won’t be useful. I have cut black locust that had been lying on the ground for years and gotten great stock, but a rot-prone species would never have remained usable.

As one of us navigated the twisting canyon roads, the other looked for likely prospects. We didn’t want just any tree, we were looking for particular species (Pepperwood, White Oak or Douglas Fir). Even within that focus, we sought certain types of growth and shape We had been taught to observe a tree’s growth pattern to help discern what might be inside. This insight is useful in selecting a good site and in determining how to cut the tree up later on. We knew not to hope for long clear planks from a field tree; for that we wanted a tree growing tall and high in a crowd, so that fewer branches would have developed. Field trees might yield wide stock or grown sweeps for stems and knees. We never even gave a second look to trees showing windtwist. The spiral patterns in the bark, particularly below large branches, are a dead giveaway to wood that will inevitably twist and warp as it dries. It would only be a waste of time to cut them.

After much searching, Seamus and I contacted Greg Shore, a rancher in Cazadero, California, who had some Pepperwood trees that came down in the winter storms. When we got to his property we knew right away we were interested. Greg runs a small mill off his land and practices extremely responsible forestry, but he doesn’t use pepperwood and wanted the blowdowns cleared out. The tree he wanted removed first was very tall and fully three feet in diameter. It was a big tree, and we were both excited and nervous, wondering how we were going to manage such big stuff. Pepperwood is a local name for the California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica). It is a tree our mentor Bob Darr had taught us to love. It is strong and light, and when growing in the proper conditions extremely rot resistant (otherwise it is quite rot prone). But its greatest attribute is stability. This species’ dimensional movement is so slight during drying that we often use it completely green in projects.

Preparing the Log

First thing was first and we limbed off all the smaller branches. This is a good time to start thinking about the dynamics involved as you cut with a chain saw. Some pieces want to close on the cut and some open, depending how the weight and pressure are distributed. To my mind, this is the most dangerous part of the operation. A fallen tree is an enormous mass, and often small branches are balancing and stabilizing it. The chain saw is a powerful tool that can quickly release weights that can easily crush an unwary person. I cannot stress enough the importance of carefully thinking through each cut. How will react at the saw? What weights might it be bearing? You do not want the tree to roll or move unless you are prepared. ALWAYS have an exit path in a safe direction when making a cut you suspect will change the balance of weight. Think it out, try to cut from the side of the log in tension so that it will not close up and seize your bar. I am here to tell you, you cannot pry open a large log once this occurs. If it does happen, you had better have another saw to cut away the weight necessary to release it or the day is over.

On this tree the small stuff was time-consuming but easy and we quickly had it worked down to the central trunk or “bole” and the larger branches. We sized up what was left and planned our final cuts. Seamus and I always work from the top down, releasing as little of the weight as necessary in any given cut to help keep control of the whole situation. The first branches were large, but because of the wide sapwood in this species, we didn’t think they were worth our time and dumped them off without further thought. We isolated a large crotch next, which we would come back to in the future for some beautifully figured wood, but were not interested in that day. Next came a long clean sweep, one side of which showed no branches or lumps indicating old branch stubs. We were hoping to find some clear wood there for planks, keels, and rails. So we cut it where the straight run took a turn near the stump as a single 15 foot length. We knew that was a long section and would present difficulty in moving the cut slabs, but the truck was nearby and we were still feeling strong….Which left us with a big butt section six feet long where we hoped to get some very wide slabs for table tops and casework.

The tree’s roots were still half attached to the ground, and I made the last few cuts with care to avoid a snapping rebound as the bulk of the trunk’s weight was removed. In a situation like this, the tree’s roots can act as powerful springs. This is especially likely in a tree that has only been down for a short period of time. After the last cut, I was able to count the growth rings on the tree, 138 years had passed between when it sprouted and the storm knocked it down. Clearing the small branches and breaking down the logs took us most of a day, and we fell asleep that night in a grove of old Fir and Pepperwood, anxious to continue the process the following day.

That first site with my new equipment was a good one. Seamus and I returned to it several times over the year, ultimately removing an incredible amount of good wood. But that site was not by any means unique; good wood is lying around everywhere. I proved that to myself when I moved to Vermont in December of ‘98. I was worried about finding the kinds of magnificent trees I had encountered on the West Coast, and as I drove east I became fearful that harvesting my own timber might become impractical on this side if the country. I was wrong and within weeks of moving to my new home I was cutting again.

I ended up in Bakersfield, VT, where I discovered a good sized Rock or Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) had fallen in the woods behind my neighbor’s house. Maple is really a worthless boat wood due to its high tendency to rot, but it’s great for furniture. This tree had come down during an ice storm. It had a rotted section in the base, which extended up into the core, but a lot of healthy wood remained. I was working alone this time, and more than once wished Seamus were on hand to help me. Nonetheless, I managed to get the tree broken down into logs pretty fast and without event. After I bucked (cut) up the tree, I began preparing the individual logs for milling.

Milling Technique

In the method I use to cut, a 2X12 plank is secured to the top of the log. This acts as a reference plane or guide plank for the saw. Because of this, it is extremely important that the plank be true, without twist, or all my cuts will be twisted too. The guide plank must be long enough to stick out several feet from each end of the log; this overhang is used to support the saw at the beginning and end of a cut. Usually it is necessary to slightly flatten the side of the log the plank rests on. This doesn’t mean you need to make it a table top, just knock off the high spots so the plank is stable and parallel to the length of the log. A small chain saw can be used to accomplish this, but really the right tool for the job is an adze, just be careful of your toes!

This maple was pretty lumpy and required a fair bit of leveling off. First I rolled the log using a six foot pinch bar so that the flattest side was up and there was room around the log for the saw and mill. It’s hard to maneuver a big piece of wood like this, and I sometimes have to use a come-along or block and tackle to get the log positioned where and how I want it, but this time the bar was enough. That done, I rested the plank loosely on top to see what needed doing. Off came the plank and out came the adze. Maple is hard stuff and it’s not easy work. I was grateful it was a cool spring day and not a midsummer roaster. The plank comes on and off until I am happy with the result, meaning that it is fairly stable and touching the log at many places along its length so that the saw’s weight cannot flex it. Once it looks good, I nail it into place. I use as long a nail as I need to get a good grip into wood, not bark (I have had planks loosen up in the middle of a cut and it is a mess). Then I step back and sight the plane of the plank…it needs to be true. I use small wooden wedges to help support “soft” areas and fine tune the lay of the plank. This done, it’s time to start up the big saw and make some serious sawdust.

Although cutting slabs is the heart of the logging trip, it is really the easiest part, provided your equipment is in good condition and your chains sharp. Ripping a log is a lot of work for a chainsaw, and having a big or biggish saw will help. I use a Stihl 088 on a 42” bar as my milling saw (I use a smaller, more manageable saw for limbing). It attaches to the Alaskan Mill from Granberg International, which is really just a jig that clamps to the bar and holds it at a fixed horizontal depth relative to the top of the mill. Admittedly, this big rig is overkill in most situations, but a large tree requires it. You also need the right type of chain. Ripping chains are ground to 10 degrees rather than the standard 25 used to cross cut. Ripping with cross cut chains produces long shavings that rapidly clog the saw.

The folks who sell the mill suggest pushing it through the log. One hand on the throttle and one on the supplied handle atop the mill. It is easy, and I use this method when making short cuts, especially on small grown pieces. The drawback is that as the operator you are subject to constant vibration, extreme noise, and carcinogenic exhaust. Bob Darr taught me a method whereby you secure the mill to a wooden “harness” by ropes and control the saw’s throttle remotely by a long cable. You can then pull the entire unit through the log from a distance of 10-20 feet away. It takes a few more minutes to set up, but creates a safer, more pleasant operation away from the problems mentioned earlier as well as from the dangers of the saw itself.

To further demonstrate that good wood is everywhere, I will like recall yet another site and another species to talk about milling. Shortly after cutting that Maple I visited a family home in Freesoil, Michigan. The land is forested in mixed hardwood, and I decided to take my milling equipment along in the hope of finding some decent White Oak (Quercua alba). No oaks had fallen but I did find some Black Cherry trees (Prunus serotina) which had come down during the winter. Cherry is nice stuff to work with. It is beautiful, flexible and highly rot resistant. Additionally it has very little sapwood, so that even small logs like these (16-20” dia.) can yield nice timber. The trees were typical “forest trees” tall with small, compact crowns at their tops. I had this tree bucked up and the logs prepared for milling in about an hour. A sharp contrast to a site like the one in Cazadero.

The first mill cut produces all waste. Sometimes I will get a turning blank from it, but generally it’s an uneven piece of sapwood and bark. When I set the depth of the cut relative to the plank’s top surface, I bear in mind how long my nails are, how thick the plank is, and how deep I need to go to get rid of the waste. It’s a balancing act since the clearest wood is closest to the surface, and I don’t want to dump that with the rest. For this tree the total came to 4”. After setting the mill to that depth I started up the saw and suspend it from the plank. I then walked to my harness, throttled up and pulled the saw into the log. Two-thirds the way through the cut I throttled down to an idle. I walked up to the log and placed a small hardwood wedge into the cut on each side, lightly tapping it in place with a hammer. This will prevent the weight of the wood above from binding the chain as the cut is completed. Back to the harness and I finish it off.

Finally I got to see what I had. Up to then I have guessed and hoped, but at last the tree was laid open to me, showing long clean sections typical of forest trees, divided by occasional knots. An area of wood around one knot showed beautiful rippled grain and thin darkened pigment lines sometimes found in Cherry. I saw the inwales for a rowing boat in a long clear section and perhaps some seats coming in between two larger knots.

The next cuts were easier and faster. I could use shorter nails when attaching the plank. At this point the plank only serves to give the overhang needed to hold the saw since the plane has been established. I cut a very thick slab of 5 inches; the tree is not large but this gave me a piece that I was just barely able to drag to the truck. Generally I try to cut as large a piece as I can manage. The chainsaw is slow and wasteful, and in my shop I have a bandsaw that can make quick work resawing anything up to 12”. I do cut thinner pieces when I hope to get planks wider than 12” for table tops or large casework. In that situation I cut to 3/8-1/2” heavier than I believe I will eventually want to allow for cupping as the wood dries and smoothing the surface. My third cut is thinner in order to intersect the pith, or center, of the tree. This must be cut out of a piece or checks are sure to develop as the lumber dries. There is no getting around this fact. As I am cutting, I constantly ask myself what I want from the log and what the exposed wood might lend itself to. After all, one reason to cut the wood myself is to get exactly what I need as well as unique pieces. Do I want vertical grain or flat, thick stock or thin? If I get into a particularly wide clear section, should I try and cut some book-matched pieces? How can I take advantage of a mineral streak or spalting?

With these little Cherry trees, decisions were easy. They were not wide or well figured, so I took advantage of their straight, even grain and clarity to put up stock for boat rails and possibly table legs. With just a few more cuts the work was done. After I loaded up the wood and my gear I went back and inspected the work site. Part of why I cut my own wood comes from an environmental responsibility, so I want my impact to be minimal. I started by not leaving any trash. Then I spread out the saw dust (there will be a ton of it). This helps reduce the visual impact as well as prevent choking out all the smaller plants where I did the cutting. That finished, I took the waste slabs from the first and last cuts and placed them cut side down over any areas that really showed my presence, usually right where the cuts were made. They will eventually rot down just as the fallen tree would have.

The logging is done but a lot of effort is still ahead. Unless I intend to use the wood green for some immediate purpose (such as steam-bending frames), the timber needs proper care and storage while it seasons. If you are not going to deal with proper storage you might as well not cut. You will lose it all to cracks and rot.

Storing the Wood

The first thing I do is endcoat everything. This will usually get done before I even make my milling cuts. Checks develop due to uneven shrinkage resulting from overly fast drying. This usually occurs from endgrain. I use a product called Anchor Seal from U.C. Coatings. It is a wax emulsion that virtually eliminates moisture loss from the cut end. It dries fast, doesn’t affect tools later, and one coat is generally adequate. I know people who use old paint, but it takes many coats to create a sufficient barrier. Next I resaw the slabs to whatever dimensions I think I will want, usually a mixture of sizes. It is easier and faster to dry small, thin pieces without defect than heavy wide ones. Unless you really want that 6X6 solid, cut it up now.

The wood should then be stacked off the ground, flat, with stickers (spacers) separating each layer to allow air to circulate. Keep the boards in the order they came off the log as much as possible, and keep them protected from the sun and rain. Don’t ever put the best pieces on top, as those are most likely to crack or warp during seasoning.

Read up on the process a bit; Bruce Hoadly’s book Understanding Wood is an excellent reference. He discusses the drying process in general as well as the behavior of specific species. The book also covers various properties of wood by species such as strength, stability, and rot resistance. Drying rates will vary greatly by species and conditions. Figure a year per inch of thickness for heavier stock and six months for stuff 1” or less. Start drying wood slowly in cooler, damper areas, and speed it later with warmer, drier conditions. Be patient, and soon enough you will have the satisfaction of using the wood you have put so much energy into gathering.

Once you start cutting, the temptation is to go out and cut every tree that’s down, and start piling up wood. But every site is a lot of work. Be choosy, look for species you know are useful to you, and look for specimens that will give you lots of high quality stock. Every part of the country has useful and beautiful woods. Each species has distinct qualities and character, just try and fit the right species to your use. Be willing to run small experiments with species that are not commercially available. Many of them are fantastic, but not worth a professional logger’s time due to small size or lack of a viable market. Be responsible at your worksite, respectful of the resource, and enjoy the satisfaction that comes with producing fine woodwork from raw log to finished product.

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