Logs, Firewood, and Board Feet

“That tree could be worth thousands,” says a friend.

“Put your money where your mouth is,” is the only valid response.

For some reason, property owners have a different social status than others, even out here in the boonies. I can’t really explain why it’s different. Some people think that owning land means wealth of one kind or another, or that the person could easily turn a profit with dirt, rocks, timber, or whatever else without needing to do anything at all. To others, we’re a bunch of worthless country-boys (or girls) that are somehow keeping nature locked away from other people behind “No Trespassing” signs.

I don’t want to focus too much on the status thing, but it is relevant to my little meditation for the night. I had a day off, and aside from tending to a litter of kittens for a couple hours, I’ve spent my whole day outside, most of it chopping wood.

I started off with some light axe swinging for the cordwood challenge thing, and even took some video of myself bucking a log into pieces. My next round of cutting was of a different variety of cutting altogether. I broke out the chainsaw and went to work on an old walnut tree I’ve been meaning to cut down. It had a few leaves on one or two branches this year, and is otherwise about to rot in place.

This is standard maintenance for a woodlot. I do leave some snags standing, but mostly I spend time contemplating the future of my forest before I knock a tree over. There are a couple I refuse to touch, even though they are probably the best trees for just about anything. Tall, straight, no low hanging limbs, just beautiful canopy trees.

And in my own selection process comes the issue. The best trees to log now will also be potential veneer log candidates in ten or twenty years. That can multiply the price of a log many times over. And I’m reminded of the opening dialogue in this post.

I, like many, saw a woodlot when I bought this place, and immediately thought it would be easy to supplement my costs by having a responsible forester come out and clean the forest a bit. Too many trees makes for a sickly ecosystem, and too few reduces the amount of diversity and quality of the trees that do grow.

I’ll say this right now, I’m not a forester. I learn more about succession, wildlife habitats, and forestry all the time, but there is an encyclopedia of woods knowledge that I haven’t touched yet. Heck, I’m still learning how different fire woods react in the stove, and beginning to question some of the “normal” assumptions about species for different purposes. So, I’ve learned a lot, but I’m not an expert.

Look how pretty the core of that log is. Center in-tact, no hollows, straight grain with a few wavy curly. I like walnut wood. Can you tell?

I cut down that black walnut today, and again started thinking about money. But this time I was wiser. You see, you can’t just knock a tree over and call someone to drop by and pick it up while paying you for letting them. Doesn’t work that way.

Because the tree was walnut, I might be able to get a break on a smaller log in the six-foot range, but typically, the minimum is 8 or 12 feet, depending on the mill. The log must be straight, and it will be graded based on branches, twist, etc. Walk around the forest, and you see very few money trees. The trunk on this particular walnut was about 30 inches, plus some for it not being sawed perfectly.

Also because it’s walnut, there are people out there who will quote me the magic figures for walnut trees, and comment that the stump (around 50 board feet) could be worth over $1000 bucks, just because it’s walnut. The reality is this: if that guy wants to give me that kind of money, I’ll gladly tote that sucker out of the woods and drop it off on his doorstep without charging him shipping. I’ll do it right now, call me.

I am relatively friendly with the local sawmill, but as I understand they deal mostly with yellow pine, white oak, and red oak. Though I will ask them if the tree is worth their time. There’s another two logs in the 7 foot range (room for error on a 6′ log), but they are not perfectly straight, and one of them is a knotted up mess of sawn limbs. Even if the mill did take them, I doubt the wood is worth $1 per board foot, and I’d probably let it go for a rate of 20 cents.

What is a board foot? If you aren’t timber savvy, it’s basically an area dimension equivalent to a 1-inch thick square that measures a foot on either side.

Then there’s the alternate view, that small buyers such as wood turners will pay top dollar for smaller pieces. This too often comes with a caveat. That is that Billets need to be made of a certain size. In other words, you are taking the sawmill, the finisher, and the reseller out of the equation (cutting out the middle men), and therefore it’s up to you to do their job. That job is to do the market research to get the best price, or at least price range. Figure out the billet size for that market, which could be 1x1s for pens or 4x4s for table legs, etc. Then plane down the board to make it smooth. That way, they can plop it on their jigsaw or lathe and go to work. THEN, it’s worth top dollar.

Another problem is that these wood turners want choice pieces of wood, and their grading scale is almost exactly the opposite of the wood mill. They want tight, curly burls and strange grain patters that only happen in certain pieces of wood from each tree. There are some trees where these features don’t exist. In fact, most of them lack this character.

I guess it should be clear. I’ve been over these margins numerous times, and they never quite work out. So I cut firewood, and occasionally split staves for myself while mentally marking trees in my woods that actually could be worth some money. And for those, I want them to be bigger, because just one inch of growth on a large trunk can add lots of board feet to the log when it’s finally cut. My criteria is healthy trees with at least twelve feet to the first hanging limb that are already eight inches or more in diameter. I keep those. Everything else is forest fodder or firewood.

And so it goes. But walnut is an incredibly beautiful wood, and it’s hard to chop up even a dead one without thinking about putting it to some grand use. While splitting, I’ll scavenge some particularly nice splits and put them off to the side for knife handles, or maybe future woodworking projects when I have more tools and skill.

Every time I cut into a piece, I strain my mind to come up with some use other than tossing it into my wood stove. I actually discovered that walnut wood burns incredibly hot, though it’s a pain to start. This tree is being reserved for my kiln, as a much hotter fire will make all of the kiln projects easier. Put too much in your stove at once and you’ll get that chimney glowing red, I promise. It’s rather like cedar in that respect (American Red Cedar, not true cedars), that it burns hot and fast and leaves fluffy white ashes behind. So there’s a use. But still I search. If I could find a couple local craftsman with their hearts set on small cuts of cedar or walnut (especially cedar) and wanted me to make regular deliveries, then I’d be set. Till then, the gorgeous treasures hidden under the bark of these trees will be known only to me.

A piece I split and might make something out of. Maybe a little cutting board…or a couple doorstops, 😛

Final note, in case you didn’t understand the gross overvaluation of walnut. Every so often an article appears on the news where some tree sold for tons of money. Everyone jumps on that bandwagon, extrapolating that all of the trees of that species are either super precious, or that the way they were harvested makes them valuable (sunken logs that were preserved in salt water, for instance). While it’s true that one tree comes along from time to time and sells for an exorbitant amount, that isn’t the norm. Those trees are particularly special, and almost always used to make veneer. Perfectly round and straight and tall; no knots, burls, burns, empty centers, twisting of the grain, etc. There are plenty of walnut trees to go around, believe me. But people will see these stories as a retirement investment idea, and start planting a sumac garden in their back-yard. (Little joke there, walnut saplings resemble sumac shrubs to some degree)

Now, if you could find a way to force the trees to grow straight, huge, and keep them from branching, you might have something worth shooting for. Hope the bugs and birds don’t destroy your nest-egg. If you are going to plant walnuts, plant them for the walnut harvest, and don’t expect to get rich off that either.

Might be something to think about next time you’re looking for 2x4s at the hardware store. Those were trees at one point. How many 2x4s do you think you can punch out of that Christmas tree in your backyard? Lucky for us, pine trees are now farmed, so you needn’t feel bad that so many need to be cut down to make your house. I think about it from time to time, as the exposed ceiling joists in my house are of the same species of pine growing 40 feet from the front porch.


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