Reverence for Wood

A talk delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse, Mar 20, 2005.
Title borrowed from Eric Sloane’s great little book

This was first posted on PBJ, WSU’s first blog tool, now retired. I rescued it here as part of preparations for another talk I’m giving at the church.


Good morning.

I’m going to tell you stories from my passion as a timber framer.

My stories are of engagement, of connection, of joining. With ecosystems, with people, with life.

Today you have permission to stare at the floor as I talk. Let me tell you about the ecology I see below your feet. The wood is red, or Douglas, fir.

As firs get taller, and crowd one another, the lower limbs drop off. Eventually, new rings of growth close over the wounds. Pretty soon the rings are uniform. Look around for the wavy grain characteristic of wood near knots. No waves, no knots, means tall straight trees.

Think of a tree stump, showing circles of growth rings. Imagine cutting it like a pie. Your cuts are at right angles to the rings, you see the rings edge on, as in this floor. We call this quarter sawn. Imagine cutting tangent to the rings, you see wide wavy patterns, the side views of the rings, typical of modern boards and especially of plywood.

Each ring is a year. Each ring on this floor is maybe 1/16 inch wide. Since these boards are quarter sawn, one edge was toward the center of the tree, the other toward the bark. 2 1/4 inches equates to 38 years. 38 years with no knots, 38 years after the the limbs had dropped and the wounds had grown over.

Look around and you’ll see some yellow edges in a few boards. This is the sap wood, the youngest wood, closest to the bark. Its not as hard, so the mill culled it. I’ve spotted sap wood in this floor that might be an inch wide — so the sap wood represents 15-20 years of growth after the rings  of these boards were lain down.

Let’s assume it takes a red fir 40 years to grow big enough to be limb free on its lower 20 feet. Another 38 years to lay down 2 1/4” of the boards you see, and 15-20 years in the sap wood outside that. The trees in this floor were at least 100 years old.

Given the age of the church, they were saplings when Lewis and Clark visited. The trees that grew up after these trees were harvested could just be reaching a size where new wood of this quality might be harvested. Of course, the forest is not being managed to produce wood like this anymore.

Your homework is to visit Idler’s Rest. The stand of trees along the creek will give you an impression of the forest where this floor grew. These boards lived in a cathedral.

Wood connects me to ecosystems and to time.

Lodgepole pine is a pioneer species after a forest fire. The lodge pole seeds are released from their cones by the heat of a fire, the trees live about 100 years, and as they die, other species of pine and fir succeed them. When mature, the trees are small — 12-14” on the stump, but very tall.

In the summer of 1994 I got a chance to work in a climax lodge pole woods, outside Elk City, gathering the wood for my first timber frame, which now serves as our woodshed. The structure has hand hewn 8×8 timbers of lodge pole, spruce, and cedar.

Hewing, or squaring up a log into a timber, is done with two axes: a felling ax and a broad ax. The felling ax is the long handled ax you know for chopping down trees. To hew a log, you stand on it, and every 18 inches, use the felling ax to chop a notch to touch what will be the plane of your finished timber. Wear heavy boots, you are chopping between your toes. Then, using a sideways swing, you hit into one notch, splitting off an 18” long chunk, called a juggle. Repeat on the second side. Roll the log and do the remaining two sides. You now have a very roughly square timber.

The broad ax has a short handle and a wide blade, sharpened from one side. You stand beside the timber and swing down along the vertical plane, shaving off the high spots left from juggling. If you are good, you end up with a straight, square timber with only tool marks left by the swing of the broad ax.

The best part of hewing in a climax forest, is resting (which I did frequently) and looking at the diversity of little plants that cover the forest floor. The juggles that you have cut off are good firewood, that both warm you and remind you of time spent in the woods.

The other thing about hewing is it teaches you how skillful work should look, and teaches you to read a timber for the marks left by its maker. Having learned to watch for tool marks, and from them to read the skill of the worker, I was delighted to get the scarf joint on display as today’s art, on my left.

Dan Schmidt had this joint on the end of a timber he’d rescued. If you happened to see the cover of the Daily News Friday, there is a photo taken inside the Potlatch mill. In that photo, the beams (top plates) that recede into the distance (maybe 400 feet) were probably joined, end to end, with a joint like this one.

Examine this piece after the service to see the tool marks left by a carpenter who sawed that long flat plane with a hand saw. He did it in a single cut, without wavering or wandering, or needing to plane to clean up his work. There was a time when artisans understood their tools, and wood, and were able to make things like this piece, or to the hew smooth flat timbers.

Working wood connects me to other people who teach me through the marks they leave.

Birch does not show annual rings. Its as strong as red fir, but most engineering tables don’t list it, typically, an asterisk says “used for cabinetry.” Its texture is very uniform. It splits and carves well. Yesterday I was cutting sections from the birch Bill Styer and Jerry Gzerbielski removed behind the yellow house to make into pegs.

The birch tree in our former minister, Lynn Unger’s, front yard, now spans the center of my barn.  It unwittingly turned me into an urban hardwood forester.

From Lynn’s birch, I went on to ash, box elder, chestnut, cherry, elm, linden, locust, maple, Russian olive and walnut. These woods, because of their interesting color, often enhanced by disease that caused their removal, and because of their large limbs that create large knots and interesting grain, brought me together with wood turners, who have gladly taken pieces I could not use and turned them into art.

Urban trees opened my interest in the knowledge our forefathers had of the eastern hardwood forest, and made me aware of the diverse strengths of its many species.

Hardwoods have joined me into a circle of giving among wood workers.

I built a fire this morning: pine and ash, with birch and walnut for kindling.

Every day, from mid-September to early May, (250 times/year) I light a fire. This is the other end of wood’s life cycle in my hands.

I’ve built a fire, 250 times a year, for 10 years. As I was writing this talk I could hear our stove, the soft pinging of a waning fire. I’m aware of the sounds of the stove. I listen for them. They tell me when its working well, when it needs attention. They remind me I am connected. Connected to trees, whose by products I burn. Connected to people whose skills with wood and with tools I’ve admired and emulated.

Its been suggested to me that I should prefer to burn red fir in my stove, its optimal. Its also the kind of thinking that leads to mono-crop agriculture and single species planting in forests. And, we’ve seen with the blight on Moscow Mountain, what single species forestry brings.

I think our forefathers were closer to right. They preferred each tree for its best qualities. Oak or red fir makes a hard floor or a strong beam. Locust makes a rot resistant fence post. Ash and hickory make good tool handles. Cedar makes a good roof or keeps moths from your woolens. Fruit wood makes good smoke for preserving food.

My sister asks why I don’t get a pellet stove. She thinks it would be easier than gathering wood, splitting it,  stacking it, then moving it to the porch, and tending it in a fire.

As if easier is better.

In this case, easier is disconnected.

… from the trees, from knowing that locust is best on a night in the teens, pine is fine for taking off the chill in the early fall. Disconnected

…from the process, both the work which I’ve never begrudged, and the meditation of watching a fire.   Disconnected

… from the history of people who have worked with, and heated with wood. Disconnected

…from the ecologic cost of my own consumption.


How do you decide differently when you are connected to (vs. disconnected from)  the ecologic consequences, aware of (vs. indifferent to) diverse strengths, engaged with (vs. separated from) the human participants and consequences?

For me, a decade after raising my first timber frame, the whole activity is less about building and more about engaging, joining, connecting.

The process, and the materials, have become my teachers, helping me to be more in tune, more connected, more reverent.

The trees and I have an arrangement.

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