From a Tree

I have Peter Follansbee to thank for getting me started in following woodworking blogs, and later, starting one of my own. In fact, I think it was this post that I found when researching how to deal with green wood from some trees I had taken down a few years ago that introduced me to Peter’s blog and work.  In it, (and others) he talks about how to split, rive and prepare green logs, but also, coincidentally, says this, referring to the joint stool:

“The gist of it (we’ll have plenty of detail on this in the stool book one day) is that this project can be done from the tree quite quickly, but it doesn’t have to be…” -Follansbee, Feb. 2010

Two years hence, it seems ‘one day’ has arrived.  For those that haven’t heard, Mr. Follansbee (with co-author Jennie Alexander) has completed his book entitled ‘Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th-century Joinery‘, available for pre-order from Lost Art Press.  I knew it was in the works, but I could, nevertheless, hardly contain my excitement when it was announced. Needless to say, mine is on order and I’m giddy like a school girl.

Follansbee and Alexander Joint Stool Book, Lost Art Press

Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th-century Joinery, Follansbee and Alexander

(A quick warning: this post has a bit of philosophy (if you would call it that) before I get to the woodworking, so skip ahead if you want to, but read on if you want to try and follow my train of thought for a moment.)

Why such anticipation?

Is it that I’m a big fan of the 17th century style? Well, no, I wouldn’t furnish my house with it, at least not much of it, but it does ignite a spark of interest in pre-industrial, even pre-colonial methods of work. I do find it remarkable that craftsmen were able to build such remarkable pieces, some lasting 400 years, without worrying about much of what today’s woodworker agonizes over, such as exhaustive measuring, finishing, smoothing, sanding, etc.  Instead, they approached it as utilitarians, form following function, and unnecessary work was often simply not done (like milling both sides of a board flat and parallel).  On the other hand, in reading (and seeing) Peter’s work, decorations, like carving, painting, and decorative shaping, things that are clearly non-functional, were often seen on the “show” faces – a paradox that intrigues me.

If you read some of my earlier posts, especially the one on the wine sideboard, you know its not that I have a great fondness for red oak either, though to be fair, the last I worked with it, it was kiln-dried, plain sawn.  Even for those who don’t like oak, there is something alluring about the look of quartersawn oak, with the flecks of medullary ray. Want to know more about qualities of riven (split) oak, guess what: Peter wrote about that too.

So why am I so excited?

I think it is about evolution.  (don’t get political on me folks, let me explain).  Think back to early man. What materials did he use in the beginning? Before iron, bronze, steel, he used wood. (ok, maybe stone too, but it was harder to work) Over the course of millenia, the ways of working wood evolved, slowly. In fact, it could be argued, it evolved so slowly because there was no driving force for change. Simply put, the way they did things worked pretty darn well for centuries. I’m not a historian, but it seems to me that the methods used in the 17th century, as espoused by Mr. Follansbee are not substantially different from those of the late middle ages, maybe earlier.  After that? Well, as I said I’m not an expert on period furniture making (perhaps one of you who is can comment on my thoughts on the evolution of methods), it seems to me that after the 17th century, as we enter into the American colonial period, and certainly by the 19th century boom in furnituremaking, the methods are evolving.  Things start to get more complicated: the tools become more specialized, the joinery, ‘fancier’, not to mention the development of more ‘aesthetic’ furniture. Today there are more jigs, gizmos, power tools, bits, gadgets, helpers, doodads, etc than ever before, and I often wonder how we got here from there.

I’ve avoided the question.  Evolution.  The more I learn about woodworking, the more I want to know.  I started when my father in law showed me how to use a router, more than a decade ago. I’ve been a voracious consumer of woodworking magazines, tv shows like New Yankee Workshop and Woodwright’s Shop, and online learning. Like many of us, I started to learn “tips and tricks” for the router, then table saw, gadgets, specialty power tools, then later discovered hand tools, took some courses…in short, a haphazard, and basically counter-evolutionary personal development.  So I have a longing for some personal evolution of woodworking knowledge, starting from the old ways.  Am I giving up power tools? Heck no, at least not until I get myself an unpaid apprentice to rough mill my stock. Am I throwing out my 19th and early 20th century stanley planes? Nope. I’ll use those too.  But I DO want foundational knowledge that led to their development, and I want the basis to know whether a ‘gadget’ is worthwhile when my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather (is that enough grandfathers to get me back to the 17th century?) could do it with the few tools on hand, and if he didn’t do it, why?  So, wanna be a better woodworker? Learn how the knowledge of woodworking grew through time, develop your skills and methods the way mankind developed its own.

So that’s why I’m excited about the book.

So what to do in the month or so I have to wait before it arrives? Start splitting wood of course!

I probably should have (or could have) waited for the book to come and see if the methods I used are discussed in it (I think they will be), but my friend Wally felled a 100-something year old red oak, and, a few months ago, I talked him into trying to split and rive it, without a specific project in mind.  Then I heard the book was coming, and I suddenly was eager to go over and do it, which was good, because he was eager to get it out of his yard or make firewood of it.

Here it is, two twelve foot sections, from the root flare to the first big crotch was about 22 feet.  The chainsaw in the photo has a 20″ bar.   You could tell (though barely) that there was a little twist in the trunk, but as they say in my daughter’s pre-school “you get what you get and you don’t get upset”.

 I decided to remove the root flare, up a little more than 2 ft from the bottom.  The center of the very bottom was punky, and I hoped to get above the soft part, and into the remaining 9-10 feet of relatively uniform diameter to split.  The diameter at the top end of the first section was 2′, and more like 30″ at the bottom after making this cut:

To get warmed up, we opted to split the 2′ section of root flare first.

Then, after the base was cut into 16ths, we drove some wedges into the end of the main trunk.  Starting the wedges was easily the hardest part of the job.  The wet wood was, well, bouncy and elastic, and..wet. The poor tree bled water when the wedges compressed the endgrain.  The wedges were not sharpened as an ax might be, but had a steeper angle, like a maul, and would not wedge into the endgrain, but would go in a little, then bounce back out.  In the end, we had to make a deep score using an ax or hatchet to allow the steel wedges to gain purchase and stay put.

driving the first wedge

A few blows, and the cracks began to open across the endgrain, toward the pith, and along the trunk under the bark.  Once opened sufficiently, we placed some ash wedges and pounded those to continue the split. A note on the ash wedges.  I made a couple dozen, and we destroyed almost every one.  Hitting them with an 8lb. sledge tends to do that. But there was another reason: they were cut too steeply, maybe 1:3 or so, and wouldn’t have sufficient contact area in the split to stay in. These would literally jump from the split line, so we had to hit them really hard to get them in enough to stay.  There were a few with 1:6 or 1:8 or so, and those worked MUCH better. We worked wedges down the log, moving the split farther with each wedge.  And the twist became much more apparent. Despite the overall twist, there are large sections of reasonably straight runs, which might yield 4-5′ finished boards, though some of the medullary ray may disappear on the ends of the flattened stock, where the twist is taken out and becomes more like rift sawn.

The most rewarding part was the popping and crackling sound which followed each blow.  Finally, the log came apart, with some hatchet work to free the remaining strings holding the sides together.  And so the first split was completed.

At the end of the day, we had split the root flare section into 16ths, and of the main log, we had made one half, two eights, and four sixteenths.   We also had no feeling in our hands, cramps in our arms, sore backs, one ton of wood to put into the trailer, no wooden wedges intact, and probably another two or three tons left to split…some other day.

I will add images of the next steps of splitting and riving from this tree in the coming days, weeks, months…(years?), it looks like it’s going to yield some decent wood.

So what did I learn today about the evolution of woodworking? Men in the 17th century were of heartier stock than me.

About Nick

Nick Roulleau is founder, craftsman, designer, joiner, finisher, floor-sweep and all of the other roles at Mansfield Fine Furniture. A woodworker for more than a decade, Nick started the company with the goal of filling the need for heirloom-quality furniture hand-made from premium woods. Every piece is designed to suit the customer's needs and desires, hand-picking each piece of wood, and built one piece at a time, using both modern and centuries-old traditional methods to yield furniture to last for generations.
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  • Joseph Michalski

    Great Post! I have just been starting to get more interested in how Roy Underhill does most of what he does without power tools. The first chance I get to fell my own tree and produce boards from it, I will be doing it the same way.

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  • Joe

    Nice post.  I also started doing some ‘green’ woodworking before reading the Alexander & Follansbee book, though most of mine was just splitting 6-8′ long sections of trees and trying to predict how they would split.  then taking a few blanks and processing with a hatchet and wooden fore plane.  I had read St. Roy’s “Working wood with wedge and edge” and got much of my early information from there along with a lifetime of wood splitting for fire wood.  It’s great fun, lots of very useful practice, and other than time and tools, didn’t cost me much.  

    That is a big difference from using kiln-dried lumber, where the practice wood can be pricey and mistakes seem like back-breakers because…well, I just spent $100 on wood and dang, I also ruined it.  In my case that sometimes results in ‘analysis-paralysis’ and I get nothing accomplished.

    But with my initial practice with green woodworking, I don’t get that sense because while it is costly in time, if I make a mistake I just toss the piece away and grab another one.  I am surrounded by oak forest and I doubt I’ll be able to make a dent in the number of oaks around me.