Wooden WisdomDecember 17, 2019
Here on the farm, there are annual rituals which accompany the changing of the seasons. Winter requires occasional snow removal from our long, uphill driveway. Spring means the first mowing of the year and repairing fence boards damaged during winter storms, and with summer comes the baling of hay for the horses. Fall has perhaps the longest list of all, as we rush to finish our summer projects and prepare for the first storm of the winter season.
Fortunately, here in the southern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, fall lingers until early December, giving us a few additional sunny days to check those necessary tasks off our list. One of the most important is laying up an ample supply of firewood for our two fireplaces.
Earlier this year, a spring flood deposited a dead, forty-foot sweet gum tree in our back pasture. The grain of sweet gum is often mistaken for cherry, for its reddish heartwood emits a sweet scent both when split and again as it is burning. Once dried, it starts easily and burns well. People who rely on wood to heat their homes would rather harvest oak, which burns more slowly, but I prefer the scent of sweet gum for our open fireplaces.
This fall ritual begins with preparing the chain saws. Two are required, for invariably one will quit without warning in the middle of the project. I approach my chain saws with a great deal of respect, tinged with a beneficial degree of fear, which so far has kept me from ripping open my foot or shin. Chain saws show no mercy for the foolish. If the blades are kept sharp and taunt, they will eagerly slice through wood without hesitation. But once they dull or loosen, the saw can suddenly buck like a spurred horse with the blades still whirling.
On this sunny day all went well, with the predictable exception of my first chain saw deciding to quit twenty minutes into the project. Before long, we had the back of our four-wheeler loaded with wood and headed for the barn, where I will split them a few at a time as the season progresses. As they say, cutting wood warms you several times before it ever reaches the fireplace.
As a woodworker and a collector of the eclectic, I could not help but bring a few of the pieces of sweet gum trunk back to my workshop, as I was curious as to what lay beneath that weathered gray exterior. I suspected a belt sander would not be very effective at removing the uneven surface, so I pulled from atop a workshop cabinet an antique hand plane I had on display. I sharpened the blade, set the exposure to make a shallow cut, and began removing the outer band of bark and sapwood. My belt sander, a tool I don’t use that often, smoothed out the ridges left by my hand plane and the scratches cut in the end grain by the chain saw.
The exposed, dry wood soaked up three applications of tung oil, which gave it a warm, matte finish, still natural looking, but now nice enough to serve as a small drink table in the home of a friend of mine.
Until next week,
“Lift the Stone and shall shalt find me; cleave the Wood and there am I.” – Elbert Hubbard