Notes from Windward: #58

Working the wood lot

Felling dead trees
near the new entrance
Often, it's not so much a factual lack that holds us back, but rather a conceptual lock. More times than not, the answer is there in front of us, but we have to find a way to put our assumptions aside so that we can actually see what's there.

Thanks to a recent movie, the phrase "Show me the money!" went through a fashionable period. I've come to believe that this obsession with money is the heart and soul of the consumer culture, and that a self-reliant life is only possible if and when a person, or a community, can demystify money back into a simple tool instead of the nexus of society itself.

Part of the way I try to do that personally is to keep in mind that making money isn't the issue, but rather it's the creation of value that is. So long as a person can create things of value, he'll have something to trade for things of value other people have. Money is perhaps the most concentrated form of social power, but power is at best a tricky servant. The same fire that can warm your house, can very easily burn it down.

So, the key I try to pass along to people is, instead of asking "How can I make money?", try looking around and asking "How can I create value?" That's an easier question, and one that will bias you toward sustainable, productive activities instead of the consumptive focus that comes from an over-reliance on money.

Fresh wood
ready for stacking
To put this in practical perspective, here's an example. At Windward, we husband about eighty acres of mixed forest. We're located at the rain boundry, so our woods contain Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and scrub oak (I like to think of them as Bonzai oaks since many of them are hundreds of years old and look like giant Bonzai sculptures.) While our average rainfall is 26 inches, some years it's more, and some less. In addition, there are longer cycles of rainfall; for example, the last decade has been substantially dryer than the previous one.

During the wet years, the Ponderosa pines grow quickly, but the moisture also seems to promote the growth of a type of moth that does substantial damage to them. It lays a larva that burrows under the bark and, in time, girdles the tree. This prevents moisture from getting from the roots to the branches, and ironicly, the tree dies. The upshot of this is that we have a regular number of trees that seem to die every year.

According to most people, a dead tree isn't good for much more than firewood. It certainly isn't marketable to a saw mill. Dry-cut wood won't bear the same load green-cut wood will, and the trees generally have a fungus that takes over soon after death turning the wood a strange shade of blue. Perhaps worst of all, from the sawmill's point of view, it's much harder to cut dry wood than green.

The way we deal with dead trees at Windward is a study in sustainability, and the diverse approaches that are it's hallmark. After felling the tree, the first task is to limb it. Any branches under two inches in diameter go into the shredder and produce a mulch that's very useful as animal bedding. This is an especially good use, since on its own, wood chips would take years to rot. Indeed, I can show you a spot on our property where a molding mill once stood and created a sterile spot that's essentially still dead.

It takes nitrogen for the composting process to work, and something around 10 parts of carbon to 1 part of nitrogen is ideal, with an upper limit of around 14 to 1. Since wood comes in at around 20 to 1, it just pretty much sits there. When the chipped branches are used as bedding, the urine soaks into the chips, and pretty soon you've got the compost process underway even before the used bedding makes it to the compost pile.

Cutting 1x4 girts
for the dining hall roof
Back to our dead tree. Now that the branches have been dealt with, we start cutting firewood from the top of the tree. We keep that up until we start to exceed eight inches in diameter, which is about the smallest diameter Bob's sawmill can handle productively.

What happens next depends on how tall the tree was. Generally, we'll want to take a ten foot section off first to make a "D" log. That involves making three cuts on the small log so that you end up with a six inch thick beam that's shaped like the letter "D". We'll be using these for the southern face of the dining hall, and we'll need about a hundred ten-foot long "D" logs for that project alone.

Our next cut depends on what sort of lumber we expect to need in the near future (one advantage of cutting dead trees is that they don't have warping and drying problems that a green tree would). For example, we're going to be building lots of shelves this winter in the shipping containers, and we'll need lots of 1 & 1/2 by 3's studs for that, as well as lots of 3/4 inch placking for the actual shelves. A log that's 12 to 16 inches in diameter is probably going to be made into studs, and anything larger would be used to make planks.

The log is stationary
It's the saw that moves
Bob's mill is a Wood-mizer, a commercially available unit that's used around the world to provide local lumber for all sorts of projects. Much of the modern commercial process involves a substantial amount of transportation. Hauling trees to the mill, hauling lumber to the store and then hauling it to the job site. By cutting our trees into the lumber we need, we're about to sidestep a number of costs, transportation being first on the list.

The Wood-mizer gets its name from its use of a thin bandsaw blade instead of the more substantial circular saw blade. Whereas a saw blade eats up a quarter inch of wood per pass, the bandsaw blade only turns about a sixteenth of an inch of wood into sawdust. That saves both wood and fuel, and makes the cutting of small logs more feasible.

Once the log has been turned into boards, they're hauled away and stacked somewhere out of the sun. The wood we're sawing is much dryer than fresh cut, green wood would be, but it still has enough moisture that it would warp if we left it to dry on its own. So, we stack it in layers separated by quarter inch thick boards called "stickers". This holds the wood to shape, while letting it dry out slowly. By stickering it up until we're ready to use it, we insure that we'll get the greatest use out of the lumber we've cut.

The next step is to take all the trimmings and cut them to fireplace length. City folk pay good money for kindling for their fire places, and after processing, the trimmings can bring in enough money to cover the costs of saw blades and gas.

Ready for the next cut
That just leaves the stump. We haven't figured out anything better to do with the stump than burn it. We could leave it in the ground for five to six years and it would eventually rot away. That's what we generally do unless the stump's in the way and has to come out. That's one place where the backhoe comes in very handy, the other is in transporting the logs from the wood lot to the sawmill. We used to rely on a come-along and lots of muscle power, and now it's sweet to let the front hydraulics on the backhoe do the work.

We don't use the wood we cut for structural purposes. Part of our good relationship with the county building department is that we make sure that anything structural is built from inspected lumber. That mark on the 2x4 you buy at the lumber store is an assurance that the piece of wood will bear the right about of load. Since we're not qualifed lumber inspectors, and since we're not cutting green wood, we figure it's better to buy commercial lumber for the critical areas, and use our wood in the non-critial areas such as planking the roof or siding. Even so, the ability to transform firewood into most of the wood needed for a building is real magic. We many not make any money running our saw mill, but we're too busy creating value to stop and care.

Index for Notes Issue # 58 ---- The Windward Home Page