Sunday, May 30, 2010

Birch Windfall

Well okay, not an actual windfall (as it was cut to avoid that) but a windfall of wood nonetheless. Our Alaskan birches don't tend to get very large, at least around here, because they either blow down or get crowded out by the spruce. This big guy was too close to the house of some friends and was making them nervous - which is why I found it on their lawn.

A call to my brother Josh, (who took the smaller stuff for his wood stove) and here was my haul:

My idea was to air dry it (I love the way air dried wood works with hand tools) and use it for all sorts of projects. The challenge is to avoid checking (splits) as the wood dries. If the wood is dried in the round, it will almost certainly check, as the wood shrinks tangentially to the grain much more than radially. In other words, as the outer rings of grain try to shrink into smaller rings, they can't move inwards enough to allow them to stay whole, so they split apart. The easiest way to do this is to split the wood into halves or wedges, which allows the wood to move freely as it dries and shrinks (the angle of the wedges become more acute as they dry).

Here's a photo essay of the splitting process.

Step 1: Start a split with the axe.

Step 2: Use a sledgehammer and a sharp wedge to open the split farther. I scored this old logging wedge down in Oregon and it is perfect for this step.

Step 3: Open the split wider with a larger wedge.

Step 4: Leapfrog the sharper wedge and advance the split again.

Step 5: Add another large wedge. A lot of the time I can leapfrog the large wedge to the new position, but this log was not in the mood to cooperate. The grain from the large branch (cut flush) complicated things and the first large wedge didn't release.

Step 6: Split complete.

Alternate Step A: Make a glut. I think traditionally these are made from some tough wood like dogwood. But seeing as I was at least a couple thousand miles away from the nearest dogwood, but only about ten feet from a scrap lumber pile, I made mine from an old 2x4.

Alternate Step B: Use the glut like a huge wedge (which of course is exactly what it is :) to split logs that are particularly large and/or ornery.

And here is the final result after a few hours of work.

And the tool kit:

I don't have any particular projects in mind for this wood, but I'm sure something will come to me.


  1. Nice score.

    One of the things I have problems getting is raw wood.

  2. Yep, nice score. I have really enjoyed working with various birches in the past. It's really versatile stuff. I wonder what Alaskan birch is like, but it looks like it split easily enough even with all of those knots.

    I wonder if you'll get to use this before I start to use the little chunks of madrone that I've got lying around in the shop.

  3. Very nice! I've just recently started noticing wood lying around here and there. I think I have a new sub-hobby!

  4. Very nice! The wood dries better if the bark-side is down.

  5. Badger - Thanks! Around here raw wood is easy to get (as long as you want birch, spruce or cottonwood) - particularly when they are doing road work etc. Have you tried contacting local arborists?

    Brian - Alaskan birch (I think there are actually three or four species up here, and one or two hybrids) is pretty nice in my experience. It is fairly hard, but works nicely, especially if its been air dried. I've bought some local wood kiln dried and it's okay, but much more brittle and no where near as much fun to work with.

    I've never worked with madrone, but if memory serves it's hard and heavy stuff.

    Eric - It's a particularly good sub-hobby if you also have a wood stove. :)

    Jonas - Interesting - Thanks! What's the theory on that idea? I've heard of something similar with flat-sawn boards, but never with split logs. I was thinking the bark would keep it drier when it rains...

  6. Nice large diameter for birch, at least from what I'm used to in New England! How long do you plan to let it dry? How do you expect to process it once you have it dried? Will you rive it, use a chainsaw mill, have someone come in with a bandsaw mill, or do some form of hand milling?

    I've been hand-ripping applewood with a one-man crosscut timber saw, which works fairly well. They're just firewood-length logs, so it's not killer work, about 15 minutes per foot of cut for 12" diameter. These look long enough that it would be closer to an hour per rip, so a bit much to do by hand.

  7. Very cool! Makes me want to go and salvage some of the gigantic red oak (diam ~4') that fell in the nature area by my house. Don't know how I'll move the wood though! Big logs!

  8. Nice haul. Are you going to bandsaw it further, or let it dry some more before making boards?

    BTW - I'm so jealous. I don't have any room to store it, but I have dreams of "free" wood to dry. definitely a "feature" of my next house!

  9. "I don't have any particular projects in mind for this wood, but I'm sure something will come to me."

    Birch makes good dogsleds...

  10. Steve - These are large for around here too - most birch in my area are about 8"-10" in diameter, with a few bigger. This one was about 15" or so.

    I'll probably let it dry until next summer - unless I think of a need before then :) As for processing, I'll most likely rive it, but I'm tempted to try sawing it. I have a second timber saw - I wonder if I could convert the teeth to a rip configuration. Hmm.

    John - If you process it right where it is, it'll be a lot lighter when you are done :)

    Torch02 - I'll let it dry then rive it - or maybe saw by hand. I'll most likely use it for things like table legs etc. rather than boards, but who knows...

    Josh - Subtle Josh, real subtle :)

  11. Thanks for posting some pics of the process. It's nice to get out the workshop and spend some time working in the sun and sourcing your own timber.

  12. Birch would make good Windsor chair turnings.....


  13. Dan - Yeah, especially when your shop doesn't have any windows! And the mosquitoes haven't become rabid - yet...

    Mike - Good point! I could rig up a spring pole lathe out by the woodpile and do some turning. Hmm.

  14. Perhaps some 18th century style birch planes could be made from the 'windfall'?


  15. Gary - I'd love to do that! Making a plane has been on my list for a long time. Good idea.


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