From Oak Trees … to Lumber … to Projects

A couple of weeks ago, in Woodworker’s Journal eZine Issue 310, Woodworker’s Journal editor in chief Rob Johnstone wrote in his introductory editorial about a friend who’d questioned him on the viability of cutting his own lumber for a project. Rob asked eZine readers if any of them had ever chopped a tree down, turned it into lumber and built a project. Many of them had — including Herb Brodie, who shares his story here.

I have many large, old oak trees on my lot. Every couple of years, one fails for a variety of reasons — from wind to rot. I’ve cut a lot of firewood from these trees over the last 30 years. In 1999, while sawing, I thought that the wood was too good for a fire, so I saved about 15 feet of 26-inch diameter trunk. I then made a jig out of 2×6’s on the log and fixed an aluminum frame on my chainsaw that allowed me to cut slabs off the log. You can buy outfits like this now, but mine was entirely homemade. Each slab took me about an hour to cut and another hour to relocate the jig for the next cut. I kept the slabs at least 6/4 thick because the precision of my cutting wasn’t good enough to ensure uniform dimension. I trimmed the slabs to uniform width with a circular saw. I ended up with 12 boards ranging from 12 to 24 inches wide by 15 feet long. I stacked the boards horizontally with spacers for air drying in a well-ventilated shed, where they stayed for six years.

In 2005, I deemed the boards cured enough to start using them for projects. It was a good idea to saw them as 6/4 because there was a lot of warp and cup. I made a jig that allowed me to clamp a board and plane down one side using a router on a rail. I could then turn the board over and plane down the other side with the router. This made a ton of chips and wasted a lot of wood, but the result was a straight, useable piece of lumber up to 24 inches wide.

A toy chest was a six board box with trim. The top, sides and bottom of this box are each a single board. The sides are fitted with large dovetails. The top and bottom float in slots to allow for expansion and contraction of the wood. The overall dimensions of the box are about 24 inches wide by 36 inches long and 17 inches deep.

I also made a swinging cradle. The cradle can be mounted in the swing, or it can be removed to sit on the floor. This way, the baby can be moved from place to place in the cradle while the swing remains where most needed. The swing is entirely held together with removable pegs so that it can be torn down for storage. I built this cradle and swing in Maryland, then put all the pieces in a box and sent them to my daughter in Oregon. I included a video on how to put it together. My son-in-law glued the cradle together and applied an oil finish. It has served three grandchildren.

I made two other toy chests, several bookcases and children’s chairs. The lumber was gone by 2007. But, I lost another larger tree that year. I gained three 12-foot logs 30 to 38 inches in diameter. I did not have a chainsaw capable of sawing these logs into lumber. I hired a local farmer who had a portable band saw. He could cut with precision, so I had 5/4 slabs cut. Within two hours, I had 36 boards ranging from 15 to 30 inches wide and 12 feet long. I cut four cords of firewood from the rest of the tree that sold for more than I paid for the band saw work.

I trimmed and racked these boards outdoors with a metal roof fashioned over the stack. These boards dried more quickly and more uniformly than did my 1999 stack. This spring, I pulled some out to make new baseboards and window trim inside my 100-plus-year-old house. They are straight with little cup and have even thickness. I worked with widths that fit my jointer and thickness planer. I again made a jig for my router for wide boards, and I was able to get a pretty good surface on a 28-inch-wide board. I’m letting that board sit for a while to see if it is stable enough to use whole.

So, now I have a plentiful supply of wide oak boards from a tree in my yard. I have a lot of projects in mind. I love to work with oak. But, at 70 years old, I’m finding it harder than it used to be to pick up a 2 ft. by 12 ft. by 5/4 oak board and carry it into the shop.

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  • Tim Knight

    What a great story , I have the same opportunity to do the same thing with 3 cherry trees but don’t know how to build your jig ? And how big your chain saw was could you offer any help or direction ? Thanks again for the story!

  • Incredible work!!! Very nice use of wood that otherwise would go for firewood. The sizes of the boards you cut could not be found anywhere on the market, or if so, you could not afford them!! Again…SUPERB!!!!

  • thomaswhoyt

    I bought a home about 3 years ago. It came with several oak beautiful mature oaks… and a sick maple. The maple tree was about 5′ diameter. When it came down it became several large stacks of rough lumber in my garage. It seems that the moisture is about equal to the board that I put in my office. Soon as I get that Round Tuit.. the rough lumber will be turning into “something else”.

  • Herb Brodie

    Tim Knight asked how to make a chain saw jig for cutting logs to lumber. Well, I can tell sort of how it was but, chain saws are dangerous things and I don’t want to be responsible for an injury. There are several good jigs available commercially that are more safe than the method I used.

    Basically, I made a 2×6 frame that encircled the log from end to end. The 2×6’s have to be as true and straight as you can get. The ends of the frame were screwed into the end of the log. The sides or rails of the frame were supported near the center by a post to the ground of sufficient length to assure a strong and straight support for the saw. The rails were also screwed into the log.

    The engine end of the saw rested directly on the 2×6 rail. I clamped a guide made from aluminum angle on the outside end of the chain bar that rested on the opposite 2×6 rail and also extended under the rail to keep the blade from wandering too much.

    After each slab was cut I had to break down the frame and rebuild it to match the change in log dimension.

    I used a saw with a 28 inch chain bar. The chain was sharpened often to keep the blade from wanting to wander. I used a regular crosscut chain but there are chains made specifically for ripping that would have made sawing much easier.

    My advice is that you should look for someone with a portable band saw to do this cutting for you. This is so much easier, faster, safer and the resulting boards are better than you could do with a chainsaw on a homemade jig.

  • Tree to finished project gives one a great feeling of accomplishment. Trim in a kitchen and porch remodel, as well as the desk I am presently using, came from a locust tree that had to be removed to enable the expansion of the kitchen ( was 15’X10′, now 15’x25′). In the living room there is cherry hall table built from a storm damaged tree.

    I had a cutter come to my home and cut the trees into lumber which was then air dried. I have only cut small logs into lumber with a chain saw. Never attempted a big tree cut up. Either way taking a tree and ending with a wood project is great!

    Herb did a great job!

  • Dave

    And to think of all the black walnut I turned into firewood years ago:(
    Nice story.

  • John Rall

    Just read your article and had a good smile!
    I recently retired from State government service and have started broadening my experience in woood working. I have had some prior history in logging operations and sawmills as they are numerous here in Northern Michigan.
    I will this fall harvest several white pine trees and some native cherry and oak for the making of lumber and project material for my wood shop. I look forward to this new line of work, as iIlove the results that it produces (Childrens toys and custom furniture).
    Your article remined me of the first time I saw a guy walk out into his back 40 with two pipes and a chainsaw. And some kind of jig he made for bucking logs. It was amazing the ammount of material he had stacked in a few hours, and peaked my interest. And had started me on my path to where I am now.
    The new path in my life has found me meeting new people and making great friends along the way. The most intersting this that they all have in common is their love for making something special in the trees they harvest. My life has been forever changed and has become more creative as I learn more along the way.
    Thank you for smile and the memory along the way!

  • gellerbr

    Great use of very good material. I’m fond of white oak myself. Recently a windstorm came thru this area and brought down a lot of good trees. Behind my Dad’s house is a cherry about 24″ at the base and a walnut about 40″. I had a local saw mill come in and pick up the logs and am having them cut into 5/4. They also have a kiln for drying. It takes about 5-6 weeks to dry. In about 2 weeks they should be out, looking forward to working with the material. I want to make some furniture, book shelves, etc that I can say came from Dad’s property. He passed away about 6 months ago.

  • There’s a good chainsaw lumber jig found at the Backwoods site

  • Bill Vedder

    If you think you are having problems now, wait until you are 82 like I am! This summer we had part of a large maple come down. Plan is to move to a senior apartment in a couple of months. Otherwise I would think about cutting the tree up into boards.

  • ronald wolf

    I have cut black walnut for a couple of years now, and have quite a nice stash, but nothing as large as what you describe! I stored much of it in the attic this summer, and now it is good and dry. This winter should be fun.

  • I took trees down on some property I owned and had them sawed in to boards. That is part of what I like about woodworking . To see it go from a tree to a bed ,or desk or some other kind of furniture .

  • Like this article! Only a craftsman could get joy from seeing trees turned to lumber and then into a beautiful woodworking project completed. Good Stuff!

  • I have seen many trees in my day that would have been great for a woodworking project. You don’t see a lot them that get as big as the one you are talking about. We don’t have the saws to cut it up either. We go through so much wood every winter here in Iowa that we need to take the wood to keep the furnace going. Love the story and the pics.

  • Very nice work and great find on the huge tree. The furniture you created is fantastic.

  • Chiquita

    Through my point of view, the hardest portion of using timber is actually obtaining the
    board in order to a finished density and also smoothness to ensure that the pattern may be fastened.
    Simply keep in mind that all saw are actually unsafe as well as
    you must make sure in order to put on the suitable safety
    and security garb as well as abide by the safety rules apiece.
    Any type of great table observed tabulation plan ought to incorporate a rip fencing parallel
    to the saw cut product line with fine adjusting
    managements for make use of when the barricade demands correction.

  • Matthew Montano

    Hi. This is my first attempt at building anything like this. I wanted to know how to make the toy box longer, as I will be placing it in front of a window and making it into a window seat. Which boards would I make longer? Sorry for the stupid questions, but I’m a brand new newbie. Thank you so much for sharing these with us so that we could create for our kiddos.

  • I find this fascinating, Six years of dry time, I would think that technology would have discovered a reasonable method of curing Oak hardwood in less time than that. Science is an amazing thing, why not put it to work.