Splitting a log

tree1Back in the summer of 2010, this oak tree developed some kind of disease and we had to have it taken down. It probably would have lived a few more years, but it was starting to rot at the base and it was close enough to the house that if a good stiff wind came along it would end up crashing into the house and ruining the new roof and siding. It’s kind of too bad we had to remove it; the tree provided a lot of shade on the south side of the house.

As an aside, I had a heck of a time finding the pictures of this event. For some reason I thought that we took the tree down in 2009, and I thought I’d blogged about it. But I couldn’t find it in the blog, and I couldn’t find the pictures where I thought they should be. I finally decided to check the year 2010. Hey, at least I got the month right.

I call this the Facebook problem. With Facebook, I’m much more likely to post a picture or two and a few paragraphs. Writing a blog entry is more work and doesn’t have the instant gratification of people pressing “Like” or leaving a quick comment. It’s way too easy to make a quick Facebook post and move on. I had to search sequentially through the history to find the old post. Then I discovered how to search my Activity Log . . .


Anyway, back to the tree. What was left after they topped it is shown on the left: a 12-foot-tall trunk about two feet in diameter and a fork at the top. That ended up in three pieces, the largest being the bottom seven feet. I spent a couple of days cutting up the larger limbs and putting them in the firewood pile, and grinding up the smaller stuff for mulch. The larger limbs and the two smaller (if you call two and a half feet tall and two feet thick “small”) trunk pieces got stacked around a nearby mesquite tree so I could split them after they dried.

Debra and I, with the help of the lawn tractor, rolled the large trunk out of the way under some other trees. The idea was to let it dry for a few years and then carve it into something. I didn’t know what, but I wanted to try my hand at chainsaw carving.

But the log started to crack quite a bit and I didn’t really know how to prevent or even slow the cracking. So I left the trunk there under the other trees, figuring I’d cut it up for firewood (or BBQ wood) one of these days.

I did make an end table from the top trunk piece. That’s another example of the Facebook problem. I’ll have to post about that here another time.

A couple of weeks ago I got the crazy idea of trying to get usable carving or possibly building wood from that trunk. It’d be kind of cool to mill lumber from that tree and build a table or a small hutch or something. And seeing as how my little electric chainsaw would have some serious trouble getting through that trunk, I decided I’d try to split the log and see if I could get any usable lumber out of it. And, because I’m curious, I thought I’d see if I could split it without using power tools.

I started by driving my steel splitting wedge into the end of the log with a little four pound sledge. That worked well enough: a split formed at the top of the log and there and there were satisfying crackling sounds coming from the log as the fibers split. But then my wedge was stuck.


I tried making wedges out of oak branches and some scrap 2×4 lumber, but they disintegrated in short order when I tried to drive them into the crack.

A friend who was building a deck a few years ago gave me a bunch of cutoffs: 2×4 and 4×4 pieces that were six to eight inches long. The wood was Ipê: a very hard wood from South America that is commonly used for building decks. I carved a few birds from it, but the rest has been sitting in my shop waiting for me to come up with uses for it. It’s an okay carving wood. It makes excellent splitting wedges, though. A few cuts on the bandsaw and I was back in business.



Then it was a matter of driving a wedge into the log, moving a few inches, driving another wedge, etc. I had enough wedges that by the time I ran out the log had split enough that I could re-use those from the back of the line. I did have to make another trip to the bandsaw for more, though: even the Ipê isn’t indestructible. Between me whacking it with the hammer and the oak resisting splitting, those wedges were only good for two or three uses. I suspect they would have lasted longer if I’d been using a wooden hammer. I might try that if I ever split a log like this again.

When I got to the end of the log it was split most of the way through all along its length, but I didn’t have long enough wedges to complete the job. Debra hurt her finger (nearly crushed it) helping me roll the log over and it was almost dark anyway, so I reluctantly put up my tools (except for the steel wedge that was still stuck in the other end) and called it a night.



And that’s how I left it for a week. This evening I cut eight more wedges and used a steel bar as a lever to roll the log over. It didn’t take but about 15 minutes to finish the job of splitting the log into two pieces.

splitThat’s a very strange perspective. Those two pieces really are the same length. The foreground piece is not as wide as the one in back (the log didn’t split exactly evenly down the middle), but they’re absolutely the same length. The picture makes it look like the foreground piece is longer.

You can also see the remains of the Ipê wedges there on the foreground piece. The rest of them are in splinters.

Both of those pieces have large cracks along which I’ll split off pieces, again by hand. I should end up with a about eight 7-foot pieces of wood of varying thickness. I’m hoping that I can get at least one piece that’s four inches square. I know that I will get several pieces that will allow me to cut 2×4 boards, and possibly even some 2×6 pieces. And of course I’ll get lots of stuff that’s one inch or less in thickness.

Once I get the log split into roughly the sized pieces I want, I’ll take them to TechShop and spend some time with the jointer and planer to make lumber. Unless, of course, the log is too far gone. Then I’ll just cut it up and use it for the smoker.

I learned quite a bit in splitting this log. If I had to do another, I could probably do it in half the time. It was pretty interesting going through the learning process, and I have a new appreciation for how people did things before they had the benefit of sawmills that produce nice straight lumber as if by magic. Making your own boards is work.


Making boards

Debra surprised me at Christmas with a one-year membership to TechShop, and a gift certificate for five classes. I’ve been wanting to get involved with TechShop for a couple of years, but there were always other priorities.

Since I got into wood carving, I’ve been slowly making my into wood working as well, with the oval table being the most recent of my experiments. I’ve long wanted to make cutting boards and similar things, but haven’t really had the tools necessary to do a good job. TechShop, though, has a full wood shop with table saw, large band saw, router table, jointer, planer, thickness sander, etc. I just had to take a couple of classes on Safety and Basic Use (SBU).

Today I took a couple chunks of mesquite–cutoffs from a tree I had to take down last spring–to the shop and rough cut them into lumber. The logs were about eight inches thick, which is two inches larger than what will fit in my band saw. The first thing I did was cut four slabs off one end. I’m planning to turn these into little cheese boards, hopefully keeping the bark edge.


Three of those are 3/4 inch thick. The other is 1/2 inch thick. The dark splotches are actually from moisture. I was surprised at how wet that log was, even after spending the last eight or nine months in my garage. I know that it takes time for wood to dry, but this wood was wet on the inside. Way more moisture than I had expected after that time.

After cutting those slabs, the remaining log is about 14 inches long. The other log, shown here before cutting, was right at 18 inches.


I didn’t take any progress pictures showing how I set up to cut boards from the logs. Briefly:

For cutting the cheese boards, I screwed a scrap piece of 2×6 lumber to the log so that there was a flat and stable base for it to rest on. I took a thin slice to square up the end, and then set the band saw fence to 3/4 inch and cut the three cheese boards. I had planned to cut four that thick, but I goofed when I screwed the 2×6 onto the log; I didn’t leave enough log hanging out. So I had to settle for 1/2 inch on the last one. I could have just sawed through the 2×6 or taken the time to adjust the base. I decided to see if 1/2 inch will be thick enough.

For cutting the boards, I set the scrap 2×6 firmly on the table beside the log, and carefully screwed them together. Doing that provides a steady base so that the log can’t roll to the side when I’m pushing it through the saw. I made one cut of about 3/4 inch to get a good flat side on the log. I then took it over to the jointer and made that perfectly flat.

The picture linked below is one I took a few years back, showing how the board attached to the log works.

Then back to the band saw with the flat base on the table, I took 3/4 inch off one of the sides, took the log back to the jointer, and squared that side up so that I had two perfectly flat sides that were at an angle of exactly 90 degrees with each other.

Back to the band saw, I set the fence one inch away from the blade and with one flat side on the table and the other flat side on the fence, I cut the boards.

I’ve cut lumber on my band saw at home without using a jointer to square up the sides. It works okay, but the boards don’t come out near as close to square as they did today.

So now I have a bunch of rough cut mesquite boards, all one inch thick and with varying widths and lengths. I’ve stacked them in my garage, separated by some scrap wood so that air can circulate, and will let them dry for six or eight months. I figure next fall I’ll be able to make some cutting boards. Although I might get impatient and cut up some of the other wood I have here that’s already dry. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have enough dry mesquite to make a cutting board. I have plenty of other types, though.

The cheese boards won’t take nearly as long to dry. I’ve put them aside, as well, but I expect them to be dry enough for working in less than two months. Possibly even sooner than that. Wood loses its moisture very quickly through the ends, so those 3/4 inch pieces should dry fast. I’ve also considered experimenting with using the oven as a kiln to speed the drying process. I might sacrifice one of the slabs and one of the boards to an experiment . . .



I made a few thinner cuts, as experiments. One of the pieces is a little less than 1/16 inch thick. I’m sure that with a little practice I could reliably cut 1/16 inch veneer, and quite possibly 1/32 inch. That opens up some interesting possibilities.


All told, I had a great time playing in the wood shop today. Now I just have to be patient until the wood drys so I can use it.


Building an oval table

After having so much fun working with the folks at Sam Bass Community Theatre, I volunteered to help out with their next show: a production of James Lapine’s Table Settings. Rather than acting this time, I’ll be running the lights and sound, and I’m also helping out with set construction.

The primary set piece is a table, and the director wanted something specific: a 4 foot by 8 foot oval table covered with a tablecloth and strong enough that a 200 pound man can stand on it. Feeling adventurous, I volunteered to build the table.

Understand, I’d never really built anything before. Oh, sure, I’ve assembled Ikea furniture, knocked together a few rickety work benches and some barely functional garage shelves, and even trimmed a door or three, but that’s a far cry from creating a large table starting with a plan and a bunch of lumber. But what the heck: you learn by doing, right?

It was cold (35 degrees) this weekend and there’s no heat in my garage, so I elected to construct the table in our master bedroom, which is currently under renovation. That is, it’s torn apart and we haven’t started putting it back together. That’s my next project. I picked up the required materials at Home Depot on Friday evening and Debra helped me carry it through the house to the bedroom. The only thing I really needed help with was a 4×8 sheet of 3/4 inch plywood. The rest of the lumber was a bunch of 2×4’s and one wooden dowel.

I chose to get plain old plywood rather than cabinet grade. No use spending the extra money when it’s going to be covered with a tablecloth. And the tablecloth (somebody else is making that) will reach all the way to the ground, so I didn’t have to spend any effort making the legs look good.

There’s nothing particularly difficult about cutting an oval. I remembered learning how to draw one in geometry class nearly 40 years ago, but I didn’t remember the specifics. YouTube to the rescue. There are about a zillion videos showing how to draw an ellipse using nothing more than a few pins or nails, some string, and pencil. Here’s one that I found to be particularly clear and easy to follow.

It took a couple of tries to get it right because the knot in my string kept slipping. But I managed to get a reasonably accurate ellipse on the plywood. Then it was time to break out the jigsaw.

table2The bite there on the left corner was a test cut. I’ve used a jigsaw maybe twice in my life before this project, and I wanted to make sure I could follow a line. You can see that I goofed on entry to ellipse line (overshot it). I knew that I wouldn’t cut it perfect, and I had already planned to take a belt sander to the edge once I was done with the rough cutout. I just had to do a little more smoothing than I’d originally planned.

Making a smooth cut with the jigsaw requires a fine blade, and patience. Take it slow. Don’t force the saw through the wood. Rather, just guide the saw. Let the blade do the cutting. Also, don’t try to go all the way around in a single cut. Take off smaller segments. Otherwise you risk having the plywood break off and ruin your pretty shape.

Even taking a few breaks for pictures and to stretch out my back (leaning over to guide that saw is uncomfortable), it took less than 30 minutes to complete the cutout.


The completed cutout is 91 inches long and 46 inches wide. Not bad starting from 96×48, although I can’t give a good reason why I didn’t get 94 inches. Oh, well. It’s close enough.

With the top cut out, it was time for the hard part: constructing the base. I chose to modify the base for this simple table because … well, it’s simple. The base is functional, sturdy, and looks easy enough to build with simple tools.

The only modification I made was to the dimensions. My base is 49 inches long and 32 inches wide. That leaves almost two feet of table hanging off each end, but it’s still plenty sturdy. I wouldn’t recommend trying to sit or stand on one of the ends, though. I was a little worried that the center span would be too large and would sag under the weight of 200 pounds standing on it, but The Sagulator says that it’s acceptable.

I won’t detail construction of the base. I followed the directions in the linked article and everything worked out just fine. It just took a long time because I was checking everything multiple times to be sure I wasn’t making a mistake. When I got it all put together, I was a little surprised that the base was level with no wobbles. I guess all that double- and triple-checking paid off.


Attaching the top turned out to be a chore. For some reason I couldn’t get the screws to hold in one corner of the plywood. I futzed with the thing for a while and finally got it to work. I still don’t know what the problem was. I suspect that there was a soft spot in the plywood that kept the screws from biting. Moving the screws a few inches solved the problem. And, as you can see, the table passed the fat guy standing test. I’m smart enough not to try the fat guy bouncing up and down test.


The last thing I did was sand the top to remove any splinters and the manufacturer’s printing (including that silly notice telling me that plywood contains chemicals that the State of California has determined to cause cancer; is there any product in existence that doesn’t have one of those warnings on it?), and run a router around the edge. I’ve always disliked how a tablecloth looks hanging over a hard edge. A nice rounded edge makes the cloth drape a lot nicer. Here you can see the difference between the straight edge and the rounded edge.

routerThe completed table should work well for the play, and if they don’t want to keep it afterwards I’ll probably take the base back and attach a rectangular top to use as a workbench. Not sure what I’ll do with the elliptical top.

finishedThis was a fun project. Better, I was able to complete it with tools I already had. As the author of the Simple Table article points out, this project can be completed with a minimum of tools. The only tools I added were the jigsaw, belt sander, and router, and those were for constructing the top. I did use my compound miter saw to cut the legs because my electric circle saw grew legs a few years ago and the battery powered saw couldn’t make it through more than two cuts before crapping out on me. I even had to cut one of the rabbets with a chisel because the battery died and I didn’t want to wait for it to recharge.

If you ever thought of making your own work table, you should give that Simple Table a try. It’s not hard to build, and it’s not like you’d be out a huge investment if you screw it up. 2×4’s are three or four dollars each. For me, it was a great first project and now I’m looking forward to building other things.



Short term thinking

The price of gas has dropped about $1.50 per gallon in the past couple of months. The other day I paid $1.85 per gallon for regular unleaded. Inflation adjusted, that would be like paying $1.35 in the year 2000. Not an historic low (I paid 95 cents per gallon back in November 2001), but it’s down almost 50% since June.

With that reduction in gas prices, people are already thinking about how to spend their savings. Car dealerships are reporting a large jump in sales recently, and buyers are citing the low price of gas as one reason for their purchases. And it’s not the economy cars that are selling. No, people are buying big ol’ gas guzzlers, conveniently ignoring that the price of gas is volatile and quite likely to climb back to $4.00 per gallon as quickly as it dropped. It might be a year or more before the price goes up, but it will go up. I will have no sympathy for those who, two years from now, complain that they can’t afford the payments on their SUVs or to buy gas to drive the silly things.

Not that I expect people to do anything other than what they’re doing. It seems most people will spend just a little more than they can afford on a car, regardless of what they really need in a car. Why spend only $15,000 on basic transportation when you can spend $30,000 on a cool new whiz bang monster SUV with all the bells and whistles? After all, the finance company wouldn’t let me borrow more than I can afford. Right?

Politicians, too, aren’t afraid to say and do stupid things in response to this latest drop in the price of gas. Democrats and Republicans alike are making noises about instituting a “carbon tax” on gasoline. To the tune of 40 cents per gallon! The argument is that gasoline is under priced, with the price not reflecting the full cost of the product. That is, the damage done to the environment by burning the fuel. One is supposed to believe, I guess, that if such a tax were instituted, the revenue would go towards some method of combating climate change.

The truth is somewhat different. Republicans are looking at an increased gas tax as–wait for it–a means of reducing income taxes. This is one of the best examples of double think that I’ve seen in a long time. Conservatives who historically look at any new tax or reduction in tax deductions are seriously saying that taxing consumption rather than income is a solid “conservative” principle that they’ve been advocating forever.

Now I’m not saying that Democrats would necessarily use that additional revenue to combat climate change. No, they’d be more likely to put forth bills that fund all manner of additional social programs, few of which have any chance of doing anything but making people think Congress is Doing Something About The Problem, and most of which no different than programs that have failed in the past.

It’s all a bunch of short-term thinking. Knowing how Congress works, they would project revenue based on consumption of gas at the current price, without taking into account that consumption decreases as price increases. Adding 40 cents per gallon will immediately reduce consumption, and the inevitable price increase in the next few years will reduce it even more. Any proposed legislation to squander the ill-gotten gains would be dependent on the projected tax revenue, and when that revenue decreases those programs would be under-funded.

What Congress should do is … nothing: let us consumers enjoy this temporary respite from the high price of gas. Let suppliers sort things out, and when demand increases or the Saudis decide they need more money, the price will start going up again. But Congress is money junkie with all the self control of a drug addict. The primary difference being that we prosecute drug addicts but we condone and even encourage Congress’s addiction even though they do way more harm than good.

Environmental groups should concentrate on encouraging more sustainable energy supplies, and ignore the temporary increase in fossil fuel usage. The sooner we burn all of the readily available fossil fuels, the sooner their alternative energy sources will be in demand. If the environmentalists’ projections are right in regards to climate change, a few years’ increased consumption isn’t going to make much of a difference anyway. They might as well spend their limited resources (time and money) on developing alternatives rather than on fighting a losing battle against consumption.



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