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The Spirit of a Tree

Zimmer Furniture grain crosscut

At a young age, many of us are fortunate to be exposed to nature and natural things. I don’t remember the exact moment, but I do know that seeing a cross-cut slab for the first time. It left quite an impression on me. I can remember counting all of those thin squiggly lines and being amazed that each one represented a year in that tree’s life. The Outer Bark is like a protective skin of a tree, and the Sapwood which carries moisture and nutrients from the roots to its leaves is living tissue, then there’s the Heartwood that is the bulk of the tree, essentially dead cells no longer supporting life in the tree. And like an adolescent, Early Growth is typically the fastest growth period of the trees life; it’s the tree’s youth, while the Pith is the beginning of the trees life from when it was a seeding.

Shown here is a grand, old white oak that has stood where it stands today likely since the days of Lincoln. This healthy old tree is simply magnificent, its huge trunk and heavy limbs, its scars from injuries – some occurring many years ago – are very impressive, and, hopefully, it will live on for many years to come. But not all mature old trees are healthy and like we humans none are immortal. When a tree matures it might be best to harvest it for our use before it can decay and rot. Doing so can be a very personal experience, with great felt responsibility in ensuring that the wood of the old monarch is used to its maximum potential – exposing its beautiful and rustic figure – to tell the story of the tree’s life.

white oak burl

Beyond the time element associated with a tree’s life, there exists its purpose, its function. First and foremost, a tree performs photosynthesis, consumes carbon dioxide from the air, uses sunlight, and water and minerals from the soil with its by-product being life-giving oxygen to animals and man. What other living thing in our world gives us so much for so long? These big old majestic monarchs live all around us. They live on the farm, in the community park, and in our own yard.

Today, in our post, old growth era, most lumber mills are sized for logs with diameters less than 24” and those larger are typically too big and often used for pulp or firewood. Unless, of course, if you’re like me and travel the countryside searching for these big beautiful trees and logs to salvage. Fine furniture makers prefer trees that grow straight and tall and once milled yield lumber that is uniform and void of imperfections. Beautiful furniture is made from that type of wood, but those boards are not the topic here; rather, I speak of the heavy figured wood. Wood full of rustic character – knots, cracks, and amazing grain patterns. Wood that tells a story of its tree’s life through its interesting and extraordinary figure.

Lumber storage
Raw edge slab storage

Cutting these big logs in ways that best expose the internal heartwoods figure is always the first concern when milling them on the large industrial saws, capable of cutting logs up to 65” across. The milled slabs are typically 2.5” thick and sometimes thicker depending on the wood species and slab size. Once milled these thick wood slabs are sticked, stacked, and air dried for a minimum of 12 months and often longer. When the slabs’ entire internal moisture content dries to below 20%, they are loaded into a kiln where they remain for weeks until their moisture content is taken down to 10%. The kiln is an insulated room where ambient temperature, air circulation, and humidity are controlled to maintain the desired kiln conditions. This is an expensive 3-to-4 week process, but well worth the investment in processing these beautiful wood slabs.

Salvaging these wonderful old trees, and using their beautiful wood for creating interesting accent furniture, in my opinion, is a noble cause.