Pillaging the Firewood Pile

I hope this may interest some of you..

I’ve been interested in wooden planes since I fell down the hand tool slope about 10 years ago. I have always had it in my mind that I would become a plane-maker some day. Over the past few years I have taken some classes on plane-making and made about a half dozen molding planes for myself and others. Finding good beech for plane stock has always been a challenge. Seven years ago, or so, I bought a beech log, brought it to a mill, and had it sawn into plane billets. If I remember correctly, I got about 80bf out of that log once it was all quarter-sawn. I let it dry in a solar kiln for about a year then moved it to an outdoor pile to finish seasoning. Unfortunately, I lost almost the entire stack after the cover blew off during a winter storm, a fact that went unnoticed, and the pile remained uncovered until the next fall. In the mean time the pile was infested with some sort of powder post beetle. I wound up with some nice, quarter-sawn firewood.

This year I finally received my long-awaited firewood permit from the water authority. We heat our home with 100% wood heat and usually require about 6 cords/year. I was granted a beautiful wood lot only about 5 miles from my house. It is former pasture land so I figure there’s nothing there older than about 60-80 years. The lot was logged once, probably 20 years ago. It is currently managed for both timber and recreation. The forester marks cull trees that are imperfect, unhealthy, or just weedy. It’s a nice mix of hardwoods. The pioneer species like Birch are starting to reach their peak and are dying off, being replaced by mostly oak. There’s also some beech back there, which brings me back to the original point of this post.

I’ve been cutting firewood with my brother about every other weekend since the start of the year. A couple of weeks ago we made our way back to the first of the decent-sized beech trees that were marked for cutting. There were two specific trees that I thought might make good plane stock. Both were decent diameter, straight, and had no branches for the first 20 feet or so. We cut the smaller of the two first- a fairly young tree about 14 inches diameter at breast height (DBH) located in a crowded stand of oaks. I was doubtful whether it would contain enough wood to cut blanks from. As it turned out the tree had virtually no heart so almost the entire log was usable. The second was a massive tree with multiple co-dominant trunks.

Here’s a picture:

Beech Marked for Firewood

The largest trunk was 18inches DBH, straight, and clear to at least 20 feet. This was the one I wanted for lumber. There were four smaller trunks. There was no way to cut the whole thing at once as the base was way too unstable and there was no place to put that huge canopy without getting it hung up. I had cut each stem individually which was not easy since I had to cut at above head height. The first three went well. The fourth didn’t go quite as planned. To make a long story short, if it weren’t for my helmet I probably wouldn’t be around to write this. After a break we dropped the fifth and largest trunk. While this trunk was bigger than the first I cut that day, it had a large heart which was a disappointment. Here’s a picture we took at the end of a long day. Please don’t be offended by my decidedly non-Galootish German apprentice.

I bucked it into rounds about 22 inches in length and brought it back to my shop. Those rounds were incredibly heavy- close to 100 lbs I would estimate. The next day I split the first six rounds into halves and then quarters.

From there I used my bandsaw to cut out plane blanks as close to quarter-sawn as possible. I cut most of them 8/4 thick but a few were closer to 12/4. Most were about 11 inches long but I left a few the full 22 inches in case I could use them for bench planes. While a bandsaw might not sound very “Galootish” I promise you that a lot of handwork was required. Once I quartered the rounds I had to flatten one face so it would ride smoothly on the bandsaw table. I used my favorite hewing hatchet to make quick work of this. Ideally, I would have used a portable bandsaw mill to mill the log. It was impossible in this case as there was no way we could have dragged that log out of the woods whole, nor was it in an area accessible to a portable mill.

The relatively small diameter of the trees combined with the size of the heart of the larger log made the final yield pretty small, but it was still worth it in my opinion.  I also have a lot of smaller quarter-sawn stock to make small smoothers, and other short planes. Of course, this is all years away. Even cut down to size these billets will probably take 2 or 3 years to dry.  Here’s what I had cut by the end of February.

I kept splitting and riving billets in my free time right up until the weather warmed up. At that point the bugs started to get active and I began seeing work holes in the end grain of the rounds I left outdoors. I’m not taking any chances with wood-boring beetles after my first experience with powder post beetles. I found that with the shorter rounds it was easier to split billets using the splitting maul rather than wedges. It’s a lot faster and you can get fairly consistent results once you get used to it.  The results of an hour of splitting:

Beech and Birch Billets- Rough

I sealed the ends of the billets with paraffin wax and stacked them all to dry. I hope to move them out to my garden shed soon so they can dry for a couple of years. The final yield was close to 150 molding plane size blanks ranging in thickness from 3/4 inch to over 3 inches.

Plane Billets- Final Yield

That’s my story.. Thanks for reading!

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