The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mescaleros and the Tree Party Rebellion

Last weekend, I ran across this interesting article...

A Tree Party Rebellion by Marita Noon

I suggest a full reading of the article. Here are, I think, the essential points...

"For the past 20 years, since the Mexican Spotted Owl was listed as an endangered species, New Mexico’s forests have become overgrown. Thousands of jobs were lost, sawmills closed up. Fires became wild. 
study done earlier this year by the USFS’s Pacific Research Station, and validated by work done by Sandia National Laboratories, shows that the healthiest forests in the arid climate of the Southwest have approximately 50 trees per acre. Many of the forests in the Southwest have as many as 2,500 trees per acre. Forest management practices that aim to restore owl habitat, rather than that of an overall healthy forest, have contributed to increased fuel loads and fire severity. 
The nearby forests of the Mescalero Tribe provide a case study on forest management. Rather than following USFS policy, they manage for the health of the forest and practice uneven age management—meaning they log selectively. When there are forest fires—a reality in the arid mountains of the Southwest—in the Lincoln National Forest, the fires quickly become wild, threatening people, livestock, structures, and livelihoods. When the same fire rushes on to Mescalero lands, due to the healthier trees and less density, it lays down and becomes a more manageable surface fire. An added bonus: their forests have several spotted owl protected activity centers.
... on Saturday, September 17, the Otero Country Tree Party put the Forest Service on notice. They did not ask permission; they realigned the government and took back their right to manage the lands owned by the state and county.  The 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act requires that the lands be managed in coordination with the state and local governments and New Mexico state law gives local sovereignty over public lands.
 While the “Tree Party” on Saturday was largely symbolic, it let the Forest Service know the County is serious. If the Forest Service doesn’t follow through with the Emergency Forest Management Plan the County has drawn up, the County will have no choice but to move forward on its own. The actions taken by the Otero County Commissioners are being watched closely by the National Association of Counties.

The Otero Country Tree Party has worked to stay within the law and asked people to leave their pitchforks and chainsaws at home. The trees were cut by professionals, who safely dropped them, as a cheering public looked on. Congressman Steve Pearce cut the first tree under the direct supervision of the professionals. The Tree Party supporters then helped clean up—doing what the USFS should be doing.

The Otero County Commissioners believe that in addition to saving lives and property through reducing the fire danger, their Emergency Forest Management Plan can provide as many as 1,000 jobs for the local communities. Chairman Rardin said: “We are just trying to fix our problem. This is what America wants.”
The Otero County Tree Party is a movement that could change the nation as other counties realign the government by putting them back where they belong."
The irony here, of course, is that the good citizens of Otero County are pushing to follow Mescalero "multiple-use" land management practices as opposed to the owl-protection plan mandated by the US Forest Service. And by the way, those practices seem to be the same as our own Father of Forestry, Gifford Pinchot, championed more than 100 years ago. More irony.

I'm sure the good folks at the Forest Service will claim that they are constrained by limitations of the Endangered Species Act...
"The law requires federal agencies, in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and/or the NOAA Fisheries Service, to ensure that actions they authorize, fund, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat of such species."
The ESA sounds pretty good in theory, and who can argue with the great results produced in efforts to re-establish the bald eagle in this country? 

But would it surprise you that there are currently 1,256 animal species and 798 plant species currently listed as endangered in the United States, and over 20,000 animal and plant species worldwide? And that more are being added every week?

Am I being too skeptical, or would the size of that list suggest that practically any and every development or commercial proposal could be challenged by "concerned citizens" based on the potential presence of an endangered species?

Maybe I am. But this story of the "endangered" Mexican Spotted Owl recalled to my mind ghosts of Northern Spotted Owls, Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers, and Delta Smelts...all of which greatly reduced production of natural resources and cost thousands of jobs.

Glad to see the folks in Otero County moving to return common sense to our land stewardship dialogue. Pinchot and Aldo Leopold  would be proud of them.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Matt and Jaqueline go lumber shopping

Last week, Matt and Jacqueline visited Lewis Lumber Products of Picture Rocks, PA. There they were greeted by Mr. Keith Atherholt, president and co-owner of LLP and lumber salesman extraordinaire.

Their task was to examine some alternatives for the raw materials for their projects and to decide what wood(s) they will use. Mr. Atherholt gave them an interesting introduction to some of the woods in his store. Their primary reaction was, wow, there are a lot more choices than the Big Box store!

A quick view of the video below will assure you that yes, if you want selection in your next wood project, a trip to the local or regional lumberyard may be more rewarding than the quick trip to the Box, even if you have to drive a ways to get there.

Matt and Jackie will report in their next blog posts on their wood selections, and some background information on the species selected.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Meet Jacqueline and Matt, Penn State Furniture Designers

I mentioned that I have two architecture students doing "independent studies" for credit this semester. I'd like to introduce them and their projects to you.

Matt Fink
Ski Coffee Table
For W P 496 I will be constructing a wood coffee table while using reclaimed skis in the design. I plan on using more advanced woodworking techniques and mechanics so the table can open up to a smaller hidden compartment. For this class I will be submitting weekly posts to Dr. Ray’s blog for discussion and to track my progress.

Due to a limited budget I will be using mostly pine wood for the construction but this also helps with the larger pieces that need to be cut (close to two feet wide). The table will consist of a two-leg construction with three horizontal support pieces. The support pieces will be attached using mortise and tenon joints. On the top of the table, along two of the supports, will rest the ski tabletop. These skis will rest along tracks within the supports allowing them to slide apart. When the skis are pushed apart, it will reveal another compartment housing a shadowbox for ski memorabilia such as lift tickets, photos and medals. At this time I am unsure if I will wire the shadowbox for small lights as I’m not sure if the wiring will cause any problems or hazards.

Following the design of ski lodges, chalets and homes, the table will match the rustic style with sturdy supports but with simple and clean curves. The table will receive a darker stain to match winter themes and the ski tabletop will be skis of the same brand, if not same color scheme.

Two things have been passed down through the generations in the Fink family; skiing and woodworking. From a young age I was put on skis and have advanced through the different levels to become the proficient skier I am today. As for woodworking, I have always been surrounded by my family’s work ranging from furniture to decorative pieces. I even plan to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather and uncle as they have their own woodshops. The ski coffee table was created by combining these two passions but has even deeper roots. Six years ago, my father, who was both an avid skier and craftsman, lost his battle to a form of cancer known as GIST (Gastro Intestinal Stomach Tumors). Recently, I discovered an old pair of his skis and in his memory I set out to create a piece of furniture with them. This led to the birth of my first reclaimed ski project, the ski chair, incorporating his skis as well as skis of other family members into a functional lounge chair. After this idea, I set out to explore other furniture options including shelving for family photos and my first coffee table. 

Jacqueline Holt 
The piece I would like to make this semester in my Wood Products independent study is a jewelry chest. I have so much nice jewelry that was given to me as gifts for special occasions, yet I never wear any of it because it is too hard to dig through boxes to find the piece I am looking for. Instead I would like to build a chest to house all of my jewelry to allow easy access to it while at the same time adding a focal piece to my bedroom.
The basic construction of the chest will be done with ½” thick Oak. I will explore using a more exotic wood, such as Zebra- or Tiger wood, for accent pieces, such as the drawer fronts and the top cover. I have chosen Oak because my research shows that it is a reasonably priced, strong, and common wood used for furniture building. I would like to use something like Zebrawood as accent pieces for an aesthetic change in the overall composition of the piece. Once complete, I plan to stain the entire piece of furniture with cherry stain to compliment other pieces in my bedroom. Decorative, yet modern hardware will be added as handles. The interior of the drawers will be partitioned and lined with fabric to organize and protect the jewelry. Hardware will be added in the side panel doors to allow for hanging jewelry. Finally a mirror will be add to the underneath side of the top cover which will hinge up.
The construction of this project will take place in the Stuckeman Family Building woodshop located in the basement. I will spend at least three hours a week designing and constructing this piece in order to obtain three credits for the class. The budget for this project will be between $150 and $200 dollars.
The construction process for the piece of furniture will consist of cutting pieces for one component one week followed by the assembly of those pieces the next week. The drawers and side panel doors will be constructed by connecting all four sides with dovetail joints and a dado cut for the bottom piece. The accent wood and handle hardware will then be attached to the outside of the door. The drawers will then sit in dado cuts along a frame piece to allow them to slide in and out on a track. The side doors and top cover will be hinged to this frame construction to allow open and closed positions. 
Tomorrow we'll be visiting a hardwood lumber producer here in central PA to discuss and select the project materials . I'll shoot some of the visit and share it with you in the next post.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Winter Energy Planning Time

September's cool winds (like that 106-degree breeze they had yesterday in Dallas) get us to thinking about heating the home again. Here in the northeastern U.S., that means another winter of fretting about home heating oil prices. A quick check with my local supplier revealed that a 575-gallon fill up will cost me $2,012.45 at $3.499 a gallon. Assuming that price holds, and I fill up twice this winter like usual, I'm facing a $4,000 - $5,000 heating bill for winter 2011. Gulp.

Well, what are my alternatives? Tune up the old boiler for another year, and turn down the thermostat? Upgrade to a new oil boiler, hoping for higher efficiency? Try to take advantage of the glut of natural gas in the North American marketplace (currently $0.99 per hundred cubic feet, or CCF, in State College) by purchasing a new natural gas boiler? Or back up my Go Wood mission with conviction, and purchase a wood-fueled boiler?  Forget the boiler, just purchase a two or three pellet stoves to go with my wood stove insert downstairs? While I'm spending money, why not go solar-thermal? Or small-scale nuclear? Or....

Too many choices for my feeble brain to process quickly...which is why I still have the old oil boiler chugging away, burning money faster than my teenage girls in a shoe store.

It's easy to crunch through energy calculations on the macro level, but when it gets to your own home, it gets a lot tougher. Well, I'm going to tackle it with numbers this year, and I'll share the calculations with your here on Go Wood. Hopefully, I'll reach a conclusion before April and you'll be able to check my logic and calculations against your own situation, if you have an interest.

Before I get going, though, I'm going to start out with a review of what my colleague Dr. Dennis Buffington has termed "The Energy Pyramid." In an excellent article on the Energy Pyramid, Dr. Buffington explains that you have to start building the pyramid of a solid decision on a firm foundation, which he explains is Energy Conservation:

"Energy Conservation is largely based on behavioral practices to use energy in a more efficient manner.  Such behavioral practices include turning off lights when not needed, setting thermostats to lower settings in the winter and higher settings in the summer, keeping engines and machinery properly maintained for efficient operation, cleaning the blades of ventilation fans on a frequent basis to remove accumulated dust, and replacing air filters on HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) systems on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.  Generally energy conservation behavioral changes can be made for little or no expense.  But it is essential to have the cooperation of all people involved with the organization or enterprise for energy conservation to be successful."
Aye, there's the rub, me friend.  "...cooperation of all people involved..." Getting my wife and daughters to leave the thermostat alone when the tip of their nose is cold is a challenge requiring nerves of steel and many nights on the couch. But OK, we're going to assume you're going to be diligent trying to be more efficient in your use of heating energy this winter. Good luck with that.

The next step up the pyramid is Energy Efficiency. This means that the devices you employ to turn fuel into heat result in the best results possible, and that a significant amount of your heat is not lost up the flue in waste heat. I know that my boiler was rated at 82% efficient ten years ago, but based on the fumes we had in the boiler room last winter, I think we're running closer to 22% now. So, I need to get a more efficient boiler! But, as Dr. Buffington warns:
"It is essential that increasing energy efficiency yields financial savings as well.  Before any purchases are made, one needs to evaluate whether the increased cost for the purchase is cost-effective over the life of the equipment."
I've begun getting bids in for a couple of different alternatives, and I'm already seeing that these calculations can get pretty'll see what I mean in upcoming posts.

The third level of the pyramid, Energy Demand, involves shifting your usage to periods of lower demand in order to take advantage of lower rates. Typically, this is applied for electricity usage, and folks using electric coil or ceramic heaters might show some savings by turning down or shutting off their heaters during peak hours and re-heating during the night and mid-afternoon. But it also could apply to folks who purchase heating oil or propane. Since it comes in bulk, you can time your purchases, or opt for a locked-in price if your provider offers that kind of program. My record as a gambler defies the odds of probability, in the sense that every bet I've ever made has been a I'll meekly just go along with whatever the market price is the day I run out.

And then, finally, we get to the pinnacle, the crowning glory of our energy mission...Renewable Energy! Tuh duh! Dr. Buffington says...
"Renewable Energy is the peak of the pyramid and thus should be the last part of the pyramid to be built.  Renewable energy technologies should be installed only after measures for energy conservation, energy efficiency, and demand management have been fully implemented.  A study has shown that $1 spent on these three components can yield a savings of $3 when renewable energy technologies are installed.  Think about it!  Why install solar pv panels for an enterprise that is not already using energy in an efficient manner?  If the system is first modified to use energy in a more efficient manner, then fewer solar panels will be needed."
Well, that makes sense. Invest in the desired energy source after fully optimizing the system you're going to be heating. I jumped the gun a little when I bought my firewood insert three years ago, but that purchase was made to satisfy some primal urge I thought I had. I seem to have lost a little of that urge when my oldest son, and primary wood-splitter, Charlie, deserted his old dad for the U.S. Army, leaving the primary wood splitting, stacking, and hauling upstairs Well, at least firewood is relatively cheap, and my body was depreciated decades ago, so that decision will probably still stand up to economic and emotional scrutiny.

Taken as a whole, the Energy Pyramid does make sense. But proper implementation is detailed and project-specific, and most of us just give up and fall prey to the best heating salesman we meet at the home show. It is critical to understand, though, that our hope for sustainable utilization of renewable energy sources in a proportion of our homes and businesses requires that we get this calculus right.

More as I get all the bids lined up...

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Great Designs in Wood (17) - The London Olympic Velodrome

Exterior view of the Velodrome. Picture taken by David Poultney on the 18th Jan 11

If you haven't seen or heard about the velodrome built for the 2012 London Olympics, you're in for a treat. This stunning building, completed earlier this year, has been winning rave reviews from around the world for its exterior beauty, of which the primary impact are the swooping lines of Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) that form the basic shape of the stadium.

In an excellent review of the structure, architecture writer Hugh Pearman writes:
"It is sheathed in timber – Western Red Cedar - on the outside as a reminder of the track itself which is made of long thin strips of Siberian pine nailed together. It’s like some Futurist vision of speed and movement, this twisting loop of track, somehow all the better for being made in such a hand-crafted way. I looked underneath the track (strictly out of bounds usually), to find that it is supported by big wooden zig-zag joists of the kind you’d more usually find in your attic."
Once again the appeal of wood is explained as its usefulness in expressing the artist's vision in a fluid, warm, structural material that seems "to fit", no matter how futuristic the design is.

The London Olympic Velodrome is another grand accomplishment on the way to a future made more hopeful, more livable, and more sustainable by wood.

Take a few minutes to watch this excellent video on the Velodrome produced for its nomination for the RIBA Stirling Prize.

Stirling 2011 - RIBA Stirling Prize Shortlist - The Velodrome, London by Hopkins Architects from RIBA on Vimeo.

Here is a more complete list of the wood products used in the construction of the velodrome.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Social housing in China

More on the Chinese housing industry. You will recall the "Ghost Cities" we talked about earlier this year...Goldman Sachs analyst Helen Zhu explains in this excellent short video series how the housing market in China developed over the past decade...and how it may develop over the next.

Goldman Sachs | Global Economic Outlook - Highlights from "Social housing - A new growth focus"

Friday, September 2, 2011

Great Designs in Wood (16)

Returning from a meeting in the Penn State Department of Architecture, I noticed this table in the main entrance hall. It caught my eye because I thought I saw Southern Pine, the wood dearest to my East Texas heart.
Shur 'nuff, it was southern yellow pine, in a creation that I had never seen the likes of back in my East Texas days. I have seen plenty of pine tables, mostly built with pine boards picnic-table style. But this one shows what a little creativity brings out in even the most common of our woods.
Moving closer to inspect, it became apparent that the designer had utilized the beautiful asymmetrical growth rings that always fascinated me in my youth. These rings speak so many things to us of the life of the tree...its age, its growth rate, its bouts with diseases and drought...generally, its good years and bad. And this designer had captured the living story of these trees in the table top itself.
The center part of the table is simply cut-off ends of pine two-by-fours, notched together with smaller blocks of the same. The smaller notches are stained darker than the square ends, which are in turn stained darker than the table edge boards. All covered in a brilliant varnish to seal in the effect of a high-end "artsy" hall table.
Its really amazing how the rings, when patterned together next to rings of the next piece, create a sort of biological fingerprint of a forest. The effect is one of nature "imitating" art.
And who is the artist that created this silk out of a sows ear? The best I could find out was that it was a "first-year" project of one the architecture students a couple of years ago. For a first-year project, it shows an amazing sensitivity to the inherent beauty in wood. We can only hope that the student continues to build on his or her appreciation of the simple things in life...there's a whole world of people out there longing to return to them.
And speaking of architecture students, I have two of them taking credit this semester for "special projects" that will require them to design and build a piece of wood furniture each. I'll be introducing them to you and following their progress in future blog postings.

On this Labor Day weekend, take time to admire a fine piece of wood and the craftsmanship we still have in us.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sign of the Times

We made note back in June that these are tough times for ethanol ventures. In that article, we mentioned that a publicly-subsidized ethanol venture in Clearfield, PA had taken a temporary shutdown due to market conditions.

Since that time, the plant has been closed permanently and filed for bankruptcy.

All of which prompted some gallows humor...

Let's hope the silver lining is that future politicians will weigh more carefully the potential risks of public investments, especially with regard to future energy options.