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, October 31, 2012

The OneOak Project of Britain

Watching the footage of the downed trees from Hurricane Sandy, I found myself mentally drifting from the plight of the poor folks to thinking of all the nice lumber that is about to be harvested, and hopefully, sawn into lumber. (I know, bad...but honest!) I was reminded of the story of the OneOak project in the UK. Although not a tree downed in a storm, the OneOak was an historic old monarch that was harvested as part of an educational effort. And what great wood it produced.

The Sylva Foundation in the United Kingdom states its mission as "reviving Britain's wood culture", which is a sentiment most readers of Go Wood will sympathize with and support. The Foundation has an excellent website dedicated to the project, which you can visit here.
From the outset, the incentive of the Sylva Foundation has been to bring people closer to the importance of woodlands and of wood in modern society. With this in mind, the felling, in January 2010, was witnessed by 250 school children and 200 other guests. A year later they were invited back to each plant a young oak, so fulfilling a cycle of sustainable forest management. 
The tree was grown initially for its timber, being planted in 1788; the year The Times was first published, when Mozart was working on his last symphony and when the French Revolution was just beginning to stir. It became the most studied oak tree in Britain: it has been weighed, measured with lasers to create a 3D model, studied by a dendrochronologist, and had its carbon content estimated. It has also been featured by dozens of artists, sculptors and photographers. Now, it is being brought to Edinburgh thanks to funding from the Scottish Forestry Trust.
The foundation held an exhibit this month of the tree's products, and an impressive one it was. The photograph on the left is an example of some of the fine utilization of the wood from the old oak. Click here to view more of the exhibit.

The best part of Sylva's effort was in using the project to educate local children, and instill in them the natural affinity for wood that results from understanding where it comes from. And how it is produced.

The video below is a compelling capture of the educational experience, as well as the excellent technique used by the foresters, loggers, and sawyers that processed the OneOak. The best moment of the video is about five minutes in, when the children begin to buzz and cheer with excitement as the feller begins his work...and the excitement reaches a peak as the children begin to chant "Chop it down, chop it down, chop it down!" You hear a gasp of excitement as the tree leans, and then crashes to the ground with that distinctive crackling thud that only a falling tree can make. And the kids squeal and break into applause.

It's an American environmentalist's worse nightmare come true.

OneOak-project launch and tree felling from Conrad Weiskrantz on Vimeo.

Go Wood applauds the Sylva Foundation of the UK for its dedication to the good cause of wood education and appreciation.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Whatever happened to Climate Change?

I heard an interesting statistic on the presidential debates last week. All together, there were over 50,000 words spoken by the candidates at the four debates. Some were interesting, others, not so much. But there was a glaring omission in all the debates...the phrases global warming and climate change weren't mentioned, not even once, by any of the candidates. Somewhat surprising, since "green" initiatives have been a cornerstone of President Obama's administration, and issues like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Solyndra, and the proposed Canadian oil pipeline through the Midwest have raised awareness of the issues to probably their highest level in the consciousness of the average American.

Why not, if so many people are tuned in to the subject? You would think that each side would want to take their own high ground and exploit the other side's weaknesses. The answer is, the climate issue has become dangerous ground for both sides. And that is because of four reasons, as clarified in this article in The Week.

  1. "All the solutions are politically toxic." As the author of the article points out, all man-made solutions to man-made climate change involve either increasing taxes, or increasing regulations, which leads to higher energy costs.
  2. "Voters like being in denial." It is the authors perception that voters would prefer not to deal with a potential threat that is farther away, than say, a century, at the cost of current dollars. Gee, I wonder why?
  3. "It's all about Ohio, stupid." Much of Ohio, like much of Pennsylvania and all of West Virginia, is coal country, and both candidates have used anti-coal rhetoric in their political pasts, despite both being proponents of "all of the above" energy strategies. Everything, that is, except coal.
  4. "Romney and Obama are letting their surrogates make their case." In other words, the surrogates tell the smaller, targeted crowds what they want to hear, out of the national limelight.
Sort of what President Obama does here, in this MTV interview. I didn't know there were MTV interviews, did you?

The President tells a pretty good story here, which is why I was surprised he didn't at least throw out at least a mention of this in the debates. However, there is one additional progressive step toward climate change action that the president should take credit for, but seems shy about. As blogger Gina-Marie Cheeseman points out in a recent post on Triple Pundit:
"What is surprising is that he didn’t mention the EPA rule, finalized in August, under the Clean Air Act that deals with emissions from power plants. The rule limits carbon emissions from new power plants to 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour of power produced. It seems to me that rule should have been mentioned as third on the list of things the Obama administration has done to deal with climate change."
You see, Gina-Marie, it's that coal thing again. That EPA rule, which would never be passed by Congress in its current make-up, effectively forces the power companies to shut down their older coal plants and disincentivizes any future coal plants. Which is accomplishing exactly what President Obama intended, back in 2008 when he admitted that his energy policy plans would make electricity rates 'necessarily skyrocket'. Inexpensive coal power production is down over 40% since the President has taken office, even though coal energy production has gone wild in China and India, as he admitted in the video above. You see, they prioritize their national economies ahead of climate change regulation. Silly, isn't it?

Source: Energy Information Administration,

I'm not sure if we will follow the President on his course or not. I observed a hint of how the coal country folks are leaning right now. Last week, on the road from State College to Western Maryland, and then over to Gettysburg, and Harrisburg, and back, I started counting yard signs. Just counted one sign per yard, and ignored the obvious campaign offices. Ten miles from home, I counted sign number 100. Tally: 94 for Governor Romney, 6 for President Obama.

So, I guess the governor feels like he doesn't have to raise the issue, and the president doesn't want to. All I know is, with more coal mines shutting down every month, I'm taking steps to lower my own electricity consumption. Which, of course, is exactly what progressives want me to do. But I have a surprise for them, which falls into the area of unintended consequences. It's called natural gas. More on that later.

Actually, I think it is a good thing for climate change and scientific issues like it to stay out of the political campaigns. Maybe then we could have rational discussions about it, like the one below. And then, we could let the free market decide.

If more interviews were like this, we might reach better agreement on how to improve our national energy policy. But until we do, campaign contributions and back-room deals will make those decisions for us.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Great Designs in Wood (32) - The Martian Embassy

Something to lighten up your weekend. The "Martian Embassy" in Australia was creatively designed as a story-writing space for young writers. Plywood members cut and routered to resemble the inside of a whale stimulate the imagination while keeping the whole space warm and light.

See and read more about it here...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The James Craig of Sydney

Sydney harbor at dusk
My last evening in Australia was spent in Sydney harbor, touring the waterfront and sampling the local fare and grogs. In the process, I managed to squeeze in a tour of the tall ship James Craig. The ship was salvaged off the coast of New Zealand and restored to immaculate sailing condition by a dedicated group of tall ship aficionados. While the ship is an iron-sided barque, not a wooden ship like our own U.S.S. Constitution,  it featured some magnificent woodwork in the restoration.

Typical local fare
I was privileged to receive an (almost) private tour from one of the ship's owners. I captured the entire tour on video, and although the video quality is spotty, the audio is pretty good throughout and the guide tells a wonderful story full of details. The entire video is fifty minutes long, so if you're only interested in seeing the wood species used in the reconstruction, you can skip ahead to the 35-minute mark and watch from there. At about that point, I'm embarrassed by not being able to identify bird's-eye maple used for paneling in the captain's quarters. That's what happens when you get out of your own waters and have your brain swirling with alien trivia of woods you've never heard of in your life. Or it may have been the grog. But it does reveal how interestingly different the "timbers" of Australia are, when one can mistake maple for a pine species on first glance.

My guide also made some interesting comments starting around the 6-minute mark concerning the coal industry, which was one of the ship's primary customers back in its heyday around 1910. The ship hauled timber from New Zealand and coal back to the Kiwis on its return. His comments reflect common modern attitudes toward coal, which are quite a bit different than people's attitudes back then. We can afford to be dismissive of a great, dense natural energy source least, we seem to think we can afford to be. Time will tell if attitudes will swing back some day.

Now, if you're interested in seeing the ship in action, you must watch the following video. It shows some great footage of the ship on the rolling seas that look right out of Master and Commander. Wish I could have been in those scenes, as well.

A great ship, and a magnificent tribute to the power of determination of a strong group of like-minded folks. I congratulate the supporters of the James Craig on a job very well done.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

More highlights of New South Wales

While my posts last year and last week focused on the woods, timber industry, and phytosanitary aspects of life in New South Wales, Australia, I skipped over many other little things that made it seem so different from North America. I'll try to share the best of the rest here in this post, and I'll conclude in the next post with a  memorable video tour of a very special piece of nautical trade history.

First let me pick up where I left you in the last post,  at the operation of T. Davis Milling in Wandandian, in the company of Ms. Leith Davis. As you may have picked up if you watched the video of the tour of the early twentieth-century sawmill, Ms. Davis is a historian and author who has focused not just on the forest industry but environmental issues, and her perspective on timbering and forestry are quite interesting. In the following video (which does not show her at her request) we have a discussion about timber supplies and forest management, especially with the intervention of fire. Her comments about how Australian resource managers now operate with the knowledge of "intermediate disturbance theory" may be interesting to you forestry-inclined folks out there. I liked hearing, once again, the Australian birds in the background during our conversation.

I mentioned that most of the commercial timber species are Eucalypts. Following are some shots of the typical Eucalypt forests as I saw them.

The palm understory made for an interesting and beautiful ecological combination.

The canopy of Eucalypt forests is not dense; the crowns of most species were fairly sparse in leaves. They reminded me of the general form of black cherry trees in our northeastern U.S. forests.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Monga National Park, which is an ancient, temperate rainforest between the Araluen Valley where I headquartered and the coast. Sorry the pictures are so blurry, I didn't realize the camera shutter was adjusting to the low light levels and slowing down to compensate. My hands aren't as steady as they used to be.

This place was surreal. I felt that at any moment a troop of Hobbits was going to pop out from behind one of the trees, and that the trees themselves might start speaking to me. I was the only one in there, and hadn't seen anyone for miles by the time I got to this site, so you can imagine how out-of-world I felt in the moment.

The larger trees are plumwood, Eucryphia moorei. Ornamental bushes in much of New South Wales, these natural specimens may have been dropped into the area in bird droppings, where they begin a hemiepiphytic life; that is, the seeds sprout in the canopy, where their roots spread downward until they eventually make contact with the soil and they become grounded.

The smaller specimens are tree shrubs, and they definitely gave the place that Jurassic Park feel.

And only a few miles from there (as the cockatoo flies) I emerged back out onto the high plains of New South Wales, which really reminded me of parts of West Texas. It was cattle country, and beefsteaks there take a backseat to nowhere in the world. I snapped this shot of an old rock homestead still standing by the road.

From the high plains I descended into the Araluen valley which I described to you last year as the closest I'll ever be to Brigadoon. You might recall that I stayed in an old court house turned into a bed & breakfast. If you want a feel for how authentic the stay was, get a load of the door to my room. Really.

The picture below is one of my favorites of the trip. The marker is a memorial to Araluen citizens who gave their lives in World War I. When you've traveled the world and seen markers like this in every imaginable type of city, town, and village, it makes you think a little about the nature of man. The beautiful irony of this site, with the pastoral setting of sheep and mountains in the background, was overpowering.

I also saw a modern type of beauty, on the road to Canberra. These are rapeseed fields, which we call canola, and they went on for miles. Canberra being the central seat of government in Australia, it was perhaps not surprising to see renewable bioenergy crops being grown in abundance so near. Australia, like much of northern Europe, is big on biofuels, and rapeseed is a preferred oil seed for biodiesel production. I'll say sure looks better in the landscape than solar panels or wind turbines.

This last picture is an old Pinus radiata, or Monterey (Radiata) pine, growing in a town setting. We tend to think of radiata pine as an Australian or New Zealand species, but its actual origin is the Monterey peninsula of central California, where the last remaining original stands are under threat of extirpation by pine pitch canker. This threat, should it spread to huge commercial plantations of radiata pine, would have disastrous effects, and is one of the reasons that phytosanitary inspectors in Australia and New Zealand are fanatics about stopping importation of plants from other countries.

Ok, I have to include one last video. It's not all that great quality-wise, but it's one you can't get here in North America...cockatoos on the power lines, mocking me just like the crows do back home. They must be cousins.

Next post, we'll explore the Australian version of Old Ironsides.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Wood Science 101 (6) - Nanocellulose

I'm frequently asked what modern "wood science" is all about, in the context of what industry is interested in right now. Well, the big money has been going into "nanotechnology" research for at least a decade now. The old days of "wood science" are pretty much over, as those who are investigating topics such as the one you'll see in the following videos consider themselves to be scientists in "materials science", "microbiology", or some other such thing that seem to be something distinct from our concept of wood.

And that's OK. The message I get from this trend is that the miracle we call a tree will continue to provide humanity with products that we can't even imagine today. And even as it does, we will still have solid wood as a fundamental material in our lives. Nice to think of.

Here's a fascinating industry video that shows where we've been, and what the path forward is.

And here's a simple article (simple as it gets, at least) written by one of my colleagues a few years ago on this topic. He provided the following short "micro-video" to show what structures he was talking about.
by Jeffrey M. Catchmark 
The plant cell engages in a unique set of integrated nanoscale processes relevant to some of the most important challenges which face our society: sustainable energy production, storage, utilization and materials manufacturing. Inside a plant cell, the process of photosynthesis stores energy contained in sun light through the assembly of glucose (sugar) molecules from water and carbon dioxide. The plant cell uses glucose as a fuel through the process of cellular respiration. 
Amazingly, plant cells as well as bacteria and other organisms contain unique nanomanufacturing proteins which also use glucose to assemble nanofibers known as cellulose, the most abundant renewable material resource on the planet. The production and orientation of these fibers is orchestrated by the plant cell on the nanoscale through a hierarchical assembly process producing a unique natural composite structural material across a length scale extending over 10 orders of magnitude. On the most fundamental level, this organization is being orchestrated by microtubules and biological molecular motors. Biological motors are proteins and literally nanoscale motors measuring ~4nm x 4nm x 7nm with a tail for binding to cargo which extends as long as ~80nm. These motors are powered by the hydrolysis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and ‘walk' on polymers of tubulin known as microtubules. These microtubules measure 25nm in diameter and up to ~25 microns in length. Biological molecular motors like kinesin play a role in the formation of microtubule networks which guide the motion of cellulose synthesizing proteins orienting the cellulose fibrils. These cellulose fibrils are combined with hemicelluloses and lignin to create the plant cell wall and on a larger scale, wood. 
Researchers are now exploring new methods of assembling cellulose fibers into composite materials using the plant cell as a model system. Over the past several years, biological proteins such as biomotors and microtubules are being manipulated outside biological cells. Researchers have found that engineered biomotor complexes can organize intricate microtubule networks outside of the cell exhibiting a wide range of geometries. These networks exhibit order extending from the nanoscale to the millimeter scale. Our group at Penn State University is beginning to use these dynamic microtubule networks for aligning and weaving nanoscale cellulose fibrils into new materials using biological molecular motors. The first step toward this goal is the coupling of biological motor proteins to cellulose. Cellulose particles were successfully functionalized with NHS-dPEG™12 Biotin. Biotinylated kinesin were linked to the cellulose particles using neutravidin. To determine if the cellulose particles were functionalized with kinesin biomotors, a solution containing microtubules and kinesin functionalized cellulose was prepared and the microtubule motility dynamics studied. The movie shown depicts microtubule movement on the cellulose particle, clearly demonstrating that the cellulose has been functionalized with kinesin biomotors. 
Current work focuses on using nanoscale cellulose whiskers and actual ordered microtubule networks for creating engineered cellulosic materials. Nanoscale engineering of cellulosic material may provide many advantages for forest products. The nanoscale organization of cellulose fibers may reduce the amount of fiber needed for wood composites and paper while improving material properties. Improvement in material properties could include lighter weight, equivalent or better strength or even better insulating properties associated with an increase in trapped air within the nanoporous material. Moreover, new applications of cellulose fiber may be realized. For example, cellulose is being examined as a tissue scaffold material for biological applications. Cellulose materials containing engineered nanoscale order may provide improved biocompatibility. Another example could be improved dielectric properties for electronics on paper. Paper which exhibits better insulating properties and improved surface morphology could enable high frequency electronic sensors or radio frequency identification (RFID) devices to be printed directly onto its surface. As nanotechnology permeates this field, many new materials, processes and applications will undoubtedly be developed.

Nanocellulose. A world of wood you probably never imagined you would see.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Australian Timber Industry, Re-visited

One year ago this weekend I was winging my way towards Australia. It occurred to me to go back and look through my pictures and videos of the trip to see if there was anything interesting that I failed to share with you. And there is.

Tea time in the pallet mill.
First, I never really did give you a good report on the timber producers of New South Wales. And the picture of this crew reminded me of a nice place. This is T. Davis Milling in Wandandian, New South Wales. It is a small timber outfit that mills a little timber (we call it lumber), cuts pallet stock, and makes a little firewood. All at a leisurely pace. A nice place to slow down and get to know some folks.

The three fellows in the picture were mill hands, and a little gruff as mill hands tend to be. I was a little concerned I might wind up as gator bait out behind the mill, at first. But they put up with me at tea, offered me some of their meal...and the younger fellow, the one with the hard hat, actually offered me a place to stay for the night if I needed it. That was nice of him. Wood folks are great, all over the world.

The lady at the right-hand side of the picture is Ms. Leith Davis, niece of the owner and quite an interesting lady. She agreed to take me on a tour of the property, including a historical re-creation of an early twentieth-century sawmill. The video below is the tour, and if you listen carefully, you'll pick up some really interesting comments that reveal some very real differences between the timber industries of Australia and the U.S. And you'll see and hear about some different species...silver (mountain) ash, Eucalyptus regnans, which is the world's tallest hardwood; blackbutt, Eucalyptus pilularis; and spotted gum, Corymbia maculata, for starters.

I had another interesting visit just a ways down the road from here when I visited a mill of Boral Timber Hardwood Systems. I think I was told that Boral is the largest timber company in Australia. The mill manager was nice enough to share with me a daily mill run quality control sheet that shows the daily production broken out by species and log size. By far the largest component at this Boral mill that day was ironbark, which seems to be a generic name for at least four distinct species; followed by spotted gum, fastigatared mahogany, messmate, blackbutt, bluegum, yellow stringybark, and eight others in that order, all Eucalypts or related, as far as I could tell. Hard for me to tell them apart, and most had a large percentage of rot in the core of the log; the mill manager told me that they managed in the low 40% for mill recovery, which was good because most mills ran in the mid-thirties. With recovery that low, it's easy to see why Australian timber is relatively expensive.

Another Aussie experience in the next post...