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


Monday, December 9, 2013

More Christmas Shopping Ideas for the Wood-Wise

This Christmas season finds me a jollier old elf than usual. In past years, I inclined more to the thought that Scrooge had a point.
"Christmas a humbug, uncle!" said Scrooge's nephew.  "You don't mean that, I am sure." 
"I do," said Scrooge.  "Merry Christmas!  What right have you to be merry?  What reason have you to be merry?  You're poor enough." 
"Come, then," returned the nephew gaily.  "What right have you to be dismal?  What reason have you to be morose?  You're rich enough." 
Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said "Bah!" again; and followed it up with "Humbug." 
"Don't be cross, uncle!" said the nephew. 
"What else can I be," returned the uncle, "when I live in such a world of fools as this?  Merry Christmas!  Out upon merry Christmas!  What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?  If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.  He should!"
But this year, for some reason, I've been infected with the silly optimisim of Scrooge's nephew.
"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew.  "Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol 
Assuming you are also putting aside the Bah! Humbug! for a couple of weeks, and intend to squander some of your hard-earned dollars on someone special to you...and that someone special has, or should have, an interest in all things wood, then I have three suggestions for you.

The first I received myself just a few weeks ago. Go Wood reader Keville Larson of Mobile, Alabama, was nice enough to send me a coffee-table copy of a wonderful book shortly after my post on the longleaf pine, Royalty of the Southern Forest.  The book, entitled Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See, is one of those books that you pick up just to look at the pictures, and can't put down once you start to read the stories.

Here's an example of one of those stories, which happens to mention my new friend Mr. Larson...
"At the heart of Langan (Municipal) Park in Mobile, Alabama, surrounded now by the city's sprawling suburbs, a thirty-five-acre remnant of longleaf seemed like a poor prospect for restoration. Initially, city officials simply shook their heads in disbelief when supporters from the Mobile Botanical Gardens - including Bobby Green, forester Keville Larson, and members of the Longleaf Alliance - came to them with a proposal to burn a forest so thick no one could see through it, a fire hazard surrounded by expensive homes and the city's art-museum complex.
But they presevered; they introduced fire carefully and systematically, and the forest has been burned every year for nearly a decade. For the middle-class homeowners around the park, the idea of burning the woods seemed at first not only strange but just plain wrong. With supporting dialogue from the local media, scientists, and foresters, many of those neighbors now look forward to the clean, green look of the forest after the burns. As the low flames spread on the day of a burn, some homeowners even amble out to discuss the finer of longleaf and wildflower response to fire. Living with fire, they feel more comfortable with it. Complaints are now rare, and a few confess that they've even come to relish fire's fragrant return, like winter's first puff of hickory smoke.
To everyone's surprise, the endangered and rare species on the property are not only holding their own; they're actually increasing. Scientists had long believed that the forest, thick as it was, supported a single, lonely old gopher tortoise, one of the few remaining tortoises west of the Alabama River. Now scientists believe that there may be eight or more of these threatened tortoises lumbering across the property, including some very young juveniles. Just as remarkable, the little patch of isolated urban forest rings with the sound of 'bob-bob-white'. That call isn't lost on old-timers, who remember when quail were once abundant here and now clearly see that in spite of fire ants, dogs, cats, overstocked raccoons, and other hazards of modern life, the quail can return if they are just provided the longleaf habitat they prefer." 
- Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See, pages 144-145 
What a great book. I intend to spend some time with it myself this winter as I gaze out at the frozen Pennsylvania landscape.

The second I can recommend, and not far behind in pure wood reading pleasure, is Oak: The Frame of Civilization.  I especially enjoyed one chapter that introduced me to the finer art and enjoyment of being a acorn-eater. I had tried the acorns of red oaks in my experimental days, and my mouth still dessicates at the memory. Wondered how deer, squirrels, and pigs could stand the things. But now I know that not only did people eat acorns, there is pretty substantial evidence that many, many early cultures survived primarily due to the nutty delights. But there is a trick or two in partaking of the woody nut that the book shares, and I look forward to trying one of these days.

I'll leave it to you to explore the other fascinating aspects of oak that have left an indelible imprint on human history. If you'd like to read more about the book, let me suggest this excellent review posted on The Guardian.

Finally, if your sentimental someone is more of the hands-on type, you may want to consider a gift that you can't find in the mall. The International Wood Collectors Society sells sets of wood samples in a box. These sets contain samples of some of the most common, and the most rare, woods in the world. The gift might be just a few hours fancy for some, but for just the right person the wooden rectangles may lead to a life-long passion. I know I love spending time with the University's collection, wondering especially about the differences in species and why and how they came to be that way.

But be warned, wood collecting can get out of hand. Many a wood collector has had their domestic arrangements tested by their propensity to haul slabs of walnut, maple, or mahogany into the house...and even go so far as to hang them on the wall. And it doesn't stop there...most wood collectors begin to collect wood working tools of various specialties, and to spend copious amounts of time in the basement throwing wood shavings in all directions.

But if you really love that certain other someone, and want to see just how much they love you, get them a set of wood samples this Christmas. And watch for that expression that comes with utter surprise. Worst case, they will throw the box at you, and it's a heavy booger. But tell them to rub and smell the wood, and if they don't have you committed, you've got a wood lover for life.

And possibly, you will hear those words Mr. Scrooge uttered that Christmas morn so long ago...

"I shall love it, as long as I live!"

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Let the Buyer Beware

I spent an interesting day Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. But not doing what I had planned...

We had a couple of guests over for Thanksgiving dinner, a Penn State sophomore far from his home in Nebraska, and a doctoral student even further from his home in India. It was a nice meal, everyone was cordial, and all were stuffed by sunset. However, as we lingered at the table over conversation, and the setting sun caused us to turn on the overhead light fixture, I noticed a couple of tiny insects buzzing me at the table. They were bigger than fruit flies, but smaller than anything else I could readily identify. Odd, I thought. It was freezing outside and Pennsylvania is not especially known for flying insects this time of year.

The mystery was solved the next day. The Wife woke up in a Christmas decorating frenzy that Friday morning. One of the first things she decided to do was to re-decorate the sideboard in our dining area, and she started out by cleaning off the top and pushing it away from the wall to clean behind it. That's when I got the call....

The perpetrator.
The sideboard was a fairly recent purchase. We found it at the grand opening of a new home furnishings place in town in the summer of 2012. The store is a national chain that specializes in imported products. The sideboard we purchased was an eclectic piece from India. It was made of solid wood throughout, and those grates you see in front of the shelves are wrought iron. The thing is took five delivery guys about an hour to get it into our house, under my professional supervision.

Although it looks somewhat like it came from the set of Pirates of the Caribbean, The Wife liked it and had to have it. For my part, I recognized the was $1,000, which is a lot for a guy like me...but the same piece made by an American or Italian company would cost three to five times as much, far beyond my means. So, I had bitten the bullet and bought, satisfied with the solid tropical hardwood construction and those wrought iron doors.

That was about eighteen months ago. But this Friday morning, as The Wife slid it away from the wall, the sideboard delivered another blast of special uniqueness.

Powderpost beetle frass piles inside as well as out.

I reacted as would any good Pirate....Arrrrgh!

I immediately recognized the scourge of the lumber industry: Powderpost beetles. So that's what had been buzzing me the previous evening...the beetles were in full emergence mode. As you can see from the photos, this was no incidental infestation of a small component of the sideboard...these things were everywhere, from the botton shelf to the drawers. Houston, we have a problem.

The beetles; some still alive, but inactive in the coolness of the morning.

Now, wood pests like this are the target of the global phytosanitary programs such as ISPM-15, and I have shared with you how thorough the port inspectors are in Australia. Such programs are usually two-fold: they require product manufacturers to heat-treat or chemically fumigate their biological products prior to exportation, or to manufacture them from kiln-dried raw material; and it empowers national port authorities to inspect for signs of insects or damage and to quarantine and treat, at the shippers expense, any products found to be infested.

But our Indian sideboard shows the flaws in both aspects of such programs. First, the producer of the product claimed to have manufactured it from reclaimed and kiln-dried wood, which should have guaranteed that any infestation would have been killed prior to shipment.

Organic and Eco-friendly!

Kiln-dried! But..."Some changes are natural and should be expected." Fair warning.

Obviously, either the wood was not thoroughly kiln-dried, or those are some super heat-resistant species of the beetle. The original weight of the piece leads me to suspect the former, and would have tipped me off to the green wood had not I assigned the unnatural heaviness to those iron grates. I wish I would have used a hand-held moisture meter on it when I first bought it. So, the first flaw in international phytosanitary measures...they rely on the veracity of the manufacturer as maintained in the product documentation. Meaning, just because a product is certified as kiln-dried, or pallets are certified ISPM-15 compliant, doesn't necessarily mean they are. (Note: ISPM-15 is a treatment regime specifically for wood pallets and packaging, and as such, does not regulate finished wood products such as my sideboard.  See the update below for some helpful reader feedbck.)

The second flaw in these programs is the relative ineffectiveness of the inspection regime used by any importing country, regardless of how thorough the inspectors are. I won't go into all the statistics; let it suffice to say that in my modest opinion, a very, very small percentage of any infested plants, food, or product imported into any country will be detected. This case shows one reason...some pests remain hidden until well after importation and sale. The powderpost beetle pupae in wood stay in development for months or years, depending on the species of beetle and wood, and the moisture conditions of the wood. In this case, they took at least eighteen months to wife's frequent cleaning and the presence of live beetles at our Thanksgiving feast ensures that this emergence was very recent.

First things first. I had to take action. Returning the piece was out of the question...those five delivery guys had sworn never to return. Besides, the wife loved it. So, I determined to fumigate the piece...I was going to tarp it in place with duct-tape to seal it, and blast it with the meanest-looking aerosol I could find at the local hardware store. But close reading of the various labels, warning of the danger to the various small and medium-sized children, dog, and tropical fish in our home, gave me pause. This was clearly going to be a job for a professional, with everyone out of the house for a few hours, if I wanted to fumigate it safely.

So I opted for the next best action, which I hope will work. I purchased a bottle of Bayer Advanced insecticide that claimed to be formulated for wood-infesting insects, and to be effective for up to twelve months. Borate-based insecticides are usually recommended for powderpost beetles, as they are better at penetrating the wood. However, the hardware store didn't have any, and although I located a couple of products online, I wanted to take action so that The Wife could get on with her Christmas cheer. I needed her to be of good cheer. Beetle frass did not have her in a cheery mood.

I sprayed that entire 24-ounce bottle of Bayer Advanced on the sideboard...on top, sides, bottom, inside, and all drawers. I used the soak spray setting in the joints of the piece, soaking them well under the notion that the wood would soak up the chemical at the saw cuts. And I used the mist spray setting on the flat surfaces, and wiped the whole thing to distribute the insecticide evenly over all the wood. Within an hour, the sideboard was dry...the wood really did suck up the liquid. I'll keep an eye on the piece over the next few weeks, and if I see anymore emergences, things will have to get more drastic.

So much for the problem and the treatment. But of course, there is the bigger issue. The purchase of the imported hardwood in the first place.

Okay, I had to come clean about buying imported wood products in order to write this post. I could have claimed to have nothing but good old American hardwood in my home, but that wouldn't exactly be true. We do own a great dark oak bedroom set that we purchased in 1997. It is a beautiful four-poster king-sized bed, two dressers, and two bed stands, made in Virginia by one of our venerable old furniture companies. One that ceased making furniture in 2005. We love it, and it looks even better today than it did when we bought it.

But that set cost about $3,500 back in 1997, and the only reason we own it is that my Dad left us a little insurance money when he went on to that great mill in the sky in December of 1996. After paying all the bills, we decided to purchase some real furniture for the bedroom and the family room. All American-made, we felt good about that furniture. But honestly, we haven't been able to purchase any like it since. And there aren't any relatives left to usher into their eternal resting place...unless you count me, upon whose passing The Wife will finally be able to replace that family room furniture.

The problem is, most of our American furniture is some of the most expensive in the world. We've been able to improve the productivity of our mills and furniture plants, so that a $3,500 bedroom set in the mid-1990's is roughly about the same cost today. But there are fewer companies here making them, and fewer workers employed in the furniture business. And part of the blame lies at the feet of folks like me, who have purchased competing products from overseas at half or less the cost of similar products made here.

As the saying get what you pay for.

It turns out that purchasing manufactured wood products has always posed the buyer with a moral/economic dilemma. A century or more ago, that dilemma wasn't in as clear a focus as it is today. And even today, with all the information we have concerning our purchasing options, the moral high ground is still hard to define, while the cost differences are not.

More on that, in the next post.

Update, 12-4-13. Much helpful feedback, including this note from John McDaniel of the American Lumber Standards Committee...
"The article discusses ISPM 15 and that it is directed at pests such as powder post beetles which is correct.  Furniture, however,  is not a regulated product under the ISPM 15 standard.  The ISPM 15 standard is only applicable to wood packaging material such as pallets, crates, boxes, packing cases, etc. made from solid wood greater than 6mm in thickness.  Thus ISPM15 is not at fault as the problem was with the wood that was used to make the piece of furniture which is not regulated under ISPM 15."
Mr. McDaniel is correct, and I mistakenly associated my sideboard with ISPM 15, which was developed precisely because wood pallets and packaging were not typically treated and inspected as manufactured wood products. Thus, the specific piece of furniture in the article would not have been treated and inspected under the ISPM 15 program. It was however, subject to the same expectations of appropriate phytosanitary treatment and inspection as any other food or agricultural product, and should have been bug-free, regardless.

Likewise, my comments on the flaws of the ISPM 15 program and import inspection programs remain relevant, unfortunately. Several folks noted that the sideboard could have in fact been properly kiln dried, but infested during storage or shipment. It is likely that the furniture was either strapped onto large wooden pallets or loaded into wooden or steel boxes from which the beetles could have resided from previous infestation. So we still have a problem in the process...either the piece was not manufactured from kiln-dried lumber, was not heat-treated as a finished product, or was likely infested from a source that should have been phytosanitary under the ISPM-15 requirements on wooden packaging. Either way, "the system" failed to stop the transportation of the beetles.  Ahh, the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (50) - Monticello

Last week, on the way back from Fort Stewart, I made a detour to a place I've always wanted to visit...that place on the back of the nickel. Otherwise known as Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.

Even though the place is much smaller than I expected, I wasn't disappointed in the least. In fact, the dimensions of the property and the home made it feel somehow much more real, and in doing so, made the great man himself much more human in my mind. The interior of the home was intimate and warm, with each room holding some delight in woodworking or mechanical comforts unique for the time. Each new discovery led me to understand that in some ways, Mr. Jefferson was not much different than any other proud homeowner...he was always looking for ways to improve his castle. In fact, the history of Monticello is divided into two phases: Monticello I, which was mostly a brick-and-mortar sancturary from the elements of this remote late-18th century Virginian hilltop; and Monticello II, which is the warmer, more refined home of a man having spent several years in Paris as an ambassador of our country. Mr. Jefferson, it turns out, among other things, may have been one of the very first Americans to get remodeling fever.

Thomas Jefferson said that "Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements." He spent much of his life "putting up and pulling down," most notably during the forty-year construction period of Monticello. Influenced by his readings of ancient and modern architectural writings, Jefferson gleaned the best from both his reading and from his observations in Europe, creating in his architectural designs a style that was distinctively American.
Monticello was built of American chestnut timbers; the floors are wonderful old pine planks, the same that could be found in very many an old southern home. And one of the most famous pieces in the home is a revolving bookstand made from local walnut, and probably produced at the joinery shop on the premises. This piece allowed the thoughtful Mr. Jefferson the ability to scan several texts at once in pursuit of his great thoughts.

Our tour guide gave us additional insight into the humanity of Mr. Jefferson, touching not only on his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, but on the fact that he was $100,000 in debt at the time of his death. While much has been made of the first, I found the latter much more interesting. It turns out that Monticello might not even be there today if it had not been purchased and resurrected in Jefferson's honor by a certain Uriah Phillips Levy, one of the great characters in American Jewish history.
"He was pugnacious, determined, eccentric, confirmed in the righteousness of his causes, an able businessman who was quite wealthy, and an admirer of Thomas Jefferson. His admiration rested on Mr. Jefferson's well-deserved reputation as a champion of religious liberty; not toleration, but liberty. "I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in history," Levy declared, "the author of the Declaration and an absolute democrat. He serves as an inspiration to millions of Americans. He did much to mold our Republic in a form in which a man's religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life." Levy's admiration for Jefferson first expressed itself in a unique gift that the lieutenant made to the government and the people of the United States. As he wrote to his attorney, George Carr, "there is no statue to Jefferson in the Capitol in Washington. As a small payment for his determined stand on the side of religious liberty, I am preparing to commission a statue." And the statue, in its way, led to Monticello.
"For those of us who are used to seeing Monticello as it is today, lovingly restored to what our best knowledge tells us was Mr. Jefferson's plan, it is hard to envision the great house as seedy or run-down. In fact, it was already looking that way in the last years of Jefferson's life. He was so far in debt that he did not have the money necessary to make the needed repairs or to do the preventive maintenance that the house required. A visitor in 1824--two years before Jefferson's death--reported that the mansion was "old and going to decay," and that the gardens and lawns were "slovenly."
"On this work Levy gladly embarked, and from all reports did so successfully. Levy assembled a small army of workers--including over a dozen slaves that he purchased--and put them to work cleaning out the interior of the house, making needed repairs on the outside, and restoring the landscaped gardens and lawns. There are conflicting accounts as to whether Levy actually managed to buy some of Jefferson's original furnishings that had been sold at auction after his death, but he did go to great lengths to restore the house to its former glory. He put in working order the seven-day clock that had been made to Jefferson's specifications in 1793, and also restored the body of a two-wheel carriage that tradition, if not fact, claims to have been the one Jefferson rode to Philadelphia in 1775 for the Continental Congress.
As in so many other things, we see that the great things in life are usually due not only to the efforts of the one who imagines and designs them, but to all those others who work to build and maintain them.

As an exercise in understanding more about the real roots of our country, the men who built it, and the ubiquitous use of wood in those days, I recommend a trip to Monticello. There are literally dozens of others interesting architectural, historical, and construction details that make the whole experience much more than I have captured in this short piece. In fact, I hope to return myself one of these days when the kids are in other places, not complaining about their hunger. But then again, that also is a part of the human experience...I'm sure TJ had the same problem.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Royalty of the Southern Forest

I've already told you about my favorite deciduous tree, Platanus occidentalis, the distinctive American sycamore. It seems to grow everywhere in the country, and with little effort. Just about everyone who cares about trees can identify the mottled bark of a sycamore tree, and that's part of its charm.

Grassy stage longleaf pine.
But my favorite conifer has been seen and recognized by far fewer people, and grows within a far smaller range, in regional pockets. The king of the southern forest is the longleaf pine, Pinus palustris. This magnificent pine once covered most of the Gulf region, encouraged in its dominance by the annual fires set by The People, our native Americans. Longleaf is fire-resistant both in its early and mature life. It spends its first few years in what we call its "grassy stage", when it looks like a large clump of long, stiff grass sticking up off the forest floor. In this stage, a forest fire passing through will consume the forest litter surrounding the seedling, thereby feeding the baby tree with freshly converted nitrogen, but the seedling itself is protected from the flames by the thick sheath of high-moisture green needles.

It stays in this stage for at least five years, and sometimes ten or longer, depending mostly on the degree of crown cover. Finally, though, when the young tree has gathered enough energy from the sun and soil in its root system, it shoots straight for the sky like a green fountain. It grows quickly from this point on, and eventually the longleaf will catch up with other pine species that started out more quickly.

This trait has always been a deterrent for southern timber company silviculturists, who traditionally have been tasked with producing the most wood in the shortest period of time. For pine plantations to be economic, they need to have flexible return-on-investment; in other words, if the pulpwood markets are especially profitable at some period of time, the company would like to have enough wood on the stem at twenty or thirty years of growth to allow harvesting of the stand at that shorter rotation...which is why the longleaf's faster-starting cousins, the slash pine (Pinus elliottii), and especially the more hardy loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) were favored by the southern timber companies from the 1950's on. And as plantations of slash and loblolly covered the South, the stands of native longleaf grew smaller and smaller, aided in their decline by the fact that wild hogs roaming the forest found grassy-stage longleafs a most delectable snack.

It isn't until the pines reach their later sawtimber size, after fifty years or more, that the longleaf catches and passes the size and yield of its less charismatic cousins. But left to maturity, the longleaf takes on a grandeur unachievable to the other pines...straight, stout, and tight-grained, producing the finest southern pine timber one will ever come across. Unfortunately, in this world of global production of softwood timber, with ever-decreasing rotation lengths, the longer rotation periods and less-dense stocking required by the longleaf to produce its fine timber reduced its presence to small demonstration stands and natural stands left by random chance on out-of-the-way sites.

However, longleaf is making a comeback, led by folks who have come to recognized the ecological value of the species. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has a Longleaf Pine Initiative that is helping landowners interested in restoring the rare and endangered ecosystem of the longleaf. Perhaps the most famous member of the longleaf ecosystem is the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides boralis), which prefers open stands of mature longleaf, and bore into live trees to make their nests. The longleaf so used by the birds reacts by producing extra quantities of pitch to seal off the woodpecker hole, and by this means continues to grow happily along with the woodpecker family.
"The Red-cockaded Woodpecker makes its home in mature pine forests. Longleaf Pines (Pinus palustris) are most commonly preferred, but other species of southern pine are also acceptable. While other woodpeckers bore out cavities in dead trees where the wood is rotten and soft, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is the only one which excavates cavities exclusively in living pine trees. The older pines favored by the Red-cockaded Woodpecker often suffer from a fungus called red heart rot which attacks the center of the trunk, causing the inner wood, the heartwood, to become soft. Cavities generally take from 1 to 3 years to excavate.
The aggregate of cavity trees is called a cluster and may include 1 to 20 or more cavity trees on 3 to 60 acres (12,000 to 240,000 m²). The average cluster is about 10 acres (40,000 m²). Cavity trees that are being actively used have numerous, small resin wells which exude sap. The birds keep the sap flowing apparently as a cavity defense mechanism against rat snakes and possibly other predators. The typical territory for a group ranges from about 125 to 200 acres (500,000 to 800,000 m²), but observers have reported territories running from a low of around 60 acres (240,000 m²), to an upper extreme of more than 600 acres (2.40 km²). The size of a particular territory is related to both habitat suitability and population density.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker plays a vital role in the intricate web of life of the southern pine forests. A number of other birds and small mammals use the cavities excavated by Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, such as chickadees, bluebirds, titmice, and several other woodpecker species, including the Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Larger woodpeckers such as Northern Flicker, Red-bellied or Pileated Woodpecker may take over a Red-cockaded Woodpecker cavity, sometimes enlarging the hole enough to allow Eastern Screech Owls, Wood Ducks, and even Raccoons to move in later. Flying Squirrels, several species of reptiles and amphibians, and insects, primarily bees and wasps, also will use Red-cockaded Woodpecker cavities."

One part of the story of the longleaf that especially touches me is longleaf pine restoration being done by the Alabama-Coushatta tribe in East Texas. When I was a youngster, my folks often stopped by the tribal visitor center east of Livingston on our way up to family reunions in Tyler. I loved watching their tribal dances, and never knew at the time that my natural affinity for these kind, shy people probably stemmed from the Cherokee blood provided by one of my great grandmothers, who descendants would have walked the Trail of Tears from Georgia, North Carolina, and Alabama to Oklahoma. From Cherokee tribal lands that were naturally dominated, due to Indian-style forest stewardship in those long-past years, by majestic longleaf pines, hundreds of years old.

In my mind's eye, I still recall strolling through needle-cushioned open stands of towering, beautiful longleaf pines on a hot summer day, watching the feathery long needles sway in the breeze, marveling at their distinctive ecosystem (though at that time, I called it "the woods"), inhaling the pine terpenes that I loved. I remember thinking that women ought to use pine oil for perfume instead of that flowery stuff. What guy could resist a gal who filled the room with the odor of the piney woods?

Longleaf pine making a comeback. Another great story in the world of Going Wood.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

More Progress on Pellets

Last month, I shared a report with you on a study that looked at the potential for conversion of oil and coal boilers to wood. The bottom line: that potential conversion projects vary by state, and that the more populous states have far more potential for reductions in fossil fuel consumption for heating - but that rural areas will probably continue to lead the way in adoption.

The second part of that conclusion continues to hold true. For example, New Hampshire wound up far down our ranking of conversion potential, just behind its sister state of Vermont (in 25th and 26th place), primarily because of lack of population density and heating consumption. But nevertheless, they have the wood, and they're all for fossil fuel reduction, and so they are more open to wood as a replacement fuel.

Here's an excellent article from NPR New Hampshire that shows how wood pellets are changing attitudes in The Granite State. I suggest you click on the "Listen" bar below the can hear the story as it aired, and you can hear the tone of the folk's voices as they talk about the technology. Let's hope their investment expectations pan out, and that more urban and industrial folks learn from their successes.

Update: Adam Sherman of the Biomass Energy Resource Center sent along another couple of great links on recent wood-doings in New England...

New England Cranks Up its Wood Burning Stoves

Vermont and Upper Austria Create Partnership to Promote Biomass Heating

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Rock of the Marne

On this Veteran's Day, I find myself especially grateful to our military and those who have sacrificed in the protection of our freedoms. Especially, I say, because this weekend we will head south to Fort Stewart, Georgia, to welcome home our son Charlie and his fellow soldiers of the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division from their latest deployment on the fighting fields of Afghanistan.

A great wood splitter a long ways from home.

The stories Charlie has shared with us on his occasional calls home were sometimes comforting, and sometimes not. His mother and I were amazed to hear of the many 'overseas contingency operations' his unit has been engaged in in the past nine months, with no mention at all of the battles in our American media. It's hard to believe we've reached the point in our society where we can conduct wars all over the world, and hardly even take notice back here at home.

While we've prayed for all the soldiers in his outfit during this deployment, I think there is one in particular I will especially seek out for a handshake. As a young medic, we knew Charlie's safety was essentially in the hands of his fellow soldiers, but in his calls he frequently mentioned a certain sergeant Brinkley as one that seemed to bolster Charlie's confidence in battle and ensure his safe return.

The politicians send our children off to war...and the sergeants bring them back. Sergeant Brinkley, here's a big Go Wood salute to you on this Veteran's Day.

Charlie's unit, the 3rd ID, is called "The Rock of the Marne", but very, very few Americans today know the story behind the label. As a tribute to them on this Veterans Day, I share with you today that breath-taking story, straight from the Congressional Record of May 1, 1920.
"Mr. Chairman, "Marne" is a name indelibly inscribed on the pages of history. It was at the Marne, in September, 1914, that the French under Joffre turned back the German hordes in their mad dash toward Paris; and it was at the Marne in July, 1918, on the selfsame ground that a single regiment of American Infantrymen, with some aid from the Artillery, once more stemmed the German tide and rolled it back in defeat, earnly thereby for itself and its gallant colonel the proud title, "The Rock of the Marne". [Applause.]
World military annals report few feats that equal, and none that surpass, the deeds of the Thirty-Eighth regiment of Infantry under the command of Col. Ulysses Grant McAlexander in the Second Battle of the Marne. "On this occasion," says Commander-in-Chief John J. Pershing in his final report, "a single regiment of the third division wrote one of the most brilliant pages in our military annals. It prevented the crossing to certain points on its front, while on either flank the Germans who had gained a footing pressed forward. Our men, firing in three directions, met the German attacks with counterattacks at critical points and succeeded in throwing two German divisions into complete confusion, capturing 600 prisoners."
In the summer of 1918 the German forces were again in motion toward Paris. their hopes for success ran high. The Kaiser had set July 17 as the date for his triumphal entry into the French capital. The race was between the Kaiser and the Americans. Barrier after barrier the Germans hurdled or smashed through until they arrived at the Marne.
"Between Chateau-Thierry and Dormans -
wrote Maj. Gen. J.T. Dickman -
"the Marne is a navigable stream, which flows in a deep valley. The crest of the banks is about 400 feet above the level of the river. The strategical feature of the stretch of 20 kilometers between Chateau-Thierry and Dormans is the valley of Surmelin Creek. This valley furnished the only good opening toward the south. The railroad and two good wagon roads in this valley running towards Conde en Brie and Montmirail are indispensable for the line of supply of an army crossing the Marne."

The Surmelin Valley was, indeed, the gateway to Paris. The sector along the Marne where it is joined by the Surmelin was held by the Thirty-Eighth.  On its left lay another American regiment, on its right a French division. The Germans knew the great strategic value of the Surmelin Valley and were prepared to enter it at all costs. On the other hand, Col. McAlexander was aware of the necessity of holding it against the enemy. Defeat or retreat spelled disaster to the Allies. [Applause.]
The great outstanding fact in the battle of the Thirty-Eighth against the German hosts at the Marne is that of regimental unity. Every unit, from battalion to corporal's squad, acted in complete harmony of command...The evening of July 14 found the regiment ready for any emergency. It was arranged on principles of "formation in depth." Near the river and along the Metx-Paris railroad, which paralleled the river, lay the Second battalion under Maj. Rowe; back of it was the First battalion under Maj. Keely; and last, the Third battalion under Maj. Lough. Col. McAlexander had gone over the ground carefully, and to the surprise of his officers, had ordered trenches dug on the right flank between himself and the French. He was going to take no chances of an unprotected flank in case the French division on his right retreated. This evidence of military foresight, as was proved later, saved the regiment from annihilation and turned certain defeat into victory,
As midnight of July 14 approached an ominous stillness filled the air. Instinctively the men of the Thirty-Eighth felt that something unusual was about to transpire. Their suspense was of short duration. Exactly at 12 o'clock the German artillery opened fire. the sector was swept for hours, until it would seem that no living thing could have escaped. But the Americans, huddled in their tiny dugouts or open-slit trenches, awaited the attack which was sure to follow. How they longed to come to blows with this deadly thing which threatened to stifle the freedom of the world, to see it face to face, to meet steel with steel!
At about 4 o'clock the bombardment was lifted and a rolling barrage took its place. Back of the barrage came masses of gray-clad Germans, two divisions strong, with a third in support. At the river boats were loaded and pontoon bridges were built. But here again McAlexander's military genius evidenced itself. Instead of withdrawing all his men from the river bank, he left a strong detachment there. I believe it was the French general, Degoutte, who phrased it  "McAlexander fought with one foot in the water." It was not exactly orthodox, and to the Germans it was another example of American ignorance of military science, but like many another American innovation in the World War it proved its worth. The American riflemen on the bank of the Marne destroyed boatload after boatload of Germans. It was the proud boast of the Thirty-Eighth that no Germans were able to cross the river in the sector held by it. [Applause.]
Farther to the left and right, however, the Germans did effect crossings, and advanced against the Metz-Paris railway line a short distance from the river. Here, too, they met a resistance which they could not overcome. Charge after charge failed to carry them across the railroad track. No German graves are located behind this line, but there are about 600 between it and the river. The Thirty-Eighth paid heavily for its resistance, but the line held.
In referring at a later date to this phase of the fight, Col. McAlexander said:
"There was only one thing that saved us, and that was the spirit of kill or be killed. And I want to say that I was willing to sacrifice the regiment and myself with them rather than yield one foot ground to those Germans. I gave orders to my men to hold their sector until they had orders to retire, and they were just as anxious to hold their ground as the colonel was to have them hold it. The books say that when your casualties have reached one-third you are out of action. But I want to tell you of one company that when 70 percent of its men were casualties, organized the remaining 30 percent in a countercharge and captured 410 prisoners."
Need our schoolboys turn to Leonidas at Thermopylae or Miltiades at Marathon for tales of heroism after such a recital as this? Surely the story of McAlexander and the Thirty-Eighth at the Marne will find its place in our histories alongside of Jackson at New Orleans and Thomas, "The Rock of Chickamauga." [Applause.]
On the flanks another chapter was being written. The American regiment on the left had given ground and the Germans were filtering through against the Thirty-Eighth. On the right the French division had retired. The Thirty-Eighth thus had to defend itself on the front and both flanks. It was here that Col. McAlexander's plan of defense bore fruit. The Germans had begun an encircling pincers movement to cut off the regiment, and but for the precaution that had been taken to protect the right flank in case of retirement of the French, they would have been successful.
Messages sent back from the front lines to the commanding officer tell tales of grave danger, but ring with fighting determination to hold at all hazards. For example, in reply to a message of encouragement from Col. McAlexander directing him to hold on, Maj. Rowe wrote:
"We have no intention of withdrawing unless we are completely outflanked. At present Roche machine guns are troublesome on right flank. If French counterattack in time, we shall be O.K. We must thicken the lines to-night and have ammunition and food and carrying parties from rear. There are many German rowboats on river which should be destroyed before night. We are weary but proud."
"Invincible and unconquerable." How Americans must thrill with pride on reading such a message.
For three days the fight on the flanks went on, the Germans striving desperately to open a gateway through the Surmelin. An order came to Col. McAlexander: "Fall back if you think best." "Is it up to my decision?" he asked. "Yes." "Then I hold my lines." [Applause.]
What was there back of this heroic determination to hold the lines at all costs? Aside from the strategic position occupied by the Thirty-Eighth, there was the question of morale.
"It was our part -"
Said Col. McAlexander -
"to so impress the Germans with our fighting ability and our wish to fight them that their morale would be destroyed to the extent of seeing great forces brought against us with no prospect of their success."
Did this fight affect the morale of the Germans? Let the Germans themselves answer:
"Our retreat across the river (Marne) was awful; those Americans certainly did clean us up....they fight like tigers....if those in front of us are fair specimens of the average American troops, and there are as many as they say there are, then goodbye to us."
This from the notebook of a member of the defeated Sixth Grenadier regiment, a crack fighting unit.
Yet this was not all. On the night of July 21, when the wornout heroes were preparing for the first real sleep in a week, orders came to be ready to advance in the morning. The great smash was on. The German offensive had broken at the Marne and the tide had turned, never again to ebb until the Hindenburg line was pierced and the Germans, face to face with the greatest military disaster in history, signed the terms of the armistice.
Honors came - medals for bravery - promotion - in Europe. But at home, how many knew of the deeds of McAlexander and the Thirty-Eighth? It is a matter of record, reported by no less an authority than Maj. Gen. David C. Shanks, that when the regiment returned home no welcoming committee was on hand to greet it. Let us not attribute the lack of appreciation to the proverbial ingratitude of republics but rather to ignorance of the facts. The American people simply did not know.
Well, looks like things haven't changed that much...we're still a war-weary country and the press still doesn't report the horrors and heroes of war. The story of the Rock of the Marne isn't pretty to read, and I'm sure the trials of the modern Third Infantry are equally difficult to hear and bear. But if we, the parents and relatives of the next generation, pay attention to such things, maybe we'll be more prudent in committing our soldiers to questionable causes in forsaken places. We can only hope.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Potatoes and Wood Panels

One of the major tussles in the wood industry over the past decade has been the effort by the EPA to ban formaldehyde-based resins in the production of particleboard, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), oreiented-strand board (OSB) and other wood products. Industry groups have understandably resisted the EPA's effort, since these resins have proven to be reliable, low-cost binders of wood particles for decades, and companies have been able to consistently improve the properties of their wood panels and products using them.

Many new resin systems have been explored as potential substitutes, since a small percentage of people are adversely affected by formaldehyde emissions, and formaldehyde itself is thought to be a carcenogic compound if a subject is exposed to it in sufficient quantities over protracted periods (a qualification, by the way, that does not apply to wood panels and products as manufactured and used these days). Nevertheless, EPA continues to push for a complete ban on the resins, companies continue to push back in the name of common sense...and scientists continue to look for alternatives that will satisfy all.

One such professor, Dr. Andrew Abbott of the University of Leicester, has the latest entrant in the formaldelhyde-displacement race. His solution? A resin system comprised of, among other things, starch of the common potato. Sounds appetizing...

Since I was once in this area of research myself, and have experienced the operational challenges of making an alternative binder system economically competitive with formaldehyde-based binders, I recognize that the key to Dr. Abbott's innovation lies in the coming challenge of commercialization, which he acknowledges near the end of the video. Nevertheless, I wish him and his team well and hope that they have, at last, discovered a game-changing binder that makes the world an even better place in which to live.

The potato...what isn't it good for?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bark Up or Down? Firewood Splits Norwegians

That great title comes directly from a recent New York Times article of the same name. It seems that one well-meaning Norwegian author inadvertently tapped into the subconcious passions of millions of fellow Norwegians with his 2011 best-seller Hel Ved (Solid Wood: All about Chopping, Drying, and Stacking Wood - and the Soul of Wood-Burning).

From the author's website, and as translated by my Google Chrome browser, are these details that bring the art of firewood preparation to life for vedfolk everywhere...
"The response after the release has been pleasing great. A plethora of nice readers have shared their own experiences with wood, especially if stacking methods and axes - in fact, I have also received acknowledgments from owners of old Partner saws, as thanks for the book restores these saws status as a professional tool, and not as one hobbysag! But first and foremost, the response has shown the importance of burning wood for Norwegians. There is a hushed, rational part of everyday life for much of the population.
The book is intended to be useful even for the fist run vedfolk. Along the way, I even tried out most of the methods described, with varying success and steep learning curve. I have dried kindling oak in oven, struggled to build round stack, been unlucky with vertical orientation of pine. At the same time I hunted wood-burning soul. But vedentusiastene is a peoples who do not necessarily like to formulate their involvement in words. However, it is visible in the tall, sharp-nearby stacked in fresh putty in old black ovens, in open sheds with long angled wall to the south. Therefore, the book is a lot of method, because it applies emotions articulated through method."

Apparently, as the Times article explained, the topic seemed like a good one for television in the land of the Midnight Sun. The docile folks of the Earth's skinniest country (geographically and bodily) are tuning in to the new fad of "slow TV", where they can watch, between episodes of sweater-knitting and train-riding, a twelve-hour special dedicated to wood burning - four hours of discussion, and eight hours of watching a fire.

Sounds like fun. Perfect for Thanksgiving afternoon viewing.

Apparently, though, the firewood episode was more controversial than the producers ever imagined. It seems that a large number of viewers texted in during the show that the wood was being stacked all wrong...that the bark should face down in the stack.

The controversy was, that a comparable number of viewers texted in that they were shocked to see that the wood was not being stacked with the bark side up.

I suppose that the unfortunate wood stacker in the show was a moderate and stacked pieces both ways, thereby inciting both the conservative bark-uppers and the liberal bark-downers.

You just can't beat Norwegian reality TV for action...slow action, anyway.

Somehow, I don't think the NFL will ever have a team in Oslo.

But the future of Norway's Olympic wood-chopping team looks bright.

Hel Ved is apparently coming out in English any time now. Now that's a book I'd like to receive for Christmas....hint, hint, family.

P. S. Help settle the controversy in our GoWood Cutting Issues poll on the right. Millions of Norwegians are peacefully waiting for the results.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (49) - The House on the Rock

Ever feel like you'd really like to get away from it all? Well, if you had a place like this, you'd probably be there already.
 This cabin is a long, long, way from anywhere.
"Katja and Adam Thom’s cabin, on an exposed postglacial archipelago in Canada’s windswept Georgian Bay, is more than eight miles from the nearest road. The building, quite literally off the grid and far from inland neighbors on a long and slender granite outcrop, is only accessible by boat—or perhaps by seaplane if you’re aerially inclined."
What kind of people would invest so much of their creativity and time into a dream so far off the beaten path, where very few are ever bound to wander? Not surprisingly, they are city-dwelling architects.
"Adam, a Toronto native, and Katja, from Denmark, met while studying at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in Los Angeles. Both had backgrounds in sculpture, and the architectonic skills and abstract formal ideas that they picked up at SCI-Arc go into all of their architectural projects as Agathom Co., a firm they cofounded in Toronto eight years ago."
 With those backgrounds, you would expect these folks to do it right, all the way.  And they did...
"The cabin in Georgian Bay is a particularly strong articulation of their basic design philosophy. The house is powered only by solar panels; it uses a graywater system, attached to the home’s only sink; and there is a composting toilet. At night, the Thoms heat their bed with rocks warmed beside the wood-burning stove and fireplace—and the ambient heat that these generate keeps the home’s temperature within a comfortable range."
Ahhh, I can feel that rock-warmed bed least, I wish I could.  But in such a desolate place, don't they have concerns about the elements, the wrath of nature?
"The house is built atop a system of stone piers, to which it is strapped down roughly every ten feet with steel bars. This effectively locks the building onto the granite bedrock—although there is enough space between the house and its earthly anchorage to let the region’s often-violent winds blow under and around the structure. That’s all part of Agathom’s larger siting strategy: “The house steps down to follow the contour of the landscape,” Katja explains.

“Part of the influence in designing like this was the way that the older cottages were built here before power boats, when everything was even more of a struggle,” she continues. “We had long conversations with the engineer to get everything as precise as possible—to make true two-by-fours, with square edges, and to get all the alignments right. We also had to get the strongest woods for the spans.”

“And we’ve been in some absolutely furious storms,” Adam adds.

Katja agrees, but seems to have a healthy sense of humor about it. “The house does not move,” she says. “It doesn’t even squeak.” Their enthusiasm for the accomplishment can be heard in Katja’s voice.

And, oh, the wood. Once again, the best one can get...reclaimed barn wood.

"Almost all of the wood they used was reclaimed from old Ontario barns, making many of the joists and floorboards several hundred years old. If you look closely you can see the peg holes; these are what Adam calls the boards’ “memory from an earlier life.” Anything that did have to be built specially for the project, including some long structural spans within the building, was made only with trees sourced from within a 200-mile radius. The wood is both resilient and durable; the exterior siding, for instance, has simply been left to weather, a decision that was as much aesthetic as it was sustainable: The architects explain that they “did not want any paints, solvents, or preservatives” involved with the project. Katja points out that, over time, as the boards are transformed by exposure to the elements, they will attain a silvery, autumnal sheen.

For more of this amazing retreat, visit the entire article and slideshow here at the website of

The Thoms have Gone Wood, and they're gone, literally.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Pallets and Bonfires on All Hallows' Eve

Some folks will find a use for pallets on any occasion. And when you put pallets and Halloween together, good things happen...behold, the Halloween wood pallet fence.
You might be surprised that wood and Halloween have a long relationship. From the earliest pagan festivals, bonfires were used to ward off evil spirits and the dark of winter.
Historian Nicholas Rogers, exploring the origins of Halloween, notes that while "some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead calledParentalia, it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain", which comes from the Old Irish for "summer's end". Samhain (pronounced sah-win or sow-in) was the first and most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Gaelic calendar and was celebrated in IrelandScotland and the Isle of Man. It was held on or about October 31 – November 1 and kindred festivals were held at the same time of year by the Brittonic Celts; for example Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall) and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany). Samhain and Calan Gaeaf are mentioned in some of the earliest Irish and Welsh literature. The names have been used by historians to refer to Celtic Halloween customs up until the 19th century, and are still the Gaelic and Welsh names for Halloween. 
Samhain/Calan Gaeaf marked the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or the 'darker half' of the year...Special bonfires were lit and there were rituals involving them. Their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers, and were also used for divination. It is suggested that the fires were a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic – they mimicked the Sun, helping the "powers of growth" and holding back the decay and darkness of winter.
As Christian culture merged with the pagan holiday schedule, many of the traditions evolved, but bonfires seemed to remain a central component of the celebration. And after all, who doesn't like a good bonfire, especially on a cold autumn evening?

The tradition of the Halloween bonfire was captured for eternity in the 1940 film "Meet Me in St. Louis." If you're a Judy Garland fan, you remember the movie well...but do you remember the dark Halloween scene, starring the darling Margaret O'Brien? It was the most fascinating part of the movie, to me, as it captured a mischievous spirit of past times that, if enacted by children today, would land them in juvenile detention halls and counseling sessions for years.

As you're out walking your little one this evening, flashlight and band-aids in hand, try to imagine turning the corner and coming on the scene of ten- and twelve-year-olds throwing wooden furniture onto a bonfire in the middle of the street. Or imagine opening the door with a bowl of candy in your hands, and being dowsed with a sackful of flour. And then think, how would I react?

Yes, times change. But wood will somehow, and in some way, always be with us. And that, unlike a sack of flour in the face, will remain a good thing.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Timber Theft: Little Noticed, but Serious Illegal Drain of Forests

Timber theft goes on wherever forests stand. We like to think that it is a phenomenon that occurs only in the wilder, more remote backwoods of the world. But in fact, I've had several folks relate to me about illegal logging activity off their land right here in the United States.

The following video is an eye-opening report by the Wall Street Journal on timber theft in far east Russia. It gives one a sense of how serious this issue can be when you're down at boot level. I witnessed the same feeling several years ago as a forest marshall in Bulgaria described to me his frequent shoot-outs with timber pirates in that country.

The investigator in the video makes a good point...that once timber is sawn, it is nearly impossible to tell legal from illegal timber. Thus, the secrecy you see in the video at mills "operating on the edge." And there is another good point made...that permits to access stands specifically for small-diameter harvesting or thinning can be used to gain access to the more valuable fully-grown trees.

The story opens with a Russian landowner telling of his struggle to protect his linden trees from timber pirates. The linden trees referred to are of the genus Tilia; cousins of our own Tilia americana, or American basswood. The flowers of most Tilia species are productive havens for honeybees, and the nectar the bees collect from the trees is especially favored by bee-keepers for its light and subtly-rich flavor.

A hidden cost of timber theft; no trees, no bees.

One could question the opening line of the video that begins, "The last forests of the world...", when we know that much of the world's land mass is still heavily fact, growing at an astounding rate in many parts of the world. Hyperbole in unnecessary in telling this story. Last forest or not, the situation should be remedied, not only for the benefit of the legal owners of the timber, but for the improvement of legal timber market economics.

Friday, October 25, 2013

When You Learn Something, You Learn It

These have been interesting times, lately, with folks cussing and discussing issues relevant to our Constitution and its intent. And of course, it's nice to know that we've all been ingrained with the principles of our founding document from our earliest schooldays.

Good ol' Barney. What a guy.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (48) - The NWFA 2013 Wood Floors of the Year

Wooden floors run the gamut from utilitarian planks in camp houses to the finest pieces of wooden art one can imagine. These winning floors from the National Wood Flooring Association's 2013 Wood Floor of the Year competition fall in the latter Click on the link above to see and read about all the winners. One is even in the Hermitage, the Winter Palace of the Russian czars, and it looks the part. Think of the history that floor has seen.

All the floors are breath-taking, but one in particular caught my attention: the winner of the Commercial Collaboration category, executed by Gaetano Hardwood Floors, Inc., of Huntingdon Beach, California. Naturally, a zig-zag striped floor of alternating wenge and maple strips will catch anyone's's stunning. But I really liked this floor because it showcases so well what can be done in the commercial environment, and the benefits of doing so. The custom furniture client's customers are presumably put into a buying mode by the appeal of the display of the furniture...and they might well inquire about then floor designer while they're looking.
Display product through commercial collaboration...another great way to get your customers to Go Wood.

Friday, October 18, 2013

October Morning at Penn State

Thank goodness, another weekend is here. The fall weather in central Pennsylvania is one of the best things about this part of the country. My walk in to work this morning really felt like Halloween was closing in, so I shot some video, first from my deck, then on campus. Warning: you Penn State alums out there will probably get homesick watching it.

Have a great weekend, wherever you are. More great wood next week.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Grown in Britain, from Tree to Table

Here's an interesting video produced in the UK by several wood products companies, explaining their commitment to and strategy for marketing home-grown and produced wood products. It's one of those feel-good videos that makes you hope for their success, even though the realities of the marketplace may be telling you otherwise.

We have a similar iniative here at Penn State, called the Penn State Elms Collection. Like the effort in the UK, the collection is a niche market developed specifically for folks who value the local, historical ties of the trees from which the wood is taken. And for some, that intrinsic value is just as important, if not more so, than the functional value of the product, and those folks will pay the extra price of that intrinsic value.

Not everyone's cup of tea, but in its own way, a great way to Go Wood.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (47) - The Caravel

Today is one of the oddest, I think, holidays of record. Here we know it as Columbus Day, but it has other names in other parts of the Americas. Most Americans simply regard it as a day in which we don't get our mail, since, in 1934, our famous Progressive president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, declared it a federal holiday, but forgot to give the rest of us the day off. But loyal Italian-Americans have some nice parades and festivals in honor of the great Italian explorer, Cristobal Colon, otherwise known as Christopher Columbus, who in 1492, sailed the ocean blue, and crash-landed on a rock on an island that came to be called Hispaniola.

In the ensuing five hundred and twenty-one years, Columbus and his feats have become the focus of perhaps the most far-reaching and widely-disputed discussions on the beginning of what we now refer to as "globalism". To some groups, Columbus is the hero that led the rise of European civilization in the name of God, as depicted in the famous painting above that went along with our American elementary-school education. To others (represented by the three nervous natives in the shadows) Columbus was the first of many invaders who brought slavery, disease, and death to a civilization that had been, up until then, one of the greatest and most populous on the planet.

A more balanced view is that as presented by our friend, the author Charles C. Mann, in the sequel to his enlightening exploration of the western world before white man, 1491. In 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Mann summarizes this event, which he borrows from the historian Alfred W. Crosby in calling "the Columbian Exchange", in the following light.
"The Columbian Exchange had such far-reaching effects that some biologists now say that Colon's voyages marked the beginning of a new biological era: the Homogenocene. The term refers to homogenizing: mixing unlike substances to create a uniform blend. With the Columbian Exchange, places that were once ecologically distinct have become more alike."
Even today, the homogenization of the worlds populations, cultures, and species continues to be controversial and the primary source of disagreement between peoples in all corners of the world.

But in his day, all Admiral Columbus was hoping for was to find a short cut to the fabulous wealth of India and China, by sailing westward into the unknown. And the only way he had to get there was an unassuming little ship called a caravel.

A caravel. Source:
The Iberian workhorse known as the caravel was one of the most important ships not only in Iberian history, but in the history of the world. The caravel was a vessel of paramount importance in the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was used to traverse the immense barrier to the New World. During these centuries, the caravel was a ship with a distinctive shape and admirable qualities. A gently sloping bow and single stern castle were prominent features of this craft, and it carried a mainmast and a mizzen mast that were generally lateen-rigged. Along with its shallow draft and ability to sail windward, these qualities helped the caravel achieve fame as it was propelled across the Atlantic and southward along the rocky western coast of Africa. This is the vessel that was used for the majority of transatlantic exploration as well as other famous expeditions, such as the numerous journeys made to circumnavigate South Africa in attempts to reach India during the Age of Discovery. Popular explorers such as Bartolome Diaz, Vasco da Gama, and Christopher Columbus relied on the caravel in their many sojourns into the unknown. Why did they choose this diminutive vessel, with humble origins in the 13th century as a coastal fishing boat, for the vanguard into the New World and other unexplored realms?"
 - George R. Schwarz
The simple answer to that question, in Columbus' case, was that he used what he had.  The King and Queen of Spain had given Columbus three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the larger Santa Maria, on a flyer somewhat the modern equivalent of buying a lottery ticket. They didn't expect the crazy Italian to have any success, but if, for some reason, he was right, the Spanish could corner the market on trade with the East. He did, and they did, and the rest is a crazy, chaotic mix of local cultural and ecological histories.

Modern replica of the Nina. Source:

Modern replica of the Pinta. Source:

Modern replica of the Santa Maria. Source:

Now, finally, we get to the key issue for Go Wood readers. What type of wood were these famous ships built of? And here we find the most likely answer a somewhat surprising circular reference back to one of our previous posts.  Researcher George Schwarz shares a summary of a 16-century treatise on the construction of such ships, and interesting enough, we find the author of O Liuro da Fábrica das Naus has dedicated two entire chapters on the type and harvesting of the best woods for such ships.
"Chapter 2: On the Types of Wood that are Suitable for the Building of Ships
Chapter 3: On the Time when Woods Should be Cut: and the Manner in which they Should be Cut

Chapter two describes the types of woods that are suitable for shipbuilding, and Oliveira suggests the two most appropriate kinds of wood for a ship were cork-oak (Quercus suber) and pine (Pinus pinea). The cork-oak was used for frames, and the pine for planking."
- George R. Schwarz
Naturally, we wonder if the cork-oak (the wood, not the bark) had any qualities that made it the choice over other oaks or woods of similar strength; and we wonder what made pinus pinea, the Italian stone pine, especially preferred for the planks. The obvious answer, is, that these two species just happened to be the oak and pine species most abundantly available to ship builders on the Iberian peninsula, and like other oaks and pines the world over, are exceptionally useful and reliable where superior strength to weight ratios are required.

And so, Columbus set off in these oak and pine space shuttles, determined to prove that he wasn't crazy.
"On Christmas Day, 1492, Colon's first voyage came to an abrupt end when his flagship, the Santa Maria, ran aground off the northern coast of Hispaniola. Because his two remaining vessels, the Nina and Pinta, were too small to hold the entire crew, he was forced to leave thirty-eight men behind. Colon departed for Spain while those men were building an encampment - a scatter of makeshift huts surrounded by a crude palisade, adjacent to a larger native village. The encampment was called La Navidad (Christmas), after the day of its involuntary creation (its precise location is not known today). Hispaniola's native people have come to be known as the Taino. The conjoined Spanish-Taino settlement of La Navidad was the intended destination of Colon's second voyage. He arrived there in triumph, the head of a flotilla, his crewmen swarming the shrouds in their eagerness to see the new land, on November 28, 1493, eleven months after he had left his men behind.
He found only ruin; both settlements, Spanish and Taino, had been razed. 'We saw everything burned and the clothing of the Christians lying on the weeds,' the ship's doctor wrote. Nearby Taino showed the visitors the bodies of eleven Spaniards, 'covered by the vegetation that had grown over them.' The Indians said that the sailors had angered their neighbors by raping some women and murdering some men. In the midst of the conflict a second Taino group had swooped down and overwhelmed both sides. After nine days of fruitless search for survivors Colon left to find a more promising spot for his base."
- Charles C. Mann, in 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
Certainly an inauspicious start for an inauspicious holiday. And wood made it all possible.

I bet Native Americans of both continents (and Africans, and Chinese, for that matter) wish Europe had been one immense grassland. A thought shared in sentiment, I presume, by those thirty-eight sailors that watched the Nina and Pinta sail away.