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, 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.