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The Zen of Milling Wood



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The Zen of Milling Wood
…j.a. kendrick
 

After the heavy windstorms earlier this year, we found ourselves with quite a log deck full of trees of various species that we decided to mill ourselves rather than send to the commercial mill. As we worked, I found myself reflecting on the process and how I felt about it. The word “Zen” somehow came to mind. Everyone talks about the “Zen” of something or other, so I decided to see if the word meant what I thought it did. It is defined as “finding the truth through introspection and intuition”. Good enough, I guess that the following discussion of how I feel about milling wood fits in there somewhere. 

There is something very special about milling trees into lumber. It is not just the utilitarian aspect of creating a usable product from a once living tree, though that in itself is very satisfying to me. No, I mean something different- the more intense, artistically inspiring, and physically stimulating aspects.  

The mere smell of oils being released as the blade exposes another layer to the air is almost intoxicating. The heady spiciness and aromatically pungent scent of each tree species is distinctly different, yet awakens the same pleasingly intense olfactory stimulation. As the wood dries, the scent matures into altogether different aromas, more soft and soothing like incense. I love awakening to the scent on a warm morning, prophetic that our day will involve the Woodmizer sawmill slicing the round tree boles from our log deck into perfectly flat boards of varying dimensions.
 

There is an art to determining what each tree will become, depending on its diameter, length and many other considerations. I am not certain that my husband would call it an art, but it is. I watch the look on his face as he considers the attributes of the log in front of him, and that look is a visual caress as he walks around it, touches the end of it and lets it tell him what loveliness hides inside. There is a very real communication that goes on between them. If he does not listen, or is hasty in his effort to produce quantity rather than quality, the work and the product suffers as he struggles to get anything of value from the log. 

The flying sawdust temporarily obscures the beauty of each board that the blade cuts, but as we move and stack them, I eagerly watch, anticipating their splendor being revealed. The pinks, salmons, gold and tans are unbelievably luxuriant in their beauty; the swirls and knots so creatively arranged, that I am awed by nature’s endless combinations of artistic handiwork.  

Each time I see the pale tawniness of Ponderosa Pine, I think it most lovely, yet when Sugar Pine is stacked, its golden amber outshines all else. Incense Cedar, with its caramels and rosy tones that meld into thick pinks, is so gorgeous that I have to run my hand across it and return to watch the sun enhance and enrich it as it dries. Even Douglas Fir, seen as common in this area, amazes me with its variety of color and pattern. The heartwood is often so intensely salmon colored that it mimics Redwood, while the beige and soft browns of the outer layers seem almost suedelike. 

I can never decide whether the unblemished clear wood, or the highly grained wood with large knots, or the pale wood with tiny knot patterns is more beautiful. I have come to understand that each board is an individual piece of nature’s artistry and appreciate each one for its own character. If I had time I would look at them for hours, but unfortunately, they must be admired in short order as they are stacked to dry, then it’s back to work again. 

I can honestly say that running the sawmill is a labor of love, though when I am hot, tired and sweating like a pig, there are times when I forget how much I love it and just try to survive the backbreaking physical labor and long hours it takes to do the job. At those times, all I can think about is how I hope someone appreciates all the work that goes into making that piece of lumber that they use for their project.  

The work begins with falling the tree and bucking it in the forest; continues as we bring it to the sawmill, cut it to workable measurement lengthwise, mill it and stack it to dry; then culminates as we trim it to standard lengths and plane it to smooth perfection. A great deal of time and energy goes into providing that fine-looking lumber that people take for granted. I am hopeful of that some of them will take the time to admire it and determine what lies inside, before they turn it into something they will treasure for many years, and perhaps pass it down to members of their family to cherish.  

I was amused recently, when the American Tree Farm Association sent an e-mail informing us that here was Breaking News from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: a new Forest Service Study confirms wood is truly a green building material, especially wood from American Tree Farm System® certified family forests.

U.S. department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "Wood should be a major component of American building and energy design. The use of wood provides substantial environmental benefits, provides incentives for private landowners to maintain forestland, and provides a critical source of jobs in rural America."

Do ya think? ... Our government seems to always be a day late and a dollar short in coming to understand what has been clear to all of us forever.  The bureaucracy rumbles on as our sawmill sings its happy tune creating that “green” product. I love it.

Comments:

Comment  from Donald J.:

When I first read your forum article called Cut it,watch it or do not touch it, I thought that it was stupid. But my wife just weren't getting along and did not seem to understand what the other said, so we tried it. You saved our marriage.

Answer from jk:

Sometimes the simplest things are the best. Glad we could help.



 
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Wilderville, Oregon