{ Category Archives: material provenance }

Milling the Valley Oak

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Shawn trims the ends of the felled trunk before quartering the log.

I met my friend Shawn Gavin at the old Felta School near Healdsburg the other day to mill a Valley Oak. I had purchased the log from the school after it was felled for safety concerns last September, and have been eager to see what the wood looks like. I plan to make a batch of my Deep Deck from the wood after it air dries for about a year, having successfully prototyped a small production run in American Elm. The plan is to make different versions of the deck in different woods from locally-grown, hand-milled logs, each tree telling a different story whose provenance is reflected in each series of decks.

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Section of an oak showing medullary rays.

The Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) is a true white oak native to California’s hot interior valleys. Like its eastern cousin Quercus alba, the Valley Oak has large medullary rays that make an interesting pattern while adding strength to the wood when it is ‘quarter sawn’ from the log. The medullary rays radiate from the center of the tree to the sapwood to carry nutrients, so they run across the wood’s annular rings. When boards are cut from the log with the annular rings perpendicular to the face, they are called ‘quarter sawn’, and the medullary rays, or ‘silver rays’ are exposed. If the milled boards are carefully stickered in stacks with good air circulation, the grain orientation and slow curing will add to the strength and stability of the wood, ideal for my innovative Deep Deck design.

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The ends are trimmed and sealed with wax.

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The log is cut in half lengthwise along the log’s primary ‘heart shake’.

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The quarters are cut perpendicular to the heart shake, along the center of the tree.

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Quarters are loaded onto the mill to be squared and milled into boards cut perpendicular to the annular rings.

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Milling goes fast with Shawn’s expertise and hydraulic Wood-Mizer. The two of us processed a 4’d x 10’l log into about 1100 board feet of quarter-sawn lumber in just 13 hours, including loading and delivering the material to the wowhaus studio.

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Even when rough-cut, the medullary rays are visible, so characteristic of quarter-sawn white oak.


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Deep Deck Developments

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A triad of Deep Deck longboards in American elm, ready for trucks and wheels

I’ve been making small batches of my Deep Deck longboard in the background of other projects in the shop, laying up a new deck each day, trimming, sanding and finishing the previous day’s cured laminations. Making decks at this scale has been a pleasant, fairly effortless task, a good way to wind down from carving the crane before I sweep up and call it a day.

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I burn my ‘deep’ logo onto the undersides of the decks, and stamp the species and date.

In the coming year, I plan to scale up my Deep Deck production, and hope my limited production prototypes will help to generate interest. I’ll continue to make the decks by hand, but in larger batches, which should be easy once I invest in a few key tools to speed production. The decks will be offered in dated, limited editions, sequenced from locally sourced logs that I mill and dry myself; the scale of each tree will determine the scale of each production.

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My next batch of decks will come from a 100 year old white oak.

I recently purchased the log that will yield my first large production run of decks, a giant white oak that was felled for safety reasons on the property of a historic, one room schoolhouse in Healdsburg, CA. It’s likely the tree was planted adjacent to the Felta schoolhouse when it was constructed in 1906. I look forward to researching the site and posting more about its history as the wood dries after I mill it in early 2012.

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The Felta schoolhouse, built in 1906 in Healdsburg, California


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Stickered Table for Shed (process)

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Two identical bases of green pecan, ready to receive the top, a giant slab of sycamore.

Whenever I design and make a new piece of furniture, I’m always keenly aware of how it will age, and how the piece might transform over time to encourage and support future, as yet unforeseeable patterns of use. I’ve been collecting choice local woods over the years, all neatly stickered in the barn, so my design process usually begins with rummaging through my piles for inspiration, making measurements and drawing directly onto the wood with white chalk. My primary criteria at this early stage is whether the piece of furniture I have in mind is the appropriate final destination for the wood- will it do the tree justice? I’ve always thought of my furniture as a way of extending the life of a tree, as a way of simultaneously storing and appreciating wood by putting it to good use; living daily life as an extension of making.

As I continue to collect and store local woods, and especially as I begin to mill trees myself, I’m becoming more attuned to the value of locally sourced, well-sawn, air-dried wood as a commodity. An increasingly scarce resource, fine wood is a good investment and increases dramatically in value, especially if it has the added cache of ecological responsibility, streaming from the urban forest, or as ‘horticultural salvage’. Because handmade furniture ultimately needs to compete in the marketplace with an increasingly sophisticated range of mass-market comparables, it can be challenging to offer a price point in proportion to the value of the material itself, which is a dilemma, even if the quality of the finished product is markedly higher. This is especially the case when ‘studio furniture’ needs first and foremost to meet rigorous functional, as well as aesthetic requirements.

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I milled grooves into the stickers for better air flow and to allow for movement.

While my way of thinking about wood-as-commodity has lived quietly in the background of most of my furniture design to date, I’ve been wanting do make a new body of work where the concept is front and center, both in the process of making and in the process of using the furniture. To this end, I’m grateful to my friend Cindy Daniel, who commissioned a ‘Demonstration Table’ for Shed, her Healdsburg-based café/retail/community hub offering local foods, goods and quality wares. Shed is Cindy’s contemporary spin on the traditional country mercantile store, and I’ve enjoyed working with her over the past two years designing interior scenarios for the new building currently under construction, a large, open air metal structure designed by Mark Jensen.

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My original thumbnail sketch for the Stickered Table

As much as my Demonstration Table for Shed will serve as a gathering place in the café, it doubles as a process piece for the duration of the enterprise, establishing a kind of invented tradition. The table’s base consists of two nearly identical stacks of green pecan wood I recently milled from a dying tree, neatly stickered to allow the wood to naturally air-dry. The table’s top, a massive slab of sycamore, rests on top of the two piles, acting as a gravity clamp to keep the material from cupping. I milled V-grooves into the stickers to allow for better air flow and to decrease friction as the boards inevitably shrink. After one year, when the stock is adequately dry, the top will be lifted and the material removed and converted into functional wares for Shed, either to be used in the café or sold as product to customers. This first batch will likely make small table tops for the Shed café, slated to open in October 2012.. The two bases will then be re-constructed, stacked from freshly milled wood each year, that will in turn be made into a small production run of whatever item surfaces in the course of its drying.

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I typically shellac and wax the ends of boards to prevent undo checking.

I like the idea of adding an element of ‘crowd-sourcing’ to the design development of an annual product, taking advantage of a constant flow of people gathered around the table while the material slowly cures beneath. I also look forward to maintaining an ongoing relationship with Shed as a kind of artisan-in-residence, collaborating with Cindy to design products that exemplify the Shed ethos.

Please click here to see the table with the top installed.


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Milling the Pecan Tree

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My friend Sean Gavin mills logs on site with his portable Wood-Mizer

I spent an action-packed weekend milling my first tree, a mature pecan (Carya Illinoensis) that grew in the sandy soil of a nearby horse pasture. The tree was beginning to die and had been dropping large branches, threatening the safety of the horses. The property owner decided to take the tree down and I worked with my friend Kevin Paul, a local arborist, to devise a cutting strategy to optimize the wood for on-site milling. I then hired Sean Gavin’s portable mill and worked closely with Sean and a few friends milling sections of the trunk and large diameter branches to my specifications.

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Kevin felled the pecan tree into a neighboring pasture for ease of access

Belonging to the hickory family, pecan is notoriously hard, even when green, and the cutting was tough on Sean’s blades. To make matters worse, we hit pockets of nails embedded in the main trunk on several occasions, probably the remains of a treehouse early in the life of the sixty year old tree. Despite the challenges we managed to mill well over one thousand board feet of wood in two short days, and I have a goodly stockpile of pecan wood ready to sticker up in the barn to dry.

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We brought in the heavy guns to load the main trunk, weighing about 6000 pounds

I plan to use the smaller branch stock for a project I’m developing for Shed in Healdsburg, and will save the large slabs for future experiments in furniture-making. Measuring up to 16′ long and 2.5″ thick, the large slabs will take over two years to air-dry, which will give me ample time to develop a new line of tables and other furnishings that take advantage of the material’s inherent attributes. Like most hickories, pecan has a pale, creamy sapwood with streaks of honey and light brown, and a dark brown heartwood. Known for its extreme hardness, strength and durability, pecan is prized for making utilitarian items like tool handles, baseball bats, crates and pallets.

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the upper trunk, boule cut to 2.5″ slabs

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dark brown heartwood contrasts with the tree’s pale sapwood

The process of milling and curing my own material brings me one step closer to realizing my dream of managing a true, artisan scale, craft production, optimizing the capabilities of our rural studio compound. The next step will be to develop a marketing strategy to sell my wares in sync with the Deep Craft ethos. What’s most exciting to me is the challenge of reverse-engineering ‘design’ around the constraints of scale, site and local relationships, and enjoying every step of the process.

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leaf and fruit of the pecan tree (Carya Illinoensis)


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Coffee Table Series

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The first in a series of coffee tables, a lozenge-shaped slab, 30″ x 72″ x 16.5″ high

I’ve begun making a series of coffee tables, encouraged by a recent commission from my brother in law to make one for my sister’s 50th birthday later this month. It’s always easier to make things in small multiples, with variation in material, proportion and construction style. I had honestly never given much thought to the idea of a coffee table, but am discovering that it’s the perfect form to experiment with some new ideas. I also like that the coffee table is inherently casual, functioning as a site for dining, reading, writing, as a footrest and even as seating. Plus, I have a stockpile of wood I’ve been saving that is ideally suited to the task.

The first table to come off the bench is for our own use, a lozenge-shaped monster I cut from a solid slab of locally-milled Monterey cypress, three inches thick. The table has bent wire legs I salvaged from a 1950’s era production table that I plan to tool up to replicate in my shop. To me, the table bridges a Southern Californian ethos of casual modernism with a North Californian ethos of forest stewardship and artisanry.

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I like the ordinariness of the grain pattern; you can feel the girth of the tree

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I like any piece of furniture to have a stance, an attitude


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Flotsam of the Day

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Two views of an unidentified bone, presumably from a large fish or a sea mammal

While running on the beach early this morning I was surprised to find a large, C-shaped bone in the sand, measuring about 8″ x 4″. My first thought was that it resembled part of a skate, a familiar inhabitant of the surf off Doran Beach. I don’t know much about bones, but its symmetrical shape suggests either part of a jaw or pelvis, and the tapered ends imply connection to some flexible part or hinge. I’d love to hear if anyone knows what it is.

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Doran Beach is often loaded with colorful sand dollars at low tide this time of year

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Kelp and Iodine

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Freshly harvested kelp drying on the garden fence

For a while after the recent tsunami in Japan, Californians were aflutter about iodine, the primary antidote to radiation exposure. In researching sources of the element I discovered that the Japanese consume about five times more than most of the rest of the world, largely because seaweed and fresh fish figure so prominently in their daily diet. Interestingly, there is a strong correlation between the Japanese consumption of iodine with both their decreased rates of cancer and increased lifespan. I also learned that the production of the chemical element, iodine, was a cottage industry in Ireland and other coastal regions in the nineteenth century, where kelp was prevalent and abundant throughout the year.

Because our local beaches yield heaps of kelp, I’ve experimented over the past few years with using it as a material for making things, with varying degrees of success. I’m now more interested in kelp as a food source, and have been foraging the flat strands and drying them in the sun for cooking. Eventually, I’d like to make a batch of pure iodine as an experiment, perhaps as a way of staining/preserving wood. Historically, iodine has be extracted from kelp by reducing it to ash, boiling and filtering the ashes, and extracting the pure element by mixing it with hydrogen peroxide.


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