Using Free Wood, and What’s Coming Up. And Happy Cat Video?

Slab wood cut from a walnut log during the process of milling it into boards.

Once you start woodturning you rather quickly find out that if you buy wood from commercial sources to feed your woodturning addiction that the cost for wood from those sources is really expensive. A standardized woodturning blank from commercial sources generally is about 6″ to 8″ square, and about 2″ to 3″ thick. Cost of a typical blank can run from $10 or so at the low end up to $75 or even more depending on the species of wood. And as the size gets larger, the price goes up dramatically.

But there is a lot of free wood out there if you can be bothered to go look for it. Like that piece in the photo up there.

Now I have to admit that I completely forgot had this stuff laying around until MrsGF and I found these slabs laying around in the garage when we were cleaning it out this fall. A friend of a friend had cut down some black walnut trees on his property years ago and had them milled into lumber by a portable sawmill. When cutting logs into lumber you end up with these slabs where the bark was sliced off and generally there isn’t much you can do with them except turn them into mulch or firewood. But this was black walnut, which is ridiculously expensive, really nice, and some of the slabs were thick enough in places that I thought I could use them for something so I snagged some of them and stuck them in the garage and immediately forgot about them for something like six years until we stumbled across them a month or so ago.

We now have the time and ambition to finally get around to doing something with this stuff. At least one of the slabs is thick enough, wide enough and long enough to perhaps turn into a garden bench. But a lot of it didn’t look too promising until I thought hey, can I make bowls out of some of this stuff. So I cut it up into manageable sizes with the chainsaw, carried some of it down into the shop and started to experiment with the stuff and the first experiment turned out looking like this.

That, by the way, is a Sjobergs workbench. I definitely do not recommend them. But I bought into the hype and despite the insane cost bought one of the things and almost immediately started regretting it. It isn’t that well made, is ridiculously light weight, the materials aren’t that good, there is pretty much nothing about that bench that justifies the price.

Not bad for a piece of free wood, I thought.

If you look around you can find free wood just about everywhere. On any given day I can drive around the towns around here and find people trimming or cutting down trees, and most of that wood is going to end up either being chipped for mulch or composted. Most people won’t mind at all if you ask nicely to take a few bits of it.

Wood shows up all the time at my town’s compost site from people who’ve cut down or trimmed trees. They are only supposed to be dropping off easily chipped brush down there, but a lot of people can’t seem to be able to read the signs and we regularly end up with large branches and even tree trunks being dumped down there. You might have seen me down there with my little battery chain saw whacking off bits and pieces that might be useful, along with the locals who burn wood for heat.

And don’t forget Craig’s List! Start scrolling through the “Free” section of the listings and you’ll find dozens of people just begging someone, anyone, to come get the remains of trees they had to cut down.

If you do get your hands on some of this free wood, some caution is called for, however. There can be some issues with this stuff you need to be aware of.

The first is infestations of bugs. You never know what might be living in that wood. I would never store free wood inside the house or even in the garage unless I was sure it was free from things like carpenter ants, beetles, etc. Anything questionable ends up being burned in the fireplace out in the backyard while MrsGF and I sit around it with a beverage or two.

Rot is something you’ll have to deal with too. Now there are ways you can deal with rotted wood so you can still get something useful out of it by soaking it in types of epoxy resin and preservatives and all that. Frankly, don’t bother. Yes, you can do it but it isn’t worth the effort in my opinion. You need things like a vacuum tank, special wood preservatives and other equipment… Ain’t worth it. Chuck it into the firepit and move on to a solid piece of wood.

Nails, screws, wire and other nasties buried in the wood is also something you need to watch out for. People have this nasty habit of attaching things to living trees. They nail ornaments to them, screw signs to them, hang birdhouses to them, etc. and leave the hardware in the wood. Hitting a nail, screw or other bit of metal embedded in a piece of wood with a saw or gouge is not fun. It isn’t easy to find the stuff either because the tree can grow around the object and completely enclose it. Always inspect any piece of wood carefully before you start sawing it up or putting it on the lathe. Metal detectors specifically designed to find nails and the like in wood have come down in price quite dramatically in the last couple of decades. It might not be a bad idea to pick one up.

If you don’t mind glueing up your own blanks from bits and pieces of boards (You can get some really nice looking turning blanks from odds and ends glued together.) there is a lot of free stuff like that out there. Again, check Craig’s List free section and other sources like that. You’ll find odds and ends of lumber people had left over from remodeling and construction projects and things like that. Even some old furniture made from solid wood will end up sitting out on the curb that can be disassembled and used to glue up something useful.

Pallets – the damned things are everywhere, and nobody seems to want them. Should you consider old pallets as a source for turning wood? Personally I wouldn’t use them for a variety of reasons. The wood is generally very thin, rough cut so it would have to be planed before it could be glued up into a blank. They’re a pain in the ass to take apart and get all the nails and staples out of. Tearing apart a pallet to try to get wood to glue up into a turning blank seems like an awful lot of work for very little reward. And, frankly, you don’t know where the hell that thing has been and what it has been exposed to. For all you know that pallet had some toxic chemicals spilled all over it before it ended up in the “free wood” bin or out on the curb where you found it.

The last issue you need to deal with is the fact that a lot of this stuff is cut directly from living trees that were just cut down, so it is very, very wet and you need to be able to deal with that. Now I know a lot of turners who like working with wet wood and have developed ways of dealing with it, and if you’re one of those, that’s fantastic. But if you’re like me and you prefer to work with wood that is already dried, you need to be prepared to store this stuff for a long, long time before it’s going to be dried down to a usable moisture level, or you need to be able to dry it yourself. The walnut slabs I’m working with right now sat in a dry environment (my garage) for about 5 or 6 years so they’re down to about 10% – 15% moisture which I consider to be reasonably low enough for me to work with them without a lot of issues. But a lot of this stuff is going to be dripping wet when you get it. So you’re going to need to either store it in a protected area for a considerable amount of time for it to dry naturally, or you’re going to have to dry it yourself. There are plans out there on the internet for making your own drying boxes to accelerate the process and some of them even work reasonably well.

What’s Coming Up

Oh, oh… He’s got something cooking in the pot. Now we’re in trouble.

I’m working on the 2nd part of the intro to resin thing I’ve been doing. Yes, really I am. I haven’t forgotten about it. The project that I’ve been cooking up to accompany the 2nd part is curing in the pressure pot even as I write this and should be coming out tomorrow. I’ve got videos and everything for this one.

Well, I hope I’ll have videos. I’m still not sure if I’m using that dopey camera right. Anyway that will be coming up sometime in the next couple of weeks if all goes well.

I got in a new parting tool from a company called Woodpeckers that I’m waiting to try out. I’ve tried a variety of different parting tools since I got into this and I haven’t really liked any of them very much. The cheap carbide ones that seem to be made by the millions by some outfit in China and sold under a variety of different brand names not only don’t work very well and wear out quickly, they are just -just nasty all the way around. The one I use most often is an old fashioned steel one from Sorby which works but needs to be sharpened a lot.

Oh, and Happy Cat! I almost forgot about her… Let’s see I got that video somewhere…