We often get asked how we saw our logs into lumber. Milling is at the heart of what we do. For each log, we put a lot of thought into maximizing quality and minimizing waste. Here's a look at how we approach nice, big logs.
by Sarah Deumling, Zena visionary, owner and manager
With the waning of August, we begin to hear the first pinging of acorns on the red metal roofs of the barns. And with the first blustery little September stormlet, the leaves begin to fall, bringing with them lovely little spherical, speckled, autumn-colored oak galls attached to their undersides. I, at the waning age of 70, still cannot resist my childhood urge to step on them in the hope of a satisfying sharp "POP" emanating from the small percentage that are still intact.
The others have a small hole where the wasp has exited so give only a dull crunch instead of that lovely "POP." In the spring the mother wasp laid her egg on the leaf bud just as it unfurled. Mysteriously the oak leaf created the spherical gall filled with a nutritious webbing around the egg. At some point the egg hatched into a worm that was nourished by the contents of the gall - if not devoured by one of many possible predators. By fall the worm - by now the daughter wasp - ate herself free through a small hole in the gall into the wide world outside.
This year, oak gall time was even more fun than usual because Asa, son of Ben and Emily, is 18 months old and trying hard to say “POP". While eager, he is not quite able to coordinate his small foot to tromp adequately on a gall. Instead he picks them up and crunches them in his hand with great satisfaction.
The first acorns that fall are generally small and defective, but it remains hard to resist collecting them – maybe it will be a poor crop, maybe the jays and the squirrels will beat us to them. They are such fun to find among the leaves, to hold, to admire – especially those with their perky caps still covering their bald heads, maybe even with a leaf attached. We fill our pockets – or hats – on the way to the mill and back. As September days add up and the breezes blow harder, the acorns are bigger and more numerous. They fill the containers more quickly. Afternoon walks at toddler speed are perfect – plenty of time to collect all the acorn bounty while he discovers a stick or a rock or a slug and once in a while proudly adds an acorn to the rapidly filling basket.
Last year, we soaked the acorns, discarded those that floated to the top and delivered the remainder to the nursery to grow us the seedlings we will plant this winter to replace dying fir trees.
This year, our buckets of acorns went to an architect friend who has set aside his practice of architecture to try his hand at producing acorn and grape seed (a by-product of wineries) oil. We are eager to sample the results of his labor.
Over the millenia humans have inhabited the earth acorns have been a staple food source for many cultures (Balano cultures) including a reputedly excellent oil. Acorn bread, acorn soup, and acorn jelly are all reported to be both filling and nutritious, if not particularly tasty. In this time of uncertainty it is most reassuring to realize this part of the vast, untapped abundance of our oak forest.
- An oak tree must be 15 – 30 years old to produce acorns.
- A large oak tree can produce 300 – 500 lbs of acorns.
- The only oak native to the Willamette Valley is the Oregon White Oak or Quercus garryana.
- The Oregon White Oak grows from Central California north to Vancouver Island with the Willamette Valley as the epicenter.
When most people think of trees in the Willamette Valley, they think of Oregon White Oak. However Western Bigleaf Maple is one of the dominant native tree species here in the valley, and it has its own interesting story to tell.
As its name implies, the leaves of this particular Maple are huge - the largest of any of the Maples. Subsequently, one of its main features in the forest, is shade. During these summer months, the maples provide refuge from the heat for all sorts of plants, animals and the occasional human walking through the forest. It is often 10-15 degrees cooler under a big maple tree.
Maple is also a friendly tree and gets along with its neighbors well. It can grow well under the towering Douglas Fir, and it grows equally well side by side with the Oregon White Oak. It is also the most vigorous tree in the forest. It can even outgrow the notoriously fast growing Douglas Fir in its younger years.
This fast growth can be sped up even more by coppicing. Coppice is an age old forest management tradition that works on certain trees that will sprout back their stumps. The stump sprouts will grow incredibly fast, because they can immediately utilize the existing root structure of the old stump. The result is that 10 years after being cut, a stump can have twenty or more new trunks all over 5” in diameter. Coppicing can yield up to 7 times the growth that you can get from traditional replanting methods. Most all of the forest of Western Europe were coppiced in order to create large volumes of wood charcoal before the discovery of coal.
All of this vigorous early growth means that Maples don’t live to be all that old. Once they pass 75 years or so, the center of the tree will start to decay. It is rare for a Maple to stay standing for more than 120 years. The center will continue to rot until there is just a hollow shell left, and eventually the tree can no longer support the massive form.
This slow decay from the inside out has its benefits though. This is what creates much of the amazing color that you see in our maple lumber. The center of the tree will start to turn a dark red, and will eventually show blackline spalt, as it continues to decay.
Since maple is fast growing for a hardwood and its optimal harvest age is between 75-100 years, we produce a lot of it at Zena. This fast growth makes for a relatively soft wood though. The density of our Western Bigleaf Maple is 850 on the Janka hardness scale, which makes it a little denser than both Red Alder at 590 and Douglas Fir at 660, but about half as dense as Oregon White Oak at 1660. It does machine, sand and finish very well though.
We turn our maple trees into all sorts of products. The two main ones being flooring and cabinet/furniture lumber. We also make live edge and square edge slabs for countertops, bars, and tables of all shapes and sizes. It doesn’t stop here though. We make maple baseboard and trim, stair treads, riser and nosing, provide maple heat registers, and even provided wood for a line of maple pencil holders recently. Because of the bright sunny color of maple, and its ability to light up whatever space it resides in, it is a popular choice for any space that needs a little bit more light.
And then there is the occasional Wow Board. A board that makes us exclaim when we first lay eyes on it as it comes off the sawmill or out of the planer. Western Maple is perhaps most famous for its wide range of stunning figure that it can present at times. Quilt and Curl are the two main types of figure that we will see in our Western Maple. These boards are used for musical instruments, stunning furniture pieces, or cabinet doors. No one knows exactly why trees develop figure. The best hypothesis that I have heard, comes from Rod Jacobs, the northwest’s leading expert on figured maple. His theory is that it is a genetic mutation with an environmental trigger.
Regardless of how it comes about, all of the beauty present in our maple lumber is a testament to the infinite creativity of mother nature. This is the reason that we get out of bed in the morning each day, because each and every log that makes its way through our production process tells a new and unique story of growth and beauty when we open it up, and we never tire of discovering new patterns in these boards that we can pass on to you to showcase in your home.