Local Lumber

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, December 26, 1997

Recently, my son Dan and I have been building new bookshelves and cabinets for our home. The tulip and white pine boards we're using make the work especially pleasant. The lumber is beautiful, easy to work, and comes from a small sawmill about a mile east of our farm. The lumber itself, the one-man sawmill, and the trees growing in the forest around here are all part of the pleasure and wholeness of the experience.

Southern New England is in one of the world's great forest regions. Our temperate climate and plentiful rainfall encourage the growth of magnificent trees. White pine and tuliptree (or Yellow Poplar) are two of the most beautiful and valuable timber trees in this region. They both grow quickly to a very impressive size. White pine, with its long, blue-green needles in groups of five, can grow up to six feet in diameter, and over 200 feet in height. White pine likes the dryer uplands. Several groves of pines planted on our farm by the former owner 30 years ago now provide beauty and a well-tempered environment.

In the steep-sided valleys nearby, tuliptrees grow wonderfully tall as they reach up for the light. Their trunks, about three feet in diameter, rise straight-sided up to the first branches fifty feet above the ground. When growing in the open, tuliptrees can spread nearly as wide as they are tall. In the spring they're covered with greenish-yellow and orange tulip-shaped flowers which provide a bounty of nectar for honeybees. I was so impressed with their beauty that tuliptrees were the first ones I planted on our farm. Now, two decades later, those fine trees are 50 feet tall and over a foot in diameter.

Tulip trees are found in most of the area east of the Mississippi River. Under ideal conditions, they can grow up to ten feet in diameter. Native Americans made canoes which held up to twenty people out of the larger trunks of these trees.

Tulip lumber, often called white-wood, has a greenish color when it is new, with creamy white sapwood. Sometimes it has a beautiful purple staining around the knots. As tulip wood ages indoors, however, it becomes a mix of warm, rich yellowish browns with an appealing softness. Because it is lightweight, easy-to-work with, holds nails and screws well. and is stable once it is dry, tulip wood is often used to make the interior frames for sofas and stuffed chairs.

Our local saw mill is an impressive operation. The man who's now a sawyer wasn't allowed to reclaim his factory job when he returned from World War II because of a disability. He was retrained, worked a full career as an engineer, and now, well into retirement, saws these beautiful boards. He created this mill, a simple open structure, out of the roof of an old school bus and the lumber he cut. With his engineer's skills, he continually adds control mechanisms which make it easier for one man to cut the ample supply of logs that contractors and road crews drop off.

After cutting the lumber, he carefully stacks it with air spaces around each board so that it all dries evenly. The wood we've been using has been stacked this way long enough to be mostly dry, although it will shrink a bit more in our heated space. If desired, the sawyer can smooth one or both sides with a planer.

Because of its uneven sizing, native lumber requires a bit more understanding than the standardized boards which come from the lumberyard. But we find, if we work with basic tools and use the wood intelligently, the results are very satisfying and pleasant to live with. The natural boards are easy to care for.

We bought beautiful one-foot-wide pine boards to use for the shelves and cabinet doors in the kitchen. Although white pine is whitish when fresh, it darkens with age to a rich pumpkin color similar to that of the tulip.

For thousands of years, the people who lived in this region used the trees that grow here to make homes, tools, vehicles and other useful and beautiful things. Besides pine and tulip, ash, white and red oak, maple, cherry, hemlock, birch and beech trees also can be cut into beautiful local lumber.

If we all know more about the magnificent trees of this place, and the uses to which they can be put, we will be more likely to really care for them.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.