nothing’s for certain, it can always go wrong

well, this one was going to be straight-forward enough. I had been waiting to photograph splitting this section of oak, in part because it had rained here so long that there rarely was a day bright enough for pictures. So today I finally quit waiting & decided to go ahead.

oak log, 18" diameter, 30" long
oak log, 18" diameter, 30" long

It seems like a really good candidate; nice straight grain, a big bump at the bottom, that I felt I could isolate into one-quarter of the log. Good & round, even growth, etc. All the things I look for in a log. Only 18″ in diameter, but should provide a bunch of 4″ wide boards, good for framing parts of joined furniture, and 2″ square stuff for joined stools.

So, I laid into it, with all the careful steps of someone who knew what they were doing.
two wedges to start the split
two wedges to start the split



Even with something this small a diameter, I used two wedges to start the split, to even out the action of the wedges. So far, so good. You can see in the next photo that it appears to be opening well, and I still had visions of a fresh batch of oak boards piling up in the shop…

splitting well
splitting well
Until I got to this…
and this…
large hidden knot
large hidden knot


So, even after all these years, & all these logs – sometimes I just plain lose. This one will yeild some straight stuff, but barely enough to bother with. The price was right, but gotta start searching for a new log now…

9 thoughts on “nothing’s for certain, it can always go wrong

  1. I have had the same problems myself over the years and usually it is when I am down to my last bit of wood. It can be so difficult to read wood from the outside.
    I now look forward to these kinks in the wood as I use them for chair legs, it gives a lovely “dogs leg” leg and is easy to shave down as I am following the grain.
    Is there any evidence, that when this occurred in the past, that the wood was discarded or used in its curved or bent form? I know that many green woodworkers these days prefer the more organic curvy form and seek out curved wood.

  2. Yes in deedy! Can be discouraging. Certainly lookd promising fron the end grain. A log is seldom as good as it appears and most often is even worse. I like the idea of making slab and stile stools, benches or worktables from this mess. Medieval illustrations are full of this kind of work.The footprint of the piece is larger than the slab thus providing greater stabilty. I have always supposed that the butt swell of trees was used. They are particlarly easy to work from the butt swell of a straight log. All rived sections of the butt swell will have virtually the same curvature. But remember the riving rule: A butt swell is seldom as good as it appears and most often it even worse.

  3. Peter – I’m only thinking of your wellbeing but that wedge on left in second pic looks pretty dodgy. I know Owen Jones got a bad metal splinter in his leg from striking a metal wedge with a sledge hammer.

  4. Working backwards. Yes Robin, you are correct; that wedge needs grinding. I take mine to the smith every year or two & he works the rough parts off…so I’ll make an appointment with him. Thanks for bringing it up, it’s an easy thing to postpone.

    Jennie & Sean, I agree that those curved, twisted parts are about only good for outward-flaring legs on stools. Sean, unfortunately there are almost no surviving simple pieces like that from the period Alexander & I study the most. So I have no idea if they burned stock like this, or used it in some “lesser” form. All I know is when you want straight stuff, you often find curved, & vice versa. I will salvage the straight stuff out of this log & get on with the rest of my life.

  5. Peter,

    I just found a 100 year old red oak that the city cut down, here in Aiken, SC. They chainsawed it up before I got to it, but I did manage to get two pieces today.

    Both pieces are 26-27-in diameter by 20 & 24-in length. I had to quarter them twice to get them on my truck.

    I would like to build a four legged sitting bench for my grandchildren and carve their name on the seat. and carve the top

  6. and carve their name on the seat. Should I split and scrub plane pieces for the seat now?

    How thick should the seat be? Should I taper the post holes for tapered tenons, or round tenon through tenons?

    Any other suggestions?

  7. Larry

    hard to say, in general. Yes, it’s easiest to work the stuff now, rather than drier. You are well on the way to quartering it, so that’s to your advantage. Quartered sections will stay flatter. Thickness can be a problem. thicker stuff is harder to dry without checking, cracking or splitting. Where your benches are only going to be two feet long, I’d make the seats pretty thin, an inch or so. Best to seal the end grain, some use a wax-based sealer, or old latext paint, on small stuff I sometimes even use yellow glue. these just retard the moisture loss through the end of the stock. tapered tenons keep nice & tight, I’d make those through tenons too. Hope this helps some.

  8. I just read some passages out of one of Sloanes books regarding cracking/checking
    ….of which I just came home (from New England and Plimoth no less) and found all the maple logs I had hewn out square to be cracked beyond belief. Yet I had slathered them in crisco/fat which usually works.

    I suspect the sun got to them more than I realized it would.

    Eric Sloane, despite somewhat dated, does mention that some submerging logs in water….especially fast moving mill water….he says others put them under mounds of weat (I believe), while others buried their logs (presumably in semi moist soil) for up to a year.

    I have issues with that last part, as bugs would have at em, but curious approaches nevertheless.

  9. And…to boot….there was a nice red oak tree that some unscrupulous jerks convinced the elderly couple needed to be felled, even though it was totally healthy.

    So after I spoke with the couple, they said I could have the wood but had to remove it within a few days. Unfortunately I was leaving for Maine the next day.

    Peter, et al…do you ever check for freshly felled trees? Ive managed to score some great finds from suburban folks who dont want to see a tree be cut up purely for firewood, yet dont know what to do with it. Last year I got a wonderful white oak tree, all cut into planks, for about 300 dollars (the carpenter was moving and had to part with it). It was enough for at least a dozen sizable chests, etc.

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