log buying trip

shopping trip

People often ask me about how I get the logs I use. So  when I went on a shopping trip the other day with two of the carpenters from the museum I finally took the camera along. Our museum has been going to this same sawmill for over 30 years or so; we have been very fortunate with the way they treat us there.  It’s a small family mill in southeastern Massachusetts –  our favorite by far.Just like everything else, there has been a downturn in how much timber they are handling these days, so there wasn’t a lot to choose from, but we were able to get a few logs worth working.

We picked through a few piles of oaks, here my friend Tom is going over the distinctions between red oaks, yellowbarks and black oaks with the mill owner Paul. We ended up with two logs from this pile.
red oaks, yellowbarks, black oaks


There;s a lot of crawling around involved; invariably we want to see something at the middle/bottom of the pile. They treat us so well here, that they will pull the pile apart with a forklift, and lay the logs our for us to see better. These piles were small enough that we didn’t bother.

end grain view


This is the new carpenter Justin walking over the piles; I also went over these piles a few times, just to see if we had missed anything. Sometimes you find something at the back of the pile. I spend a lot of time looking over the end grain – I want nice round logs, with the tree’s pith centered. Oval and mis-shapen logs don’t work for furniture stock. 

walking the pile


I bought this ash log because it was cheap (.45 a board foot) and it was fresh. It’s 16 feet or more, so there must be some good sections in it. We got a few oaks, one of which was for me.

loading an ash


The oak I got is pretty nice, I consider it a little small, about 22″ on the large end. It’s nice & straight, about 9′ long. We will see what happens when I open it up.

new stock


they did have one really large log; but it was white pine. 40″ across the large end, 17′ long & clear. But it’s another story.

big white pine

20 thoughts on “log buying trip

  1. Can you comment on techniques to minimize checking? I purchased a white oak log a month ago that the sawyer said was in his yard for 3 years. It is at 32% moisture and is checking even though I sealed the end gain.

    • Len,
      I generally try to not let the log hang around too long…

      I don’t bother sealing the end grain of logs. I just split them & work them as soon as I can. I expect to lose some of the ends of the log to checking.

      I split them down, and rive, hew & plane stock from them. then I sticker that stock in the shop for a while before working further with it.

      I have found white oak trickier to dry than red. I often will seal the end grain, even of thin stock if it’s fresh.

      Some of my work process is here:

  2. Len,

    I have a few smaller logs (around 8in diam.) drying in my back yard. I’ve found that splitting them into 1/8ths (i.e. quartering them, and then splitting **those** wedges in half) massively reduces end-checking.

    When the logs dry out, they shrink around the circumference: lots and lots of internal stresses, with nowhere to go — so they split. Splitting the log into wedges give the individual chunks “somewhere to go” when they shrink. :)


  3. Hi Peter,

    Great story, thanks! Now THAT would be some special tour the museum could do…a trip to the sawmill to pick out what is a “good” log and what is not. I’ll be the local woodworking club would fill that one up!


    • Glad you liked it, Derek. Not sure how the sawmill would like a slew of folks kicking around. They are trying to run their business, then we come bopping along to sift through the piles…

      Drew Langsner was going to try a mill field-trip in a chairmaking course this coming summer, but it got bumped. It is a critical part, that’s why I tried to get some of the gist of it here on the blog…

  4. Peter has commented on this before, but when working this way in oak, the speed at which the oak grew makes quite a difference. I have really noticed that the slower growth trees with more rings per inch are so much easier to work. Of course the wood is also weaker, which may be a consideration for chairs and other applications that require great strength in small dimensions. I think I remember Peter mentioning he even takes this into account when selecting stock for pins.

    • Dave

      you’re pretty much right on target. Here’s the post where I talked about rate of growth in the oak I use. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2009/10/18/theres-oak-then-theres-riven-oak/

      You are correct in that the fast stuff is stronger. For joinery, it doesn’t matter a fig. If it’s ladderback chairs like Alexander makes, then the fast stuff is better, because it’s stronger. But this is a joinery blog! I still use the slow-growing stuff for pins…although if there was one place where the quick stuff was useful in joinery, that would be it.

  5. Peter: A wonderful posting on choosing a log. There is some discussion on my web site, mostly well covered by you. I have had a wonderful log merchant who would rip up piles of humongous logs so I could look at what was between the two ends.Two points: A log is never as good as it looks from the outside and it is usually worse than that. Split the log, you own it. If it is a loser, pay up in good spirit and look for another.
    Wood is wonderful!

  6. Peter,

    You’re fortunate to be dealing with relatively fresh-cut logs. The Amish mill I use in Southern MD typically has logs that are a uniform gray on the ends. For some reason the loggers in the area store the logs in their yard and only bring to the mill when they need the cash. Go figure.

    I have found that the bark on oaks give you a pretty good idea of how the wood inside will split. Twist is very obvious in the bark, and that’s one tree to put back in the pile.

    Jennie, I haven’t even considered splitting at the mill, partly because yes, you own it, but mostly because there’s a lot of rolling involved to get it in its place once I get it home.

    And having four fireplaces makes getting rid of the mistakes easy. :^)


    • Tom: this trip there were new logs at the mill, often they are grey on the ends. They will turn pretty quick in the weather. I have split them on-site in the past, at this mill we have them load the logs on a truck…

      You’re right about the bark. Alexander is right that they never look as good once you get them home.

  7. Hello everyone! I forgot to add that keeping green wood under water is the long term way to store it. I have 3x8x3 foot deep box in my urban back yard that preserves wood indefinitely. Oh after a few years the surface gets slimey but there is no degradation of the wood. For ease of handlingI split the wood into pie shapes before immersion.

    • Hi Jennie,

      Good to hear from you, hope all is well. I would still love to come hang out for a few hours some time…maybe this summer?

      In any event, in your opinion how accurate does Eric Sloane come with regard to his recounting of such wood preservation techniques? I was amazed at how many ‘theories’ existed on natural wood preservation, be it running water, sawdust, mud baths etc.


  8. By the way, Peter – your caption above reads “red oaks, yellowbarks, black oaks”. I’d never heard of yellowbark, and a Googling tells me it’s a synonym for Black Oak (quercus velutina). You seem to be talking about them as distinct woods. Can you elaborate?

    • Tom:
      I can’t keep any of them straight. I think they are all red oaks; and it might be that yellowbark is a local term. The fellow who runs the mill we go to uses both terms, yellowbark and black oak. He also tells us he can see by the bark wether the tree grew in a wet place or a dry place..I feel good when I can tell a red oak from white. Mostly I just want straight.

      Check out Sibley’s tree book from your library. there’s a slew of oaks listed in it.


  9. Hello everybody: Apperenntly brevity is not the soul of wit. A friend ran into me the day and asked how do I keep my urban wooden box full of water and stinking wood from rotting away. Sorry I said, I forgot to mention the inside of the box is coated with fiber glass. My first iteration was an old wooden skiff. Uncoated, it rotted away in about 5 years. The box is just fine after 15 years. Keep it off the ground. Use heavu construction, wateris weighs a lot.

    • When I wrote this post, I did not forsee the Alexander Urban Pond factor. Jennie swears by that tub, I swore at it. I find that the wood & water smell, both become slimy and the water breeds bugs. It does keep the wood fresh…

      I tried it for a few years at my last shop, now I just keep working through the log. I keep the large unsplit sections off the ground, and in the shade. Now if you have running water nearby…

      • Well, you could always stock it with koi. :^)

        I’ve used Anchorseal and latex paint. Neither completely stops checking when in the round, but I doubt you can ever count on being able to use those last few inches of wood in any case.

  10. Hey Folks

    Some thoughts on log acquisition and checking. I live in Maryland, not far from DC.

    I am regularly searching on craigslist for folks who need trees taken down….its not my forte necessarily but I am often the first to show up on site when someone does have a tree removed from a residential neighborhood. Heck if its not decent for furniture…its free firewood.

    After a big storm I drive around too. The wooden booty from a storm can be wonderful. I dont mean sickly trees, but those that are uprooted after a punishing storm, tornado etc. Spring is great tree hunting in residential areas.

    But given that I live in residential area, and am more often over the forge than in my woodshop, I have no choice but to store the logs. I have begun to use basement sealant…a black tar/pitch like stuff that seals the ends wonderfully. Zero checking even if left out in the hot sun for months.

    Its not my ideal situation; Id much rather work the tree green. But, life comes at you fast ! So until I have the time, Id rather preserve the wood as best I can.

    Andrew Young

  11. […] For the new house we’ll be building this season–The Francis Cooke House–we needed ten logs at 18-20′  length, red or white oak, and 12-16″ diameter at the top of the tree. These will be the right sizes to hew into plates, beams, and rafters. Any clapboard logs–much bigger diameter and dead straight grain–would be a bonus. Often, we are sent along to Gurney’s with a shopping list from our good friend Mr. Follansbee. He, too, is looking for straight grained stuff for his joinery work. It’s a symbiotic relationship. I can’t recall the joiner and the carpenters fighting over a really good log. There may have been an occasion or two when we’ve hidden a prime log from our friend, but you didn’t hear that from me…Here’s Peter’s take on a visit to Gurney’s a couple years ago: https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2010/04/12/log-buying-trip/ […]

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