After a stint as an architect, Russ Osterloh settled into woodworking, the craft that paid his way through college. He raised tuition money with rolltop desks he made from wood he harvested and dried himself. Now, hundreds of furniture pieces and a 12,000-square-foot shop and showroom later, he still prefers doing it all himself.
In the eastern Oregon town of La Grande, he designs and builds furniture from local wood he cuts, mills, and processes for maximum color and figure. Ash. Elm. Myrtle. Walnut. That's why, when someone has a tree to come down, Russ makes tracks with truck and chainsaw.
"Mills plain-saw logs for maximum yield, then kiln-dry the lumber," says Russ. "I mill for figurative grain and air-dry everything for natural richness of color." To get the figured boards he wants, quality control begins with finding, then felling the tree.
Russ advertises for hardwoods with no-nonsense copy that reads: WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE, HARDWOOD TREES, REWARD OFFERED.
Farmers and townsfolk up and down the mountain-bordered, agricultural valley respond. Russ inspects every candidate.
Experience and an eye for defects tell Russ which trees will make good lumber. "If there's any doubt, I call in the local forester to check it out thoroughly for me before I do any cutting," he admits.
Russ understands yield, too: "I don't use the 2-4" of sapwood in black walnut. So, on a 24"-diameter tree I'll only get 16-20" of heartwood suitable for sawing. A tree with a 3'-diameter trunk and no branches for the first 14' means I can count on about 600 board feet."
Once Russ decides to take a tree down, he sets a day, rounds up friends, and lines up equipment. For most felling, he uses a chainsaw fitted with a 32" bar and a standard-tooth chain. Friends clear brush at the site and cut branches. His dad's pickup truck with power winch provides extra "convincing" for a tree to fall one way or another. For large trees (or several) Russ hires a backhoe, operator, and a flatbed truck to load and haul the logs.
Learn how to fell a tree safely by following Russ at work on logging day in the photo sequence below.
At the edge of a farm field where this large walnut stands, Russ studies the tree and the terrain. He asks himself some questions: "Where should it fall? What obstacles will block its fall? Will any branches that might interfere with the fall have to be cut off? Which way will I go when it falls?"
While helpers clear surrounding brush, Russ uses the chainsaw and a sound cutting technique to remove branches that will be in the way. "First, make an undercut about one-third of the way through the branch with the top of the chainsaw-bar," he instructs. "Finish the job with an overcut on the top side. The first cut reduces stress on the branch and keeps it from splitting after the top cut severs it."
Whenever possible, Russ fells a tree in the direction of its lean. When that's impossible due to obstacles his helpers can't clean away, he calls for extra leverage--the winch.
Russ always picks a safe escape route. Even a properly cut tree poses danger: A freed trunk could kick out sharply, flattening the sawyer with a mulelike blow. Russ takes no chances. He clears a path in a direction opposite that of the tree.
Three cuts fell a tree. The first one, the horizontal cut, decides more than the others where the tree falls.
Russ rips horizontally into the tree about 10" above the ground. His cut, like the crosshair on a telescopic sight, perfectly intersects the intended path down which the tree will fall. He saws halfway through the trunk before backing the bar out.
Started a foot above the first cut, the second chews a 45-degree angle route down through the wood until it meets the initial kerf. Russ steps back to eye the wedge formed by the two cuts, and then kicks it free. Supported only by half the thickness of its original trunk, the walnut still refuses to totter.
Russ delivers the felling blow with a back cut into the tree opposite the freshly sawn wedge. He makes the horizontal cut even with the lower cut of the notch. Starting the saw into the wood, he shouts: "Don't ever cut all the way through! Leave a hinge about 1" thick to guide the tree down."
The saw's laboring buzz eases as Russ withdraws it from the trunk. Shutting off the engine, Russ carries the saw down his escape path. Creaks and cracklings warn of the tree's fall.
"Timber!" Crash. Wha-Thump! The trunk smacks the ground. Right on target.
The walnut now lies in its rubble. Russ surveys his trophy. With a tape, he measures the trunk while helpers limb the top branches. "I prefer to buck [crosscut] timber into 8' lengths where I can," he says. "Because I like to make maximum use of the figure, I base where I cut the lengths on the most desirable features I see in the log."
The main crotch, where the tree divides, for instance, "Immediately below the crotch is where I find the fanciest flame patterns, often stretching down from it 3' or more," Russ points out. "So, I measure down from the crotch for bucking."
Russ also does the bucking with overcuts and undercuts. Novices discover the wisdom after pinched blades and kickbacks. Russ explains: "The trunk is under two kinds of stress—compression and tension—due to how it contacts the ground and the support or nonsupport given by large limbs. So, kerfs either close quickly or jump open."
Studying the trunk, Russ imagines what the wood will do under the bite of his saw. If to him the trunk looks like it will close up, he makes an overcut first, about a third of the way through. He relieves the tension with an undercut the rest of the way.
Russ inserts occasional support under the trunk. "Chunks of limb, stuck in openings between the trunk and the ground, keep the trunk from binding the blade as you're bucking," he advises. "They'll also keep your chain out of the dirt where it dulls fast."
With his own large bandsaw mill next to his shop, and a lightweight, portable chainsaw mill, Russ saws lumber practically wherever he chooses. However, he prefers milling with the bandsaw due to its narrow kerf, and usually hauls his wood home. Russ says the chainsaw mill is a lot more work.
From felling timber to milling it, do-it-yourself lumber creates tired muscles. But Russ prefers his tired muscles, knowing they represent stock that won't be run-of-the-mill. He's an old-fashioned, start-from-scratch, do-it-all craftsman, and wouldn't change anything.
Written by: Peter J. Stephano with David Donnelly Photographs: David Donnelly