How do you section and cut your way from an irregular-shaped hunk of wood to stock you can actually use to make something with?
How to Transform Found Wood Into Usable Stock
How to Transform Found Wood Into Usable Stock

Over the years, we have published several articles about freshly cut wood. But for me anyway, one question still remained. "How do you section and cut your way from an irregular-shaped hunk of wood to stock you can actually use to make something with?

Some time ago, a reader passed along a hot tip that he had spotted "some of the best quilted maple they had ever seen" less than 120 miles from Des Moines. Wanting to take a look-see, we loaded up our gear one Saturday morning and headed down Interstate 80 to Iowa City.

It was there, all right-more freshly cut maple than we could hope to carry! After de-barking the logs and sealing their cut surfaces and end grain to prevent rapid moisture loss and further splitting, we muscled as many of them as we could into the back of a pickup. A few hours later, back in Des Moines, we tossed off our bounty outside the WOOD magazine offices. And the following Monday, we started our investigation of what turned out to be a most intriguing process.

Well, that's how our adventure began. But there's lots more to the story, so be sure to read on to find out how we transformed those big chunks of maple into workable pieces. Here's hoping you find the process as interesting as we did.
Marlen Kemmet

Start by Sectioning the Logs

Because the slabs of wood we had lugged back to our offices were much too large to handle, our first task was to section them. And it didn't take us long to find out that you can't just divide up a log any old way you want. No, sir!

That's where knowing how to "read a log" comes in mighty handy. And fortunately for us, our project builder, has done quite a lot of log-splitting and was able to pass along some helpful tips. "Basically, you need to attack wood from its most vulnerable points-along the cracks that invariably occur during the drying process," he advised. "Think of it as exploiting the wood's weakness." Typically, the larger the log you're working with, the more stress cracks you will see.

Start by lifting the piece you plan to work on up to a comfortable height. (We sat ours on another slab.) Now, looking down onto the top of the log, determine which cracks you want to attack. Major fissures often will show down the side of the log as well as from the end.

How to Transform Found Wood Into Usable Stock

Once you've settled on your course of action, begin driving a pair of wedges down into the top of the log as shown in the photo left. As you drive in the wedges, the sections of the log should separate; often, they pop apart under impact. Divide the log into as many sections as there are major cracks.

Here's an important safety reminder: Be sure to exercise all reasonable caution when sectioning your logs. Note that Jim has donned a face shield to deflect flying wood chips, as well as gloves to protect his hands from a glancing blow of the sledge.

Make yourself a shooting box

With any luck at all, you now have several workable sections that need further processing. But wait a minute! Because none of the surfaces is flat enough to allow machining, you need to build what we call a "shooting box." This simple-to-construct jig makes it possible for you to shave one of the log's surfaces flat with the help of a router. The Shooting Box Drawing shows how the various jig parts fit together.

How to Transform Found Wood Into Usable Stock
How to Transform Found Wood Into Usable Stock

Processing Your Wood: The 5 Key Steps

Once you've completed construction of the shooting box, you're now ready for the exciting part-remolding those awkward-shaped pieces of wood into project material. Ready to start?

How to Transform Found Wood Into Usable Stock

1. Begin by nailing one of the shooting box's support arms to the log as shown in the sketch on the previous page. Make sure that the top edge of the arm extends slightly above the surface of the log. Repeat this process to attach the second arm to the log.

Now, lift the log into position in the shooting box. Also, locate the router-mounted carrier board atop the rails of the shooting box. Lower the router's cutter (we used a 12 " carbide-tipped straight bit) so that it will remove about 14 " of material. Then, holding the router as shown in Photo 1, move the carrier board back and forth over the log until you have removed the stock.

How to Transform Found Wood Into Usable Stock

2. Actually, from here on out, you can rely on your bandsaw, fitted with the widest blade you have, to make the remaining cuts. As you can see by looking at Photo 2, you make the next cut with the surface that you just trued-up against the bandsaw table. Use a straight-edged guide board to control your cut. Take your time here; the slower you go, the straighter your cut will be. Note: Due to the thickness of our log section, we had to remove a portion of it with a chainsaw prior to making the cut shown. Only then would the remaining piece pass under the upper blade guide.

How to Transform Found Wood Into Usable Stock

3. Next, with two (in our case, three) flat surfaces to work with, you can call on the saw's rip fence to guide your remaining cuts. To determine the maximum-width cut you can make on your machine, raise the upper blade guide up as far as possible and measure the distance from the table to the bottom of the blade guide. Then, set your rip fence that distance from the blade, and pass the stock through the saw again, as shown in Photo 3.

5 Key Steps Continued

4. At this point, you have some decision-making to do. If you want to make turning squares or bowl blanks with the wood, simply surface the fourth edge by running it through the saw again. Then, cut the material to the desired configurations. If we had chosen to, we could have ripped the chunk shown in Photo 3, above, into several turning squares. Or, we could have crosscut it into a few bowl blanks. If you want to produce some flat stock, however, we recommend that you spend some time deciding which edge of the material to cut your boards from. Why? Because how you do it will affect the appearance of your boards. As you can see by looking at Drawing A, below, if you quarter-saw the stock, you'll end up with boards that display a straight grain pattern. But if you prefer the cathedral grain pattern of flatsawn boards, that's fine, too.

How to Transform Found Wood Into Usable Stock

What's a good way to determine how to proceed? We've found that wetting the surfaces of the wood with a damp rag allows us to quickly see which grain pattern looks most pleasing.

How to Transform Found Wood Into Usable Stock

Once you've made your decision, set your bandsaw's fence the desired distance from the blade. (Shrinking and additional machining will reduce each board dimension by about 18 " or so. Be sure to allow for this reduction.) Rip the material into boards, as shown in Photo 4.

5. OK, you've finished sawing your logs into some great-looking boards of various thicknesses, and maybe even some bowl blanks and turning squares. Now what? In order to ensure that you will have usable material when it dries, you need to seal, sticker, and store the wood.

How to Transform Found Wood Into Usable Stock

To prevent uneven drying of the material, seal all end grain as shown in Photo 5 with paint or one of the products designed especially for this purpose. Then, cut several thin, narrow pieces of spacer material, commonly called "stickers" from previously dried stock. For larger boards, use ¾" by ¾" stickers. When placed between each layer of stock and near the ends of the boards, the stickers allow air to move freely in and around the boards as they dry. It is also advisable to weight the stock down to minimize cupping and warpage.

After stickering your freshly cut and prepared lumber, move it to a dry, moderately warm location for storing. Also, label the stacks as to species and stickering date.

How long will it be before your lumber air-dries enough to use it? That depends, but an old adage calls for one year of drying time per inch of thickness. Of course, this will vary with the drying conditions. By far the best way to judge readiness at any given time is with a moisture meter.