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How to Get the Burl of Your Dreams

Burls—bulbous growths resulting from disease, injury, or a combination, look wart-like on the outside but often hide gorgeous figured wood inside.
With beautiful eyes and gorgeous figure, burls are prized by turners, high-end furnituremakers, decorative-box enthusiasts, and veneer manufacturers. So how can an average Joe Woodworker hook up with free burls? Read on to find out!

Network to find the burls

Harvesting a burl from a live tree could kill it, but fortunately, you’ll find plenty of burls on downed trees. Start with friends in the construction business and ply them for contacts on land-development crews. These guys take down trees with bulldozers to quickly clear the property. Many of the trees end up buried, burned, or mulched. But an eagle-eyed insider might let you know about some choice burls.

Know an electric lineman? Power companies retain entire crews of tree trimmers to clear rights-of-way. As a matter of policy, many utility companies stack the trees in firewood-size lengths for the property owner. With a “wing man” on a trimming crew and permission from the property owner, you could have your fill of burls.

Check your phone book for local arborists. Their caretaking duties revolve around maintaining the health and profitability of clients’ forested land, often by thinning the wooded plots to remove diseased trees.
If a burl has a date with the chainsaw, you could have a date with a burl.

Got the burl? Seal the deal

Now that you’ve scored a burl, simply section it from the downed tree with two cross-trunk cuts, leaving a couple of inches of additional material above and below the burl. This reduces checking by slowing drying. Unless you have immediate project plans, seal the cut ends with latex paint and store the burl outdoors, out of direct sunlight and avoiding ground contact.

For a burl you plan to use in the near term, either slabbed into project wood or as a turning blank, speed the drying process by cutting it to rough shape immediately. How do you slab the burl to best display its figure? It’s a bit of a crapshoot, says kiln owner/operator Kevin Koski of Curly Maple Wood in Williamsfield, Ohio. Burls can have a swirling pattern, eye pattern, or, disappointingly, no pattern at all. A test slice from the burl will tip you off to which type you have. If you find a swirling pattern, simply cut the burl for best yield, as the pattern appears random, regardless of the cut direction. For eye pattern, a cut paralleling the tree trunk will display eyes, while a cut perpendicular to the trunk will display radial lines (below). Cut slabs at least 14 " thicker than your desired final thickness to allow for shrinking and distortion during drying. Seal the end-grain sections of your slabbed burl and allow to dry indoors for four to six months before use.

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For turning blanks, cut the burl as shown below. Then seal exposed end grain with latex paint. Store the blank indoors for about four weeks before turning the green wood to rough shape. This allows enough moisture release to minimize the distortion. After the initial rough turning, wait for the project’s shape to stabilize before completing the final form.

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