The Magic Wood in a Sugar Maple Tree from Ayr Mount
We have been blessed over the last four years with three of the sugar maple trees that line the front driveway leading to the house built in 1815. Sugar maple is NOT a “normal” species this far south, so we think they were brought here on purpose over 150 years ago. Look around. They have propagated elsewhere in town, even in our neighborhood three miles away.
Ayr Mount is a special place to us and to be able to honor these proud old trees when they die is a special thing to us. The last tree has its own story. We got a call that it was being taken down because it was dying. Would we like to help and have access to the whole tree? Time for another “wood adventure” — me, my wife Pat, my 24″ bar Stihl chainsaw, and the old F350 pickup truck.
When you are invited to work with a professional team of wood cutters, you mostly defer to their judgment. They were nice enough to let me point out where I wanted the cuts. I wanted the WHOLE tree, so each cut defined the next step in creating a bowl. Cut it wrong (too short or too close to a crotch) and the options are limited. I wanted each piece as big and pristine as possible. In the majority, they did everything I asked. They were very nice.
As it turned out, the wood at the top was the deadest part of the tree. A lot of it was rotten. As we came down, however, the wood became, not perfect, but more and more pristine. We have been around and into enough trees (particularly the previous two Ayr Mount trees) that I knew there was something special in there.
OK, down to the last cut before the stump. The wood cutters asked us where we wanted them to cut it. I showed them where (keeping enough of the stump for the final cut). Unfortunately, they proceeded to cut it almost 12″ below that point. What do I do now??
This is where I note the size of the tree. At the base (above the roots) it was 36 inches in diameter. Now it is too short to split in half and develop a 30 plus inch circle bowl blank. The root structure of this tree was huge and stuck out of the ground over 12 inches. The tree at ground level was 9 feet (108 inches) in diameter. The plan (if we wanted pristine large wood blanks) was to cut away the roots to grade leaving a 36 inch column of wood with beautiful stump grain to boot. Good plan. Now all I need is a bigger chain saw bar and new chains. We have a big chain saw, but a 24” bar is pushing the upper limit. The other problem (one that I was just becoming aware of) is that as a tree grows and the roots become the base of the tree above grade, they seem to suck rocks and dirt up into the wood. You do not get many cuts with a fresh chain when you saw through a 2 inch diameter rock. Some of the smaller bowls that we would develop actually came purely from the root structures themselves.
Three days later, new bar, new chains, 30 chains sharpened, and we had two really huge pieces of wood. We had to cut straight down the middle (through the pith) to get the wood to a size we could handle. Trying to cut it loose also required the cut. People came to see what in the heck I was doing. I even had to stop for a wedding — too much noise. A lady nine months pregnant came by while trying to walk the baby into coming into the world. Everyone including me thought I was obsessed. Just the chain sharpening and chain wear cost 300 dollars.
Now the wood is home and the tractor helps get it off the truck. When you know what you have, the problem is deciding which one to approach first. We have two lathes, so we often work on two things at once. The large bowl No. 1003 actually became part of a set including a medium sized bowl and a very small one. We started using coring tools to minimize the wasted wood that comes with only taking one thing out of each round. The danger is that we will dig too deep and lose the largest bowl trying to maximize the other two. This time, the system was flawless. Usually, I am too careful and wind up with smaller bowls from the cored wood.
Packed in shavings to dry for six months and then air-drying for another six months. No cracks or major movement. You could see the wild grain patterns in doing the rough turning (1.5 inches thick), but when we went to finish thickness (about 5/16ths of an inch), the color and the texture of the wood was magical. We showed them as a “set” and slowly they went to good homes separately. This last one (No. 1003) is the last of that set. It felt good to see it appreciated, but each piece leaves with us wondering when the next piece of wood that pretty will show itself to us.
One additional thought on the finished bowl. One side is directly the result of “root wood”, meaning the grain pattern is totally different from the straight trunk wood. When the bowl was first finished, it was smooth as silk all over. Even during the application of finish and the polishing, it “moved” very little. Slowly, the movement became more apparent and the ripples in the wood grew. This is NOT a flaw in the wood, but rather an indication of the organic nature of the wood. This is confirmation that I did not lose my mind when I attacked the problem of excising the stump from the earth.
The first big bowl (21-1/8” X 6-1/4”) made from the tree is called “Big Bertha”. This one came from wood higher in the tree. It is straight grain wood and is spalted because the tree was dying and the wood higher in the tree began to die first.
The largest piece from the stump became a 25 inch diameter rough-turned bowl leaning against the wall at the last Studio Tour. It took three years to dry to our satisfaction. Today, it is proudly one of our most beautiful finished pieces. Its dimensions are 22” X 4-1/2” and it shows all of the golden color and crazy grain patterns that we fell in love with when we first got to work with sugar maple trees from Ayr Mount in Hillsborough, NC. We call her “Big Bertha’s Bigger Sister”.