transport truck with big oak logs ends painted blue

2021 Catch Up: Milling the “View Oak”

by Beth

Wow, 2021 was a slow year for the blog. Real life wasn’t slow, so we’re adding a series of catch-up posts to share what happened around the domestead in 2021.

If 2020 was a year of beginnings – gardens, bees, chickens, dome building – 2021 was a year of learning. Weather-wise, it was drier than average with less wind. Where the creek normally runs through the lower field from November through early summer, in 2021, the water disappeared in spring and didn’t reappear until New Year’s 2022.

Less wind meant summer was more sweaty and buggy, but since we nailed down our Mosquito Dunk regimen (that’s a link to a Doug Tallamy video about cheap and easy mosquito control), most of the bugs were gnats, not blood-suckers. When we did have a windy storm, it would level swaths of dead trees at a time. It was scary, not knowing what would fall next!

Fortunately most of our dead trees aren’t near structures, but a dead oak by the driveway seemed to be leaning toward the chicken yard. Dead trees can fall unpredictably when sawed. We might’ve had a few dead-tree cuts go terribly wrong in the past. To reduce stress, Chris gathered quotes from tree services to take the dead tree and one other very important tree: the big red oak blocking the dome’s mountain view.

This stately oak leaned into the best vista on our acreage for at least a couple hundred years. We don’t take an old tree’s life lightly, but…that view! Layers of the Blue Ridge culminating at the National Park with one of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi.

This is a bad photo. It doesn’t show the breadth of the view or size of the red oak. And yes, other trees also stick branches into the view, but not with the reach of the red oak. We researched topping it, but when we learned how bad that is for a tree, we decided to take the whole thing. As homage, we would use its wood in the dome.

Some might think using your own timber would save money, too, especially as the price of wood hits historical highs. But milling fresh timber isn’t always the cheapest option, and it’s certainly not the easiest, as this post will illustrate.

Felling a Giant

For as much usable timber as possible, we needed an experienced crew who could take down a massive tree without splitting the trunk. Per usual, we chose the vendor who provided a reasonable, mid-range quote; answered our questions directly; was responsive; and kept their appointments. On a misty June morning, we held our breath as the oak came down.

Again, the video, taken from a few hundred feet away, doesn’t convey the scale of the tree, or how the ground shook when it fell. Note the metallic sound at the end: that’s a wood fragment hitting a frisbee-golf goal after flying 50′ through the air and before stabbing the ground like a javelin.

Not only did the crew cut it without splitting, providing oodles of usable timber, they aimed the tree so perfectly it didn’t hurt the adjacent dogwood, holly, or cedar trees, nor the sassafras with a new feral honey bee colony in it. Another concern was displacing nests in the oak, but our timing was good. Spring babies had already fledged, and nobody had nested in the oak since. In the days before the crew arrived, I scanned the tree with binoculars to confirm that. I’m not above postponing a project for a family of woodpeckers or squirrels.

After measuring the trunk on the ground, we asked the crew to cut it into 10′ sections for the optimum amount of lumber in manageable board lengths. Chris painted the ends of the logs with latex paint to slow the drying process so future boards would be less likely to check, a lumber-person’s term for cracking. It just takes standard exterior latex paint from the hardware store, so Chris chose Carolina blue, making it easy to identify our wood in a stack.

dog standing on large oak logs ends painted blue

That’s good because it will be in several stacks over the coming years, from the mill to the drying area to the kiln.

From Logs to Boards

YouTube homesteaders make milling look so easy. Maybe that’s true with smaller, not-oak trees. In this case, the process was complex and took a ton of planning and coordination.

These logs were too big in diameter to mill onsite. Each one probably weighed around a ton. Fortunately, one of the best mills in the region is 3 miles away, but transporting 3 tons of logs for 3 miles is still a feat that requires special equipment.

We could’ve borrowed or rented a heavy-duty truck and trailer, plus an excavator to lift the logs onto the trailer, but the mill owner knew a guy who charges $200 to pick and tote gigantic logs. Since renting equipment would cost more than $200 and be more dangerous, and borrowing from friends comes with a good possibility of equipment damage that we’d pay to repair, $200 sounded good.

transport truck with big oak logs ends painted blue

The mill owner/operator is a busy man. He advised the wait-time for boards could be up to 6 months. When he called in 4 months to say the boards were ready, Chris had already lined up their next stop: rented drying space at a lumber yard 1.5 hours away.

man with milled red oak boards in a box truck

Fresh lumber shrinks and bows as it dries. Different woods dry at different rates. Oak is notorious for long drying times and “cupping,” or drying crooked. Boards can start changing shape as soon as they’re milled, so we moved quickly to move them to a controlled drying space. The morning after the boards were cut, we met at the mill with a rented truck to pick up our quarter-sawn, 1 7/8″ thick x 10′ boards with Carolina Blue ends.

Chris had him mill mostly 1′ wide boards for use in our stair treads, with a few at 2′ for bigger treads and other possible projects around the dome.

milled red oak boards in a box truck

We did consider drying the boards here on the property. Quarter sawing is supposed to line up the wood grain in a way that reduces warping. However, with oak being so tricky to dry and completely sheltered space hard to come by, we were glad to let the pros handle it.

It’s not expensive, but it wasn’t easy to locate a place that dries personal boards. Hence the 3-hour round trip Chris took to North Carolina to drop off boards that morning. At the lumber yard, the boards were stacked with appropriate spacing for airflow, and weighted to keep them straight. They’ll dry for 18-24 months before going into a kiln. The kiln completes the drying process and should kill hidden bugs who could awaken to eat the wood years from now.

Yes, we have 2 years to wait on this wood! If all goes well, we’ll be enjoying it much longer than that around the dome.

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