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Broadway Maple

Edwards Smith examines a rough turned bowl blank.

Over the years in my travels around the country I have accumulated a lot of wood. My wife says that I am a wood magnet and wood just naturally is attracted to me. Here I am holding a bowl blank made from what I call Broadway maple. All my wood has a story and since I come from the tradition of southern story tellers, here is the story of Broadway maple.

Actually I live on Broadway Road in Lutherville, Maryland. It is farmland which has given way to development in more recent years but still retains the open feeling of the country. Every day I would pass by this tree in a neighbor’s yard on Broadway Road and noted that it was dying. Several large limbs including one in the crown had begun to decay. We have had some very dry summers here in Maryland and the stress finally got to this tree.

I had the thought to stop by and ask the home owner if I could have a piece of the wood when they cut the tree down. I even thought of offering to cut it down myself. Since it was situated on the corner of the lot with utility poles on two of the four sides, and being 69 years of age, I thought the better of the idea. I stopped by several times but I never could catch anyone at home.

Then in early February I saw the professional tree cutters taking it down. I have missed my chance I thought to myself and drove on. However, when I passed by the next day I saw that the tree service had removed the small limbs but the trunk was still lying there. Maybe I still have a chance, I thought, and resolved to stop by that evening and beg for a piece of the tree. As I headed out the door that evening my wife suggested that I take a pencil and paper and write them a note in case they were not home. Although this was the sixth time I had gone out to make contact with the tree owner, I doubt this practical idea would have ever occurred to me. It did occur to my wife. Sure enough, no one was home. So I wrote a note saying that I was a neighbor just up the road and asked if I could have some of the wood.

The next morning, early, I got a phone call from the owner who said I could have as much as I wanted as it was just going to be hauled up to Pennsylvania and cut for firewood. He said that I had better hurry as the tree expert was coming with a big truck to haul it away that very day. In another thirty minutes he called me back. It turns out that the tree expert was very happy not to have to haul the wood to Pennsylvania and would be happy to deliver it to my yard a mile further up on Broadway Road. He would bring me the whole tree. It was a very old silver maple, about three and a half feet in diameter at the stump.

My next obstacle was my landlord. I rent a small home from him which is right next door to his home. He is a retired lawn care business owner and keeps the premises looking like a park. I had some reservations about dumping this huge tree on his lawn. However, he has gotten too old to cut fire wood for his wood burning stove, but loves the heat from it in the winter months. So I explained to him that all the wood I could not use I would cut and split for his use. Besides it was winter and the grass wasn’t growing anyway. I squeaked by on that logic and several days later a huge truck pulled in and, with deft motions of the lifting arm, deposited a very large amount of wood on the lawn.

It took about seven weeks to get it all cut. I could see that from the staining of the dying limbs that the wood was going to have beautiful colors in it, ranging from pinks to tans, dark brown and even some purple. As I cut into it, I was rewarded with the subtle beauty of the decay-stained wood. Maple is usually a uniform whitish-tan color, and nothing to get excited about. In this tree, as the limbs had been dying for several years, the staining products of decay had gradually percolated down through the sound wood giving the marvelous variations in color and pattern. Actually it is like chromatography where different molecules migrate at different rates of speed and thus colors become concentrated in noticeable bands. It is the same technology that chemists use to separate out molecules in a complex mixture. Here, nature did it for me for free.

Using my big 660 Sthil saw, I hacked away until I had thirty five bowl blanks. Sometimes I have trouble starting this saw because it has so much compression, and I am not as young as I used to be. Once I took the saw to the dealer and said it would not start. When I went to pick it up I inquired as to what the problem had been. The repairman was summoned and told me that there was nothing wrong with the saw. He looked down at my slender frame and said as politely as he could: “What you got there is a Paul Bunyan saw, man.” It is the second to the largest they make but I really needed the power for cutting the large chunks of wood I use.
So, now I cheat a little and spray some ether in the carburetor for slightly easier starts, and hope that my shoulder will outlast the saw.

To get a bowl blank I first cut sections of the tree using the same cut you would use to cut the tree down, that is a crosscut bolt of wood. Then that bolt is turned up on its end and cuts are made on either side to remove the heart section. This is a very important step as the tight rings near the center of the tree always split when the wood dries. This leaves the two halves, missing the heart section. Then I cut the slab off the outer part of the bolt so it will lie flat. Using a large compass I scribe the largest circle I can get from that piece and then either use the chain saw or the shop band saw to cut off the corners until the blank is roughly a round shape.

This round disc of wood is mounted with screws to a faceplate on the lathe, while still wet, and turned to get the outside shape. It is then remounted in a special chuck with jaws that grip the plug, or tenon as it is called in woodworking, to turn the inside shape. As the wet wood spins on the lathe, the water flies out due to the centrifugal force, and may give off quite a spray. Yet turning green wood is so much easier than turning dry wood that this is not much of a bother. Wet wood only has sixty percent of the hardness of dry wood. So the wood turning gouge just slips through that wet wood and produces shavings up to a foot long and the whole process goes quickly.

The next step is to put the bowl blank, that has been rough turned and left thicker than normal, in a place to dry. After trying all kinds of methods, I have come to favor just putting it in a paper bag and closing it up and leaving it for months or longer. I find the chemicals used to speed drying are offensive, change the character of the wood and are not all that effective in preventing checking, or cracking, of the bowl wall due to uneven drying. The paper bag acts like a little air chamber to make the drop in humidity less drastic than the outside air.

When it is dry as you see in the picture above, it is ready to be remounted to the lathe and turned true, and to final dimensions. As the wood dries it warps and is no longer completely round. The extra waste wood you left on when it was turned green is enough to allow the bowl to be turned true again before final shaping and finishing.

Many months later, I delivered a finished bowl and some implements and a rolling pin to the wife of the tree owner as I had promised. Her eyes almost popped out of her head. She exclaimed in a very loud voice: “I had no idea that beautiful bowl was in that old tree”

So, my point is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To her the dying tree was an eyesore and to her husband it was a liability as it might fall and damage the neighbors plantings. To me it was a treasure, as I thought it would be. To my landlord it was a warm winter, although he did get a little nervous about me getting up the sawdust that covered over the grass after I was done sawing.

The other thing I have learned is that much wood is available in the city just for the asking. Timber people seldom are interested in just one tree and they are fearful that it may have nails or wire buried in it from living in close contact with humans. It can damage their expensive saws and planers. Many times, people will feel that you are doing them a great favor by taking the wood away. Otherwise, much beautiful wood just ends up in landfills or fireplaces.

So keep a weather eye on the neighborhood. Suburbia is dotted with fine trees, all of which will have to come down sooner or later or fall heir to some natural disaster. If you share the finished product with the donor of the tree, then they will be most appreciative and will probably keep you in mind when they hear of another tree that needs to come down.

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