A Splintered History of Wood

Belt Sander Races, Blind Woodworkers, and Baseball Bats

by Spike Carlsen

A Splintered History of Wood

Hardcover, 411 pages, Harpercollins, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

Draws on the author's extensive travels, interviews with hundreds of woodworkers, and experiences as a carpenter to present a comprehensive history of wood and its global impact, in an account that addresses a wide range of topics, from Derek Jeter's bat and the invention of toothpicks to the construction of Levittown and the famed Stradivarius violin. 30,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: A Splintered History Of Wood

A Splintered History of Wood

A Splintered History of Wood

Belt Sander Races, Blind Woodworkers, and Baseball Bats


HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 Spike Carlsen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061373565

Chapter One

Extraordinary Woods

As I drive toward Ashland, Wisconsin, home of the company that lays claim to selling the oldest workable wood on the planet, the convoys of fully loaded pulpwood trucks I pass remind me of the rich, ongoing logging tradition of the area. I'm in Sawdustland. It's a fitting place for a company named Ancientwood to call home. I find the pole building that serves as the warehouse/store/Internet headquarters, and I find owner Bob Teisberg. He greets me by making three introductions. The first is to his shop helper, Dante; the second is to a mammoth slab of kauri wood standing by the door; the third is to his sense of humor. "Yep, we call that slab Dante's Inferno. He went through hell for two straight weeks sanding and finishing that baby. But just look at it."And when you look closely at this gigantic slab, you set your eyes on things of an unworldly nature. For starters, it's 5 feet wide, 7 feet tall, and 3 inches thick. It's sanded smooth as glass, with a finish and grain that not only glow but dance like a hologram, depending on your viewing angle. The color, figure, and texture are unlike any wood I've ever seen. And the reason is, it is a wood I've never seen. It's a wood most people have never seen. The slab is from a fifty-thousand-year-old kauri tree, mined from the bogs of New Zealand.

Fifty-Thousand-Year-Old Wood Lives And Breathes Again

The route a slab of wood needs to travel to get from 48,000 BC on the North Island of New Zealand to AD 2006 in Ashland, Wisconsin, is not an easy, inexpensive, or clean one. "Originally we thought some cataclysmic event—a tsunami, an earthquake, an asteroid—was responsible for the death of the trees,"explains Teisberg, the North American distributor for Ancient Kauri Kingdom wood. "But when they sent samples to the University of New Zealand for study, they found the trees died at different times and fell in different directions, so our best guess is they died of natural causes."But it doesn't matter so much how they died as where and when they died. When most trees die, they keel over and decompose within a few decades. But these kauri trees keeled over into bogs—an oxygen-starved, fungus-free environment—that created a time-warp cocoon that preserved the timber in pristine condition, until a Kiwi by the name of David Stewart happened along.

The Ancient Kauri Kingdom's informational DVD, in which Stewart stars, shows the process used to extract the trees. Most of the trees are found in farm pastures, where they reveal their presence by a small exposed section. "If you're a farmer you really don't want these things in your field,"explains Teisberg. "Nothing grows on them, and animals can break a leg if they fall through a rot pocket, so they're just a nuisance."When they go into an area, they're never quite sure what condition or size the trees will be in; there's really nothing scientific about it. They get in there with a backhoe, give the exposed part a wiggle, and if the land 100 feet around them moves they know they've got a monster. And they've found some monsters.

The extraction process involves moving man and machine across the boggy land, trenching all around the log, then using a chainsaw with a bar the length and lethalness of an alligator to cut the log in two if it's too large to get out in one piece. The video of the process, which absolutely oozes testosterone, shows a cigarette-chomping Stewart, covered in slime, standing in the bucket of the backhoe, sawing a 60,000-pound monster in two with a chainsaw sporting a 6-foot-long bar. There are hydraulics, chains, cables, muck, and heavy machinery everywhere. The wood chips flying out of the kerf look as clean and uniform as if he were slicing through a 25-year-old birch tree. At one point he pauses to show the camera a handful of forty-five-thousand-year-old kauri leaves.Once the sections are cut to manageable size, they're winched, pushed and pulled up out of the trench, rolled onto massive flatbed trucks, and then hauled to the company's yard, where they're marked and cut into slabs. The logs have reached the 100 percent saturation point after lying in the bogs for eons, and the drying process is a long drawn-out affair as the wood finds a new moisture balance.

The crown prince of kauri logs is the 140-ton "Staircase"log discovered in October of 1994; the largest known log of any kind ever to have been extracted anywhere. The crew broke two 90-ton-capacity winch cables attempting to haul the trunk out in a single piece. They cut the tree into separate 110- and 30-ton sections, hauled the sections out, and then let them sit untouched, not wanting to cut the trunk into slabs because of its Olympic-caliber size. Four years later, Stewart built a 20-inch-thick reinforced concrete pad, placed a 50-ton, 12-foot-diameter, 17-foot-tall section of log on top of it, and went after it with a chainsaw. After three hundred hours of carving and two hundred hours of finish work, the world's largest, and surely oldest, single-piece circular stairway was complete. It's built inside the log. If you pause to count the growth rings as you're ascending you'll find 1,087 of them.

The scene in Ashland, Wisconsin, is considerably tamer. Teisberg walks me past pile after pile and specimen after specimen of imported ancient kauri. He has everything ranging from 6-foot-thick stumps to 1/16-inch-thick veneers. At one point, Teisberg stocked what he claimed to be the "largest single piece of wood available in the United States”—and I never found any challengers. The slab measured over 20 feet long, 5 1/2 feet wide, and 4 1/2 inches thick; it was estimated to have grown for a thousand years, and, amazingly, it contained not a single knot.

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