More Sawmill Adventures

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Sawmill Surprise

Life is what actually happens while you are planning something else.

I had intended to spend all day working on the commissioned five-string fiddle, today, and had taken the day off from work in order to do just that. Ann and I got up at 3:45 AM, she left for work about 5:45, probably, and I had intended to begin work immediately, but I really was not feeling well (possibly something I ate), and was very tired (short nights) so, about 6:45 AM I decided to go back to bed for a few hours. (Good choice!)

I locked the front door, and toddled off to sleep. At about 9:45 I woke up, and thought I could hear someone moving around in the house. I knew I had locked the door, so I thought this was most peculiar, but… my mother-in-law has a key, and sometimes comes during the day to drop off something for Ann or to complete some other errand. So I got up to see what was going on.

My son Brian also has a key, so I was not too surprised when I went to the front of the house, to find out  that Brian was out by the sawmill. It turned out he had been there since 7 AM, so it is nice that the saw engine is so quiet. I hadn’t heard it at all, though it was less than 100 feet from where I was sleeping.

Sawmill Practice

Four years ago, a neighbor had given Brian two small logs of black walnut. At the time he had no way to process them, so they had sat on the ground on a compost heap for all that time, fully exposed to the weather…hot, dry, cold, wet, freezing, and back again. But now that we have a sawmill, Brian had decided to get a little more practice with the saw, by slicing up those walnut logs. He did not anticipate that very much of the wood would be salvageable.

But, even with the crooked shapes (they were limbs that had fallen in a storm), and the cracked ends (the ends had never been sealed against checking) and the rot and ant-damage from neglect on the ground, Brian got between 25 and 30 guitar sets out of those two little logs.  They are exceptionally beautiful sets, too, as, when he started slicing, he found out that the walnut was highly figured, not just “plain” black walnut.

Black walnut Guitar backs and sides
Part of the pile of backs and sides cut from a single small log. all bookmatched sets, some good for two sets per pair.

Learning Curve

It took longer than it should have…. We are still learning to use the saw. It took us well over an hour to change the blade, because there were adjustments to be made that were not mentioned in the (extremely limited) manual. Maybe two hours of cutting time, an hour of “head-scratching” time learning the idiosyncracies of the tool, and an hour changing the blade. We stopped and ate, talked, took pictures, and had a good day together. Not what I had planned, but highly rewarding.

Black Walnut Ripple

Yeah, I know, it sounds like ice cream…but have look at this:

black walnut bookmatched guitar back
Bookmatched Black Walnut guitar back with water added to show the figure in the wood.

This pair of bookmatched back pieces will make two guitar backs. One exceptional, one just very nice. Some of the sets are not big enough for two guitars but will make one guitar and one or two ukulele sets.

But, Does it Pay?

Some time ago, someone questioned Brian’s wisdom in making all his own bindings, saying “But it is so cheap to buy them! Wouldn’t you be better off to spend your time doing something else?” At the time, the issue was the relative value of his making his own high-quality curly maple bindings for guitars, as opposed to buying them ready made. He figured out that, once the bandsaw and sanding jigs were in place that he could make 100 sticks of bindings in book-matched pairs in a very short time, sand all of them and have them set aside in matched sets of four (the number it takes for one guitar). He figured out that he spent less than three minutes per “stick” in that way, and, the people that sell them (thus saving you so much time) charge $5/stick. Four per guitar…$20 for the maple binding on a single guitar. But if he makes them himself, he spent 10-12 minutes. So, if he saved $20 in 12 minutes of work, then he was “saving” $100/hour. (That is pretty respectable, I’d say.)

And: fairly ordinary black walnut guitar sets (at a well-known supplier) sell for $150 (matched back and sides), so in the two or three hours he spent cutting up two small logs that were given to him, he produced enough guitar sets (extremely high-quality sets; not at all plain) to more than cover the purchase cost of the sawmill. (Yep. It pays.) There is hard work involved, but it is good work, and a good feeling of productivity, while salvaging wood that would otherwise have become firewood.

And… we still have not started milling up the ton (or more) of curly maple for which we had originally bought the sawmill. This was not how I expected to spend the day, but it was pretty encouraging to see Brian driving home with all those guitar sets.

When he makes a guitar of some of that wood, I will post a follow-up photo or two.

Thanks for looking.

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