Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Food Safe Finish for Cutting Boards, Wooden Spoons, and more

     After putting in the time and effort to make a cutting board, wooden spoon, or other kitchen-related item, you need to tackle the question of finishing.  In other words, what’s the best finish to both protect your hard work and bring out its natural beauty?  In an ideal world, the finish would last forever and never require re-coating, so it might be tempting to reach for the polyurethane or lacquer. But, while this approach offers the siren song of easy (or no) maintenance, it comes with a price- these finishes are bound to be pretty toxic when ingested. Inevitably they'd end up flaking off over time and ending up in your food.  Not good.  If you're item will only used for display, this is a fine choice, but not if someone will end up using it.

     So this leads us to the best option for this context: an non-toxic oil or wax/oil blend that will need to be reapplied now and then.  When wooden items are washed off, the water tends to raise the grain and produce that rough feel that we're probably all familiar with.  If necessary, you can quickly sand the item down with medium or fine-grit sandpaper and recoat it.

     The advantage to wax/oil blends, in my experience, is that they feel smoother to the touch and tend to hold up a bit better than oil alone. You can buy wax/oil blends at most hardware stores or big box home stores (they'll be sold as butcher block conditioners, or something like that), but it's also fun and easy to mix up your own.  Here's how I do it:

You can use a double boiler to melt the beeswax, although I just use a saucepan filled about
 halfway with water and a stainless steel bowl on top of it.  The burner is set to medium-high heat.
  As soon as you put in the beeswax, you’ll want to add the mineral oil.  I used 22 ounces of oil and half a pound (8 oz) of wax.  As the beeswax melts, it peels off in small chunks and dissolve.

   Within five or ten minutes, the beeswax will have melted and mixed in evenly with the oil- there’s no need to stir.

 The hot wax/oil solution can then be poured into jars.

As the blend cools, it turns white.

Within 30 minutes or so. the whole jar will have likely reached an even temperature and consistency.

   Applying the finish couldn’t be easier- just rub it on liberally, and let it soak in for about ten minutes.  Buff it with a dry paper towel or rag to remove the excess, and you’re done.  You can recoat anytime the item looks a bit dry.  And don't forget the most important rule of thumb: keep wooden kitchen items out of the dishwasher!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Get lumber like this for $1/foot

Drooling over those gorgeous slabs that you see people using for tabletops and more and wondering where to get them without breaking the bank?  Well, you may have great resources in your area that have got you covered.  But if you don't, or if you'd like to explore another way, I'll spell out the method that I use.  I call it, in the tradition of overly-dramatic storytelling since time immemorial, The Plan.

First, some background.  A few years ago, I got tired of seeing arborists buzzing up good logs into firewood-sized chunks- those were logs that I could've put to much better use, frankly.  So I started scheming.  My thinking went like this:

If I had a sawmill, I could mill those logs into lumber on the cheap.  Well, sawmills aren't exactly free, so scratch that idea.  Plus I don't have the time, space, or energy.

But... I found a couple of sawmills in our area that said they'd happily saw up logs for me if I could just get them there.

So that became the problem.  Logs are heavy- easily 1000 pounds- and my old pickup isn't really sturdy enough.  Plus I don't have a team of strong guys at my beck and call.  And if I did, I'd have to pay them, which would really fly in the face of the whole "on the cheap" premise that I was trying to work with.

But... I could get a trailer.  Except then I'd have to store it. Plus I don't want to own a trailer that really just sits around taking up space 99.9% of the time.  And they're not exactly free, either.

Finally, though, I figured it out.  I came up with a way to get lumber from logs with minimal heavy lifting and minimal work.  Let's face it: necessity may be the mother of invention but laziness is definitely its father.  In other words, while I do plenty of heavy lifting on a regular basis, I'm not looking for more.

Here's the behind-the-scenes reality that makes The Plan possible: arborists have to load up the "waste" (aka treasure in the form of logs) at the end of a job anyway, and they have to unload it at a dump or green waste facility or something like that.  They often have cranes or other heavy equipment to make short work of this.

The Plan:

1) Find an arborist.  Have them drop the logs at your sawmill instead of their trash heap.
2) Slide them some cash for their time and trouble.
3) Wait for the sawmill to call when your boards are ready.

I did a test run with a 1000bf of mixed of different species, and paid about $.75/foot for the lumber.  Much of it was 18" wider or more- try finding that stuff in profusion at your regular lumber retailer.  In researching the topic, I found that $.50-$1.00/board foot seems to be pretty average for having lumber sawn.  The result: a total success.  I'll keep doing it.

Extra Considerations:

In general, the yield won't be all primo lumber, so there'll be some waste (or "rustic" grade).  FYI.

Not all logs are created equal.  Some species, widths, and grain patterns are more coveted than others.

You can specify the thicknesses you want

You can leave live edges or have them milled off

If the logistics are right, you might be able to have a portable bandsaw mill come to your site.

Some sawyers will allow you to be on hand during the sawing so you can have input into how it is done

Some sawmills will have a minimum charge, so you may want to make sure to have a few logs piled up before they fire up the mill.  This shouldn't be too hard to arrange.

Frankly I think this is actually viable as a business idea under the right circumstances; you'd mostly just need a place to store the lumber and a big enough customer base.

As for drying the wood- I usually go with air drying (1 year per inch as a rule of thumb), but my sawmill has a kiln, which you can use and then you'll have ready-to-use lumber in just a couple of months for a small extra charge.