One of my favorite things about our little suburban yard has been the 100-year-old post oak tree–a species of white oak that you don’t see much down here on the coast. It was a beautiful shade tree, sheltering the west side of the house and yard from the harsh, afternoon sun. And one of the lower limbs was the perfect height for a tree swing. The kids spent hours on the tire swing I hung there for them. Judging from the size–and the fact that there are one or two other post oaks of similar size in the neighborhood–I think it must have been planted about the time the house was built, right at the end of WWI.
Unfortunately, this oak tree was starting to lean dangerously toward the house. When we moved in some years ago, it had stood straight up, but now it was most definitely leaning. With an active hurricane season predicted for this summer, we decided it would be better to take the tree down on our terms, rather than have it come down on the house during a storm.
Here’s my son beside the tree, showing both its size and its deteriorating condition. You can also see that my daughter has been using the rotten section for archery practice. Evidently it was struck by lightning a couple decades back (before we lived here), and eventually the bugs got into it and continued to weaken the trunk, which is about 3 feet in diameter. You can see the remains of the lightning damage, as well as the bug damage, all the way up the trunk.
The day came, and the tree removal service was professional and very fast. Because the tree was standing out in the open, it was a relatively simple job (for them).
The ground shook when they finally felled the trunk. I asked them to leave a few of the larger-diameter upper limbs, hoping that I could make some small items to remember the tree by. As a rule, shade trees don’t produce good lumber for woodworking. The spreading branches, though large, have lots of tension built up in them over the years, and the knotty wood they yield tends to warp badly. The lower trunk, though wide, also had many big knots in it. And frankly, that trunk looked a lot bigger than I could safely handle with my little chainsaw. So they hauled it all away.
I had told the tree service that there was no need to grind down the stump. I figured the children would enjoy having a little picnic platform on the corner of the yard. But as the tree guy was cutting through the bottom of the stump, the saw’s chain hit something metal and stopped in its tracks. He couldn’t finish the cut; the stump would have to be ground down from there.
So there was the tall stump, cut halfway through at the bottom, waiting for a stump grinder or termites or whatever to finish it off. You can see, though, the black stain in the center of the stump in the picture above. That tell-tale color indicates the presence of ferrous metal in oak. Given the location at the center of the stump, I figured it was probably some metal stake or post that had supported the tree when young, and that the tree had just swallowed up as it grew.
To give you an idea of the size of this stump (and to show you where it was cut halfway), here are all five of my kids standing together on top of it. It’s about 3 feed across at the top, and even wider at the bottom. We had fun counting the rings (the tree was definitely about 100 years old), and we pointed out how big the tree was when each of us was born, and when major world events had occurred. It was a fascinating walk back through the last century.
Anyhow, the stump stood there for a week or so, and I got to thinking about it. And the more I thought about it, the more I considered how I might be able to deal with it myself–with just the tools I had. I reasoned that, if I could cut or split off the half of the stump that was already undercut, I might be able to (a) remove a lot of the stump, and (b) salvage some short, wide planks of white oak. I thought that if I split off pieces of the stump piece by piece, I could sneak up on the metal in it and maybe even finish the stump off with a reciprocating saw with a long, metal-cutting blade.
I took a good, long look at the work that had already been done, and at the black stain–helpfully locating the embedded metal that I wanted to avoid. I put an old but sharp chain onto my 18″ chainsaw and began cutting.
I made two vertical cuts opposite each other near the center of the log, but away from the black stain. The cuts did not nearly meet, even though I buried my chainsaw’s bar entirely on both sides. I tried to use my wedges to finish the cut by splitting, but the wood wouldn’t budge. So I made a third vertical cut in order to cut the half into two quarters.
That loosened enough of the wood that I was able to split off quarters. On this side of the stump (the undamaged side), there was nothing but clear, straight white oak stock. The first piece I removed was extremely heavy, but with the help of a wheeled dolly I was just able to move it. So I started splitting off more manageable pieces. The section you see above is over 3″ thick. My steel splitting wedges got lots of assistance from my bigger wooden wedge, made from seasoned red oak.
Now, with the work half done, I could better see what I was looking at. You can see the black stain all the way through the center of the tree. There’s definitely metal in there somewhere.
The work I had just finished was the relatively safe part. Now I had to figure out how to sneak up on the embedded metal without hitting it. But I figured that, if I did hit metal, the chain on my saw was nearly worn out anyway, and then I would know which part of the tree to avoid from there on out.
I gingerly started to extend the horizontal cut (the one started by the tree guy) little by little, every moment expecting to hear the chain hit metal. But every inch I cut was clear wood. In places the wood was obviously soft, even rotten. Eventually I had undercut another quarter, which I then sawed/split off.
I saw what I had suspected all along. The root system of the tree was definitely compromised. I called my wife over to show her what I had uncovered. We were both glad we had decided to take the tree down when we did.
Soon I was carefully undercutting the final quarter, still expecting to hit metal. I was surprised when, all of a sudden, I felt the whole thing shake free. I had cut all the way through the rest of the stump–and I hadn’t hit a bit of metal. With a surprised shrug, I put down the chainsaw and went to work splitting up the last, damaged quarter with my wedges.
You can see how bad a shape this side of the tree was in. No wonder it was leaning! These sections of the stump are all firewood, but I estimate that about 2/3 of the stump was sound wood.
With the sections of the stump out of the way, my son tried exploring the depth of the hole in the stump with a broom handle. It’s deep!
To prevent the kids from losing things down it (or stepping in it and turning an ankle), we filled it up with wood chips and sawdust–of which there was plenty lying around.
After the sections of the stump were removed, it took me a week or two to get them split into sections and laid aside to season.
But after removing the sapwood and the knotty center, I was still left with a lot of clear, straight heartwood that’s 12″-15″ wide. Here’s the 18″ bar of my chainsaw alongside one of the sections for comparison.
We did eventually find the embedded metal. It wasn’t a stake after all, but a series of nails that had been driven into the tree at some point.
Based on a quick count of the tree’s rings, I would guess it was around WWII. I have the section with the nails in it sitting near the fire pit, waiting to be given a Viking funeral. I hate the fact that, 70 years ago, somebody drove a bunch of nails into a perfectly fine shade tree (probably in the process of building a fence, judging from the location and spacing of the nails). But if it hadn’t been for those nails, the tree service probably would have removed this section of the stump, too, and hauled it away. Because of the nails, I now possess a large amount of wood from the old shade tree. And for that, I am thankful.
What will I do with the wood from the tree? I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’m thinking I’ll make the kids each something out of it, perhaps some step stools or something like that–mementos to remember the old oak tree by. It’s going to take the wood a few years to season, so I have some time to think about it.