Why Wood Turners SHOULD Pick Up Wood by the Side of the Road

A Question Is Asked

I would pose the following question to anyone reading this (yes, all two of you), regardless of whether you are a wood turner or wood worker of any sort, skill level, or age: How many times do you drive/bike/run/walk past logs or branches lying by the side of the road waiting to be landfilled, burned, or chipped? If your experience is anything like mine, my bet is that the answer is “frequently.” What I propose is that you stop moving for a few seconds, just long enough to pick up some “trash” wood, throw it in your vehicle, and take it home to see what it becomes. You might well be surprised.

Buying Wood To Turn

I know from experience that it is very, VERY easy to spend large amounts of cash on exotic hardwoods. In fact today I was in a local Woodcraft store to pick up a Tormek T-7 (more about that little beauty in another post) and I was congratulating myself on NOT picking up any wood there. They were selling wood by the pound even and also had an INCREDIBLE bin of domestic wood in sizes up to 8” round. But, tempted though I was, as I always am by beautiful hunks of wood crying for a good home, I left the store without any.

The reason I didn’t purchase any doesn’t have anything to do with having “found,” or “trash” wood at home, even though I do, but it still illustrates the point that there are many specialty retailers all too happy to sell you a chunk of pink ivory or ebony, among countless other species. And make no mistake, I am a big fan of all of those woods and more. But my latest work had everything to do with the luck of the found discarded wood intended to be burned until rescued from the cold wet ground and shipped on a long journey.

Origins of the Writer/Turner

I grew up in the central part of California, a land of olive and orange trees along with just about any other agricultural product you can think of. Understand that this is NOT the California of oceans, movie stars, or amusement parks. There is little, to nothing, amusing about this part of California which is why you have never heard of it or visited it if you are not from there. But because some friends and family still live there, and because there are some tastes, like MellowGold Grapefruit, that I can’t get anywhere else, I find myself returning at least once per year. Another flavor I can’t find anywhere else is a specific brand of olives that are packed literally a few blocks up the road from where I grew up.

Origins of the Wood

I was driving out to the olive farm in fact when I drove past one of the many, although diminishing, olive orchards that I grew up amongst. It was in the early part of the year and it was time for pruning, which in the case of olives, can include some branches that are several inches thick. The wood was piled up to be burned so I figured that no one would mind if I purloined a piece or two. My Dad, and also my turning instructor, wasn’t sure if anything could be made of these branches, but I shipped them home to myself to someday find out. Yesterday was the day.

Bark Olive 3

Turning the “Trash” Wood

Some time ago, the day I first assembled and fired up my new bandsaw, I cut out rough dish blanks from the two branches. Yesterday, I loaded one on to my screw chuck and started working on it. The wood is fragrant, although I don’t know that I would say that it would be a universally appealing odor. But more importantly, the wood turns absolutely beautifully, almost like butter, and it is a richly figured and colored wood to boot. From the outside looking in I don’t think one could easily imagine how stunning scrap olive wood intended for the burn pile can be once turned and sanded smooth. But I think once you see a piece you will be wishing you had the same inside source for this “trash” wood as I do!

Both Olive 2

What the “Trash” Turned Into

I was able to leave a natural edge on both dishes; however more of the bark was preserved on the first attempt. The second dish shows the rather severe cracking and checking that happened as the green wood dried in my shop prior to my turning it down. I fully realize that for some turners the existence of such severe cracking would be an automatic disqualifier and that piece might have been discarded and never turned at all. But honestly, of the two, it is my favorite because it reminds me, and all of us really, that wood is a natural material and like all natural materials it has unique characteristics from piece to piece even among that same species or even the same tree. This piece of wood cracked, that is what the wood did, it isn’t anything I did right to achieve an effect or something wrong that caused the appearance, and if you could feel the wood, you would immediately know that great care and patience was exercised to achieve that smooth feel where the wood isn’t naturally cracked.

Cracked Olive

The Unique Piece Waiting to Be Found

This little dish reminds me that if I want a certainty of appearance and smooth finish 100% of the time then I should stick with thermoformed plastic crap from China. It will always be predictable, and most important, or horrifying, to some of us, exactly like the one before it and after it, multiplied by the literal millions. WallMart is happy to sell you as many as you can carry and more. But with a piece of random wood that is free for the taking you never know. It might be a rotten mess that you throw out, and if you do, so what? It was free! But every now and then you find yourself with a truly unique one of a kind piece that no one else can ever have because you found the material and your work, patience, practice, and skills turned that “trash” into something you can treasure for a lifetime. So, the next time you see wood lying by the side of the road, pick it up because you never know what it might turn out to be.