Turning Archive 2006

Cucumber Wood Success, photos to share LONG *PIC*

David Breth
>Several few weeks ago I made a hopeful gloat posting about some really ancient cucumber wood I had on the hook. Well, I reeled it in just before Christmas, and I wanted to tell you about the wood, the experience, and the results, plus I'll post several pictures.

The pieces were cut and left for me at my friend's house (the contractor who tore down the building in question). This house was apparently one of the oldest structures in Orchard Park, NY. I don't have the documentation in hand yet, but that would tell me it was built probably 1840ish, and I'm guessing you can tack on another 100 years for the cucumber tree. The story is that while my friend was demo-ing the house, an older fellow walked up and told them his great great ggg grandfather had hand hewn the beams for that house out of cucumber wood. My friend's plan was to re-use the beams decoratively in his father's house, but that never happened, so he hacked some out for me.

When you see the pictures, you'll see the evidence of the hand hewn work, which is pretty slick. Unfortunately, a lot of the wood was buggy/rotted, and those parts that weren't buggy/rotted had about seventeen gagillion nails in them. It was not easy to salvage blanks from this wood as a result. It was cute at first trying not to hit the nails, but after I busted my crafstman chainsaw on a nail I didn't see it wasn't funny anymore. (thank you Sears for the warranty replacement...thankfully they don't ask a lot of questions...).

The wood weighed an absolute ton. The sections were about four feet long, wet, icey, snowy, buggy, rotty, and with just enough nails sticking out to do you some personal damage. Just the thing you want in the back of the minivan. It was all I could do to manage them into and out of the van. The cross-member piece you'll see later I couldn't even lift.

Something I noticed right away, and too my disappointment, was that the pith was in the wood. This immediately made sense, though. It isn't like the people who built the house had giant saws available. They took a long tall tree, hewed it square, and that was that. As I considered this further, can you imagine what our ancestor's houses/cabins were like? Eventually they would get buggy/termity/anty I'm sure - that would be all but inevitable, but all that exposed wood - must have had quite an interesting smell for a long time. And as the wood cracked, and exposed areas to bugs or weather, that wouldn't have been too much fun either. I don't guess they used a lot of elm, sycamore, cottonwood, or other stinko woods too much. In any event, the pith situation meant a lot of cracked areas that sort of killed sections for me. So, between nails, bugs, rot, cracks, it was hard to find useable wood. I felt guilty taking this stuff to the dump once I got a relative handful of blanks from it, but what can you do? Rot is rot, and there were only so many hidden nails I was interested in finding. The photos on the attached pages are largely the good-looking sides, so I guess it will be hard for you to appreciate.

Now, the other thing I noticed, which I found very appealing, is that the wood has a very greenish tint to it. Not sure if you can see that in the photos of the timber, but it was green. So, the name cucumber comes apparently from the shape of the fruit or nut or whatever that it bears, but the wood also bears the green color. Interesting. And, as you'll see, the finished product holds the green color with minwax antique oil finish.

Turning this wood was interesting. When I mentioned I had a line on these beams, several people thought it would turn like cucumber-crete. That would be incorrect. 200 something years later, this wood was really soft. So soft that a novice like me had a heck of a time with tear out. So soft that I used a tenon instead of my usual recess, which as it turns out was a bit of a mistake because the tenon snapped and the bowl went flying. It took a great deal of effort to save the bowl, because I had nothing on either side to grab it with, but eventually made a recess, it held, it worked well. Sharp tools, soft touch, and I used minwax fake tung oil to help me sand out the end grain areas while it was on the lathe. But I could see early on this wood had some promise. I just couldn't tell from the blanks before I turned out - the wood just looked like particle board all mashed together. But suddenly it had grain and pattern, and beauty. Whooooohoooooo! Clearing out the inside of the bowl was a bit of an experience. It was really dry, so heat was produced, and with heat and a wall a little too thin, I got a crack that had to be ca'd. This was done successfully.

The photos of the "finished" product are not really "finished", but I couldn't wait to show you. Since the photo, I wet-sanded it like crazy to get tool/sanding marks out, it looks better, but it will take several coats of oil before this baby gets a sheen.

Lastly, I wanted to tell you a bit more about turning this wood. It reminded me a great deal of poplar in the grain. In fact, the color was something like that - those lumber sections you see at home improvement stores that have green-coloring. It reminded me a bit of pine the way it tore out at first. The finished bowl weighs absolutely nothing - like cottonwood. Just interesting notes I wanted to pass along.

Sorry for the length, but from what I gather, this is a very unusual wood to turn, somebody posted that it is imminently headed for extinction in Ontario, and here in Buffalo we are at the very tip of it's range. When I posted before, nobody put up any photos of cucumber wood they've worked, so I figured most of you haven't had the opportunity to work with it or maybe even see it. Why the wood should end up in the hands of a novice (1 year this month!) I don't know, but maybe the reason is because I'm sharing the experience. Plus, aside from the relative obscurity of the wood, the source of the wood is fascinating. This is not terribly far from Fort Niagara, and is land that was occupied by the Senecase (part of Iroquois League or "Five Nations"), and when this tree was cut, logging had never occurred near the tree - this piece of wood is effectively from the forest primeval, and to me, that is cool beans.

The photos I will show you:
Hand hewn sections
baloney slice - observe the pith, color, cracking, and dimensions, and a little rot at the bottom
a tenon joint that was so rock solid I couldn't move the pieces within that joint a billionth of an inch.
a chainsaw length-wise section cut, and finally,
The resulting bowl.

Enjoy! - I'll answer any questions I can.

David Breth

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