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A Practical Guide to Traditional Woodcraft By Roy Underhill

The Splitting Tree

  A professional basket maker's stash of white oak. These 6-to-8-inch-diameter logs will still be good for making splits even after several months of lying in the open. White oak dries very slowly when left whole with the bark on.A professional basket maker's stash of white oak. These 6-to-8-inch-diameter logs will still be good.

First, find a suitable tree. You should look for a white oak, any one of several species of oak without bristle tips on the ends of the veins in the length as possible. Only the section with good bark can be expected to have good wood, so this is the limit on how long the individual splits can be.

You can hear lots of tales about where to look for good splitting trees. I'm not so sure that what works on one mountain will work in the next valley. Some of the variation between trees may be genetic rather than environmental. Growth rate may or may not affect how a particular tree will split. The only thing to do is to see what works in your woods. That's the fun of it.

Old-time basket makers often chopped a chunk out of the base of a tree to see if it split well. If it didn't look good, they left the tree standing. I don't approve of this practice, but it has led to at least one good story, told to me by Lew LeCompte, whose cooperage business takes him to the woods quite often.

"We were out in the woods with old Mr. Kyle getting some white oak for his baskets and he was cutting into this tree with his axe to check the grain to see if it was good stuff or not. He was cutting in there and he hits this rotten spot in the heart. All of a sudden he drops down on his knees and puts his hand over the rotten spot and starts yelling for someone to get him a match. I had some matches and he says hurry and light one and give it to him. He takes that match and holds it to the cut in the tree and this long clear flame starts shooting out of the notch like a blowtorch. There was some kind of gas coming out of the tree and I mean it was burning hot, just like a blowtorch. We just stood there and stared at that flame for about a minute before it turned yellow and went out with a 'pop.' Mr. Kyle looked up at the two of us standing there with our mouths hanging open and he says, 'What'sa matter, fellers? Ain't you ever seen anybody light one before?'"



"The Woodwright's Companion: Exploring Traditional Woodcraft" By Roy Underhill
© 2012 The University of North Carolina Press

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