A large log ready to cut

Wednesday morning, we got a text from our builder: “David Lashway just called to say that he is milling the last of your timbers tomorrow and Friday if you want to get some pictures.”  So Friday morning we carved out some time to make the trip to Williamsburg to see the next step in the process of turning trees into a building.  David Lashway operates Highland Community Lumber in Williamsburg, and his passion for local wood products and for the local land-based economy is clear.  The technology in his saw mill is consistent with what was used at the turn of the century (the one that occurred in 1900, not the one that we can still remember in Y2K.)  Much of the sawmill is engineered to move heavy logs to the saw, slide the logs into the stationary saw, and then moving the lumber away to it’s stacks.  Where I have often joked that moving heavy things around is a big part of my job as a farmer, we never handle anything as large as the trees that they move around at the sawmill.

David sharpening the huge sawblade

The pine from Foxbard Farm had already been milled, but today he was working on cutting up hemlock for the main timbers for our farmstand.  David usually steers framers away from hemlock, because of the tendency to rot.  But Ernie Kelley, neighbor to the Paynes at Foxbard Farm, had a stand of beautiful hemlock trees, and he wanted them to go for a higher and better use than the bridge timbers that are the usual fate of hemlock logs.  David’s frustration was palpable as he showed us the hemlock logs that were beautifully straight and true, and showed no sign of rot from the butt end of the log, but then revealed rot upon sawing into the log.  He estimated that even with the nice big straight trees he received from Ernie, half of the wood would be below the standards required for timber framing.  He showed us one of the five large timbers that will be the purlins for our farmstand and that turned out to have dry rot along one side.  That wood can still be cut up for pallet lumber, but those are much smaller pieces of wood and therefore more labor to cut, and would fetch a much lower price.  I asked him if he would get 10% of the price that he could get for the larger timbers, and he said “Oh no, not nearly that much.”  But his perseverance did pay off and we saw four massive timbers that will form the main structure of the farmstand.

David points out rot visible from the outside of the log

Our timbers are in the foreground

I was impressed in talking to David how his knowledge of the how trees grew informed his knowledge of the structural characteristics of the wood.  Yellow pine from the Montague Sand Plain has very nice structural stability and a lot of weight and strength due to it’s slower growth in the nutrient-poor sandy soil.  Hemlock tends to rot because of it’s tendency to grow faster and slower in better and worse seasons.  He also had a great perspective on his place in the network of local foresters and millers.  He delighted in telling us the names of all the other sawyers who he works with, and described himself as a “sawmill aficionado.”  We got the sense that he sees the local wood
industry as an endangered one.  Many of his colleagues in the sawmill business are in their 80s and 90s.  None of the local lumber yards buy his timber; he sells it all directly to builders.  At one time, many farms had a mill onsite and derived some winter work cutting wood.  David has more modern income mix: we glimpsed the edge of a 2.4 megawatt solar array up hill from the mill.  It was inspiring to see one younger fellow (younger than his 80s, anyway) continuing on a New England tradition in the face of myriad difficulties, and to do our part to support his important work.