Friday, September 20, 2013

West Bridgewater Walnut

Paul Lelito's walnut tree in West Bridgewater, MA. All photos by Paul.

I met Paul Lelito two years ago at the Society of American Period Furniture Maker's New England Chapter April meeting, held at his sawmill at the Magnolia Cranberry Bog in Marion, MA. He's a former arborist and environmental consultant who now saws specialty lumber for a living.

When he was in his early 20's, he worked for Maltby and Co., a tree trimming and removal company in Stoughton, MA. They had a sawmill where they processed the trees they cut into lumber. Paul started woodworking using this lumber. He's maintained a relationship with them for 40 years.

He used to go up in the crane and look around the area for walnut trees. When he found one, he would go to the property owner and offer to cut it for free for the wood should they ever need to take it down.

This is the story of one of those trees that has finally come to fruition. Paul first saw this tree back then and has had an eye on it those 40 years. It grew on a flat spot in a small valley protected from the winds, so it was straight with no twist or tension wood.

While his patience impressed me, I was even more impressed by the story of cooperation behind this tree. This is the best of what Sam Sherrill writes about in his book Harvesting Urban Timber: A Guide to Making Better Use of Urban Trees.

This tree was a large one that had survived decades of winter storms well. But the area has been growing, and the lot was slated for redevelopment 4 years ago; it's still in the permit process. Normally a tree like this would be bulldozed and chipped and go into a landfill, since the developer's interest is simply in clearing the way for construction.

Fortunately, one of the neighbors had a business that had been a client of Paul's consulting service. The neighbor was aware of Paul's interest in the tree and contacted Paul when he saw the "For Sale" sign on the lot.

Paul contacted the property owner about the walnut, but the land was already under agreement with a developer, so he couldn't authorize its removal. The developer actually knew Paul as an environmental consultant, but was unaware of his interest in woodworking.

The developer sent Paul a copy of the landscaping plan and Paul identified the tree. However, he couldn't authorize removal either, since he wasn't the property owner yet. So the tree was in limbo.

Paul communicated back and forth with the owner and the developer over time, and the owner agreed to have the tree removed, since the developer wasn't interested in it. The owner required that the job be done by a professional with a certificate of insurance, and sent Paul a letter of permission.

Either of these parties could have said no or ignored Paul, but they chose to work with him. They recognized that they had a valuable resource that shouldn't be wasted, given someone who knew how to use it. The only thing they asked in return was to see pictures of the furniture made from it.

Late this past January, Paul had Maltby send a crew out and cut the tree down. This was definitely a job for experienced professionals. The span of the branches was 80' from drip edge to drip edge. The usable main trunk was about 32' tall, 60" across at the butt end. This required serious equipment, a crane truck and large chainsaws.

After cutting the branches and limbs, much of which will go to the neighbors for firewood, the arborist prepares to secure the crane line to the top of the trunk.

Cutting off the upper section. This contains some nice crotch wood where the large branches were.

Lowering the upper section to the ground.

Lifting out the lower section. Note the bowl-cut base, where the chainsaw has been plunged in repeatedly around the circumference. This maximizes the wood and captures the highly figured parts where the roots meet the trunk.

The two sections ready for loading.

Loading the upper section, 18' long.

Loading the lower section, 14' long, 39" across at the narrow end, 60" at the butt end. This will yield excellent wide, straight-grained lumber. Wouldn't a piece of this make an awesome conference table?

Once the truck was loaded and secure, the Maltby driver went from West Bridgewater to Berkshire Products in Sheffield, MA, pretty much from one end of the state to the other.

Berkshire Products has a large-capacity bandsaw mill, where they specialize in milling logs into large sequential slabs. Because the mill needs straight sections, they cut the upper log into 8' and 10' sections where it had a crook, then milled everything up. The video below shows some of the action.

They ended up with 3 sequential log sets, in thicknesses of 8/4, 6/4, and 5/4, up to 40" wide. One thing that Paul stipulated in the log handling was that they not use a grapple, only slings to gently lower the sections. This preserved the integrity of the bark so they could leave clean natural edges. Paul also salvaged some of the crotchwood from the larger branches for milling up on his mill.

They loaded the slabs up and took them back across the state to Paul's site in Marion the same day. He's stickered the log sets for drying in a covered open shelter where they'll need to season for at least 2 years. However, the lumber is now available for sale while still green if you'd like to dry it yourself.

Paul has invested a lot of time, effort, and money to make this unique large-slab local walnut available. This is for people who want something nobody else has. If you're interested in purchasing some, you can contact him at 508-451-9999 (cell) or 508-563-2000 (home/shop), or via email at

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