A Walnut Tree and What Became of It
Part 1. The Walnut Tree
Three years ago I picked up a phone message from a guy who’d once done some milling for me .“ Hi Dave, there’s a walnut tree a bloke wants to sell up back of the Clarke Valley. I haven’t time to look at it myself but thought you might be interested.”
I’ve been chasing walnut timber for the past 25 years, and what followed was not untypical , except that the tree was growing in an exceptionally beautiful and remote place, the timber from it was especially gorgeous, and most importantly, the owner of the tree was a well organised and very helpful man who meticulously recorded the entire process of the felling and milling of the tree. This is something I keep meaning to do but in the excitement of the whole process tend to simply overlook. Which is a shame, because for me as for so many woodworkers, there are few more magical moments than that first reading of the log, when, like a book, opened plank by plank, the recondite beauties and possibilities bound within the gnarly bark of an ancient log are gradually revealed.
It was on our wedding anniversary a week later, July 30th, that I suggested to my wife that we take the day off for a little sightseeing trip far up a valley that we had never explored. Clare has always backed and supported the woodworking life I’ve led, so checking out a walnut tree was as good a reason as any to head off to the back blocks on that auspicious day.
Tapawera is 10 kms off the main south Highway 50 kms from the small city of Nelson, nestled at the top end of the South Island of New Zealand. From Tapawera, we crossed the Motueka river and headed up the west-bank road, no longer sealed. Pleasant pastures of river flats and terraces bordered the meandering river, but gradually the pastures became rougher and rockier, and the river valley narrowed as we passed through patches of ancient native forest. A turn off led us up a steep winding pass, through rough plantation forestry land, and finally at the top, we had a magnificent view of the rugged foothills skirting the massif of the Mt Arthur range, rearing up snowclad behind. We had a thermos with us and had a cup of tea while we took in the view.
We were already 40 kms or so from Tapawera, and the road dropping down from the pass looked like it was taking us into very rugged and remote country, but the directions were clear enough so on and down we went. We came to farmland at the bottom, but this was real back-block country now, and the chance of finding what had been described as a large villa set in a big garden seemed ever more unlikely.
We came to the small clear-flowing Clarke river and followed along it’s banks until, over a bridge and round a corner, suddenly there on a grassy rise , surrounded by a beautiful garden full of mature trees, was a fine, even magnificent, large colonial house, a really classic homestead.
The owner, Tony Hammersley, could not have been nicer to deal with, a younger man with a young family, but passionate about the place. It was built in 1901 by a well known Nelson family, as the centrepiece of a large grazing farm-block, but also as a retreat for hunting, tramping and fishing and had been beautifully maintained ever since, though the homestead now just had the three acres of grounds surrounding it.
The walnut tree we’d come so far to see was pretty much dead standing, which was why the owner thought it should come down. It was right next to an old but well used shed too. It had about three large trunks springing from a base well over a metre in diameter. Unusually for English walnut, two of the trunks had grown for a couple of metres without branches, which is about as good as it gets for walnut logs. The form of English walnut trees rarely allows for more than six feet of clearwood, and as I have mainly used it for making my Signature rocking chairs I need a good proportion of straight-grained wood for steam-bending the various parts and the rockers in particular.
I was heading overseas for a couple of months a week or so later, so the owner said he’d fell the tree in the meantime and I agreed to buy the millable logs and arrange to collect them when I got back. I indicated just where he should cut each log, as with a multiple headed tree a lot of good wood can be lost by poor log selection.
As good as his word, Tony painstakingly felled the tree and the logs were ready when I returned and I then had to decide how to fetch them. I asked a friend in our local Guild, an expert logger who has a big double axle trailer and winch if he’d come out with me and he agreed. Which was just as well, as, as often happens, I’d underestimated the size and weight of the logs from only seeing the standing tree a couple of months earlier, and had thought one load would be enough. It wasn’t, and winching the three big heavy saw-logs and three or four smaller ones from between the shed and a fence to a place where they could be loaded onto the trailer was in itself a technical exercise and half a morning’s work. Also, there was no way we could load them in all in one go, so there were two round trips that day, each one 180 odd kms, half on unsealed road. Fortunately we’d started early, but still we finished late.
They were taken to ‘Plankville’ , an aptly named sawmill near Nelson, owned and run by a very helpful husband and wife team, Brent and Sally Curtis. Brent runs a Wood- Miser band-saw among others, and is a great enthusiast of fine timber. He also knows walnut trees, and will only mill them on condition that they are checked out thoroughly with a metal-detector. I did so, and another long day later, had painstakingly extracted from the innermost heart of the best logs some seven three and four inch nails. Brent’s band-saw found the eighth! There was a belief,( and who knows, it may be true) that walnut trees bore more and bigger nuts if the trees were stressed or abused in some way, and I’ve found countless nails, many bullets, and even carefully spaced axe-cuts deep in the heart of many of the walnut trees I’ve milled over the years.
As our local woodschool, the Centre for Fine Woodworking was running a course at the time I invited the class out for a morning to see the milling process in action. It’s an experience every woodworker should see, as we should never forget that the square timber we buy from the yard was once part of a living growing trunk, and there is a lot of effort and skill in converting it. Brent, the miller, has a hydraulically operated system for turning and clamping the logs as they are sawn, and this really gave scope for getting the best yield and most promising cuts and as well I was able to select every cut for thickness. I ended up with something over a cubic metre of sawn heart-timber, which was, as is often the case, highly varied in colour and texture. It’s a particular feature of walnut how the character of the wood can change dramatically as you go through a log, how one part can seem to concentrate rich colours and dark marbled veining, and how at others it can seem to be washed clean and relatively featureless. Freshly sawn though, the wood is almost invariably rich in colour, and among these planks were some as richly coloured and fine textured as any I’d ever seen.
A few days later, standing finally at home at Cable Bay, looking at three stacks of neatly filleted timber, stacked in the form of the logs they’d come from, well covered in sheets of corrugated iron, there was time to savour the whole experience and cast ahead for possibilities contained within that stack.. truly the stuff of dreams! Of all the many wonderful exciting aspects there are to a woodworkers life there is surely nothing that quite matches the satisfaction of getting timber from the tree, and having that insight into it’s origins as you fashion your work from it’s planks.