found wood #18: Chinese elm, finally!

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Blog entry by Gary Fixler posted 04-05-2010 12:41 PM 16197 reads 0 times favorited 15 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 17: more restaurant remodeling wood Part 18 of found wood series Part 19: Okay, too much wood now... »

I learned what a Chinese elm is 1 year and 10 days ago, and blogged about it here. A friend told me she had read about a very old one that had fallen on someone’s car during high winds the day before. It turned out to be only a 10 minute drive from work, which is where I was reading the email. At lunch I headed over, found the crushed truck on the side of the road, but the tree was already gone. Since then I’ve seen Chinese elms all over my area, and they are wild looking, beautiful trees. Here are some creating a tree tunnel not far from where I live:

Chinese elm tree tunnel over road

I took these pics on the way home from the bearing place recently, with the new bearings for my planer:

Chinese elm tree tunnel over road

They’re very twisty, and almost muscular in appearance. As LumberJock Demowen commented on my first Chinese elm post way back when, and as I’ve been saying ever since, they look like something out of Dr. Seuss’ imagination. I’ve stated in the past my interest in trying out every wood I possibly can, from the junk to the treasures. Chinese elm is used by people occasionally, especially in turnings, and it’s by all accounts a good wood. That elevated it above total junk, like ficus, to something I’ve been really interested to try out for a year now. I’ve even recently complained in a comment to trifern’s Elm turning (I’m the last comment on the page currently) that I never see Chinese elm on offer or falling down by itself anywhere, after a year of looking.

Then, very early this morning – like 4:30AM early – I saw this post on craigslist:

Chinese elm post on craigslist

It only mentioned “a tree,” but I’d know that bark anywhere now, gray peeling to reveal orange-brown beneath. It was Chinese elm. It was also posted the previous afternoon, and it was a good 30 or so miles and 3 highways (the 401, the 10, and the 5) away. Was it even worth the big round trip? Would it still be there? The firewood crowd strikes hard and fast. Maybe the apparent size of these things would slow their pyro-fueled advance some.

I decided to be impulsive, printed out a google map, and jumped in the truck. It turned out I was a bit too impulsive, and left before properly considering what I might need, such as gloves, junkier clothing, my hand truck, and those ramps I built, and a towel to dry myself off and clean myself up with when I was done. In truth, I thought of them all, but thought “Meh, I’ll be fine.” Famous last words… I was nearly run off the highways the whole way there by the aggressive, early-bird types who populate the pre-sunrise roads (where’s the fire, people!?), but I found the place without trouble, and on the grass strip behind a long row of parked cars, they sat waiting for me:

Chinese elm logs

It’s been awhile since those huge eucalyptus logs, so I forgot exactly how heavy green wood can be. I always have that feeling that I can just push a little more, and I’ll get it. It’s just a log. After almost throwing up in my mouth, I realized this one just wasn’t coming home with me. Sometimes you really just can’t push any more:

Chinese elm log too heavy to lift

That’s okay, though. It was cut from one side to the pith, with a wedge driven into it. It looks like someone gave up trying to split it in half. I’d just go for the smaller, unspoiled ones. At some point I realized I could roll Old Unliftable over near the curb/driveway corner and roll logs up onto it with less effort than lifting them entirely and carrying them. Then I was able to use the curvature of the road – built in for rain runoff, as evidenced by where the moisture was pooling – to back the tailgate right up to the stump. Normally my tailgate is way up by my waist, but here it was dipped down right to the top of the stump. Perfect! I just tipped this log onto the tailgate and slid it home – substantially easier:

Chinese elm log on another Chinese elm log about to be tipped onto tailgate

I left probably 1/3rd of the logs behind, including the few very largest ones. I had no intentions of making nor using huge slabs of this, though, and the logs I got will be ripped and crosscut into a number of large turning blanks, big enough to give my 12”x20” Jet lathe a healthy workout. I’m hoping in a month or three to just start churning out turnings, getting better and better as I make salable items all the while. In the meantime, I’ve much else in the way, such as jury duty, a diet (this is much more work than it sounds :), a friend shipping his car to me from Texas to watch for him, taxes, moving boxes of stuff out of the old office (they’re moving to a much smaller place soon), and of course the ever-present job hunt. I’m working currently on materials such as a demo reel to aid me in that effort. After much of this has subsided, I hope to be back out in the shop a lot more, making as much as time permits.

Anyway, here’s the full haul, ready to pull out around 5:30AM or so, only about a half hour after I left home, and still well before sunrise. I was leaking sweat like a water fountain, and missing that towel I’d neglected to bring. Did the Hitchhiker’s Guide teach me nothing? At any rate, the family will wake to find their log pile shrunk considerably since the previous night. The log ninja strikes again!

Chinese elm logs in back of truck

I hadn’t emptied the haul from the restaurant, so I had to pile those up against the edge first to make room. I think this is the biggest log of the lot. Pretty big! I had visions of this guy in my head seeing this particular log. They’re probably almost equal in weight, as the euc was a lot more dried out than this brand new, soaking wet elm log. I’d put the elm around 200lbs, a little less than the euc – the reigning champ of large logs I’ve dragged home.

very large Chinese elm log

I was really glad that it was pretty much all trunk pieces from a fairly vertical tree. Too often all I find are branch pieces with their inherent stresses from having grown horizontally, or at some angle off of vertical. So much of my wood has a pith way over by one side, evidence of reactionary growth. Wood changes to support such affected structures. In angiosperms (flowering plants, e.g. broadleaf/deciduous trees), reaction wood is called tension wood, and it forms above the branch, pulling up the wood beneath it like a rope stretched taut. In conifers, reaction wood is called compression wood, and it occurs below the wood, and acts to push up the wood above it, like a buttress. Each grouping has evolved to solve the issue of outside stresses in different ways.

That said, reaction wood is structurally, and even chemically different than the rest of the wood. Wood with a mix of regular and reaction structures loves to warp and bend, and will continue to do so as moisture levels change, because each kind of structure reacts differently to moisture levels. Reaction wood isn’t only in branches, either. Trees growing on a slant (e.g. many Chinese elms I’ve seen – they grow every which way) will show it in one side of the main trunk, and even trees that are buffeted by winds or snows primarily from one direction, or have branches trimmed on one side only to protect a nearby building, and are thus lopsided will grow to brace against the asymmetrical force.

But enough of that. More pics!

Chinese elm logs in back of truck

Chinese elm logs in back of truck

Chinese elm logs in back of truck

Chinese elm logs in back of truck

This is one of the few small ones:

Chinese elm log in back of truck

I love these amateur buckings. The guiding principal seems to be ‘just keep hacking with the chainsaw until it comes apart’:

Chinese elm log with poor excuse for a bucking job

Some interesting bark:

Chinese elm logs in back of truck

It’s funny what relative scales do to your perception. This piece was just holding the front of the “FREE WOOD” sign against the large, unliftable piece. I almost left it there, before realizing it was actually a very large piece of wood, and would have to be trimmed down to fit on my lathe, yet is a really great size for making a large bowl on said lathe. I threw it in the truck:

large piece of Chinese elm great for a bowl turning

Another large piece, showing some interesting curvy lines in the sapwood. There’s a dry, powdery coating on all the logs from the chainsaw, perhaps evidence that this wood will turn more into powder than large chips? I can’t say yet. It’ll be interesting to see how it handles, though. The leaves are more evidence of elm…ness.

very large Chinese elm log in back of truck

I had to get another dominance shot, reminiscent of this one from this post on some large eucalyptus logs:

looking down at a legs standing on a pile of Chinese logs in back of truck

And of course, I did not make it out entirely unscathed. Here’s a mildly scratched up arm, reminiscent of this bruising from this post:

lightly scratched up arm

I went in, cleaned up, and took a long break. Later in the day I went back out and noticed these things were checking fast in the windy afternoon air!

Chinese elm log with checking

Chinese elm log with checking

Chinese elm log with checking

Chinese elm log with checking

I went out as the sun was setting, and in the dark with a headlamp strapped to my head, Anchorsealed all of the faces I could get to. It was too late at night, and I was too tired to try flipping them, or unloading the whole truck and finding somewhere to put these, but the bottoms should check more slowly, as the moisture is more trapped. Not ideal, but what can you do?

Then, naturally, it started raining. It’s rained so much more in LA this year than I’ve ever experienced in my 7 years here. I can’t be bothered to try to tarp my truck after midnight, so I’ll survey things tomorrow and probably reapply some anchorseal. Mostly, I’d just like to get these cut into blanks very soon and sealed well, despite all else that’s going on. The back of the truck was a puddle of Anchorseal, and the truck is dripping a white trail of wax behind it, running down the dirt driveway. This LumberJocking is tough business.

But hey, I have a bunch of Chinese elm now! My wishes have been granted :)

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

15 comments so far

View Broda's profile


313 posts in 4862 days

#1 posted 04-05-2010 01:18 PM

Awesome score!
shame about the checking though, hopefully its not too deep

-- BRODY. NSW AUSTRALIA -arguments with turnings are rarely productive-

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 4724 days

#2 posted 04-05-2010 01:22 PM

Thanks, Broda! I’m still pretty excited, a day later. The checking has only just started, and I’m going to work to curb it ASAP. I think it’ll be alright. There’s so much wood here, I’ll have a hard time getting to it all this year, even if I have to remove a few inches of checking from the faces.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View WoodSparky's profile


200 posts in 4445 days

#3 posted 04-05-2010 01:22 PM

Nice score. I am glad to see that I am not the only one that goes through hell and high water to gather wood for my turning obsession.


-- So Many tools, So little time

View Dennisgrosen's profile


10880 posts in 4458 days

#4 posted 04-05-2010 01:23 PM

congrat´s with your lucky punch


View lou's profile


344 posts in 4785 days

#5 posted 04-05-2010 01:34 PM

Interesting stuff Gary.Have you tried cutting some of it into boards for box work.?Excellent report and pics also.Thanks

View lew's profile


13489 posts in 5098 days

#6 posted 04-05-2010 02:10 PM

Great Photo Blog, Gary.

This is the first I’ve seen Chinese Elm. It’s bark is quite different than the American Elm we have here. Also the wood itself looks to be a little redder in color than the American variety.


-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View patron's profile


13722 posts in 4684 days

#7 posted 04-05-2010 02:12 PM

something iv’e learned from your posts , gary ,

where there’s a Fixler ,

there a way !

well done .

-- david - only thru kindness can this world be whole . If we don't succeed we run the risk of failure. Dan Quayle

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 4724 days

#8 posted 04-05-2010 02:37 PM

Thanks, everybody.

lou – I just picked ‘em up 24 hours ago, so I haven’t done much of anything yet. They’re still in the truck. That said, I probably won’t bother much with boards, though I’m sure I’ll have to try a few. Elm is pretty simple looking, like ash, or hickory. While they’re all fine boards, the work of slabbing, stickering, and monitoring things for a year or two while they dry out is a lot greater than just turning green wood, and then using one of the many techniques to dry it out quickly before putting on the finish. Like I said, though, I’ll still probably have to try a few boards with it, if I can figure out what to do about my super dull band saw blade.

Lew – Yeah, Chinese elm is like a completely different animal, though inside the wood is somewhat similar, and the leaves are definitely still elm leaves. We also have this elm out here, which I’ve not completely tracked down to the species yet:

elm tree trunk

It has incredible, thick, deep ridges in the bark:

elm trunk with hand for scale

There are several in my area, and they have quite an imposing figure. The leaves are just starting to come out, so I’m anxious to see how they look when not dead like this, as I’ve not noticed them before this year:

elm tree

Of note, the other, much younger trees behind it and on the other side of the street are Chinese elms. They look like completely separate and unrelated beasts.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View poopiekat's profile


5038 posts in 5077 days

#9 posted 04-05-2010 03:02 PM

Glad to see the presence of Chinese elms in such abundance. Where I live, the city removes 4,000 to 6,000 American Elms a year, due to DED. In our climate of -40 degree winters, the suitable replacement is the related Siberian Elm, which has the same characteristics you speak of in Chinese elms, only it has the rugged bark of the American species. I’ve been searching for the right word to describe the appearance of these trees; ‘muscular’ is perfectly apt to describe them.
I am tracking down the name of the local contractor who peels and mills the affected trees. Rumor is, he retails elm lumber in a responsible way, using procedures that avoid the spread of DED. Probably there are other cities who handle the immense culling of diseased elms in a way that salvages the timber responsibly.
Congratulations on your haul!! I’m thinking ‘forearm forklift’, a device for lifting heavy objects like washing machines, etc, for getting those logs into your truck in the future. As seen on TV!
ps…Be careful about transporting these! There are laws that strictly control the handling of downed elms. those bugs hide in the bark and emerge later to lay their eggs in other trees. Where I live, for example, the campgrounds will NOT let you bring in your own firewood, for fear of beetles hitchhiking from your home with you. In fact, in the rest areas along the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, there are ‘firewood drop-off bins’...and it’s not good to be discovered at a campground with wood other than what is provided locally. In high enforcement areas, I bring cut-up 2X4s, to supplement what I buy locally.

-- Einstein: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." I'm Poopiekat!!

View DaddyZ's profile


2475 posts in 4383 days

#10 posted 04-05-2010 03:43 PM

Nice Haul !!

-- Pat - Worker of Wood, Collector of Tools, Father of one

View JJohnston's profile


1622 posts in 4634 days

#11 posted 04-05-2010 07:08 PM

I’m surprised at the “firewood crowd”, one, because of the mild climate there, and two, because of all the burning restrictions.

-- "A man may conduct himself well in both adversity and good fortune, but if you want to test his character, give him power." - Abraham Lincoln

View lew's profile


13489 posts in 5098 days

#12 posted 04-05-2010 08:14 PM

I’m pretty sure the second set of pictures are of American Elm- the type that is susceptible to the Dutch Elm disease. It looks exactly like what we have in our back yard.


-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


23357 posts in 5019 days

#13 posted 04-06-2010 01:12 AM

Exciting times, adventures with Gary in LA!! What’s next, a REdwood?? :-))

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View scrappy's profile


3507 posts in 4773 days

#14 posted 04-06-2010 01:34 AM

Fantastic score. Beautiful wood. Hopefully you got the checking under control. Should be some great projects coming out of these.

Keep it up.


-- Scrap Wood's the best...the projects are smaller, and so is the mess!

View Sman's profile


30 posts in 4000 days

#15 posted 11-26-2011 07:26 AM

Hey Gary, the one you have a few posts above mine looks alot like Siberian Elm. It was planted to replace all of the American Elm that died off from dutch elm disease. I use TONS of it, like 90% of my woodturning is from Siberian Elm. This summer there were logs of it on every other block just sitting on the curb calling my name and of course I now have piles of it in my back yard.

Happy turning!

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