tragedies #13: Chinese elm logs and the forces of nature

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Blog entry by Gary Fixler posted 04-07-2010 12:06 PM 5821 reads 0 times favorited 16 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 12: fixing my dryer's tensioner Part 13 of tragedies series Part 14: Oh the humanitrees! »

After picking up the Chinese elm logs the other day, I noticed hours later they were rapidly beginning to check. I headed out a few hours after that to seal them up, and of course, a few hours later it was raining. The not-yet-dry Anchorseal began to wash away:

Anchorseal running off logs in rain

Anchorseal running off logs in <br />rain

My truck bed ran white with wax:

Anchorseal running off logs in <br />rain

And so did my driveway:

Anchorseal runoff from logs in <br />rain

The following day I moved the pieces to the back yard, shortly before it began to rain again. I put them under the Hollywood junipers, where the thick foliage from the trees had left dry spots:

Chinese elm logs waiting to be cut up in back yard

Here’s my foot for some scale:

Chinese elm logs waiting to be cut up in back yard

Then it began to rain really hard, causing me to run all around the front and back yard trying to move recently collected wood to dry places in the garage and under the house’s rather large eaves. There are no gutters, so of course by the end of this effort, especially in the uncharacteristically (for LA) hard rain, I was completely soaked with dirty, LA smog-infused (and roof grime runoff-injected) water:

a wet, miserable Gary

That’s actually the moment right there that I decided I no longer love the rain. I used to kick off my shoes and socks and go out and run around in it. I even once had a similarly rainstruck girlfriend, and some of our most fun moments were when we were frolicking in the daily torrential downpours of Sarasota, FL. I’ve loved rain more than any other weather my whole life, especially powerful thunderstorms and mild hurricanes. I think that’s over now, though. As I’m aging, and as I’m needing dry conditions outside more and more, I’m really losing that old magic. I finally understand what all the rain-haters out there have been feeling. I guess I still like the rain itself, but it really clashes with a less hippyish and more productive lifestyle :)

Speaking of, today I headed out early – 8AM – to see about ripping these short, fat logs into turning blanks, or at least something I could get onto my band saw. Here’s the mess after quartering the largest log, and halving one of the smaller ones:

cutting work begins on the Chinese elm logs

cutting work begins on the Chinese elm logs

Here’s a peek inside one of the small logs:

inside a small Chinese elm log half

Then halfway through the next of the 2 small, round logs, my cheap Homelite 16” electric chainsaw started revving without spinning the chain anymore. I checked inside and played with the chain and gear wheel, reassembled it, and it worked again for a short while. It happened again, and I figured it was just a safety mechanism to prevent injury to the machine or the user. I was making a hard cut, after all. I looked for some kind of tripped switch, found none, and eventually felt like I’d figured out I could just push the chain to reengage it. It kept working, but it also kept tripping more and more, after shorter and shorter useful periods. Not long after that, unfortunately, I lost all ability to spin the chain anymore.

Here’s a video of the first cut through the largest of the logs – 5 minutes of fighting over a few separate takes. I removed the end guard at some point for extra space. Included in the video is the trouble beginning while cutting the second of the small logs, with several attempted restarts, followed by the end of the chainsaw’s life:

It turned out that I’d stripped the plastic 3” internal gear, part of the planetary gear system that drives the chain:

stripped internal gear in cheap electric chainsaw

The gear box is full of shredded black plastic:

internal gear shredded plastic in cheap electric chainsaw

Look at the teeth inside the 3” internal gear here, and note that their front halves are entirely gone, shredded to nearly their base

toothless internal gear stripped in cheap electric chainsaw

It’s quite clear to me now that I need a decent quality gas-powered chainsaw with at least a 20” bar for the things I do. 16” is just too short, and electric is such a hassle. I thought gas would be the pain, but having to look for a plug, having to watch that I don’t cut the cord, and the overall shoddy, plastic makeup of these things makes it ridiculous. I had to ask one guy if he had a plug anywhere near the logs in a craigslist ad that I ultimately gave up on, and he said if I had a 200’ cord, I could run it from his house. It’s not worth it.

Well, at least I got these pieces cut and sealed. They were all sized to about the limit of my lathe, and will definitely push it to its limit with how heavy they are:

sealed Chinese elm log pieces

Here’s my hand on one of the smaller pieces for some scale:

sealed Chinese elm log pieces

I really slathered on the Anchorseal. In an hour or so they were dry, and I flipped them and did the other sides. I want these pieces to work, and not end up checked terribly like so many other logs I’ve brought home. That was why I wanted to cut these up soon. The smaller chunks of trees are much less prone to check than short logs left in the round. There are so many more forces acting on every cubic inch in an entire log, both radial and concentric.

These are all pith free, or the pith is on the edge, ready to be turned away. That should aid in keeping them from splitting. I’d also like to not leave these for months and months, but get to them in the coming weeks. I might buck some into shorter pieces for bowls or plates. Oh, and if anyone was curious, I counted the rings of the largest remaining log tonight. It was a little hard to follow them in some places – they’re not super pronounced in the wax-covered end, and they wiggle all over from fat to thin as they trace their way around the pith – but the number puts this tree somewhere between 45 and 50 years old.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

16 comments so far

View PG_Zac's profile


373 posts in 4851 days

#1 posted 04-07-2010 12:35 PM

It looks like you have some beautiful wood in those logs.

I’m eager to see some turnings from it.

-- I may be schizophrenic, but at least I have each other.

View David Craig's profile

David Craig

2137 posts in 4571 days

#2 posted 04-07-2010 01:07 PM

Not sure what engineering genius came up with the nylon gears in high resistance tools concept…sometimes I imagine special purgatories for these folks. Kitchenaid almost lost their reputation for their high quality, but expensive, mixers a couple years ago. They outfitted them with the nylon gears and numerous customers were reporting issues until they finally went back to metal.

With as much cutting as you do, a good quality chainsaw would be a good investment. Even if you just used it on the morning glories…


-- There is little that is simple when it comes to making a simple box.

View jerryz's profile


164 posts in 4741 days

#3 posted 04-07-2010 01:47 PM

Well, is it a wonder that they try to use cheaper and cheaper materials to construct everything from tools to cars.
Nylon, pound per pound is cheaper than steel or investment casting metal, also the gurus will tell you Nylon gears are less noisy than the metal counterparts, so between the cost reduction and the “ergonomics” reason in the end they literally screw us with their useless junk…..

View JJohnston's profile


1622 posts in 4754 days

#4 posted 04-07-2010 02:17 PM

This just reinforces my observation that light-duty, hobbyist-grade stuff is just crap. Even the occasional hobbyist is better served by something heavy duty. The problem for me is, where do you find it, and how do you recognize it? Every throwaway POS now says “professional grade”.

-- "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 flyfisherbob2000's profile


81 posts in 4450 days

#5 posted 04-07-2010 02:31 PM

if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
if it jams, force it.
if it breaks, it needed fixin’ anyway

So true about a good quality gas chain saw. I have yet to regret buying a quality tool, but always seem to regret when I get a “bargin” tool

View Jimthecarver's profile


1124 posts in 5248 days

#6 posted 04-07-2010 03:20 PM

I think a nice Stihl is in your future.
Good luck Gary
What happened to the mountain man look?

-- Can't never could do anything, to try is to advance.

View reggiek's profile


2240 posts in 4733 days

#7 posted 04-07-2010 05:44 PM

That was a lot of work. I have never thought of owning an electric chain saw myself, as I have always owned Stihl or Husquavarna’s. Both are of similar quality…and both can do some serious cutting (damage too if you are not careful). That wood looks great. Looks like you got some fun turning ahead.

I always worry about wood that is checking so fast though. I hate losing pieces that way. I just had a piece of the most beautiful spalted plum crack like Mt. Saint Helens erupted in it’s center….it was so disappointing…the piece was beautiful….I had gotten it to nearly finished proportions….and then came out to check on it (I had it in a large bin of sawdust (slightly damp). When I pulled it out…there were 3 huge and very deep cracks…like a large bear or predator had slashed it. Ah well, Back to the drawing board.

-- Woodworking.....My small slice of heaven!

View PG_Zac's profile


373 posts in 4851 days

#8 posted 04-07-2010 05:49 PM

Gary, I’ve just reread the post & watched the death of your chainsaw. My heart goes out to you in your grief at the loss of this beloved tool. ;-)

I am amazed that anyone would put plastic gears in a chainsaw. My chainsaw is a Stihl MS 460 and is plenty strong enough to slab 24” hardwood like Eucalyptus.

A word of advice for your future rip cuts – use a ripping chain. It makes the job much easier and saves the saw some effort.

Have you seen the USB powered chainsaw?
It is called the i.Saw

-- I may be schizophrenic, but at least I have each other.

View reggiek's profile


2240 posts in 4733 days

#9 posted 04-07-2010 09:57 PM

I Saw…lol….

-- Woodworking.....My small slice of heaven!

View lew's profile


13534 posts in 5218 days

#10 posted 04-08-2010 12:01 AM

Maybe you got all of the bad luck out of the way all at once. Things have to be better tomorrow!


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

View Chris Cunanan's profile

Chris Cunanan

339 posts in 4943 days

#11 posted 04-08-2010 01:48 AM

where’d u get the chinese elm??

View Bearpie's profile


2601 posts in 4481 days

#12 posted 04-08-2010 06:12 AM

Gary, I have that same exact chainsaw and it seemed like I have the same problem you had. I only used it to cut about 4 or 5 pieces and it wouldn’t cut anymore. I like to use my electric saw so I don’t bother the neighbors but looks like they will have to get their earplugs out when I go to my gas chainsaw to do my cutting. So no more electric ones for me!

Nice haul on your wood!

Erwin Jacksonville, Fl

-- Erwin, Jacksonville, FL

View Galirex's profile


37 posts in 4451 days

#13 posted 04-08-2010 09:50 AM

Ha ha ha !
Gary, you look like a bedraggled maltese poodle who got locked outside !
On a more serious note, I guess I’d also be cheesed-off with the groundhog-day series of complications !
Can’t believe they are using plastic gears in a chainsaw of all things !!!! China special ???

Now, we are all pretty eager to see what’s going to come out of all that wood, so, don’t wait too long !
... and keep on entertaining us !

-- Don't complain about growing old, it's a priviledge denied many...

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 4844 days

#14 posted 04-08-2010 06:12 PM

Skarp – Yeah, I shave about 3x a year on average :) It’s not that I love beards. I just don’t like shaving, and am blessed/cursed with a really thick beard that grows very fast.

David – I’m low on funds for the time being, but when I pull myself back up financially (working on it now), a good, gas-powered chainsaw is pretty high on the wishlist.

JJohnston – The internet and LJs itself helps a lot to whittle down the list of what’s good, and what’s junk. We have quite a reviews section here!

Jim – The mountain man look is unnecessary. The mountains and their simple, rugged life will always call to me :) But it’ll be back fast. It’s already covered up most of my skin again. I’m returning once more to my wild state.

reggie – I’ve had soooo many suggestions about how to save wood from checking – seal ASAP after cutting, cut away any checks and seal immediately, don’t put wood in windy areas, freeze wood to shatter the cell walls and kill their absorption/evaporation of moisture and thus movement potential, microwave wood to remove all water (more a drying technique), remove the pith entirely, don’t use branch wood or any wood that’s grown under directional stresses, riving wood (careful splitting) rather than cutting to find the natural stress lines and split along them, and probably a bunch more – but in the last year+ of working with wood, I’ve found that if pieces want to split, they’re just going to split, and nothing I do will stop them. Olive wood so far has been the absolute worst for me, though all of my wood came from a single tree that trimmers ‘threw’ to me over a 10’ tall fence, and every piece crashed down on a sidewalk. I’m still not sure that didn’t throw stresses all through each log that manifested as splits later, but it definitely didn’t make it severely cup, curl, and warp, which every piece did. I’ve looked up a lot of works by woodworkers and turners, and I usually see splits all over olive turnings, accompanied by apologies from the artists that the splits were unavoidable, or praise that said artists love the natural splitting, giving an old-fashioned, antique look :)

Zac – Definitely will get a ripping chain setup one day. This was a very half-hearted investment. It was a <$80 all-included deal from Home Depot. I have seen the i.Saw – very funny!

Lew – I’ve resigned myself to the fact that if I’m going to keep working with tools on materials, things are going to break and/or blow up in my face. There’s a learning process (I tend to be a bit rough with things, and not do the upkeep necessary, pushing everything past its breaking point), but when I ask around, it seems everyone who gets things built ends up with problems like this all the time. My stepdad has a large, successful company in the plumbing/heating/HVAC industry, and things fall apart for them all the time. I’m just happy to be able to keep working, despite the setbacks.

Chris – Got the elm from a residence in Downey, CA, after following a craigslist ad from the owner there, who had cut it down in the front yard and wheeled it out to the road for anyone who wanted it for free.

Erwin – Sorry to hear about your similar loss. Let’s all stop buying this cheap crap! It almost never works out.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View davidroberts's profile


1027 posts in 4949 days

#15 posted 04-09-2010 12:20 AM

Guess I’m confused. Why not split the logs with a couple of wedges. Usually you can split with a surface about the same as a chainsaw.

-- Better woodworking through old hand tools.

showing 1 through 15 of 16 comments

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