European Ash Trees, and reclaiming old growth redwood fence boards

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Forum topic by Chris89 posted 06-05-2018 01:11 PM 2407 views 0 times favorited 8 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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7 posts in 762 days

06-05-2018 01:11 PM

Topic tags/keywords: ash european ash fraxinus angustifolia fraxinus excelsior redwood fencing old growth reclaimed

We’ve got some roughly 40 year old redwood fencing that’s finally being replaced, but two fairly large, roughly 20 year old European Ash trees (either Narrow-Leaf Ash Fraxinus angustifolia or Fraxinus excelsior, though they look very much like the latter otherwise, and the buds are darker brown than I can find pictures for the former, but not ‘jet black’ as F.excelsior is supposed to be, more of a dark chocolate brown) and wanted to know if it’s worth saving the butt logs and possibly crotch wood for carpentry and turning.

Given they came up against fencing, they’re not perfectly straight, but I wasn’t sure where the line was between marginal use (or firewood) or something worth saving. They’re too small to be of much interest to any larger scale mill, but some small scale or DIY shop might be interested. (that and if the trunk is too curved for practical board or stave use, it might have interesting figure for turning)

Along the same fence, there’s a pair of quite tall (around 20 feet) Mexican Orange Blossom Trees (we’ve been calling them mock orange, but they appear to be Choisya ternata) that aren’t endangering the fencing, but we may take down as well. It’d be an obscure thing to use for woodworking and the trunks are relatively small (about 6 inches in diameter I believe), but if anyone thinks there’s interest in some long sections of Mexican Orange, I’ll keep that in mind too. (I’m not sure of the structural properties, but it might make some interesting walking sticks or some sort of turning, or maybe carvings)

In the fencing itself, there’s some old-growth 4×4 redwood posts and boards in that old fencing (something we failed to take note of when the main portion was removed some years back, sadly) and I’m hoping to scavenge some of that, too. (there’s one large section of 2×12 retaining wall that’s probably no good where it’s in contact with soil, but around 6 feet of it that’s just open air on both sides and seems solid … our fence contractor said it was just trash, but I’m skeptical there)

There’s also all the fence boards themselves (I think 1×8 5 or 6 feet long) that are weathered but only decayed on the ends. A handful of those also appear to be old growth or younger growth with relatively dense growth rings, but most are typical second growth heartwood. I’m pretty sure those boards are more useful for things like bird houses, re-use for smaller fencing projects and maybe some types of planter boxes, or arts and crafts type projects, but I was considering saving some of those as well.

So is that stuff worth saving, even just to donate to someone locally? (Santa Clara County, California)

Removal of the old fence starts on Thursday (June 7) and I believe the tree removal follows that, so I’ve kind of waited to the last minute for advice here, but any input would be helpful.

8 replies so far

View John Smith's profile

John Smith

2423 posts in 933 days

#1 posted 06-05-2018 02:09 PM

if you have the room, I would save a LOT of the straight fence material.
once it’s gone – it’s gone for good.

-- I am a painter: that's what I do, I like to paint things. --

View R_Stad's profile


428 posts in 2614 days

#2 posted 06-05-2018 03:58 PM

I agree with John. That redwood fencing will clean up easily and nicely. It can be used for much finer projects than bird houses. If you don’t have a planer available, just take a sander to one of your boards and see how easy it is to get to fresh redwood. It is a very beautiful wood in my opinion. One of my first projects was a table built with redwood fencing. If the wood is sound, it is absolutely not “trash”. Good luck.

-- Rod - Oregon

View LesB's profile


2551 posts in 4214 days

#3 posted 06-05-2018 04:45 PM

To begin even 40 years ago real “old growth” Redwood was not turned into fence boards. So while there may be some boards with fairly tight grain they are likely re-growth. Old Redwood trees commonly re-sprouted from the stump after being cut and produced new trees. You can plane or sand them until you get to fresh wood for making boxes or similar projects but bird houses from those that were flat sawn or have knots is a reasonably good use. Redwood is very soft so it does not stand up to much physical abuse.
You can certainly band saw up short sections of the trees to make “short” boards and use the crotch sections of the trunk for wood turning….the grain can be outstanding. If you don’t turn the wood while it is still green be sure to seal the end cuts and let it dry in a cool dry place over a year or two.

-- Les B, Oregon

View Chris89's profile


7 posts in 762 days

#4 posted 06-08-2018 04:58 AM

LesB, if not the fence boards (which are actually 1/2 inch thick or maybe 11/16, not 1 inch like I originally mentioned), what about the 4×4 posts and 2×12 retaining wall boards?

It turns out work won’t actually start until saturday, but I got to tearing out some of the old fence portions around some other plans I needed to dig out beforehand. The retaining wall is pretty heavily decayed there (only a couple inches mostly solid near the top, the rest is decayed from the soil-side to about 1/2” on the surface exposed to air), but in any case, some of that split open, exposing fresh surfaces that make for decent viewing of the grain. (in addition to being tight, this wood feels much denser than typical redwood, though I’m not sure if that’s indicative of all tight-grained examples regardless of old growth or second growth or simply ‘not grown in a plantation focusing on very fast growth and heavy turnover of relatively young trees’ as seems common with commercial growers)

Here’s the end section of that retaining wall. It appears carpenter bees got into the upper edge of it, but only damaged half an inch to an inch in on that end, and it’s probably still the biggest slab of intact wood around. (the old 4×4s are fairly intact above the ground, but there’s also decay and some insect damage where they butt up against the retaining wall, though I assume all the insect damaged portions there were already decayed as wood-eating things tend to not like raw readwood heart: the carpenter bees don’t eat it, of course, though they still prefer softened, weathered or decayed wood)

I’m planning on saving all the intact planks and posts at this point, and probably even some of the decayed portions (sort through it later and toss what’s really useless). What we can’t use I’ll try and find a good home for.

I can get some pics of the posts later, but the grain looks tight enough that they seem like they’d look very much like this example when they were new: (which, incidentally, is the thread that brought my attention to lumberjocks in first place)

I’m not equipped to do much with the ash trees myself other than maybe prep them for drying (treat the ends and such). Our contractor is more keen on cutting them down to firewood lengths, which would leave them a lot less useful for anything else, but also probably lead to more checking when drying. I’m going to try to get him to leave the logs longer, though. (preferably one long butt log, though that’d also make them harder to get out of the back yard, especially while still green)

In any case, I was hoping to just give them to someone local who’d want to mill them and put them to better use than firewood … or getting chipped. (or hauled off as wood waste, which I’m pretty sure mostly gets chipped … I’m pretty sure that’s what happened to some big Iron Bark Eucalyptus trees that got taken down around here recently … beautiful salmon pink wood; our next-door neighbor took down a big Camphor tree a year or so ago, too, and I’ve seen seen forum posts around with comments from people hunting for camphor logs like that, or lamenting finding ones already cut to firewood lengths)

I hate seeing stuff go to waste, and between that and regretting not saving/salvaging/donating the majority of the old fencing when it was torn out around 12 years ago (I was in high school, but I’d already tried to get my parents to save the stuff, but I wasn’t home when most of the demolition happened … that and they ended up using low grade, knotty sap wood for out new fencing, but that’s another story) I’d rather make the most of what’s left.

I can vouch for the trees also not having any nails in them (that redwood is another matter, obviously), though I’d also imagine any small-scale/DIY milling operations would tend to take that as a possible risk in most cases when considering milling trees taken from yards and such.

Oh, and I’m in San Jose, California for anyone who didn’t peek at my profile. (at least, I think I made that bit public)

View Chris89's profile


7 posts in 762 days

#5 posted 06-10-2018 02:17 AM

Got that big old 2×12 out today (looks like a rough sawn, full size board too, not a finished sub-two-inch example), but the above ground, best preserved portion ended up splitting in two pieces. Shame, it would’ve made a nice, solid 10×2 with the decay cut off (though the split did expose two small borer holes of some sort inside … though they’d have remained hidden on the solid piece had it just been sanded or planed). I ended up sawing off the split portion at the nail hole mark, and they might still make something nice looking … cut down, or maybe some thing rustic or natural looking exploiting that split. (there’s some nice bird’s eye figure in a few spots too, so it’d probably polish up nicely)

On the up shot, the remaining ~12 feet (there was about 16 feet total in that piece) aren’t as decayed as I’d thought, in spite of being submerged. (I’m going to leave it as a solid piece for now, you could get some decent, long 2×4s if you went between the nail holes, but otherwise they’d been in 3 1/2 to 4 foot segments … need to measure to be sure) I also managed to get all the nails out, in spite of their mangled and rusted state.

And aside from using a planer or sanding, there’s also the option of hand planing or scraping. I don’t have a hand scraper, but do have a nice vintage Stanley jack plane that might do the job. (I’d only ever used jack planes for edge work, more like a jointer would be used for, but using one on a larger area seems possible) case in point:

Not sure what’s going to happen to those ashes, though, but they’re being cut down tomorrow. (I’ll try to get them cut as long as our contractor is willing, something better than firewood lengths hopefully, and the slimmer, straighter tree could have at least 6 feet of solid, straight log, maybe 7 or 8, while the other one is thicker: 14 vs at least 15 inches at the butt swell, but it also tapers rapidly to 14 1/5 and then down to 14 further up, and it’s got some major bends in it, so I was considering aiming at just cutting it into straight-ish lengths)

We have to be able to move these by hand as well, or at most use a dolly or such to get them out of the work area.

On that note hand-sawing boards from logs would also be possible, but I don’t have a rip saw (let alone one really intended for log work) and it’d be very time consuming to say the least. (though if done right, I’d think you’d get less waste than chainsaw milling, closer to band saw) I’m pretty sure using a crosscut saw as a rip saw in this capacity would be even more tiring and time consuming. Plus I have no current use for Ash wood, so aside from the curiosity of how nice the wood might look, it’d make far more sense to give the logs to someone else.

View Chris89's profile


7 posts in 762 days

#6 posted 06-11-2018 08:00 PM

I counted over 90 growth rings on that 2×12, but it’s not a quarter-sawn (or something close to that) segment, so many of those are going to be counted twice. I didn’t scrutinize too much, but perhaps 50 years of rings were there, so the tree it came from had to be a good deal older than that. (I’d have to do something complicated, like examining the curvature of the rings and approximating the circumfrence and diameter from that … but … that’s a lot of work and math I probably won’t bother with)

I suppose it could be slow, natural second growth from stands that were cut back in the mid 1800s, and 100+ year old second growth heartwood harvested in the 70s would probably look a lot like old growth.

Old growth stands that were heavily managed during second growth to maximize grow rate should look more like plantation grown wood, though (rapid growth, wide rings), and I’m not sure how common that is today vs allowing for slower growth (plus, once they’re old enough, growth will slow down due to competing space/light/etc … but how long that persists before harvesting is the bigger issue). Shame there isn’t more of an effort to produce wood like that, but if there’s no strong market demand for wood of that grade, it’s probably not worth the added expense. (OTOH, slower annual growth in diameter doesn’t mean slower total growth in volume of wood, and calculating the breaking point there could encourage longer harvesting periods allowing for slower growth in the later portions of the trees lives)

Oh, I’ve also noticed all the tight-grained fence planks themselves tend to be thinner than other boards, very close to a true 1/2” rather than 11/16 or 3/4 inches, and appear to be solid heartwood (and either clear, or with very tight knots), so those may have been the original boards mixed in with replacements from repair over the years. (I think the guy who repaired after a storm collapse around 1999 salvaged and reused portions of the original fencing, so that might explain it)

On a side note, our contractor is more keen on using true 3/4” planks rather than the more common 11/16” variety, but opted for a higher quality grade of common lumber (mixed heart and sap, but only small and tight knots) over solid heartwood. (I noted the current price of thinner solid heart at Home Depot is about the same or very slightly cheaper than what he selected, and I’d probably have used that had I been doing the project, but I suppose his choice seems reasonable, and probably matches our other, newer fencing better … and it’s not going to have ground contact or any sprinklers overspraying on it thanks to the retaining wall below, and it’s being stained to match that other fencing as well: mom prefers that … I much prefer either the natural look or a clear coat or natural oil finish or very light stain or ‘natural finish’ stain, but it’s their decision and if nothing else, those thicker boards should be stronger … and leave more room for planing if salvaged years from now)

I also ended up with a nearly 8 foot section of the straighter tree, treated the ends with copper napthenate varnish and keep them sprayed down to avoid checking, and it seems to be working. The bigger tree got cut into 10-20 inch segments, though, so probably only useful for turning (the butt log and some crotches look nice) and it turned out to be a solid 16 inches in diameter at the base. (he started cutting earlier than I expected yesterday, otherwise I’d have asked for longer pieces, though given the weight as it was, we probably couldn’t have done much better than 4 feet)

It seems unusually stable for ash, especially with large growth rings, but maybe my treating of it is helping … knock on wood.

View Chris89's profile


7 posts in 762 days

#7 posted 06-21-2018 10:36 PM

Looking at that 2×12 again, I’d previously counted rings in a section close to a large knot, and checking a clear section from the other end of the board, I counted at least 160 rings passing through that 2 inch section (or approximately 1 3/4” as it’s not an old style oversized rough cut, though one 4×4 post is of the latter type at 4 1/4 by 4 1/4 … makes me wonder if all the posts holding up the long section of arbor we used to have were also of that type)

Anyway, the posts and that old retaining wall board appear to be actual old growth timber, though they may have come from relatively young trees (hundreds of years old rather than thousands), they’d still be too old to be second-growth in the 1970s.

Perhaps more interesting, is that a lot of the lumber our contractor used for the new fence had very tight grain, including some wide-spaced heartwood rings butted up against extremely tight sapwood (so either relatively young regrowth trees in dense forest or wood from the crown of an older tree). There was also a rough-cut 4×4 post included, seasoned rather than green like the rest of the redwood lumber, which definely looked like old growth or rather old regrowth. (I counted close to 80 rings there, but they got far too tiny and tight to count accurately) The sapwood pieces also had a significant amount of bark left on them, so definitely on the very edge of the trunk. (it really seems like crown wood, particualrly as some had lots of tight rings, but also the wide-spaced heart down to the pith, and I don’t think younger, small diameter trees would tend to have tight sapwood like that)

He got the stuff at The Decking Superstore in San Jose, so they might be getting in a lot of lumber from distressed and dead trees after the recent drought and wildfires. Last I heard, there was far more deadwood timber than CA’s current mill capacity, and loggers taking advantage of the opportunity are exceeding the current market value of the wood (though I’m not sure they’re taking advantage of any premiums on old/natural growth timber, if that’s even legal in CA) and I believe there’s a mix of state and national funding for said logging tied to the forestry service to cope with the fire hazard that dead wood creates.

View Chris89's profile


7 posts in 762 days

#8 posted 06-25-2018 12:09 AM

I also realized one more reason why the posts and possibly even some planks of our original fence appear to have so much old growth timber in them, in spite of such being less common by the 1970s: this house was built around 1978 and the fence was original to it, and that was immediately after the 1976-77 drought. So like the current state of surplus dead/dying/damaged trees following the 2014-2015 drought, there was likely a surplus of atypical lumber to be had around that time. (normally protected or otherwise not normally logged regions having trees not only ripe for harvest, but necessary to reduce fire danger)

That probably expanded well beyond redwood and into a variety of other commercially viable CA species, possibly various pines, firs, and cedars.

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