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Local Sourced Wood

Between my wife and I our need for wood to turn is pretty insatiable.  Since we live on farmland with only a small area we lovingly refer to as the Quarter Acre Wood which is mostly weed trees we need a source of wood to keep up our hobby.  We can buy wood commercially or at retail, which has the advantage of some exotics, or species available in other regions of the country, or figured woods.  Prices tend to reflect the potential beauty of the blanks though and would quickly bankrupt us or diminish our opportunity to turn.  Our preferred method to acquire wood is to keep an eye out locally for trees which have come down and make an offer to the the owner of the property.  Our deal basically is that we will pick out pieces some of the tree that we are interested in and the first item we turn from the wood is returned as a reminder of the tree to the person who owned the property.


I want to go into detail about what the property owner can expect. I will usually show up with my vehicle with either a hitch carrier or a trailer, depending on how much wood I think I might collect. The first order is to scout the area around the tree to determine if I can safely work on the tree. That means anything entangled with power lines, uneven ground, or other dangerous settings are out. If it is safe I will then consider the tree including species, size, figure, and other aspects which I will go into detail below. If everything looks good on my end I will let the property owner know and what to expect. Specifically all children need to be safely away from the work site and any adults need to be aware and careful while I am working. Since my goal is to just acquire the wood that would be suitable for turning I do not take the whole tree. While I may do some de-limbing to get into a safe position for a cut I am not processing the whole tree into firewood. In the end I usually grab a couple larger 4′ – 6′ section of the trunk and possibly a couple crotch pieces. That will typically leave plenty of usable wood for any firewood scroungers to still be interested in the remaining wood.

Interesting Wood

So how do you know if a tree is something that I might be interested in? Well, there are a number of criteria I mentioned above which I mentioned which were species, size, features, and figure. I will cover a few other less commonly seen characteristics which might also pique my interest.


The species of wood is one the type of tree. For woodturning hardwoods (think deciduous trees) are best where softwoods (evergreens) tend not to turn very well. Unless there is something specific about a softwood tree I are not going to be interested. With hardwoods there is a great variety of species which are good candidates for turning. The most common ones are listed below, but if I haven’t turned it before I am usually willing to give it a try.

  • Cherry
  • Maple
  • Walnut
  • Birch

Some of the less pleasant hardwoods to turn are stringy hardwoods. In general these do not turn well, are hard on the tools, or have a tendency to check or crack in unexpected ways. That isn’t to say I won’t be interested if there is some other interesting aspect, but I will quite often pass over these species.

  • Oaks
  • Ash


There are two aspects to size which are important to a wood turner. The obvious is the diameter of the tree, but the other less obvious and cause of most wasted trips is length. In general I am looking for trunks which are a minimum of 10″ in diameter. Anything less and the resulting bowl is just going to be too small. I might pick up a couple branches which are smaller than 10″, but those usually have specific purposes.

The length is the biggest problem that I run into when going to check out a tree. Quite often the property owner has already cut the trunk into firewood length. While part of my processing of the trunk section does include this step, unless I am on site within hours of those cuts the wood already begins to dry and check on those short sections, which pretty much destroys the wood for turning purposes. I’ve included a video below explaining the process I use to prepare bowl blanks which covers some of my process.

Features and Figure

There are several types of figure which I am looking for when acquiring wood for bowls, vases, or hollow forms. Some of the features are quite apparent when looking at the tree where others are not visible until you actually get into the wood.


Burls are usually “ugly” knobs or bumps hanging off of a tree. A common cause for burls is insect or other types of damage when the tree is younger. The tree grows around that damage and causes unusual growth around the area where the grain direction changes in irregular patterns. This can produce a very pretty bowl when turned to display the effect.


Pretty much every tree has branches, but a crotch is where the trunk splits into two. An ideal crotch for turning is where both of the divided trunks grow to similar sizes. These pieces are very desirable when it comes to woods like walnut which feather the grain through the center of the crotch. One of my favorite bowls I’ve turned was a walnut crotch which I turned into a heart shaped bowl.


Figure is usually referring to the grain of the wood. Burls are the the only source oddly aligned grain. Maple seems especially prone to interesting figure or perhaps just shows it off. A search on google images for the word maple and any of these terms will show some of the great variety of figure seen in wood.

  • Ambrosia Maple
  • Tiger Maple
  • Birds Eye Maple
  • Quilted Maple


Some woods are prone to spalting, which is part of the decaying process. The wood can become infected by various types of mold where multiple disparate type of mold start to interact. Dark lines form between the colonies which can be quite striking. Maple, birch, and box elder are especially prone to this while the tree is still standing. Spalting can be promoted by taking a maple tree in the spring while the sap is beginning to flow and left in the right conditions.


So in the end our deal winds up with the property owner receiving a bowl, vase, or hollow form as a reminder of the tree. If you would like to see some of the items we have turned you can look in our shop on the site to get an idea of what we turn. I receive a number of pieces of wood which my wife or I can use to turn for future projects. While we keep a couple of our pieces we usually try to sell them at local craft show or on our website in the shop.

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Children in the Shop

Children have a unique and optimistic perspective of the world that most of us with more years under our belt have lost. Anyone who has watched a child with a cardboard box knows that their imagination can run wild with possibilities as they pretend it to be flying a spaceship or transmogrifying themselves into fierce dinosaurs. Even their line of questioning which consists of a single word, “Why,” indicates the purity of curiosity which most adults have lost. Children build space stations in their mind, forts from furniture, and swords from branches. Their unbridled creativity allows them to see the most amazing scenes which an experience laden mind cannot see.

Zen Buddhism has a concept called shoshin, beginners mind. Children naturally excel at this because they are not saddled with experience. In their inexperience they will not discard and idea out of hand because it may not work or is too inefficient that an experienced person would toss aside. In Mark 10:13-16 Jesus teaches that we must receive the Kingdom as like a child. The Lord knows that we become cynical as we age and that our perspective becomes one which becomes less imaginative and limited by our experience. The wisdom of the world is that no one in power would give up everything for those that hate them. But a child knows no reason that that such reasoning is not believable. A child trusts and looks to their father for all of their needs.

While children have the advantage of inexperience when it comes to imagination, adults we have the capability to transforming imagination into reality. Where a child might imagine a stick as a sword an adult with experience can actually make something that looks like a sword. Or in the case of my daughter, a wand.

As someone with more scars on his hands and fingers than would indicate a strong grasp of safety, it is crucial to consider safety before bringing your children into the shop. It is one thing to add to your own battle scars in the shop, but quite another for your child. If you want your child to have fun and want to come back they need to avoid getting hurt.

When you introduce a child to the shop you will want to make sure you have all of the safety equipment appropriately sized for the child. For the wand project with my daughter we needed a face shield. When none of the face shields we have fit her we had to head to the local hardware and pick up a new one and then modify it with some parts from a child’s hard hat since I was not able to find one which would fit her. Depending on the project you will want to find PPE (personal protective equipment) sized for children.

  • Safety glasses
  • Ear Muffs
  • Work gloves
  • Respirator

Beyond PPE, you will want to be familiar with the tools and methods you will be teaching the child. In specific you will want to focus on safety aspects of the tools so you are able to notice unsafe practices the child might start using and be able to stop them quickly. Your experience with the tools will also help pick safe spots for the child to stand to avoid debris or off cuts. Avoid using tools you are unfamiliar with yourself when trying to teach a child.

A few considerations when choosing a project for a child are their interests, attention span, and capability. Select projects which a child can look forward the completed project. A child who dislikes birds is not going to be interested in bird houses. A child who enjoys fantasy books would probably appreciate making a wand. Even though a child might enjoy a doll house (or castle) they are unlikely to have the stamina to hang out in the shop the several days it might take the make. The duration of the project can be adjusted by pre-working parts and bringing the child in for assembly. Children can be fearless to try new things when a parent encourages them, but you need to consider their capabilities. In general children are not going to be able to attain the level of precision required for many projects. Avoid projects which are going to fail if the joinery is not precise or interlocking pieces do not interlock.

Presumably you are encouraging your child to come into they shop with you to enjoy a pastime that you enjoy. When safety is not an issue you will want to allow leeway if the child is having a good time. Keep your expectations of productivity reasonable. It is probably best not to work on a project in which you are heavily invested. Especially when they child may need direction it is best to give your complete attention to the child, not your own project. Work on your own projects on your own time.

Since you are instructing a child you will want to keep an eye on their progress. Some parts of the project can be simple and require little more than a starting instruction. Sometimes you will be required to step in and assist or perform a demonstration. As the adult you will need to discern whether a child is struggling because it is challenging or they are just not ready for a particular task.

Another reason a child might seem to be struggling is boredom or exhaustion. Avoid the boring parts of the project (like sanding or finish) especially for early projects. If you feel it really must be done come back after the session in the shop has ended. Exhaustion for a kid does not necessarily mean out of energy, but mentally they are incapable of concentrating on the same task and need a break. Avoid drawing out the sessions in the shop with children too long and err on the side of shorter sessions.

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Acquiring and Preparing Bowl Blanks

One of the great things about bowl turning is that I get most of my wood for free. Assuming you don’t count labor. Over time I’ve built up a bit of a reputation among friends and family as the guy who will help take down or clean up fallen trees. That means several times a year I spend a Saturday or night after work I get to spend some quality time with my chainsaw. As a reward I get my choice of wood for turning before the rest gets turned into firewood or otherwise disposed.

Required tools
Since bowl blanks cleverly disguise themselves as trees, you will need some tools to before you start hoarding. The saw is the most important tool for harvesting your own bowl blanks, but there is some additional equipment which can make things go much smoother.

  • Chainsaw – Beside the saw, make sure you have files for sharpening, bar wrench, PPE, and consumables (chain oil and gas).
  • Tarp – Bring a tarp to keep chips and bugs out out of the carpet of your trunk or interior.
  • Trailer or hitch carrier – Either work great for moving logs, but keep in mind you will need straps to secure the wood.
  • End grain sealer (with brush) – I use Anchorseal2.

You will want to get a chainsaw with sufficient power and bar length for the bowls you are interested in turning. Our lathe has an 8″ swing which means just shy of 16″ diameter for bowls are the largest we will be turning. The blanks to reach that size for a standard orientation bowl (not live edge) will need to be slightly larger to start. Then figure that the widest part of the tree is going to contain the pith and discarded. That puts me in the range of about a 20″ bar to get the maximum size bowl I will be turning.

I use a Husqvarna Rancher 455 with a 20″ bar which has been reliable for me. In the winter I have found that I need to let the saw warm up a bit before it reaches full power, which is normal for small engines. In addition to the saw you will need the standard tools for saw maintenance such as the sharpening files, bar wrench, bar oil, and a gas can. You will also want to consider your PPE: glasses, ear muffs, and gloves.

Types of wood
You will most likely want to harvest local wood so it would be good to familiarize yourself with the local species. While it is possible that you will find something not native to your area that was brought in for landscaping, you will mostly be dealing with native species. For the most part you will be interested in hardwoods, but do not rule out all softwoods as I have seen beautiful work in some cedars and even pine root bundles.

You will want to familiarize yourself enough with your local species to be able to identify the woods during the growth seasons by their leaves (which is easiest and most consistent). Though after the leaves have dropped you will still want to learn how to identify trees without having to cut into it if possible. Walnut and cherry have some distinct bark which are easy to identify. Birch is fairly easy to identify also, but not necessarily the subspecies. Those are a couple species local in my area of the midwest. Other types of wood I find especially desirable in my area include maple and box elder. Fruit trees can also be very attractive, such as apple and pear, so keep an eye out for when orchards are being turned over.

Beside the species of wood, you will also want to consider which parts of the tree you may be interested in using for bowls. The trunks tend to produce nice straight grain bowls. Limbs are also usable for bowl turning since they are not subject to the same requirement of not warping as lumber. Burls are odd growths which can be found on trunks and limbs where the grain changes directions and can be quite desirable in turning. Root bundles for smaller trees, usually decorative trees in yards, can be pulled up and cleaned with a power washer, and these pieces tend to have lots of bark inclusions and can be otherwise similar to burls. Another portion which is often overlooked is a nice even crotch, especially in walnut. These can be turned into beautiful heart shape pieces.

How to find wood
Assuming that you are new to bowl turning, you will need to work at developing a network of friends, family, and acquaintances who know that you are on the look out for wood. Until you have built up a steady stream of wood and a backlog of blanks you probably do not want to be too picky. Since you are probably still in a learning stage turning any wood will be good experience, especially to learn the ones you really like and which ones you will want to pass on later. Having a handful of business cards printed up with your contact information, social media links, and your interest in acquiring wood will which can be given to anyone can also make it so people will contact you when they have a tree down. I give the cards to folks I have gotten wood from so they can give them to anyone they know.

When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. – Genesis 9:16

The Craigslist free section is a good place to start after a wind storm. Within a day or two after a storm lots of people will post ads for free you cut firewood. They are just looking for someone to get the tree cleaned up as fast and cheap as possible. You want to be one of the first on site to pick out the sections which are ideal for your purposes, otherwise a well meaning person may show up before you and cut up the best pieces into firewood length. Once the wood is firewood length and not sealed in a short period of time it will check and become useless for bowls.

Tree service
Tree service companies often consider the trees they take down as an expense since they need to take them to the landfill unless they also process and sell them as firewood. If you can develop a relationship with a tree service company you may be able to get them to call you on interesting finds, such as burls or unique trees they need to remove. So stopping by a tree service company may be a way to get a line on some exciting wood. But until you make a relationship with someone from the service it will likely be the least reliable source.

Processing logs into bowl blanks
Once you have acquired some logs you will need to process them into bowl blanks. This process can be intimidating the first time, but will get easier once you have found a method which works for you. I cover my process in the video below. Below the video I will cover a few things that didn’t make the cut for the video.

You will need to setup a location where you will process your logs into blanks. One of the sites picked up some wood I acquired some very large cut offs from some white oak. I use these pieces to hold the log sections as I rip them. This is easier on my back since I do not need to bend over when cutting. It is also a good idea to keep a few off cuts around to help prop the wood in place when cutting.

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Setting up Apache and Passenger for Rails on Debian

I am a software developer in the real world, but I like to play system administrator in my own playground. Debian is my linux distribution of choice. I have been using Apache as the httpd front end since I’ve started hosting my projects. When I’ve written servlet based applications I’ve used mod_jk to work with Tomcat, or even this blog is on WordPress which is using mod_php, which also my webmail interface uses, and I’ve used mod_proxy to redirect traffic to a Jenkins server on my local network through a VPN. Now that my Rails project is almost ready to go I figured I better figure out how to setup a Rails application with Apache.

The most common way I have found that people host Rails sites is to use Nginx as the front end. This may be tinted by the fact that the hosting team at the office is using Nginx as the front end for Passenger. But I am familiar with a number of other companies using similar setups. But as I stated before I am familiar with Apache and rather than having to learn and setup a new httpd front end which will support the other sites I am hosting I figured learning how to setup Passenger with Apache seems like the path of least resistance. The small amount of research I have done indicates that for a large scale site Nginx is a better option, but until my little site here can pay for itself and a real system administrator I’m happy to stay within my little wheelhouse of Apache.

Shut up old man, I came here to learn something, not read your yammering on about nothing!

This is a list of versions of software that this setup was done on originally. Some of the commands to set things up are specific to Debian or deb package based systems, such as Ubuntu or Mint, with a little modification it should be possible to setup with another linux based system.

  • Debian 8.5 (jessie)
  • Apache 2.4.10
  • Mysqld 5.5.50
  • Ruby 2.1.5
  • Passenger 4.0.53

Install servers, Ruby, and development packages

I am using Debian’s package management, so adjust the commands as necessary to your Linux distribution. The build-essential is basically your standard C/C++ development environment with gcc, make, and other similar packages. The ruby-dev package includes the headers and libraries for building gems with native dependencies. The libmysqlclient-dev is the headers required to build the mysql2 gem, so if you are skipping mysql in favor of PostgreSQL or no database support it is not required. The nodejs is required for certain rails gems so may also not be required for your purposes.

sudo apt-get install apache2
sudo apt-get install mysql-server
sudo apt-get install ruby
sudo apt-get install libapache2-mod-passenger
sudo apt-get install git build-essential ruby-dev libmysqlclient-dev nodejs

Setup Ruby

There is not a whole lot of setup for your Ruby environment required. The one major missing component for Ruby is the lack of Bundler for the default install. While this is not technically required, I haven’t seen too many Ruby projects which do not use Bundler for dependency management.

sudo gem install bundler

Configure Apache

The Debian apache package configuration has a layout under /etc/apache2 which has configurations, modules, and sites. There is a directory of which is called mods-available and mods-enabled and the same for configurations and sites. The available directory will include configurations which are possible to enable. And the enabled directory includes symlinks to the available directory. Then when apache is started it will evaluate all of the configurations in the available directories. In addition Debian provides some scripts which enable or disable each type of configuration. The commands a2enmod and a2dismod enabled and disable mods respectively. The configurations and sites have similarly named commands.

The passenger configuration is probably acceptable for a default installation. It will use the default passenger configuration provided by Debian. And the default ruby will be selected as the system installed Ruby. If you were to want to use another Ruby, such as JRuby or another version than what is provided by default you would set the default Ruby here or in each site configuration set a specific version of Ruby for the site to use.

The passenger module may need to be enabled which is accomplished by enabling the module with the next command. It seems that sometimes the module is enabled on installation, but that does not appear to always be the case so it is best to run the command to ensure it is enabled.

Now, by default each site hosted will have passenger enabled for processing Rails requests. It may be a good idea to disable passenger for sites which do not require passenger to handle Rails requests. But then we are getting into performance and security which is outside the scope of this howto and those two items are outside of my wheelhouse.

# Review passenger configuration for the PassengerRoot and PassengerDefaultRuby
less /etc/apache2/mods-available/passenger.conf
a2enmod passenger

Configure Rails Project

There is a bit of basic configuration which is required for most Rails projects which I will cover, but your Rails project will probably have specifics beyond what I am covering or could predict. One of the specific items you need to be aware of is that by default Passenger will run Rails applications in production environment so all of your configuration options will have switched to production which you may not have setup properly. It is a good opportunity to review your config/environments/production.rb file to verify the setup is indeed what you are expecting.

cd /var/www
git clone # retrieve your project
cd project # project directory
bundle install
$EDITOR_OF_CHOICE config/secrets.yml
# Update database configuration
$EDITOR_OF_CHOICE config/database.yml
RAILS_ENV=production bundle exec rake db:create
RAILS_ENV=production bundle exec rake db:migrate
RAILS_ENV=production bundle exec rake assets:precompile

Configure Site

The final step is to setup apache to recognize your Rails project as a site.

# Create site configuration /etc/apache2/available-sites/project.conf
sudo $EDITOR_OF_CHOICE /etc/apache2/available-sites/project.conf # project name
sudo a2ensite project # use project name, no .conf required
sudo service apache stop
sudo service apache start

The configuration file has two entries which will two entries to configure the site. A full set of available directives can be found on the Passenger website. The DocumentRoot is the location of the public directory in the Rails application. And the Directory is the root of the Rails project, which passenger will recognize as a Rails application for processing.

<VirtualHost *:80>
        DocumentRoot /var/www/project/public
        ErrorLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/project.log-error
        CustomLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/project.log-access combined

        <Directory /var/www/project>
                Allow from all
                Options -MultiViews
                Require all granted