Oaky Legs and Smoky Butts

Saturday was my birthday. Which means I need to update my “About” page, since I’m no longer “nearly” 32 years old. When my wife asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, I had an easy answer. I wanted to spend the day smoking a pork butt.

I don’t know if there’s a better way to spend a Saturday. Get up early (but not too early), grab a bucket-full of shavings from the workshop, and light up a fire.

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Slather a pork butt in salt and spice and sugar, and throw it on the smoker (my personal favorite cut is a picnic shoulder, but a Boston butt works too).

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Now, kick back for the next 10 hours, enjoy a few ice-cold brews, and every hour or so shovel another heap of coals into the smoker and add another slab of oak to the glowing bed of embers.

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Utter bliss. There’s plenty of time between tending to the meat and the fire to get a few things done around the house, but no time to leave. It’s self-imposed subjugation at its finest.

There were two things I wanted to get done: finish the shavehorse, and get started on the Windsor chair. I had been monkeying around with some wood property data and wanted to test the suitability of live oak for chair legs. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot to choose from, but I disappeared into the woods for a while and came back with this homely little specimen.

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That’s the pith I’m pointing at. For those of you keeping score at home, it’s supposed to be in the center of the tree. Yuck.

It’s ugly, but it’s the best I could muster. I cut two sort-of-straight 24″ sections out of it.Legs (3)

And set about riving it into useable billets. The devilish wood required two hatchets, two steel wedges, two dogwood gluts, and an obscene amount of pounding before it even thought about splitting.Splitting Live OakThis little tree had a dirty secret, a crooked past that it was trying to hide under a straight-laced veneer. I caught the first whiff of the evidence when I saw the off-center pith, but the truth was laid bare for all to see when it finally opened up.Crooked PastDevious little scoundrel. Oh well, once the first split is made, the hardest part is over. There wasn’t much left to do but continue splitting. Once I had the pieces riven down into quarters, I knocked off the crooked juvenile wood with a hatchet.

Juvenile Hatchet

The last split was the easiest. With the crookedest wood removed, I was able to split the billets into eighths pretty easily, and soon I had a whole stack of the grisly little things. Legs (12)

Nothing to do now but to pop them on the lathe and see how they turn. Turning these things round was a pretty nasty surprise as well. The long fibers left from the riving hang on with the tenacity of a tick, and when you turn the lathe on, they jump out and swat your knuckles like a bullwhip. It reminded me a lot of turning hickory.

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After a few minutes, I was able to beat the oak into submission once more, and I had a nice, consistent cylinder. A couple hours later, I had processed all of the rough blanks into 1 5/8″ cylinders.

Legs (14)Only one problem: I misread the plans. For the shapely baluster legs that I had envisioned, I needed a stack of 2″ blanks, not 1 5/8″.

Terry Kelly
These are the “baluster” legs that I wanted to use. Photo credit: Terry Kelly
Caleb James
But somehow I ended up with the dimensions for these “bamboo” legs. Photo credit: Curtis Buchanan

Damn. Well, there is one bright side: My wife actually prefers the simpler style of the bamboo legs. So, since she doesn’t actually read what I write, I get to pretend that I changed the design to suit her tastes. Score! Anyway, I hope for this to be the first of many Windsors, so I’ll just have to do the baluster legs next time.

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Honestly, I think it became apparent to me that live oak (at least, green live oak) is more suited to the reserved curves of the bamboo turnings anyway. I found it to be hard and splintery and really not very fun to turn. I also got a gunky buildup on my tools that I haven’t noticed as much when turning other green woods, which required re-sharpening even if my tools weren’t actually dull. I fear that live oak might chip out around the crisp details of the baluster legs, or that the gunky buildup on my tools would make those details more difficult to achieve. I suspect it would work a lot better if I roughed out the blanks and then waited for them to dry before attempting any baluster turnings with live oak.

I will say that I have no complaints about the results. I was able to achieve a very nice polish straight from the tools. This is important to me, because I consider avoiding wood dust (and the lung cancer that goes with it) high on my list of priorities. I would have no patience for this wood if I had to sand it as well.

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A few hours before this picture was taken, these legs were part of a living tree in the woods behind my house. Green woodworking never ceases to enthrall me – the connection between the raw material and the finished products is visceral and unforgettable. Three stretchers to go, and all of the parts for the undercarriage will complete. All they require is time to dry. The Windsor chair is underway!Legs (18)

4 thoughts on “Oaky Legs and Smoky Butts

    1. Thanks, Ryan. Of course this was the one post that my wife actually read – Busted! 🙂

      By the way, I just saw the chair design that you wrote about last month. Gorgeous and very organic. Hope to see it through to completion!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hahah thats what we call Murphy’s law around here.. 🙂
        Thanks so much, Will be working on that from jan 28th on, but might Try doing a little steambending before then.. 🙂 cheers 🙂


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