Jeff Segal Cabinetmaker - Handmade furniture in the Arts and Crafts tradition

Milling your own timber - English oak

Hampstead oak - felled butt and limbs Hampstead oak - using slabber to saw across heart

Sawing a felled English oak

At some point beautiful trees in urban settings reach the end of their natural lives, and when they do - stricken by disease, or putting passers-by at risk - they inevitably have to come down.

Instead of leaving the felled log to be chopped into firewood or chipped for mulch, it's makes much more environmental sense to find out if it can be converted into planks and dried for furniture-making. City trees can be a great way of sourcing high-quality sustainable timber, providing a valuable resource for cabinetmakers and clients.

My latest venture into urban forestry was in Hampstead Garden Suburb, a masterpiece of Arts and Crafts architecture and town planning in north London. Designed and laid out by the architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin in the early 20th century, it's carefully managed by the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust.

The Trust and the local residents had become concerned about the condition of a tall English oak (Quercus robur) which was showing serious signs of rot. With a solid cooperative effort and the help of an expert milling contractor we managed between us to save the timber for future generations.

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Scroll down for a step-by-step record of the project

Hampstead oak - location of treeThe oak was located outside a crescent of six houses set back from the road. It was the centrepiece of a pretty green, but white rot in the base had been spreading for some time, making it potentially dangerous. The decision was taken to cut it down in February 2012.


Hampstead oak - narrow access gatewayWith a diameter of 900mm, the oak butt was too big for a small chainsaw mill to tackle. But the only access to the green was through a narrow gateway from the street, which made the job unsuitable for big mobile sawmills. We needed an easily manouevrable Lucas Mill.


Hampstead oak - slabbing a wide oak boardI contacted The Chilterns Green Timber Co, based near Wendover. Their Lucas Mill has the normal circular sawblade to cut square-edge boards, but also a 'slabbing' attachment: a heavy-duty chainsaw to slice full-width waney-edged slabs like this one from a previous job.


Hampstead oak - rot in stumpAt the site we could immediately see the rot in the stump - although it wouldn't be clear how far it penetrated until the sawing was underway. The plan was to quarter-saw as much as possible to produce stable boards showing the silver rays characteristic of oak.


Hampstead oak - rot in buttThe rot was evident at the base of the four-metre long butt, with soft, wet patches where you could push your finger in. I took the opportunity to count the growth rings, which indicated a tree at least 250 years old - dating from a time when Hampstead was farmland.


Hampstead oak - moving tree with cant hooksSteve Roberts and his colleague Joe from the milling firm first had to move the butt from the log pile left by the tree surgeons on to open, level ground. They used traditional 'cant hooks', long-handled tools with swivelling hooks that let two men easily roll a two-tonne oak.


Hampstead oak - winching butt into positionThe butt also had to be swung round on its axis to allow enough room for the Lucas Mill to operate. In another demonstration of simple, effective man-powered skills, Joe attached a cable to a plane tree out on the street and manually winched the oak into place.


Hampstead oak - erecting rails for Lucas MillPreparing the site for milling included laying down tarpaulins to contain the sawdust, then erecting the frame for the mill. It travels along the log on two horizontal rails, which must be exactly parallel. You adjust the height between cuts to set the depth of the boards.


Hampstead oak - wheeling motor unit into placeThe compact Lucas Mill saw unit was easily wheeled through the gateway on its trolley and set into place at one end of the rails. All the equipment needed for a milling operation like this fits neatly into the back of a pick-up truck or a Land-Rover with a small trailer.


Hampstead oak - mill ready for useSafety is paramount in an urban job like this. Residents and their children use the path around the site to get to their houses and there is constant foot traffic along the nearby street. So as soon as the rig is levelled up we isolated the work area with metal fencing.


HAMpstead oak - checking for metal with detectorMillers working in London are anxious about coming across metal in the log, which can damage their saw teeth. This can be World War II shrapnel from bombs or anti-aircraft shells, or more likely nails. Steve went over the butt with a metal detector before starting up the mill.


Hampstead oak - nail sawn out with chainsawAny nails found near the surface, like this one, could be readily cut out with a hand-held chainsaw. But others - perhaps fencing nails used by to mark a boundary - would be much deeper into the log. That meant Steve had to keep checking the detector every few cuts.


sawing off the crownOnce the operators had put on their safety equipment and the mill was fired up, the first job was to saw off the curved crown of the log. That produced an even, flat surface that the saw could run along - essential for cutting a series of boards to a precise, consistent depth.


Hampstead oak - cutting quartersawn boardsThe Lucas Mill's circular blade can rotate through 90 degrees, making it ideal for quarter-sawing, where the aim is to produce wood with growth rings perpendicular to the face of the board. Here Steve cut vertically down 200mm, then flipped the blade for a horizontal pass.


Hampstead oak - blue stain from iron nailsThe first few cuts exposed a lot of medullary rays, the vessels in the wood that produce the striking silver ray effect. But there was also a good deal of blue staining near the stump end, where the iron from embedded nails had reacted with the tannic acid found in oak.


Hampstead oak - using chainsaw to cut out nailsBefore going any further the small chainsaw came out again to dig out more hidden nails. We found several of them, including old square-edged nails hand-wrought by blacksmiths. But others had disintegrated over the centuries, leaving only the blue stain behind.


Hampstead oak - replacing circular blade with chainsawOnce Steve and Joe had sawn close enough to the heart of the tree with the circular blade they attached the slabber. This long, powerful chainsaw can take out thick and wide 'through-and-through' boards from the centre, where the timber will be largely quarter-sawn.


Hampstead oak - using slabber to cut wide boardSlabbing with the Lucas Mill is a slow and painstaking process, but very rewarding. It needed both men to push the chainsaw blade very gradually along the butt to produce three massive boards, each a substantial 50mm thick. They will make fantastic table tops.


Hampstead oak - wide through-and-through board The through-and-through boards were beautiful, but the downside was that they were far too heavy even for three people to pick up. Getting them away from the mill and on to the grass meant rolling them on small logs, like monumental stones in neolithic times.


Hampstead oak - using chainsaw to rip wide board Two factors persuaded us to reduce them at this stage. Stacking would be impossible otherwise and besides, the heart is soft pith, which can rot or crack. Steve crosscut each piece with the chainsaw to leave one manageable wide board and ripped the balance in half.


Hampstead oak - using slabber to saw limbsThe remainder of the butt made some handsome 78x78mm posts, which are useful for table legs, before we began milling the bigger branchwood into a few big curved boards. Steve had to stand on the awkwardly shaped logs to steady them while Joe pushed the saw.


Hampstead oak - curved boardsCurved boards like these are traditionally used for table stretchers, bowed rails or chair parts. If you let the grain of the wood determine the shape of the component you maximise the strength. Cutting a straight-grained piece into a curve would be weak by comparison.

The sawn timber was stacked temporarily on the green while the log pile was reduced, the site was cleared and the stacking equipment was prepared. Many of the smaller logs will be used eventually for turning blanks, the raw material of wood-turners making bowls.


Hampstead oak - completed stackThe boards will be air-drying in stacks for a few years before the moisture content - 42.5% early on - reaches a usable level. Water loss is controlled through the placing of the softwood 'stickers', the aluminium primer on the cut ends and the plastic sheeting on top.