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

Milling your own timber - London plane

London plane - buttLondon plane - stacked boards

Sawing a felled London plane

You don't have to rely on timber merchants or sawmills to get hold of high-quality wood for cabinetmaking. You can mill felled trees yourself. All you need is to find someone with a mobile sawmill and some space to dry the sawn timber.

In the early spring of 2010 I spotted an enormous London plane (Platanus x hispanica or Platanus x acerifolia) lying on its side in the front garden of a local vicarage. London plane is instantly recognisable to city-dwellers: its maple-like leaves, spiky fruit and patchy bark are a familiar sight along the capital's roads and in its parks and squares.

It's not a native tree, but it's been planted in England for over three centuries. A tree surgeon who looked at it reckoned this particular specimen was at least 200 years old. There was a little rot in the base and in the limbs, but on the whole the 'butt' - the part of the felled log between the stump and the crown - looked clean and straight.

By the time I came across the log it was already being chainsawn into slices. Most felled city trees end up being chipped or chopped. Either would have been a huge loss in this case. London plane timber is far too valuable to go for mulch or firewood, especially when you quarter-saw it for its 'lacewood' effect, where the tree's medullary rays surface in decorative flecks.

I quickly spoke to the church and they called off the chainsaw gang. Now it came down to organising the sawing, a team of helpers, some transport and a storage site. Find out how the project developed below, and check out Françoise Sergy's beautiful photos of London plane at hopstockandbent.co.uk.

Update from October 2011: The plane has been drying now for 17 months and the moisture content is around 12-14.5 per cent, depending on the thickness of the boards and their location in the stacks. If they're thin, close to the top of the pile and exposed to the most wind and sun then predictably they're also the driest. I’ve now redistributed the wood in the stacks so all the boards get a chance to reach an even moisture level in the final stages of drying.

Update from September 2013: Oven-drying a 12mm section from the centre of a thick board shows the moisture content has now fallen to 10.9 per cent after more than three years in the stacks. That's just right for interior furniture.

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

London plane - diameterMy first instinct was to see if any specialist timber merchants were interested in processing the log. The ones I called were keen, but the size of the butt was a big problem. The diameter was 1.5 metres, the length seven metres and the weight an estimated 10 tonnes.



 

London plane  - siteIt would have been too costly to hire a truck with a crane big enough to haul the log to a conventional sawmill. Besides, access to the site was tricky. I looked into mobile chainsaw mills, but most were too small. And they can only do plain-sawing - cutting flat across the log.



 

London plane - Lucas millThe answer was a Lucas Mill. These have an eight-inch capacity circular blade which can rotate 90 degrees to cut vertically as well as horizontally. They produce square-edged boards, can easily handle quarter-sawing and can saw thicker butts than most chainsaw mills.



 

London plane - clearing the siteI found someone with a Lucas Mill prepared to make the trip to London and assembled a team to help with the heavy work. The site then had to be cleared of 'brash' - bits of limbs and branches and other debris from the felling - to make it safe for the milling operation.



 

London plane - stickersI also spent a day or two making 'stickers' - 15mm thick strips of pine to separate the sawn boards for drying. The dimensions and number of stickers you need depend on the timber species and the size of the boards. I ripped close to 600 of them on the power saw.



 

London plane - cross-cutting with chainsawOnce the site was cleared John, the owner of the Lucas Mill, needed to cross-cut the log into two halves with a chainsaw. It was just too long for the mill's capacity, and besides, it's seriously impractical to try to handle boards longer than about three metres (10 feet).



 

London plane - digging trenchThe plan was to roll one of the two halves away from the other to give enough clearance for John to work the mill. But the tree had an annoying bulge on one side and five men with crowbars could barely shift it. We ended up digging a new trench for it to roll into.



 

London plane - setting up millNow John could take his equipment off the pick-up truck and set it up. First come the end-posts, then two side rails that hang off the posts, and finally the power unit that straddles the rails. The whole rig is calibrated to ensure the rails are parallel and level with each other.



 

London plane - quarter-sawingWe tried to maximise the number of quarter-sawn boards. The swing-blade Lucas Mill does quarter-sawing by making a horizontal cut eight inches down, then switching to vertical cuts at set intervals to produce clean eight-inch-wide boards at the thickness you want.



 

London plane - lacewoodWhen you get closer to the heart of the tree you reverse the order - sawing vertically first then horizontally. The lacewood figure that quarter-sawing produces in London plane is breathtaking. The wood emerges from the saw blade dark red, with swirls of creamy flecks.



 

London plane - plain-sawnEven the less coveted plain-sawn boards have a lovely grain and figure. The deep red, almost maroon, colour very quickly fades to mellow shades of orange and brown as the timber starts to lose some of its surface moisture. But the effect is just as striking.



 

London plane - rotThe first half of the log that we tackled came from higher up the trunk and took a whole day to convert. It produced a lot of good timber, but there were some rotten sections close to the limbs. As we pulled the sawn boards away from the log a few of them snapped in half.



 

The second day went more smoothly, but about a quarter of the way down we began to hit metal: not the shrapnel from World War II bombing raids that's common in London trees, but big 100-year-old iron nails. They didn't do John's tungsten-tipped blades any good.



 

Veneered and taped panelThe newly sawn wood soon piled up on the site. It's important to get it into the yard for drying as fast as possible. There it can be properly separated, stacked, covered and sealed. This all helps control the rate at which it loses water, to minimise distortion and defects.



 

London plane - stacking detailThere's a science to stacking and you have to be accurate to get the best results. The wood will be air-drying for around two years so it's worth getting it right early on. The boards are carefully stickered and covered with corrugated plastic, weighted down with heavy offcuts.



 

London plane - sealed endsThe sheeting gives protection from rain and direct sun. I also seal the ends of the thicker boards with aluminium primer to prevent cracking. Every element - including the height of the stickers and the distance between each board - helps the timber dry gradually and evenly.



 

London plane - moisture testing Fresh sawn, the wood was soaking wet. I calculated the moisture content at 55 per cent by baking a half-inch section at 100 C for eight hours and checking the weight at intervals. The aim is to reduce that to 15 per cent in two years. I'll monitor it with this moisture meter.



 

London plane - millingAll told, we recovered about 160 cubic feet of high-quality sawn and square-edged London plane in the end. That's about 40 per cent of the volume of the entire log - a pretty good yield. Assuming it dries without distorting, there should be very little wastage from now on.