Reclaimed Longleaf Pine: Getting to the bottom of it. Sinker Pine and the industry it spawned.

    Before the advent and rapid spread of the steam locomotive, lumber was predominantly floated to sawmills that were strategically located on the banks of most any decently sized river.  In fact, almost all early sawmills were water powered.   For decades in the 19th and early 20th centuries, log driving as it came to be called was the predominant way in which tens of millions of board feet of lumber traveled to sawmills. 
    It was hard, cold, long hours and extremely dangerous work.  One particularly sad anecdote that illustrates the dangers came from a small river valley area in eastern Canada that lost more than 75 men one spring to log driving accidents.  The following spring, though while attempting to operate more safely, still lost more than 50 men.  No logging community anywhere it seemed, was immune to the fatal dangers inherent in logging.   Frigid, fast moving waters, large slippery logs, the sudden pile ups of logs that created dangerous dams and often required the use of dynamite, all contributed to the dangerous nature of the work.  The force of a spring river and the sheer volume of logs at times could cause logjams  to quickly build up out of control, on such epic logjam happened in 1894 in Minnesota on the Mississippi River.  Estimated at between 6-7 miles long, and nearly half of a mile in width, the jam was estimated to also be 50-60 feet deep! It took more than a 100 men, horse teams and steam powered machinery six months to get the logs flowing again.
 
The Great Minnesota Logjam of 1894  
    Additionally, we think you’ll enjoy watching this old video clip from the non-profit Forest History Sociceity of a log drive.  Notice the ferocity in which tens of thousands of heavy logs are being launched down the river. 
    Ironically, it was the logs with the tightest rings and grain, that were the heaviest that would ultimately sink.  The cold, dark waters contrary to what many think, has actually preserved the logs, as very low levels of oxygen bring the decaying process to a near standstill.  Oftentimes the loose bark and soft outer sapwood part of the log will have schlepped off, leaving the perfectly preserved, resin rich heartwood.  Over the course of a century or more, the logs will absorb minerals from the mud and silt of the river bottoms as well as the water itself, which can reveal an incredible spectrum of colors, tones and hues when it’s sliced open on the sawmill. 
Some have estimated that on the high end, perhaps close to 10% of logs that were floated on the rivers became “sinker logs”.   Regardless of the exact number of logs, it’s evident that tens of millions of board feet of lumber found itself submerged in waterways throughout the country.
 The last 40 years has seen several pioneering logging companies who have taken to exploring the bottom of rivers and lakes that were known to be routes that logs were historically floated on. 
Various sonar technologies have allowed scuba divers to more accurately locate specific areas of a river or lakebed where logs are located.  Oftentimes using the cable winch from a barge, divers will sometimes go to great depths and attach the cable around the log.  The log is then slowly pulled to the surface for it’s first exposure to the sunlight in close to a century or more.  Upon surfacing, a quick examination of the log can tell you several things about it’s origins and age.  First off, the girth of the tree, the amount of heartwood growth rings and the spacing can quickly give a sense of the quality and age of the wood.  Divers will also look at the bottom end of a log to see whether it was felled by an axe, the staple tool of a 19th Century logger or by the ‘new’ logging tool that emerged in the later part of the 19th Century – the two man crosscut saw.  Another interesting element was the presence of scars on the trunk, the result of tapping the trees for their naval stores ( see below:      )  Interestingly enough, some of the nicest wood, certainly the hardest, as well as most fascinating grain patterns and color come from these areas of the log that were forced to heal.   Divers also look for markings on the end of a log, often a brand or imprinted stamp that marked which sawmill the log was bound for.
 
   The unique nature of the lumber has made it a preferred choice for high-end flooring, paneling, furniture and numerous other millwork applications. Despite high demand, a limited availability and hefty costs that come with reclaiming river-recovered woods, it still only costs approximately half as much as other high-end woods such as Teak. 
   We have a good supply of reclaimed river woods and would love to discuss doing your next project with these unique logs.  Contact Us to discuss giving sinker logs a new life.
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Reclaimed Longleaf Pine: Early Origins p.5 "How much is out there?" and other mind blowing lumber numbers...

Photo: Loggers measuring and tabulating the amount of board footage in a load of timber.
It’s estimated that anywhere between 70 – 90 million acres of land in the southern United States was once covered in old growth longleaf pine.  Today, only a slight fraction of that remains, carefully watched over by conservationists.  Sadly, during the booming era of pine logging in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a limited amount of organized efforts to replant the pine forests.  Other efforts centered on planting lower grade, quick growing Loblolly or Slash pines, which were best suited to become mulch for the paper industry.
Thus the birth of the reclaimed pine lumber industry, which has allowed homeowners, restaurants, retail shops, institutions and others, to once again enjoy the function and beautiful characteristics of the wood.   
 We often get asked a variation of the question, “how much Longleaf pine is even out there to be reclaimed?”   It’s a great question, and one that there’s no quick answer for.  Reclaimed Longleaf pine is certainly something that is far less available today, than it was even a few years ago.  Part of the reason is that the low hanging fruit of dilapidated mills and factories have largely been dismantled, and their impressive timbers and beams, reused in timber frames or trusses, or sawn up into wide plank flooring or premium boards for use in historical millwork applications or fine furniture.  The current trend in many urban areas is towards restoring and renovating the historic textile mills and factories into loft apartments or condominiums.  I’m too much of history buff and architectural enthusiast to be disappointed.  There are also other sources, such as old residential houses or warehouses, that we’ve been able to utilize.
  Repurposed textile mill in North Carolina with exposed pine timbers

 Photo: Beautifully restored former mill in South Carolina that avoided the wrecking ball and found new life as inspiring living and work space.
Longleaf Numbers          
    That question however, gave me pause to think recently if there’s been research done on how many board feet of Longleaf pine was logged and milled during the boom years.  A USDA forestry publication from the early 1920’s made mention that the historic southern United States Longleaf pine stands were estimated to have originally numbered at about four hundred billion board feet of saw lumber.  Something about that number however, as big as it sounds, seemed too small. 
 
            As noted above, estimates vary on the exact amount of Longleaf forest that once stood.  For the sake of this discussion, I’m using the median number of 80 million acres.   For the sake of being conservative on our estimating, I’m going to subtract 25%, or 20 million acres to provide for forest fires,  rivers, lakes and streams and areas where it was too rocky, too steep, too swampy,  and for places where there were already settlements, and where other southern species of trees grew. 
 
            The same USDA publication also noted that some groves of 2nd growth  pine trees, at 70’ tall and with a 15” diameter were capable of producing  30,000 board feet of lumber per acre.  Let’s remember that the virgin growth Longleaf pines routinely topped out at well above 150’ in height with significantly thicker diameters as well.  In fact, one naturalist who traveled through the pine groves in the early 1770’s, described it as  “a large forest of the most stately pine trees one could imagine”.  My point in all this is too submit that it wasn’t at all a stretch of any imagination to speculate that most of the old growth acres, were more prolific in their lumber output than their much smaller, later counterparts.  Nonetheless, if we use the conservative 30,000 board feet per acre and multiply it by 60 million acres, we arrive at a stunning number of 1,800,000,000,000 bf  (One trillion, eight hundred billion board feet.)
  Volume wise, it would take a warehouse that was 2.3 miles long, 2.3 miles wide and 2.3 miles high!
 The Boeing Factory in Everett, Washington is currently the world’s largest building by volume, coming in at an impressive 472 million cubic ft.  It’s more than twice the volume of the world’s 2nd largest covered building.  
 
                                                                                                                                    
 
However, it would take 318 of these massive buildings, completely filled, with no air space, to store the quantity of Longleaf lumber that was harvested during the peak logging years in the South.
   
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Reclaimed Longleaf Pine: Early Origins p.4

In the early to mid 1800’s, at a time when the railroads were beginning to lay their imprint on the booming nation’s landscape, an alternative to the rutty, muddy, often impassable dirt and gravel roads of the time began to emerge.
Wooden or plank roads promised to be a giant step forward, promising to ease the rigors, and reduce travel time.  
Planks, ranging from 3-4” inches thick, usually 8” or wider, and generally 8-12’ long were laid perpendicular across beams that ran parallel to the road and supported the planks.
   
Plank roads were constructed in many different parts of the country, with the wood species varying according to the location of the road.  In North Carolina for example, is was estimated that near 500 miles of wooden plank road was constructed by private companies in the decade preceding the Civil War, with the longest of those roads known as the Fayetteville and Western as just shy of 130 miles.  Ultimately, the durability and maintenance costs of  the wooden roads would make them impractical for investors.  The plank roads of the South however, built using native Longleaf Heartpine, were likely, as mentioned below, some of the toughest roads built. 
    
Calculations on approximate board footage (b/f) requirements for typical 19th Century Plank Road.
 Approximate lumber sizes are based on the diagram below, originally prepared by the USDA.  


Notes:
Road Plank 4x12x8’ (32 b/f)
Sleeper 4x4x12” (3)  (4 b/f)
Side Rails 4x4x12” (2) (2.67 b/f)
Running Boards 2x8x12 (3) (4 b/f)
 
42.67 bf per linear ft of 8’ wide Plank Road
 
5,280 linear feet per mile x 42.67 = 225,297 b/f per mile
   
Mud Sill 4x12x10’(Laid horizontally every 8’) (40 b/f).
 
660 Mud sills per mile x 40 b/f =  26,400 b/f
  
225,297 b/f of Plank Road material + 26,400 Mud Sill material  = 251,697 b/f of lumber per mile.  Note: Total is more if road was wider than the accepted 8’ minimum.  Turnarounds and widened plank roads near towns are not accounted for.
 
In North Carolina, their longest Plank Road known as the Fayetteville + Western, stretched 129 miles, conservatively composed of 32,468,990 b/f of Longleaf pine lumber.
 
Put a different way, that's more than 2,700 semi trailers full of timber, that put bumper to bumper would stretch for more than 35 miles!
Epilogue:
Some years after it had been retired, long buried, and being prepped to pave with bricks, workers in North Carolina, after digging down approximately two feet, struck a section of Heartpine Plank Road.  The timbers, it was noted were thick and well preserved. Because it was so difficult to get through the Heartpine timber, the decision was made to the sewer on the side of the road instead.  A testament indeed, to the incredibly durable nature of old growth Longleaf Pine.
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Reclaimed Longleaf Pine: Early Origins p.3

      While Longleaf pine was used by early settlers for all manners of shelter and building, the tree’s sap was a valuable commodity that was used for some very specific purposes in the 18th, 19th and 20th  centuries.
 
Tar: – a sticky dark liquid created by slowly burning pine in a kiln.   Sailors used the thick waterproof substance to coat rope and rigging that supported the sails and masts.   It also found a use in veterinary circles, where it was applied to wounds on cattle to aid in healing. 
 
Pitch:  The sap of the Longleaf tree was much desired as all around utilitarian product for the naval and shipping industries, where it found great demand as a waterproofing agent on wooden ships and boats.
 
Turpentine: a product that was made from the gum of the Longleaf pine tree, that was secreted by the tree as protection for wounds on its trunk.  The picture above shows a laborer collecting the gum and sap from a tree that’s been purposely cut in order to cause the tree to produce gum.  While most people know of turpentine as a solvent for thinning oil based paints, it was also an early fuel choice. Americans, starting in roughly the 1860’s used a fuel known as camphene, which was a blend of methanol, and turpentine.  Later, the discovery of prolific oil wells in the early 1900’s would make petroleum the preferred fuel.   
      In an interesting anecdote of history, turpentine would make a brief comeback as motor fuel in post WWII Japan. Because of a shortage of gasoline, the first engine designs of a young motorbike enthusiast named Soichiro Honda were converted to run on turpentine that had been distilled from trees in Japan.   Those early bikes were referred to as “Chimneys” because of the profuse smoke they gave off, and the lingering stench of burnt turpentine that was left behind. 
 
As mentioned in the previous post, while inspecting and  processing reclaimed antique heartpine lumber at our shop in Waco, TX  we still come across that occassional extra-heavy board or beam that stil contains a generous amount of fresh, but more than a century old sap!  Quite the effective preservative indeed!  The kiln drying process however,  effectively 'sets the pitch', making the board beautiful and useful.
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Reclaimed Longleaf Pine: Early Origins p.2

In the age before heavy logging machinery, longleaf pine logs were skidded individually by horse.  The destination?  Nearby streams and rivers, where the heavy, incredibly tight grained logs would be rolled into the water and floated to the nearest sawmill.  As a result, before the advent of early mechanized machinery, the majority of the longleaf logs harvested in the southern United States tended to be 4 miles or less from a water source that could be used to transport the logs.  Heavy with it's natural sap, the "green" log in the picture above likely weighted in the ballpark of 5,000 lbs or more!
It's not uncommon for the reclaimed longleaf heartpine timbers that we handle in our shop here in Texas to weigh 1500 lbs or more.  Tight growth rings, and the occassional interal sap pocket creates timber that is far denser, extremely stable and much heavier that modern harvested lumber.  Even the toughest guys in the shop are thankful for the forklift when these big timbers find themselves in the shop.
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Reclaimed Longleaf Pine: Early Origins

By the end of the nineteenth century, the once vast white-pine forests of New England had nearly been depleted, as millions of acres of once dense woodland had been converted to fields and pastures.  Those in the lumber industry turned their eyes south, towards the  tens of millions of acres of old growth longleaf pine stands.  Note in the map below some of the areas in the southern United States that had the densest groves.

  Centuries of relatively undisturbed growth had led to forests full of massive canopied pines that were tall, straight, and enormous.  Their growing conditions led to the incredibly tight grain and appearance that can be found in Reclaimed Longleaf lumber, flooring, paneling and other products.  Notice in the historic picture about of early 20th century East Coast loggers,  the sheer amount of growth rings.  That particular log, in addition to being incredibly dense and heavy, is also quite old.  A close examination of the rings would show the tree to have been well established in the 17th century when the Pilgrims arrived.
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On Building Well:

" Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, " See! this our fathers did for us.”   - J Ruskin
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