Friday, March 16, 2012

Adventures of the tree Grim Reaper

I jokingly refer to myself as the tree Grim Reaper.  Thing is, there is a lot of truth to the joke as I tend to keep an eye on all the fruit trees in the nearby towns and on the farms for any signs of distress.  If I show up at your door the news is not good for one of your trees.  

One time I spotted an Apple near our kids' school , the leaves shriveled and brown.  I knocked on the door and the homeowner, in tears, explained that her husband had over-fertilized it and that it was her favorite tree.  She was hoping it would come back.  I knew it was a goner.  With my grim reaper powers I could see the soul of the tree hovering over the yard looking confused.  I said "sure, it could happen"  trying to make her feel better.  Strangely the husband was moving a cot into a large, new looking doghouse.  Some people go all out for their pets, I thought.

There was a particular tree in Center, Colorado that I had been checking on frequently because I thought it was an Apricot, my all time favorite wood.  I drove by one day last fall and sure enough it had broken down the middle of the trunk and the largest part had fallen and taken out a fence.  I asked the homeowner if I could have it and he said yes.  I didn't have a chain saw with me so I took what limbs I could and left.  I got busy and never went back for the main part of the tree.  

Last week I had a customer who wanted a lot of stuff made from Plum and I remembered it.  I packed up my trusty Huskvarna and away I went.  A young boy answered the door.  "Is your mom or dad home" I said.  "My mom is" he said nervously.  "Ask her if I can have the big Plum tree in the side yard", I said.  He came back and said NO, I couldn't.   I frowned as he slammed the door.  I left feeling dejected.  I got a couple of blocks away and turned around, my jaw set.  "I am not leaving without that tree", I said.  I knocked on the door again and this time a woman answered, looking nervous.  "I would really like that dead tree.  The one that has been lying there for 6 months."  I held up a crisp, new $20 bill. "No, that's alright just take it"  she said and closed the door.  Sweet.  That bill was back in my pocket so fast it left a contrail and caused a mini sonic boom.  After all I am Scottish American.  

Just as I was about to make the first cut a big black ford pickup drove into the yard right in front of me and two guys jumped out.  Uh Oh.  They both broke into smiles and the driver said "oh it's you.  I remember you from the fall".  "My wife called me , she wasn't sure about you".  I can just imagine that call.  "Hey you better get over here.  There's this strange guy with a giant chain saw.  He's wearing a black robe and I don't know, I can't see his face through the hockey mask.  He wants our tree".  O.k. I wasn't really wearing a hockey mask.  I forgot it at home.  But I do have a thumpin big chainsaw.  

I offered him the twenty dollars and he said no, just make him a spoon.  He told me to go ahead and take down the part that was still alive as he was planning to level everything in the side yard this summer and plant grass.  Relieved, I turned back to the the tree.  "O.k. old fella, you've lain out here in the snow and the wind long enough.  It's time to go into the light."

One of the spoons made from the tree.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wood Friends

One of the best things about making spoons is that gathering the wood is half the fun.  Going on wood gathering adventures if you will.  You will meet many people who are really interested in what you do.  Many people will show up at your house with logs or old boards they found in their Great Grandfather's barn.  Maybe some old Walnut planks that have been drying for 60 years or a log from a favorite tree in their yard.  I have met many great people over the years and made many friends.

One such person is Tommy Turner from Wylie, Texas.  I met Tommy at "Logger Days" in South Fork, Colorado several years ago.  I was selling spoons and he was selling turned pieces and leather work and straw hats.  He asked me if I could make him a spatula out of Mesquite for flipping the sourdough pancakes he likes to cook.  I made him one and then another and then he ordered some for his friends who like to cook.

Tommy is a really interesting character.  He's one of those guys you feel comfortable with right off the bat, like you've known him for years.  He is a true westerner.  He and his friends get together and cook and go to Chuck Wagon cook offs .  He also has a strong back because he brings me huge pieces of Osage Orange wood and Mesquite when he comes out a couple of times a year.  I don't know how he gets them into his truck but he does.  He sells some of the spoons I make from the wood in Texas and Oklahoma at shows along with his beautiful leather work.

Here is a picture Tommy sent me from a Chuck Wagon competition a few years ago.  He's the one on the left.  The fellow on the right holding the large ladle and spoon is his friend Chris.  He's an award winning Chuck Wagon cook.  He not only cooks great food but puts a lot of time and hard work into his camp setup, researching and making his own gear in order to have an authentic camp for the judging.  Attendees buy a bowl and then they go from camp to camp sampling the fare and step back in time to days long gone when everything was hand made from the tables and chairs to the wooden barrels and buckets to the spoons and pots.

The Mesquite that Tommy brings me comes from Chris's ranch and it is a pure joy to work with.  It is freshly cut green wood without all the insect damage of trees that have been down for a few years.  The color is dark reddish brown with bright yellow sapwood.

Tommy asked me to make a large ladle and spoon out of some of the Mesquite as a present for Chris and presented them to him at the cook off where they used them to serve 15 gallons of stew.  That is still the largest ladle I have ever made.  It could hold a bowl full of stew and was 24 inches long.

I never know what he will show up with but it is always great.  Sometimes Persimmon or Apricot.  Always lots of that fine Mesquite.

Here they are cutting some corn bread in a dutch oven with an Osage Orange spatula.  Looking at this picture,  I can imagine coming back to camp after a 12 hour day driving cattle, and being served a meal of brisket and baked beans and corn bread cooked out over an open fire.  I remember as a kid camping in the Blue Ridge mountains.  My dad loved to cook and he would go all out at every meal.  I remember how good the food was after a day spent chasing my sister and climbing trees. Pork and beans and potatoes and biscuits with blueberry cobbler for desert, cooked in the dutch oven in the coals of the fire.  It just doesn't get any better than that.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Hanging out

We were hiking along Maroon creek in the White river national forest near Aspen, Colorado  a few weeks ago and we came upon these trout hanging out in a shallow pool.  The 12-14 inch Rainbows were very cooperative and let me get a picture with the 300 mm lens.  The water in this stream is crystal clear with maroon colored rocks in the stream bed, hence the name.  They were just hanging out waiting for a late season Blue Wing Olive Mayfly or midge to drift by for a meal.  I can sit and stare into mountain pools like this for hours.  It's fun to catch a grasshopper in the tall grass and throw it into a pool to see who's hiding under a shady undercut bank.  It usually disappears in a splashing rise in short order.  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Flour Tortillas

I think of flour tortillas as the biscuits of the Southwest and they are easier to make than biscuits.  There is nothing better than a fresh, warm and chewy tortilla to go with eggs and bacon or with soup.  The trouble is in putting any on the table because your family will magically appear with honey jar in hand as soon as they see you rolling out the first one.  You will need a tortilla warmer or a container with a lid lined with a towel.  Resting the tortillas in the warmer lets them steam and soften and keeps them warm for a surprisingly long time and is an important part of the cooking process.  I use a cloth one sewn like a giant pita bread that can also be put in the microwave to re-warm the tortillas.  I usually use butter for the shortening but you can also use Olive oil or Grape Seed oil if you like. 

4 cups flour
1 ½ teaspoon salt
½ cup shortening
1 ¼ cup warm water

Cut your shortening into the flour.  I do this with my kitchenaid and the wire wisk.  Or the food processor works great.  Flour should look like coarse sand.  Add in the other ingredients and mix until blended.  The dough will be rather sticky and soft.  Form a ball about 1 ½” wide and roll it in flour.  Pat it out to a disc and put it down on a cutting board with a nice layer of flour on top.  The secret to a nice round tortilla is this:  Roll out into an oval.  Lift and turn 90 degrees and then roll into a circle.  Add flour if they stick to the pin.  Repeat until your tortilla is about 1/16” thick.  Have your pan heated to med-hi.  Just a dry pan.  Lay the tortilla in the pan and let it cook for 30-45 sec.  You will see bubbles start to form in about 15 sec.  Check the bottom.  You should have some nice browned areas.  Flip and cook until the bubbles are brown.  Transfer to your tortilla warmer.  Beat back the honey jar holding family members with your spatula. Continue making as many as you want and stacking them in the warmer.  This recipe makes about 20 tortillas and any unused dough can be kept in the refrigerator for a couple of days.  Lastly sit back and bask in the compliments.

Cook the first side for 30-45 sec.  Bubbles will form after about 15 sec.

After the first side has some nice brown spots flip and cook the bubbled side for 30-45 seconds more and then transfer directly to your warmer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Acorn Squash Custard

I grew some Acorn Squash this Summer because my wife likes them.  Never  been much for Squash myself.  I had a bumper crop and I have been experimenting a little with them.  The first one I cut in half and baked at 375 degrees for an hour and then put butter and brown sugar and baked them for another 15 minutes.  That was o.k.  The second one I cut in half and baked for an hour.  I scooped out the cooked meat and saved the rinds.  Then I lightly beat the cooked squash in the mixer with some butter and 1/2 cup of brown sugar.  I can't tell you how much butter I used because the food police are probably monitoring this blog.  Let's just say it was a lot.  I put this back in the squash "bowls" and baked it for 30 minutes at 350 with some marshmallows on to.  This was really good.  

This recipe is for my third trial which was really, really good.  I baked the two halves of a large Squash for 1 hour at 375 and scooped out the cooked meat.  I put this in the mixer and added 3 cups of milk, 3 eggs, 1 cup of sugar and the spices for Pumpkin pie.  I mixed this all together and put it in a sauce pan and heated it until it was just about to boil.  I poured it back in the scooped out rinds and baked this for an hour at 350.  

It looked just like Pumpkin pie and tasted very similar.  The kids and my wife loved it.  I will definitely make this again but next time I will only add 2/3 cup of Sugar.  

I don't consider myself a gourmet cook by any stretch of the imagination so if any of you have any suggestions I would love to hear them. 


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Soft box light from a plastic container.

Here is the soft box light I made from a large plastic container,  Some utility lights from the feed store, a hot glue gun and vellum.  I cut holes a half inch smaller than the reflectors on my lights and got glued them to the top.  Then I lined the bottom with some white vellum paper to spread the light.  I can get 1/15 sec. at f22 at iso 800 on my canon eos.  I suspended it over a large drafting table.  If I want softer light I lean white poster board up on the sides and the front.  It works great but I want to make a bigger one.  I think I spent less than $40 on it in total.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Riving Green Wood

Riving, or splitting, is an excellent way to process large pieces of wood into blanks or billets for spoons.  With enough wedges you can turn a 5 ft diameter log into a passel of future spoons in no time.  One good advantage to riven wood as opposed to sawn is the grain will be continuous along the whole length of the spoon, adding great strength.   It is not hard to do but you need to know a little bit about the properties of a log.

To start with you'll need a log of suitable spoon wood.  The fruit woods are all good and split easily when green. Maple, Sycamore, Dogwood, Walnut, Mesquite, Osage Orange, White Oak, and Perssimon are all good choices.  If you live in the East then Tulip Tree is an excellent choice Also.  The wood is the color of split pea soup but it turns a nice shade of brown upon exposure to air and light.  Older trees often have lots black and purple streaks in the heartwood that add a lot of interest to the spoon.

So you've found a suitable tree.  Wait for a moonless night and be sure your neighbor doesn't have a dog.  Be careful climbing over the fence.  Just kidding.  You won't need to do any clandestine logging.  There are plenty of sources of wood even in the city.  I'll tell you where to look in a later post.

Woods to avoid.  Pine, to me is not a wood for spoons.  Ditto with Red Oak.  It has all those large open pores. Stay away from Hickory and Pecan as well.  They tend to warp when they get wet.  Beech also is unstable and cracks in use.  Red Gum is terrible as well.

The very best in my experience are Cherry, Sugar Maple, Mesquite and Apple.  By all means experiment with your local woods.  There is an invasive species up in Minnesota That I have heard good things about called European Buckthorn.  Apparently it is really taking over in some areas and is crowding out the native trees.  The wood is an attractive yellow or orange with red heartwood.  I have seen some beautiful spoons maee out of it.  Now on to how to rive.

You'll want a piece 18 to 24 inches in length without too many knots or branches.  The ends of your blanks are going to split or check on the ends so you are going to lose about 2 inches on each end.  Coating the ends   helps a lot but they will still crack a little.

I'll be using a green piece of Mesquite for this example.  Its best to start your first split right on the pith center of the log.  This is the first rings in the center of the log.  It may not always be centered, especially in limbs.  If there are any big cracks started already use the biggest one to start.  In the above picture I have marked out the way I want to proceed.  The pith is off center so I will get a thicker piece on the right if I orient my first split as it is marked.  This can be a ladle or a bent handled spatula.  Mesquite usually has a lot of cracks or heart checks radiating out from the pith for up to a third of the diameter.  I have drawn a circle to outline the cracked area which will be waste. With most other woods this area will only extend a half inch or so from the pith and should be avoided like the plague.  If incorporated into your spoon it will crack.  

Start your split with a hatchet head.  Its easier if the handle is attached but all of mine need to be replaced at the moment.  You may need additional wedges to finish the split.

If there are no major knots or crotches your piece will split right down the pitch, however many logs will have a twist to them.  This one split pretty good.

Here I am splitting the smaller half again.  Its best to divide your piece in half as much as possible with each half being the same size. The split will run straight.

Here I am splitting off the inner part of the tree containing the pith and the heart checks.

The piece on the left will be my spoon blank and the waste piece will go into the fireplace or be used for barbecuing.  Now I'm ready for the shaving horse.  See my earlier post on this most wonderful of Human inventions.

Smooth off the split edges with a sharp draw knife.  Then shave off the bark.

And here is my blank all ready.  They won't all be this straight.  Usually they will be all manner of curvy but that is a good thing.  I like to work with the natural shape of the billet.  Let each individual piece give you ideas.  You can either put it up to dry or start carving on it right away.  I'll go over carving spoons from green wood in the next post.  There are a few tricks of the trade for dealing with green wood.  If you're going to let your wood dry first then you'll want to coat the ends.  There are all kinds of special coatings out there to prevent the ends of the wood from checking but the best thing I have found is Shellac.  Get a can of Zinser's 3 lb. cut Shellac at the hardware store and dip the ends.  Shellac dries hard, is an excellent moisture barrier and is environmentally friendly.  Plus it won't gum up your tools when you go to carve your spoon.  Out here in Colorado this piece would be dry enough to carve on in about 6 weeks.  It might take longer in humid areas.  I prefer working the wood dry

  I don't want to be a nanny but make sure you wear safety goggles when doing this.  I have had shards of metal fly off the wedge or the hammer and hit me in the face doing this and as I always tell my kids its a long way to get stitches and eyes don't grow back.