An Annotated Portfolio & Project Documentaries

Author Archive

The Contorted Lodgepole: A Poet’s Tribute

My poet’s tribute to this one tree and many other remarkable contorted lodgepole pine trees is twofold: it is made as both a writer and as a tree art furniture maker and sculptor.  These two photos are favorites, and will be included in a book-length tribute that I’ve been working on since when these photos were taken.


One summer afternoon in the early 1990s, sitting in a stand of lodgepole pine trees, taking notes and making sketches of this solitary and remarkable “Swan’s Neck” tree trunk.


I also laid down with my camera at the base of the tree, wanting to document both the tree’s contortion and its curving return to uprightness, straightness, and centeredness over its original vertical axis–truly remarkable!


“Remarkable” Trees

This post introduces two books I’m engaged with, exploring their relevance to the tribute I’m writing about the contorted lodgepole pine trees. Both books are making me wonder what it is that makes these pines also “remarkable”?

The first is Remarkable Trees of the World, by Thomas Pakenham (W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 2002).  It features individual trees that are gigantic, ancient, incredibly shaped, famous, legendary, and monumentally significant.  The text is engaging and the photography is magnificent.  I ask myself, “How can the pine trees I work with also be considered remarkable, especially in comparison with the remarkable trees of the world?”

The second book is The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World, Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books, 2015)

In a word, this book takes a uniquely “psychological” approach to the remarkable lives of trees–their individual and social behaviors, their moral character as they make choices, and follow an innate awareness and the guidelines of their “etiquette manual”.  I’ve never read a book that takes a psychological and moralistic approach to the lives of trees (both deciduous and evergreen)–an approach also supported by numerous scientific studies and documentation.

Each book has expanded my sense of the possibilities for my tribute to Pinus contorta var. latifolia (Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine).

The challenge is to edit my voluminous ruminations–observations, questions, and opinions–about their physical, sculptural tree trunk shapes, and their figurative significance as symbol, metaphor, and allegory.

Until my next post, I’ll close with a recommendation for anyone who cares about trees: check out these two books.


“My Tree Art Appreciation”

Our Virginia City and Twin Bridges homes are partially furnished with my tree art. In this post I want to share a brief sampling of the pieces, and express my appreciation of living with them.

This first photo is of a grouping in our Virginia City home.  I had the Old Faithful Inn’s lobby in mind when I made the bench and coffee table.  To the right is a tree art sculpture named “The Pagan Dancer.”


a-tree-art-furniture-in-vc-house-chairs-mushroom-table-coat-rackThe door on the right is the main entry to the home, next to a combination chair and coat/hat rack.  Two arm chairs share the “Magic Mushroom Table’.  All of these pieces were also designed with the Old Faithful Inn lobby in mind.

Upstairs in our Virginia City home, there’s a “poet’s corner”–a simple, but inspiring, arrangement of two favorite tree art
This is my most appreciated piece of tree art sculpture.  The contortions of the tree trunk are the most gracefully tortuous I’ve ever seen (and most inexplicable).  The base is a stone found in Virginia City and drilled to suggest the natural phenomenon of trees growing out of solid rock.  It sits alongside the TV on the top shelf of the entertainment center.
The tree shapes in this table lamp impress me, as does its cantilevered balance.  It sits next to a TV chair, with a favorite portrait of wife Kristin and daughter Ruby, and an iron lock and key, hand forged in Mongolia, given to me by Kristin as a birthday present.  So … lots of treasures nearby!
Here is our good dog, “Buster”, ruminating on “the straight crookedness of a good walking stick.”–in the words of Robert Frost.

Architectural Tree Art: A Handrail Project

October 29, 2016

After two years of not adding a post to this blog, I felt a need to return to it, to document the tree art railing project.  But I also had a sense of digital intimidation and resulting stress.  I also felt an uneasy concern about justifying all the time and energy it takes both to prepare and to publish so many photos and so much text. Then I found myself questioning the worth of doing it.

But, I appreciate the opportunity to practice my writing skills, in preparation for the possibility of someday completing a book-length manuscript about the remarkably contorted lodgepole pines, and my making of tree art.

(I want to add the fact that I had already completed a version of this post–many photos and 500 well-written words–a few days ago   I was pleased with the process until, when I pushed the “publish” button, the post vanished into cyberspace, and no amount of technical support could find it.)

Finally, following some general comments on design, materials, and workmanship, this post features a lengthy series of annotated photos.

The handrail project is an example of what I call “architectural tree art,” as distinguished from “tree art furniture and sculpture.”  I first made that distinction out of an appreciation of the Old Faithful Inn’s architectural use of contorted lodgepoles.  (I have published an essay on my admiration for the inn’s architect, Robert Reamer, and the carpenters/tree artists who implemented his designs.)

Our house in Virginia City, Montana, has a wraparound greenhouse/glassed-in porch, with an interior deck and staircases, in need of handrails for over ten years.  Since it had been a couple of years since I made any tree art, I decided to design handrails both out of necessity and an urge to add a feature  of architectural tree art.


As some of the accompanying photos show, the unfinished greenhouse is also serving as a storage space for a variety of contorted lodgepole pine tree trunks.  From them, I selected certain “motifs”– “swan neck”, “loop-around”, “spiral “,  “forked 4”–for use as posts and lower rails.  All of these tree trunk shapes are naturally grown as each tree has outgrown adversity of some sort, and regained its original uprightness, straightness, and center of gravity!
For the top rails I used salvaged pieces of the original 1871 log house wood chinking, which had been removed in 2004 when the lap siding was taken off to reveal the log structure.  I liked the idea of combining the historic lumber with the contorted trees.


As with the making of tree art furniture and sculpture, an essential challenge comes with choosing types of joinery that accomplish both structural strength and an overall, flowing sculptural unity.

I used the following five types of joinery: cylindrical mortise and tenon; post and socket; mate-cut butt joint; scribed notch; and  half-lap.  Each of the joints were reinforced with log screws.

Some of the photos show matching pairs of  “position-key marks” on each of the joint’s components.  These marks are necessary to guide the repositioning of pieces that have been  separated during fitting.  (See photo below.)

A special note of thanks to my quasi-apprentice, Drew Xanthopoulos, for serving as a human railing clamp, and a supple ratchet operator inserting the long lag screws.

The project will remain unfinished for awhile.  At some point I will complete the cosmetic work, including filling, shaping, sanding, and staining.


his view shows the entire deck and handrails, as approached from the front, inside of the greenhouse.  The  log house’s exterior door opens to the deck’s upper landing, and the greenhouse exit door is on the left below the deck.

he bottom staircase edge is off-set from the main deck surface, presenting a safety concern.  Selecting the three posts and two handrails to make a curved and descending handrail was a structural,  design, and joinery challenge.

his view is from the back (north) end of the greenhouse, showing the repeated “motifs” of the posts (swan neck) and of the lower rails (loop around).  The stacks of contorted lodgepole pine tree trunks in the background provided the inventory to select the handrail components.

he deck framing and surface are salvaged redwood.  The top handrail is made of two pieces of lumber that served as original wood chinking between the house logs (built in 1871.)  All of the posts appear to be sitting on top of the deck (which they are), but they also are penetrating through the deck surface and are secured underneath with 1/2″ x 7″ lag screws to the deck’s substructure.  (See photo below).

his short handrail section makes it easier and safer to descend from the upper landing.  I like its freestanding simplicity and strength.  The bottom of the “forked 4” post extends down six inches into a cylindrical socket drilled into a pair of staircase joists–a variation of the cylindrical mortise and tenon joinery.

The bottom of each deck perimeter post was shaped into a cylindrical tenon–three inches in diameter, one and one-half inches long–with a square (not tapered) tenon shoulder.  The shoulder sits flat on the deck surface, so that the outside circumference of the post also covers the three inch mortise (i.e., the hole or socket).  The above photo shows the joists and blocking underneath the deck, and how the post is secured tightly to a framing block by a seven inch lag screw that penetrates deeply into the bottom end grain of the post (also seen above the deck in this photo.)

After cross-cutting the posts to a uniform height, and plumbing and aligning them in a row, I laid the flat side of the top rail on the row of post tops and scribed an outline circumscribing the circumference of each top onto the underside of the top rail.  Then, using a router, I created a half inch deep socket to receive each post top.  When the top rail was in place, including a half lap joint over one of the posts to connect the two pieces, I secured the rail with log screws.
he top rail length required that I use two pieces of the wood chinking, so I created this crude but strong half-lap joint over the post.  The bottom half piece also has a half inch deep socket to accept the post top.  The joint will be further shaped and cleaned up in the finishing process.

n this photo and the next, are examples of a “mate-cut butt joint.”  This joint is named for the fact that, after many preliminary saw cuts, the saw blade actually cuts both surfaces of the joint –the end of the rail and the side of the post– with each of many strokes.  Note the pair of black lines at the top of the joint.  As noted above, I call them “position match marks.”   The mate-cut joint will only realign correctly one way.

As part of the finishing process, the joint will be “sculpted” to flow together.

In Conclusion …

In the process of creating this post, I have realized that the essential values of doing it are intrinsic.   And that is true of most of my poetry (“makings” that also include creative writing and playing guitar and harmonica).  Having said that, I want to add a note of thanks to anyone (in an invisible audience) who might find something here of value.

Thank you …!

Forty-two. Exhibit at the 2014 Madison County, Montana, Fair

FAIR--Blog #5

FAIR--Blog #3


An important reason for my wanting to exhibit at the fair was/is my admiration for the octagonal log architecture of “The Pavilion.” Another reason is that our three families all live just across the Beaverhead River from the fairgrounds. Yet another reason is that the booth space was large enough to allow a collection of 11 pieces of furniture, as well as my shaving horse, tote box, and tool caddy.

I planned the exhibit as an educational display–about the trees, the designs, and the workmanship. It is yet another of my tributes to the contorted lodgepole pine trees.

It’s very likely that this will be my last public display, especially since we’re now thinking of furnishing our Virginia City home with these irreplaceable pieces of tree art furniture and sculpture.

I’m pleased that spending this time with the display has renewed our appreciation of the many artistic values embodied in each piece, and in the collection as a whole.  It’s true that the pieces interact with each other, and that the whole display seems greater than the sum of its  parts.

The entire collection represents thousands of hours of work–from the hunting/gathering of the trees, to the different stages of assemblage, cosmetic detailing, to the finish coats of varnish or wax–plus all the indirect labors, including storage, handling, marketing and sales.

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Forty-one. Foyer Tree Art Furniture Set

I’m putting together an eight piece set of entryway/hallway/foyer furniture:  bench, end table, coffee table, two arm chairs, two hall trees, and a floor lamp.  Our plan is to exhibit the entire set during the Madison County Fair, this August in our home town of Twin Bridges, Montana.  The exhibit hall at the Fairgrounds, called “The Pavilion”, is an impressive octagonal log building.  And, I still imagine how good, and appropriate, the set would look on exhibit in the lobby of Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone Park.

The bench, two arm chairs, one of the hall trees, and the floor lamp have already been documented in this blog.  I’m now in the finishing stages of making the end table, coffee table, and second hall tree.  I probably won’t photograph the entire set until it is on display at the Fair, unless some of the pieces sell at the Ennis Arts Festival, which happens earlier in August, before the County Fair.

Over the next six weeks or so, I’ll update and revise this post.  For now, here are some photos taken in our greenhouse workshop.  I’ll add notes or captions as time allows.

I also want to share that this blog just passed the 10,000 views mark.  That doesn’t compare with the volume of Youtube video or Twitter posts that go viral, but it impresses me nonetheless!

After scribing a level line off of the floor with the hall tree upright, I had to cut a thin, tapered slice off of the bottom.  I had to cut around the countersunk lag screw.

The base of the hall tree is made from a section of a lodgepole pine tree trunk located at ground level when the tree was standing.


Cross cutting the base with a one-man logger’s saw, cutting to a level line that was scribed off the floor while the hall tree was standing upright.


The thin, tapered slice alongside. I had to remove the 8″ lag screw and rout a new countersink hole.


A side view showing the thinness of the removed piece and the flatness of the hall tree base. It was a tedious sawing job, but I couldn’t think of a better, less risky, way to do it.


Here’s the end table. Its top matches the hall tree base. I began making this piece almost 20 years ago. Its post is an incredibly contorted lodgepole pine tree trunk. The base is a granite stone. I will soon photograph the underside of the table top with its diagonal forked supports and inlaid steel bar.


At this stage, I’ve inserted the five forked hanger pegs in the hall tree, using round mortise and tenon joinery, glued and reinforced with concealed wood screws.


Here’s another view of the end table that better shows the contortions of the tree trunk post. Also, notice the tool caddy in the background.


The ends of the two tree trunk posts were shaped into cylindrical tenons joined to matching mortises in the table top. The joints were reinforced with hardwood dowels. For added table top support, I drilled holes into the two posts as mortises and shaped the ends of two forked pieces to serve as diagonal braces. The forks were glued, inserted into the posts, and screwed to the table top.


The first work I did on the underside of the table top was to inlay and screw down a flat piece of 1/4″ steel, to strengthen the top in the case someone lifts the whole piece by the top.



Forty. Hall Tree Chair–Artist’s Statement

HALL TREE CHAIR--Artist's Statement--April 17, 2014

Thirty-nine. “Old Faithful Inn’s Architectural Tree Art”

The following is the text of a brief article I wrote as an introduction, a first publication in an expanding series of articles and essays written as a tribute to the remarkable “Lodgepole” pine trees.  My ultimate goal is to write a book, illustrated with photographs, titled Contorted Lodgepoles: A Poet’s Tribute.  One chapter of that book will be an essay that expands on my observations about architect Robert Reamer’s “architectural tree art.”

Here’s the photograph that accompanied the article.


This photo dramatically illustrates the “architectural tree art” of the Inn’s lobby. Architect Reamer combined both the ideal and the deviant “Lodgepole” pine tree trunks. The photo also illustrates the elevations, processions, and ascensions that I mention in this article. The Crow’s Nest is “nestled” in the pinnacle of the vaulted ceiling. What a masterpiece it is …! (Jack Waller photo)

Explore Big Sky
August 8—22, 2013 issue, “BACK 40”

“Old Faithful Inn’s architectural tree art”

By Jack Waller, Explore Big Sky Contributor

I’m one among a multitude of admirers of Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful Inn.

Designed by architect Robert Reamer in 1903, the inn is a monumental example of rustic architecture. For well over a century, it’s been a destination for millions of visitors, and the voluminous subject matter of devoted scholars, historians, writers and photographers.

One essential element of its rustic appeal is what I call “architectural tree art,” the extensive use of lodgepole pine tree trunks both on the building’s exterior and interior.

Reamer’s design, especially in the lobby, combines the shapes of both the straight and the contorted types of the species, Pinus contorta var. latifolia. The magnitude of Reamer’s structural and decorative uses of these trees evokes amazement, awe and a sense of architectural mystery.

In the late 1980s, three seminal events led to my becoming a tree art furniture maker. I moved to southwest Montana to live in a lodgepole pine forest; I visited Old Faithful Inn for the first time; and I read Craig Gilborn’s Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Tradition.

“Tree art” and “tree art furniture” are terms I first learned from Gilborn. For the most part, they refer to the use of recognizable tree shapes in the design and construction of rustic architecture and in furniture making, respectively.

In July 2012, after more than 20 years of making tree art furniture from contorted lodgepole pine trees, I took a private bellhop’s tour of the upper levels of the inn’s lobby.

Public access was closed in the late 1940s for safety reasons, due to the large numbers of inn visitors. Now twice a day, a group of four people can, by reservation only, accompany a bellhop to the inn’s rooftop either for the morning or evening raising or lowering of flags.

Ascending to the lobby’s upper levels, we arrived at the pinnacle of the lobby’s  vaulted ceiling, and arrived at the crow’s nest.  From its great height in the peak of the vaulted ceiling, it overlooks all the interior architectural tree art – the lobby floor, the surrounding column-brace-beam frameworks, and the lower balconies with their interconnecting staircases, catwalks and platforms.

A small, enclosed, cage-like structure, the crow’s nest epitomizes the inn’s architectural tree art. As a tree artist, I recognized the recurring motifs that I’ve identified in my own work: swan necks, tuning forks, alpenhorns, shepherd’s crooks and arches. I also saw there the mastery of the carpenters/tree artists who executed these elaborate designs.

The crow’s nest door is positioned near an exit staircase, with another door leading outside and up to the summit of the inn – a long, rectangular roof platform with panoramic views of the Old Faithful geyser basin.

During the tour I realized an essential element of Reamer’s plan was to provide all guests with the experience – both physical and psychological – of elevation, procession and ascension, all culminating on the rooftop.

Thirty-eight. The bench: my artist’s statement

(I originally posted this as a draft on July 22, 2013, which preceded post “Thirty-nine.”  I decided today to go ahead an publish it.)

The architectural tree art of Old Faithful Inn was an original inspiration for me in the late 1980s.  Since then I’ve made  tree art furniture, sculpture, and architectural details, using contorted lodgepole pine trees.

From its beginning, I designed and made this bench with Old Faithful Inn in mind.  As tree art furniture, its design echoes the architectural tree art of the Inn, especially that of the lobby’s log framework bracing, balconies, staircases, catwalks, and the “Crow’s Nest.”

In July of 2012, I took a private bellhop’s tour of the upper levels of the Inn’s lobby for the first time, ascending to  “The Crow’s Nest,” and out onto the flat roof’s viewing platform.  I repeated this privileged and inspirational tour in June of 2013.

These tours deepened my appreciation of the artistry of architect Robert Reamer’s designs and of the craftsmanship of those he employed to execute them.  The tours also increased my sense of connection, as a tree art furniture maker, to the Inn’s architectural tree art and to the contorted lodgepole pine trees. And they also evoked a desire to exhibit my tree art furniture in the lobby of the Inn, for public use as seating, portrait photography, and to serve other  educational values.

Lastly, the bench was made in conjunction with my writing of an essay titled  “Architectural Tree Art of Old Faithful Inn”, for magazine publication and to later become a chapter in my forthcoming book length manuscript, Contorted Lodgepole Pines: A Poet’s Tribute.

“Tree working” Processes

I began the bench in December of 2012 and “finished” it in June of 2013.  The various phases of the project are documented, in detail, on this blog.


The design includes 19 individual, naturally grown, lodgepole pine tree trunks (no limbs or branches), and five tree art “motifs”:  swan neck, alpenhorn, arch, ox-bow, and tuning fork.

I chose the individual trees and combined their shapes to serve both structural and decorative purposes.  The overall design emphasizes the individual “character” of each tree, while  also achieving a symmetrical pattern and functional unity.  The natural “defects”—cracks, gnarly grain patterns, insect activity, discolorations—are essential rustic details of tree art furniture.


The most-used joints are round mortise and tenon, saddle notch, and mate cut edge-to-edge butt joint (on the seat slabs).  After gluing and clamping, most of the joints were reinforced with either wood dowels or wood screws.

Detailing and Finish

The project included tedious and time-consuming processes of cosmetic detailing:  shaping of joints; chamfering of edges; filling holes and cracks; scraping and sanding away of coarse tool marks, wood filler, and excess glue.  Stain pens were used to blend colors and to conceal cosmetic flaws.

I first applied two coats of penetrating natural Watco Danish Oil.  The final finish is  two top coats of satin polyurethane.


The bench is 8 feet long overall, with a backrest height of 46 inches.  The slab wood seating area is 71 inches wide between the armrests.  I estimate its weight at about 200 pounds.

Here are front and back views of the bench as it sits in our greenhouse-to-be …




Thirty-seven. Getting close …


After too many hours of fixing its cosmetic flaws, the bench now has two coats of penetrating Watco Danish oil (natural) and two top coats of satin polyurethane.


I wanted to preserve and enhance all the varied natural colors of the individual trees, but I did use some stains, especially Minwax stain pens, to conceal tiny blemishes and blend in wood fillers.


The horizontal pencil lines on the bottom of the two legs are guideline for a final trimming of the leg. Each of the bench’s four legs was marked to the same height from the floor by using a measuring block.


In this 3/4 rear view, I like the repeated and stacked use of five arched shapes, combining three tree trunk motifs–“ox-bow,” “C arch,” and “swan neck.”


I took this photo as a close-up, primarily to show the variety and colors and grain flows. The leg and armrest are from beetle-killed trees.


This is the better of the two leg and armrest saddle notches.

Thirty-six. Starting the finishing.

Bench photo

I’m building the bench on the indoor deck of our attached greenhouse. Since I often look out from our living room at the work-in-progress, I decided to take a photo through the window.

With all of the components now in place, I’ve started the tedious and time-consuming processes of cosmetic detailing.  This is strictly a matter of appearances, mostly by removing  tiny areas of remaining bark or cambium; removing excessive glue, and  tool marks left by coarse grinding, rasping, chiseling, sanding; filling counter-sunk screw holes and less-than-perfect joineries; shaping/sculpting joints so they flow together; and chamfering/rounding all edges.

The final stages of sanding require multiple types of electrical power and hand sanders and grit abrasives, all depending on the desired final appearance.  Another cosmetic process is using stain pens of different shades to conceal the wood filler in the joints and screw holes.  I try to blend differences in color with a stain that matches other colors in the tree.

I have to admit that I’ve recently arrived at the point where my desire to have the bench finished is almost as strong as my desire to do the best possible job. That includes dealing with a sense of diminishing returns.

I’m often told that I will be the only one who will notice the imperfections, that everyone else will have a general impression of the bench.  That’s probably true, with the exception of other woodworkers or carpenters.  That’s when I remind myself that tree art is not comparable to fine woodworking.  Even the best of tree art furniture lacks the precision construction and sophisticated  finish that defines fine woodworking.  The trees (as unprocessed “wood”) are not comparable to the exotic hardwoods used in fine woodworking.

Thirty-five. “Ox-bow” stretcher on back legs


In preparing to place the ox-bow stretcher, and locate the mortise holes at each end, it was important to measure the difference between its two ends on a single line, by clamping an 8 foot straight edge on what will be the lower end. The goal was to place the holes at levels that would place the entire ox-bow in a horizontal position when installed.


This view, from the other end, shows the offset and the required difference in the round mortises.


The position of the lower mortise is marked for drilling a 2 9/16″ hole. The straight line on the leg is a guideline for the drilling angle, because the tenon will enter at angle lower than level. I’ve used two boards under the stretcher to support it at a height the keeps the entire stretcher in the desired position.


The opposite end of the stretcher required a saddle notch, because of the difference in the heights of the two ends. The end of the stretcher was left in its full diameter.


The 2 9/16 inch hole is located in a solid part of the leg. The appearance of the location was also a design consideration.


This end has a solid saddle notch fit, that I’ll secure with two countersunk 3/8″ lag screws.


This is the overall look of the rear ox-bow stretcher.

Thirty-three. Armrests for the bench

With the addition of the armrests, the bench’s components are almost completed.  As the armrest design evolved, I had to give up my plan to have the bench come apart in two sections.  With the armrest’s fixed connection between front and back legs, the bench can no longer be disassembled.

I still have to add an “ox-bow” tree trunk stretcher between to two back legs.  I’ll also add a horizontal brace under the front of the bench seat, using the front “ox-bow” for support.


This 3/4 view from the back shows one armrest roughed-in. It also shows the growing number of the bench’s component tree trunks. There are, I think, sixteen tree trunks in this photo. When the bench is finished I’ll do an exact count.


In this 3/4 front view, both armrests show. Each is fashioned from a slab of lodgepole pine, with a curved underside and flat surface on top.


This close-up shows the armrest support brace, made of a segment cut from a little tree trunk naturally grown in an arched curve. For added strength, it is inset both into a recess in the front leg, and into a groove chiseled in the armrest. It is secured with Torx finish screws.


A view from the other end.


This top view at the bench’s right end shows the front leg and armrest joined by a coped saddle notch, with the arched support left “wild” for later trimming. The bottom of the photo shows more of the coped saddle joinery, four at each end of the bench, used as a key element of the bench’s design and its structural strength.


Here are the two coped saddle notches of the armrest. Sequence was critical in cutting them. The first notch had to be cut and fitted to the back leg, because the armrest moved the depth of the notch toward the back. Once the back notch was finished, I could accurately lay out the front notch. Such double joineries require multiple attempts at fittings.

Thirty-two. Another project: coat–hat–boot rack

While the bench project continues, I finished a coat–hat–boot rack for our own family use.

The height is over six feet. Except for the two slab pieces of the base, the rack combines twelve lodgepole pine tree trunks (and limbs?). The large central tree is a “swan’s neck,” my favorite contorted lodgepole pine motif.  All of the hooks were  “mate-cut” to fit flatly and tightly to the central tree, and joined with trim head Torx screws.   I’ve included two close-ups of the joinery, that also show insect activity and other “character traits.”

No stains were used. The different colors result from aging, weathering, and insect activity.  The finish is natural Watco Danish Oil.

It is rare that we get to keep any of my tree art, and especially pleasing to me because I like this piece a lot, both for its appearance and its usefulness to our family.



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Thirty-one. Joining the front legs with an “ox-bow” stretcher

Throughout the designing and making of this bench, I’ve used trees prepared for use, but not used, in other furniture projects.  The “ox-bow” is a tree art motif I identified many years ago, and the ones in these photos were drawknifed and sanded long ago.  I brought a selection of them up from the workshop.  I’ll use two as stretchers, one between the two front legs and one between the two back legs.

IMG_3573. Ox-bow stretcher JPG

The one I selected for the front stretcher is laid in place for marking its length. The one on the bench seat will probably be used in the back. The front legs are temporarily screwed in place.


The stretcher is marked twice. One mark is for overall length and the other for the shoulder cut of the tenon. The”R” is to label the right end the stretcher.


I’ve taken the stretcher down to the shop, placed it in the shaving horse, and marked both the diameter and length of the tenon.


In 1992, I made a set of sizers of my own design, with different diameters, as an important part of hand-cutting tenons. Here I’m using a 2″ diameter sizer. I start the sizing by cutting the end down to the circle guideline with a drawknife. As the sizer starts to fit over the end and is rotated back and forth, its steel plate leaves a ridge on the tenon to show where more drawknifing is needed. The ridge shows in this photo. The goal is to make a truly round and cylindrical tenon all the way up to its shoulder. I have never used any kind of power tool, “production” tenon cutter.


It’s tricky to get the right horizontal alignment on the drilling angle of the mortises. Because the ox-bow stretcher is not straight, the heights of the holes and the drilling angles have to matched to each end the ox-bow and to its overall shape. One mortise is 2′ in diameter; the other is 2 1/2″. I drilled them using a combination of a Forstner bit and a hole cutter.


This is the left front leg. Its mortise is 1 3/4 inches higher than the right leg’s mortise, so that the stretcher will be, overall, level and parallel to the bench seat and the floor.


The right leg, with both the mortise and tenon finished, is ready for gluing, clamping, and assembly.


I visually test the shoulder fit and depth of the tenons on each leg.


Because of the number–four–and size of the joints, I appreciated Kristin’s assistance (including taking photos.) I first apply a sizing coat of glue, and then a generous follow-up coat, that actually serves as a lubricant during assembly.


The first step in gluing is to have wet rags ready for clean up. I use my fingers a lot, along with a dowel and glue brush. There’s stress in this phase, so the more preparation (and anticipation of what can go wrong) the better.


It was challenging to use a correct sequence of assembly, and to use the web clamps in a way that pulled the joints in tightly and yet maintained the desired vertical alignment and visual flare of the legs. Kristin prevented a huge problem by pointing out the the ox-bow was not vertical and needed to be twisted upright.

Thirty. Joining the front legs to the bench seat

The design of this bench is experimental and evolving step-by-step.  I have a basic idea of adding wide slab armrests to the top of the front posts, which are much longer at this stage than they will be when I start working on the arm rests.  For now, the challenge is  tightly fitting each leg into a cut-out in the bench seat.


I first marked and cut out a poster board pattern. The leg is marked for realignment.


With the leg removed, the pattern was moved deeper into the bench seat. The straight pencil line was drawn at the edge of the pattern, before there leg was removed, as a guide when the pattern was moved on the bench seat. The cut-out is marked and ready for cutting with a jigsaw.


The cut-out is made and ready for a test fit of the leg.


This rarely happens–the leg fit tightly and with the right alignment on the first try.


Twenty-nine. Bench backrest attachments & front legs

This post is about (1) attaching an arched support to stiffen the backrest, (2) connecting the backrest to the bench seat in a way that allows the backrest and seat to be disassembled, and (3) the start of attaching the front legs.  (My captions for the photos are not as detailed and informative as they could be.)

I have two more posts in draft status that I’ll publish asap (the date today is May 26, 2013).


The arch is a naturally grown shape, a small lodgepole tree trunk. I flattened it with a hand adze after cutting a series of saw kerfs. The rounded side had to be inset in three places, each of which were clamped as shown here.


This photo shows the mate-cutting in progress, with the top of the arch clamped in place. The saw is cutting both pieces at once. The kerf is prevented from closing, and pinching the saw blade, by the shim shingle.


With the backrest laid flat and the seat clamped to it, I had access to the underside of the seat. I wanted to attach the seat to the backrest in a way that allowed for disassembly because of the increasing weight of the bench. I also wanted the attachment to allow for expansion and contraction of the slabs in the seat.


Here’s the underside with slotted holes, one in each of the slab pieces.


A close up of a slotted hole, this one and one at the other end of the row, are for hanger bolts to make assembly and reassembly easier. The remaining holes are for lag screws. (The drilling tear-out will be removed later with sanding.)


The hanger bolts and lag screws, with two flat washers each, are tightened securely but loose enough to allow the wood to expand and contract.


To establish a front seat height that approximately matches the back, I added a temporary board to each end of the bench. A spacer board was placed on the bench seat, and the front leg was leaned against the seat for its vertical alignment. This photo was taken after I had marked and cut the bottom of the leg for a flush fit to the deck surface.


This is the second front leg with the marking block and pen. The sequence is important. The cut is approximate, but once made the leg is dropped and that changes the fitting of the joint in the seat above.


Here’s the finished cut, with the leg vertically aligned, with a slight flare from from to back and side to side.


Both front legs are now ready to be attached, which will require cutouts in the bench seat at each end. That will be the subject of my next post.

Twenty-eight. Joining legs to the bench back rest.

April 17, 2013

For personal and family reasons and priorities, I haven’t worked much on the bench for the past month.  I had originally planned (!) to have it finished by the end of April, but since that was a self-imposed time frame, I’ve relaxed my schedule. And, besides, the making of tree art is only one of my creative practices ….

I’m also continuing with my relaxed standards for the quality of these posts, especially in literary terms.

Because of the size of the bench, and the crowded condition of my workshop, I decided to bring the bench up to our attached greenhouse.  As long as it’s sunny, the unfinished greenhouse is a comfortable, roomy, and well-lighted workspace.  And the deck serves as a good workbench.

Here are photos of my latest efforts to combine the back rest with the seat, and to add two legs:


I’ve selected four swan neck pieces for the bench legs. In this photo, I’ve placed one of them to explore options for joinery that connects the leg to both the top and the bottom of the back rest.


Using a piece of light cardboard, I’m starting to make a pattern for the coped cut out on the bottom of the back rest, the first of the two to receive the leg.


After the pattern fits around the leg, it will be placed on the underside to mark for the actual cutting. I have added the matching letters “A” to keep the correct alignment when the pattern is transferred to the underside.


So here’s the guideline for the cut out on the back rest base, to receive the leg.


The cut out is completed, and the back rest will be turned over for a test fit.


This photo is the first in a series showing the cut outs in both the top and bottom of the back rest to receive the leg. It’s a top view, looking down after the cut out has been made in the top rail of the backrest. Notice the black line that has a matching line on the leg for correct realignment of the joints. Also in the photo is the grinder and special cutting wheel that works very well, with and against the grain, in “sculpting” these cut outs for the coped joinery.


Another view of the cut outs. I decided to leave the leg “as is” and fit it fully into the two cut outs. It’s complicated to make just one of these kinds of joints because of the curves and slants of the cut out, and of getting the correct horizontal alignments of the legs so the bench sits firmly on the ground.


This is another view of the leg fitted into the two cut outs, with the top joint showing the alignment marks I mentioned above.


Viewed from the other side, the leg is securely fitted into the cut outs. At this point, I’m not sure how I will fasten the joints–whether I’ll dowel and glue them or use concealed wood screws to allow for disassembly because the bench is getting heavy and will be awkward to move.

Twenty-seven. Making the bench seat

The making of the bench seat with 8 pieces of 2″ thick planks.

Perhaps, since tree art is a collaboration with Nature, I tend to abhor straight lines (and square corners, etc.). In the making of edge to edge butt joints, I like the mate cut, waney edge joints as a design detail.


After one side of a piece has been cut on the bandsaw, the compass serves to scribe the adjoining piece, for a paired and mate cut joint. It’s important to keep the point and the pencil directly opposite to each other, closely perpendicular to the direction of the joint.


Piece number 4 will now go to the bandsaw for a cut of the second half of the paired pieces, for an approximate fit. It is important to number the paired pieces for replacement.


The edges of these pieces have all been cut on the bandsaw. Now, one joint at a time, after each end of the paired pieces has a log dog driven in, the jigsaw will mate cut the final butt joint.


Here’s a close up of the mate cut in progress. Tightly fitting the joint sometimes takes several passes, releasing the log dogs each time, depending on how tightly the bandsaw’s approximate cuts fit. The two points of each log dog are pointed and wedge shaped so they draw the joint together as they are driven into the end grain.


The jigsaw is cutting a uniform kerf the length of the pieces, so when the log dogs are removed the waney edges fit tightly, i.e., are mated to each other.


These 8 pieces are ready for gluing and clamping to make the seating surface for the bench, about 80′ long and 20″ deep–deep enough for the backrest to be placed on top.

Twenty-six. (B) Making the bench backrest (cont’d)

Post Twenty-six was getting too lengthy, probably too many photos and not enough text.  I’ve been saving two posts as drafts rather than publishing them.  I’m thinking now that it doesn’t matter all that much if I go ahead and publish them.  Just as tree art is not fine woodworking, my writing in these posts is not fine literature.


After the bark was drawknife off the slab, I scribed around the end of each swan neck for a matching mortise to secure each of them as a tenon.  The FR with arrows remind me which edge of the slab is to the front and which end is to the right.


The four swan necks will connect this 80″ long slab with both the backrest and the bench seat. Eventually, the two back legs of the bench will also be joined to this slab.


Each swan neck tenon is now secured in its mortise by a long wood screw inserted and tightened through a pilot hole predrilled through the slab from its flat underside.


With the backrest mounted to the slab, I’m now ready to think about the bench seat, which I hadn’t designed yet or selected its materials. This project has become more of a design-in-progress than I feel comfortable with ….

Twenty-six. (A) Making the bench backrest … Feb 28, 2013


The flat iron bar is inlaid into the underside, to be concealed, and secured with long, countersunk wood screws. The end to end butt joint of the swan necks is also reinforced by a one inch diameter hardwood dowel, centered and penetrating more than 3″ into the end grain of each piece.



These round tenons are made by hand with a draw knife and sizing jig to fit a drilled mortise. In this piece I’ve also used free form tenon and mortise joints.


Here’s a piece clamped in the shaving horse, with the sizing jig and hand-forged drawknife in use.


The swan neck is clamped in place and both the placement of the mortise and the shoulder of the tenon are marked.


I’m using a long straight edge just to get an approximate location and length of the paired swan necks.


This round mortise is on the underside. Also visible is the dowel that goes up into the end of the arch on top.  I always use numbers, letters, arrows, etc. for replacement after repeated fittings.


Here’s #2 mortise and tenon in place. The joint is drawn tight by a concealed wood screw entering from the other side.


The slab is placed here just to check the length of the four swan necks. It seems to work, so it’s time to put the slab in the shaving horse.


Twenty-five. The Making of a Tree Art Bench

January 1st, 2012.  After exploring a lot of design options, both functional and sculptural, and with many choices and indecisions, the project is now underway.  I finally decided to make a large seating bench that could serve in a public space, possibly in the lobby of an historic, and monumentally rustic, inn?

I began taking photographs in the workshop after selecting trees, some new ones for this project and others  I had previously prepared then not used for other projects.

I’ve decided to publish this documentation as the project proceeds, as a”work-in-progress,” similar to what I did in documenting the making of the trestle table a year of so ago.


Getting started by selecting component pieces, each a lodgepole pine tree trunk–four “swan’s necks” and one “tuning fork”.


The drawknife and long arch held in the shaving horse. This is an example of the difficulties, the awkwardness of securing the irregular tree shapes, and of how helpful the shaving horse is.


These four tree trunks will become the bench legs that will also support, I think, slab wood armrests. They were originally prepared for use as dining table legs.


Here are sketches (not very artistic) and notes, some old ideas from my 3-ring design binder combined with new options as my thinking about the piece evolved.


Here I have positioned all the pieces into a design for the backrest of the bench. I’ve joined the two swan’s necks end to end, after drilling a 1 inch hole into each piece and inserting a hardwood dowel to maintain the alignment when I web clamped them together.


The bench will be about 8 feet long, so I had to add a board to my workbench top to support the swan’s necks. Using the wood clamps this way solved the problem of how to hold the two swan’s necks upright, so I could begin fitting the arch.


After clamping the joint, I marked the pieces with a connecting straight line, so that after I’ve disassembled the joint for gluing I’ll be able to realign it as it was marked. After gluing, I’ll size and shape the joint by hewing and rasping away the excess on the one piece. And I’ll inlay the flat iron piece on the underside.


This piece of flat iron is drilled, holes with with countersinks, for flathead wood screws. It will be concealed, inlaid on the underside of the two swan’s necks to span and reinforce the end to end joinery.


A next challenge was to place the arched tree trunk on top of the swan’s necks to make the joints. That’s a recurring challenge because hand holding and clamping the irregular shapes securely isn’t easy, but necessary to cutting and fitting the joints repeatedly.


At this end of the arch, I decided to make a shallow mortise to secure the joint, again making an alignment mark.


Here I’m using a Japanese rip saw to make a “mated cut,” a coped joint in which the saw is cutting both the arch and the swan’s neck at the same time. This takes repeated passes, using a wedge to prevent the saw kerf from pinching the saw blade as the cut progresses.


After the mated cuts were done, I laid the clamped pieces flat on the bench and drilled a 7/8″ hole from the underside of each swan’s neck and up into the end of each arch to reinforce the joint. The dowels are extra long so I can twist them out for gluing. I’ll wait until the other pieces have been dry fitted and joined, so i can glue, clamp, and dowel them all at one time.


The web clamp secures the joint as the dowel is inserted without glue until the other components of the backrest are dry fitted and joined. The black line on the swan’s neck shows both the location of the drilling and the alignment for entry into the end of the arch.

Twenty-four. Tree Art Assemblage: A New Challenge

This post will be brief, as an announcement of a new, and very challenging, tree art project.  I’m planning a series of posts to document its makings and, hopefully, its public placement as a tree art exhibit.

I’ve begun to design a tree art assemblage, essentially as a tribute to the contorted Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine–Pinus contorta v. latifolia.

I’m working with an urge to select a variety of  contorted lodgepole pine tree trunk motifs (see below), and to assemble them into a sculptural forest, a “stand” of pines that is both physical and figurative.  Within this stand, I imagine interconnected chairs and benches to serve as public seating.

For many years I’ve thought about this kind of project, and came up with the term “monumental tree art” to describe it.  Part of its being monumental would be the architectural setting, which I’ve imagined as a rustic hotel lobby or an art museum foyer.  (I have the perfect place in mind, the best setting I can imagine for my tree art, but it would be premature to disclose it.)

I admit that this challenge is great enough–in terms of design, workmanship, and finding a public placement–that I might not be able to make it happen.

As preliminaries, I’m looking in my storage to select component trees.  I’ll take photos and make sketches to include in a later posts.  Below is  a graphics display, prepared for a Creighton Block Gallery exhibit and talk last year, of the recurring contorted lodgepole tree trunk motifs I’ve identified over the past twenty-plus years:

Twenry-three. Trees (in transit)

We sold our across town “Tree Art Studio” (and storage building) last April, 2011, and have been moving trees ever since. Those in these photos are awaiting, in the alley behind our home, their winter storage.  They are a small fraction of our total tree inventory.

Here you can see how I’ve sorted the trees by “motifs” (the recurring, naturally grown shapes of the tree trunks)–fork, arch, swan’s neck, loop, spiral, and some one-of-a-kind, eccentric shapes.

Storage, and the handling that goes with it, have always been essential to the making tree art.  I’ve moved some of these trees countless times over the past twenty years since I found them in the forest.

I still marvel at what each tree accomplished to overcome injury, gravity, crowded and shaded circumstances, and long winters.  And I’m still working–physically and figuratively–on an illustrated book about these trees, with the title:  The Contorted Lodgepole–A Poet’s Tribute.