From the bench: Gift of lumber, gift of food
Volunteering during the pandemic led to the greatest wood haul of Zal Sarkari's life, and a chance to help others in the bargain.
Not everything that came out of the pandemic was bad; I not only got more time in the shop, but also the greatest wood haul of my life—a gift that will benefit many woodworkers and feed scores of hungry families.
During the pandemic, my wife started volunteering at a local food pantry connected to St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Amenia Union, N.Y. Over time, I became a volunteer, too, packing, unloading, and delivering groceries.
Also during this time, a few cherry trees had fallen on my property and I wanted to cut them into lumber. Coincidentally, the church had to cut down some large walnut trees to make way for a new building. I asked the church warden what they were doing with their trees. She said they had been posting them on Craigslist to be taken away for free. It was a good thing I was wearing a mask, because it kept my jaw from hitting the floor. These logs were 30-in.-plus in diameter, perfectly branchless and knot-free, and more than 10 ft. long. Most woodworkers would have been happy with the “small” 12-in.-dia. limbs lying around. I asked her to give me a few weeks to figure out how to move them.
I quickly found Jeff Olsen, a sawyer with a portable mill. Given my estimate of 10 to 15 logs, he thought it would take about 20 hours. I arranged to have someone with a front-loader with a grapple hook and a flatbed truck meet me at the church. He took one look at the logs and called another flatbed to help move the logs to my property. Instead of 10 to 15 logs, we had close to 40, including my cherry. Twenty hours of milling was not going to cut it.
To do the milling, Jeff needed at least one other person, if not two, to help. I called some local woodworker friends, and we took turns helping Jeff wrangle 2-ton logs, load them on the machine, and unload boards, all the while trying not to kill ourselves or crush limbs. We largely succeeded.
“I not only got more time in the shop, but also the greatest wood haul of my life—a gift that will benefit many woodworkers, and perhaps most importantly, feed hundreds of hungry families.”
And the boards! We studied each chocolate-colored walnut board with wonder, building magical Nakashima-style benches in our minds. The salmon-colored cherry boards sparked the same kinds of daydreams—of two-piece tabletops that we’d somehow handle even though they were too wide for our 12-in. jointers. Even after the 1,000th board was sawn we kept talking and imagining, while Jeff waited impatiently for us to take it off the mill.
After six days of milling, we were tired, up to our knees in sawdust, and had only completed about half of the logs. I realized I needed more help. I called every woodworker I knew—from Maine to Maryland—asking them to come and help, and to see if they wanted to buy some of the walnut and cherry. The deal was simple—pay a quarter of what the wood would cost in a commercial yard and donate the money to the food pantry. If you didn’t help with the sawing and stacking, it was another $1 per board foot. Either way, a fantastic price for the quality of lumber.
More woodworkers answered the call. I invited them to a “stacking party” and the reverend and others from the church came to watch and help. We moved, stacked, and stickered boards, and the lumber sold itself—although even with hundreds of board feet sold, the piles didn’t look any smaller.
That wood made everyone happy. Over time (and it may be years), if I can sell all 10,000 board feet, the church will be able to use that money to feed 50 to 60 families for a year. Some woodworkers, like myself, who might never have purchased boards like that are now going to build larger pieces than they had dreamed.
I am not religious, but COVID-19 has made me believe in karma. I have no insight into how the universe operates—I don’t even know how a microwave operates—but I believe if you help others, you help yourself. If you have the ability, and an opportunity to help comes up, go for it. You may even end up with a fantastic pile of wood.
Zal Sarkari is an amateur woodworker who plans to specialize in cherry and walnut from now on.
From Fine Woodworking #292