Top Slice

Published by Les on

When sawmills convert logs into planks, whether those mills are huge industrial sites or small, portable mills, the first thing they have to do to each log is to mount it onto a carriage or machine bed, for the saw to make repeated cuts along its length. The very first cut takes away a slice of the log which is nearly all bark and the low value sapwood and cambium directly beneath the bark; this referred to as “Top Slice”.

Top slice is very low value timber and usually gets dumped, perhaps to be ground into chips for making chip-board or MDF, and sometimes it gets used as firewood.

Lower down the log, the planks get wider and wider, with a lesser proportion of waste in them, so that’s where all the value lies in the log. However, now and again a log gets milled which has value in its top-slice. Whereas many species of tree grow relatively straight trunks, others have trunks which twist and turn, and have huge lumps projecting outwards, so the top-slice can fall away as uneven lumps, and if these lumps have burr in them, then they have a much higher value than they might otherwise have had.

A few years ago I bought about 30 pieces of top-slice oak, all with at least some burr in them, and this was all put to one side to dry. This weekend I was turning my old stock of oak over and rejected one piece as being fit for little more than firewood. There was very little burr in it and each end of the block, which was about 50cm square x about 10cm thick at the centre, but feathered out to just a centimetre or less at its edges, and to add insult to injury, it was riddled with small drying-cracks.

Regretfully, I didn’t photograph it before I started cutting, but the central piece in the picture above gives a good impression of what the piece was like, as does the next picture….

So, having decided that it was rubbish, I did what I so often do and mounted it on the lathe in an attempt to prove myself wrong, and I’m glad that I did. The small cracks visible on its ends opened up further into the piece and gave it so much character. It was too distressed to be used for anything functional, so it became a sculptural piece (what else!)

Its main problem was a big patch of sapwood right at its centre, which had developed a serious case of white rot and had the texture of a dried-out sponge-cake, so the worst of it had to be cut away and replaced, in this case with a large cabochon of yew.

Much of the perimeter and of the central area was seriously cracked, so it got scorched and lime waxed, which takes an unsightly crack and turns it into a feature – well, I think so, anyway!

So here’s the finished piece…

I felt that the yew cabochon at its centre looked like an eye, peering out of the sculpture, so I’ve called it “Llygad”.

I’ve given it a couple of options so that it can be used as a free-standing sculpture, or removed from its stand and used as a wall-hanging.

I guess that the lesson learned is that wherever there’s the slightest interesting feature in a piece of wood, it has the potential to become something beautiful.

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