really old trees on property, use the wood for remodeling?

jiggreenJanuary 23, 2011

We are blessed in that our 200 year old house sits on a gorgeous piece of property (not counting the telephone poles in the front of the house!!) We have LOTS of very, very mature trees. I think a lot of the trees most likely pre-date the house. We have some huge old pine trees, I'm actually thinking they might have used some of the pine trees in constructing the house itself. Some of our pine trees are so close to the house that they overhang the roof and my insurance agent would like to see the ones nearest to the house be taken down. I posted this here because of the age of the trees, and I think it's relevant because of the age of the house. I'm thinking that perhaps instead of just calling a tree service to cut these huge old beauties down and turn them into mulch..that instead, I will have them cut down and made into lumber that we can in turn use to make repairs to the house, as well as a porch. I think it would be honoring the history of the house as well as the trees.

Here is a photo showing what we are dealing with regarding the trees. I do understand the issue from an insurance point of view. We are constantly picking up very, very large branches that are falling off these trees. Just a few days ago, a huge one came down on our driveway..luckily nobody was driving (or walking) on the driveway at the time.

Has anyone done anything like this? Is it an idea worth pursuing or does it not even make sense? And who would I call for something like this? A tree cutting service, or do I call a mill directly? The trees that I need to have removed are some sort of pine, with trunk diameters in excess of 5 feet around, and a height of between (approximately) 60feet to over 100 feet tall. We are also going to be remodeling our summer kitchen and I thought it would just be really neat to do the remodeling job with trees native to the property itself.


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Here is another view showing our driveway and two of the "problem trees". The one closest to the house is probably in excess of 100 feet tall and the trunk of the tree is only about 7 feet from the house itself.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2011 at 2:05AM
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I'm sorry but I don't believe that your trees (not pine, but spruce, BTW) would be economically turned into dimensional lumber.

Without seeing close ups of the branches to identify the exact species I can't be sure, but those trees - the limbed up ones in the side and rear - are probably around 75-100 years old. Spruce used for lumber is either very, very old and so much larger in diameter than your trees (think 4-12 feet in diameter at breast height), or if they were grown in managed forests continually pruned to create straight, relatively large-knot free boles that are easy to turn into boards. Your trees were most likely planted some time in the early 20th c as yard ornaments - or allowed to grow as naturally occurring landscaping.

When trees are measured the size is expressed as DBH, or diameter at breast height. This is not the circumference (distance around the trunk); DBH is usually a bit less than a third of the circumference. (This will take you back to high school geometry -remember that the circumference -which you know by measurement -is equal to 2 times pi (3.14) times r (radius). You can work that backwards to discover the diameter which is distance through the trunk. I bet you never imagined in those days that you'd actually ever need that formula for any practical purpose like surveying your own trees in your yard!)

The height of the tree is relatively unimportant because most of the top half or three-quarter is not large enough in diameter to make lumber. The bottom part is what matters, and it will need to be cut into useful, saw-able lengths. Generally that's 8-9 feet (shortest) to 12-14 feet (longest manageable in small mills.) The cutting to length has to be thoughtfully done in order to maximise the straightest possible intervals. If you contract with a local mill, perhaps they can come and help you pick out the best sections and lengths from each tree before the guys with chain saws arrive. Then you'll have to stand your ground, firmly, to have it cut to those lengths, exactly as marked.

Lumber is cut out of the overall mass of the tree trunk and every time there is a bend (even small curves are defects), there is less straight material to work with for creating boards. And then depending on the saw pattern and species there is wood wasted to manage the heart and sap wood issues.

Now just because it's not likely that you get much, if any, sawn timber out of the trunks doesn't mean that you won't get any usable material. Many people around here like those chain-sawed sculptures of bears, eagles etc. and have tree trunks carved up for that. You may also find some furniture-making use of large chunks, for table tops, perhaps even an inset counter (spruce is very soft so it won't make good cutting surfaces).

Cutting the trees for lumber harvest near a building may present some safety issues because the tree company will want to take it down in small, manageable pieces for liability reasons.

And once the wood is down, in order to preserve your options you will need to think about where to store it to begin to dry it for use. Spruce left in contact with soil will rot in a year or two; in much less time it will get invaded by decay organisms which will stain it permanently.

One thing I wouldn't count on using it for is for burning in your fireplace or woodstove. Spruce is very soft (not much heat) and it will gum up your chimney very quickly creating a fire hazard. If you have one of those outdoor woodburners that can take anything, it might provide some utility there.

Don't let your insurance company badger you if you don't want to remove the trees. You can get them looked after by tree professionals to keep them safe. (You need to choose the tree people very carefully as many know zilch about living trees. And they have even less respect than knowledge. I can help steer you to some good books on tree management, if you like. Anything by Alex Shigo, will be top-notch.)

Think long and hard about what you'll see without them. Once gone, they will not be replaceable in your lifetime. It will also radically change the microhabitat around your house. No doubt in some ways for the better, but in other ways not so much.

I share your dilemma with some similarly-sized Norway spruces planted far too close to my house 45 + years ago by the previous owner. I should have thinned and taken many of them down when we first moved here a quarter of a century ago. Now they're a big problem, for which I will have to pay a good deal of money to have attended to.

As for professional advice: perhaps you can ask a local sawmill, or consult a municipal or state forester. The last people to talk to are tree companies who only have $$$ and chainsaws on their minds.

If any of the trees have well-defined Christmas-tree shaped tops, you might look into having it donated to someone who was providing one of those enormous public Christmas trees displayed in large spaces. They usually start looking for next year's trees about now. And they take the tree down for free.

You can always pay to have the larger ends cut into the longest straight lengths possible; pay to have the logs trucked to a local saw mill; pay to have as much as you can cut out of the logs (it will be shockingly less than you imagine - it never fails to remind me just how much wastage there is in wood we so profligately throw away for things like shipping pallets and temporary stringers) and finally pay to have it stickered and air or kiln dried at the mill or at home with you, etc.

For sentimentality it's worth it, for some uses. But it's definitely not going to be the cheaper solution.

That being said I have harvested wood from my woodlot for use in repairing my 19th c house. But these were oak trees grown in dense cover, for a couple of hundred years, so they were straight and very large. I would never have harvested them if they had not been felled by a cruel ice storm three years ago. I intend to use them for sill repairs, so they are being sawn out to match the existing 12 X 12 sills. I am going to some trouble to salvage as much of the wasted wood from the saw mill as possible (and the tops, of course) to use to heat my home, since we heat only with wood.

HTH, I wish I could be more encouraging!


    Bookmark   January 23, 2011 at 8:58AM
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Another use I forgot about for trunks might be a kind of free-form, naturalistic mantle. This might not work stylistically in a finely-detailed early 19th c federal house, but, perhaps in a den, or other more rustic space?

Or you could have them cut to make half-round bench seats, which might work in a farm-style keeping room, even in an early house. Or short pantry or root cellar shelves where strict dimensionality won't matter.

Or even if these repairs are in your future: as roof sheathing under slates, which is a common use around here for for green lumber. In fact, historically pine roof sheathing under slates was deliberately just sliced out of trunks (leaving the bark on, with no attempt to really square up the edges) and then laid up flush across the roof. This creates goood nailers for slate and shakes, and as it dried it tends to provide powerful compressive force to hold the roof together.

If you look for stuff made from green lumberr, you see the sorts of things that can be made with less than saw-quality lumber. It may give you more ideas. Do your thinking before you cut.


    Bookmark   January 23, 2011 at 9:11AM
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Liriodendron is right. You will get a LOT less wood than you'll likely expect. My dad has a saw mill (small scale portable one) and the amount of waste and 'seconds' board is unbelievable. In regards to cost, it's definitely not cheap. My dad works as a logging truck driver and has use of it to go and collect logs - many sawmills won't have that and you'll probably see it in expenses.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2011 at 12:07PM
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WOW!! Thank you SOO SOOOOO much for all of that information and for taking so much time to type it all in!!! I hadn't even considered that the problem trees might be some sort of spruce. I just checked out the different varieties of Spruce, and I believe these trees very well might be Norway Spruce. I am most definitely not a fan of these trees, they are VERY messy, way too large, raggedy looking, very very dense, the roots are close to the surface (I'm always tripping over them!) and and planted too close to the house. Those are the negatives, now for the positives... the trees were here before we were, and for that I have a great respect..they do provide dense shade in the summer (which can also be a negative, I like to have sunlight coming through my windows!) and I've never lived in a home w/ mature trees before..that was a prerequisite when purchasing this home.. the property MUST have mature trees. (be careful what you wish!) I think, perhaps as a compromise, we will remove the one tree that is closest to the house...but I won't make any decisions until I have an arborist come out to the property in the spring. We have so many varieties of trees (chestnut, walnut, locust, cedar, ash, many different types of conifers, and so many others that I can't think of and some I can't identify) I would like a professional to come and assess which ones could potentially be a problem, and how best to prune them all. That way I am knowledgeable when I call a tree service to come out and do some maintenance on the trees. Several of the trees to the rear of the property have large cavities in them (one is occupied by an owl). I prefer NOT to disrupt any trees that are beneficial to the wildlife, and not a hazard to any structures.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2011 at 12:16PM
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The more I think about it, the more I realize that the property (trees and all) is what sold me on this house...the parklike setting and the fact that I didn't want a bare patch of grass w/ baby trees. I will stand my ground with my insurance agent, and if need be, contract a reputable tree service to maintain the trees and I can submit proof of maintenance to the insurance company and perhaps that will satisfy them. My one compromise will be the overgrown monstrosity that is determined to swallow up and eat the house and anyone who walks by it :)

Here is a photo looking down towards the house, taken about halfway back to the property line. To me, the trees are a treasure and they do provide a huge amount of enjoyment to me.

I'll buy reclaimed wood if need be for the summer kitchen, and for the new wing (we will be adding on an addition for my mom) the lumberyard will have to do :)

    Bookmark   January 23, 2011 at 12:30PM
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I recommend you make friends with your trees by the usual method: by learning their names. There are several excellent books about trees: how to know them, what they're good at and how to live with them. I can post some names of good books as I love tree books almost as much as trees. (As you might expect from my chosen moniker.)

I believe you are correct that at least some of them are Norway Spruce; the one looming dirently behind the house in the first pic and the one on the right of that first pic, hanging over the roof.

I, too, am not a fan of Norways, primarily because they are a non-native species. Some pretty big ones around my house are on my list for this spring. (As I have threatened every year for decades.)

Winter is actually a very good time to work on learning your trees and shrubs because even on deciduous trees without leaves there are characteristic shapes and branching patterns which, once learned, will make you very good at "seeing" a tree without having to look it up every time. Just like familiar people have a certain stance, so, too, do different species of trees. During the winter there are few other outside jobs, so bundle up and trudge out and clap a mittened paw on your new friends. It's a fine thing to do on a cold sunny day!

(Be sure to spend a little time just leaning against a big trunk and listening carefully: there's quite a lot to hear as the wind blows and the branches creak. Normally as we move around, our footfalls and conversations drown out this primeval music.)

If you are in the NE, I would guess just looking at your last picture that the big evergreen on the right (one with two tiny white spots on the trunk) is a white pine.

If you take the trouble to learn about your trees you will feel that you have truly taken root in your new place. Trees are rare things that we interact with daily in that they live so much longer than we do, mostly without our intervention. Regular garden plants and shrubs will sometimes hang on for years when not cared for, but trees often do better without our "care". I have grown to appreciate their longer duration than my own puny lifespan. (I have a large old oak tree here that was described in my deed chain in 1786 as the "ancient oak tree". Imagine the seasons it has lived through.)

If you really want to learn about tree care (especially pruning and trimming tasks) then you should try to get the book by Alex Shigo. His formerly radical ideas are now considered the best by all the most enlightened tree people. If you luck out and find a good arborist, you will impress him no end if he discovers you've studied Shigo. His work is not technically complex, just a different approach to living with trees. Your library can no doubt get it for you.


    Bookmark   January 23, 2011 at 1:21PM
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I would remove that one that is closest to the house, and leave everything else. I think that would be an excellent compromise between the safety of your home and family and the beauty of your trees and property.

We have a humongous norway spruce in our front yard that is about 10-15 feet from the house. It really should go, but I do love it so much that I can't bring myself to do it. Plus it's very urban here and it provides valuable shade and greenery in the winter.

I suppose that's what home insurance is for right...if it falls down we will just have to fix the house (FYI if it fell on the house it would not fall on an area with a bed, living room, etc.).

So yes I would keep all but the one closest to your house. I asked my insurance agent about the tree in our front yard and he said, "That's what your insurance is for...if you love it, keep it." We did have to put a railing on the 3 steps going to our deck though...whodathunk.

Also, note that the stability and strength of a Norway Spruce is significantly better than a Pine. White pines are notorious for being uprooted in storms and dropping huge branches. Norways not so much, although they still don't have the most resilient branches around.

When we have had main branches break on our norway, they generally haven't been clean breaks - they often are still attached to the tree and require cutting out.

In fact, trees like white pines and many deciduous trees are more dangerous due to their huge and large diameter branches. For example, this summer, a huge part of a sweetgum across the street from us splintered during a lightning storm and came crashing down. Norways rarely have such catastrophic failures from branches.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2011 at 2:36PM
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You night be able to find someone with a portable band-saw wood mill to cut the larger pieces up, but they would then need drying (some of the portable mill owners also have small drying kilns).

You could use them for trim and decorations, but not structural pieces without then having them graded.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2011 at 3:01PM
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When we bought our old house there were 7 pine trees in the front of the house that were just way too close to the house for my taste. We had a pro come out and cut them down. The squirrels we found out were jumping off the branches onto the roof and getting into the attic. It was also creating air flow problems for the roof and the house.
Cutting, even trimming trees is not cheap. Get several estimates as they will be all over the place. If you can afford it get it done now on the off season the prices will be lower cause the guys will be dying for the work. Once the good weather hits EVERYONE and his brother starts calling and the list and your wait gets longer.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2011 at 3:50PM
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"The squirrels we found out were jumping off the branches onto the roof and getting into the attic."

They will be back unless you close up the access points.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2011 at 5:06PM
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Yes, you're right the squirrels will comeback unless the access points were closed off which is exactly what we did after the trees were gone.

One other point about trees. All that yard has to be mowed. It's much easier to mow when you don't have to duck your head as you ride or walk your mower around the yard. So when you are trimming up trees take that into consideration too as well as the the height of anything near the driveway and how it may affect vans or trucks doing work on the property or even your own autos.
I have a son with a chainsaw on a pole. He comes twice a year and we walk the property and trim up the branches on all the mature trees. It takes hours. Makes a huge difference in how the yard looks. If I had to pay someone to do it every year I don't think it'd get done as often.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2011 at 10:50PM
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Carol, good point about the lower branches on the trees. We are lucky in that most of our lower branches had already been removed.....on most of our trees, the lowest branch is probably 10-15 feet above ground. One of our first purchases when we moved in was a chainsaw (with an 11 foot pole), we used it to remove those 2 overgrown bushes in the front of the house (it was amazing how much light came in those windows with those bushes gone!) I also had hubby get rid of lower branches on a Norway Spruce on the left side of the is so much nicer to be able to walk off my porch and go under the tree to our side yard , instead of being forced out into the road just to get around that side of the house! And I'm sure my lawn maintenance guys appreciated not having to duck anymore also!

    Bookmark   January 24, 2011 at 12:00PM
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I would much rather duck under branches than mess around trimming my very old dogwoods and red buds.

The Bradford pears on their last legs anyway being over 35 years old, but some of the dogwoods and red buds date from the 1930s (I have pictures with them present).

    Bookmark   January 24, 2011 at 1:21PM
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You don't know (or maybe you do) how lucky you are to have so many beautiful mature trees - they look like they've obviously been looked after, trimmed & well cared for all these years, as they are all shaped nicely and spaced nicely apart. That one crowding the house on the right -get an expert to look at it - possibly even that one can be managed in such a way that you wouldnt have to take the whole thing down.

    Bookmark   January 24, 2011 at 5:07PM
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I do feel very blessed and lucky kashka kat! I fell in love with this property the first time I saw it. The people who lived here before us were here for 60+ years and they maintained the property amazingly well. And even after they passed on, and the property sat vacant for 2 years, their son continued the maintenance. Believe it or not, before the son would accept our offer to purchase the house, I had to write him a letter convincing him that my family would be "good stewards" of the land! It was only after our promise (and him getting to meet and know us), that he accepted our offer to purchase the property. My realtor was convinced that he didn't really want to sell, and was holding out for the "perfect buyer", not perfect as in price or anything contractual, but perfect as in respectful of the land and the history of the house. We had to keep jumping through hoops, but in the end it was worth it! Thank goodness we met his standards! It was kind of insane, but it was sweet to see how much he cared for the land :)

    Bookmark   January 24, 2011 at 11:22PM
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"We had to keep jumping through hoops, but in the end it was worth it!"

I have dealt with a few sellers like this, and they are far nicer than the heirs looking to squeeze every last penny from their inheritance (and ignoring any other considerations).

    Bookmark   January 25, 2011 at 11:25AM
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Great thread, and liriodendron, thanks for the intro to Shiro. When we bought our house, we joked that we bought the biggest darn maple in town, and by the way, there was a house with it too. That's how proud we are of our tree.

Just as an aside, I enjoyed reading Carol's suggestion to trim lower branches, but i would take that with a grain of salt. I remember sitting on my grandmother's front porch one day as a little girl and listening while she pointed to the tall twin trees in her front yard and told me how much she and her husband loved to climb them together when they were young. Now that I am older I know they did not always have a happy marriage (who does anyway?) but the thought of them sitting up in those trees of a summer evening, to catch a breeze, makes me glad they had good times together too.

So leave a couple of low branches here and there to swing up on. Good climbing trees seem to be so hard to come by these days.

Spruce was a popular wood for piano sound boards. Just throwing that into the discussion.

Oh, and white pines might get a bad rap if they're too close to a building, but the sound of the wind in the needles is to die for. Of the things I miss about the last house we lived in before this one, I miss that sound the most.

A picture of our beauty standing tall after a big storm last week:

    Bookmark   January 27, 2011 at 7:57PM
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Geez... Sounds to me like your insurance guy is just paranoid! What could possibly go wrong, really?

Oh, wait... I remember now! Never mind... ;-) Lol.

I'd thought about trying to use the wood for something, but who ever heard of a "hackberry" anything? (If anyone has, let me know - the REALLY big one is still here! Partially visible in background, left side of image). Ended up as firewood for friends. We got lucky, it only caught the corner of the roof at the angle it toppled. (Ice storm).

    Bookmark   January 29, 2011 at 3:16PM
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Wow! You sure did get lucky!!!!!!

    Bookmark   January 30, 2011 at 1:45AM
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"...who ever heard of a "hackberry" anything?"

There are numerous type of wood that are not routinely used in furniture but are still suitable.

Availability of large amounts drives many less common woods form the market.

Wpood from fruit trees is also rarely seen.

The trees are managed for fruit production, not wood production.
The most common affect is the pieces of suitable wood are not very large, and orchards keep the trees until their production drops off.

I have used apple and pear in small work thanks to a local orchard who is willing to give me a shot at trees he removes.

A large apple rarely yields wood more than about 3-4 inches wide when cut. The trees are normally held to no more than about 20 feet high to make harvest easier and often less than that).

I have gotten a few larger piece from pear trees.

Even the Bradford Pear that finally succumbed (~35 years old) in my side yard yielded a few decent size boards. The wood is noticeably hard, closed pore, and at least moderately difficult to work with hand tools.

It will probably end up as decorative panels in some cabinet doors since those are thin enough to get more surface area out of smaller boards.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2011 at 9:52AM
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Lol, Jiggreen! "Lucky" I didn't soil myself when I happened to be looking out the front door window at the time! Heard loud creaking, then ripping sound then saw it come down right in front of me! BOOM! The whole house shook from the weight hitting the ground. Not-so-lucky that it hit the truck and took out part of my old crabapple tree. (Ornamental, at least it was - now it looks sad). Something to keep in mind, I guess... Best to remove an "issue tree" yourself & have some control, cuz if it goes on its own it can take trees you want to keep with it. (Or worse, of course, part of your house). :-o

    Bookmark   January 30, 2011 at 2:24PM
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