Canadian Woodworking

Big, old trees

Blog by Rob Brown
Panel sample

I’ve just started to build a textured Douglas fir coffee table for a client. The lumber is all 8″ wide and 2″ thick, and it’s also stunningly straight-grained. On top of that, the boards, which I trimmed to 5′ long, are nearly perfectly straight. The first step in making the table was to joint one face on each board, but it probably would have been fine to skip this stage and head right for my thickness planer.

Feeling a bit of guilt

I feel a bit guilty to have these beautiful timbers in my shop. Half of me wishes they were still standing upright, swaying in the wind and growing with each passing season. But the other half of me is looking forward to making something gorgeous, functional and lasting from this stack of lumber, and show it the respect it deserves.

It wasn’t long before I was taking a close look at the end grain of these boards. A few boards had relatively wide annual growth rings, but a few included some very tight growth rings. There were enough of them to get me to wondering how many there were. Keep in mind these boards are not quite 8″ wide. I counted 265 growth rings in the densest board, and I’m guessing the boards with wider growth rings had about a third of that.

When you figure this board is just a small fraction of the radius of the tree, you start to think back to what this tree has seen. It likely grew roots before any European explorers set foot on the continent.

This week, I’m starting the process of building, texturing and finishing the coffee table. I’ll be thinking of the trees these boards came from and be sure to construct a piece of furniture that will stand the test of time. I wonder if this piece of furniture will be around for as long as the gorgeous trees the wood came from were alive. Hopefully.

One of the first things I did was make a sample panel for the client, as the table was to get lightly textured and antiqued across its entire surface. I had a few photos to work from, but I wanted to show the client a sample they could see first-hand. This process usually involves a few samples to get it right, but it results in a piece of furniture the client really loves.

The oldest trees in the world

Mark Salusbury, a regular CW&HI contributor, sent me an infographic last week titled “The Earth’s Oldest Trees.” Good timing, as it was on the same day the impressive Douglas fir timbers entered my shop. The thing I first noticed was how many of these trees came from the west coast of North America, especially the larger trees on this list.

The infographic is fun to look at, but I found it more interesting to Google the different trees, and learn a bit about many of them. I started with the largest tree, as one does. “Pando” is a grove of male quaking aspen trees in Utah that at first glance look like a forest of similar, yet individual, trees. Scientists have discovered they’re actually all the same single living organism joined by one root system. The infographic states the organism is over 80,000 years old, but Wikipedia tells a more modest story. Even at “several thousand years” this is quite impressive.

Check out some of the other trees, and marvel at their size, shape and story. Let’s hope they’re around to inspire many future generations.

Many More

At first glance I thought there were about 150 years’ worth of growth in the densest piece of Douglas fir I was building a coffee table from. My first guess was off by a fair bit.


Almost Double

After closer inspection I did a rough count and found about 265 years’ worth of growth in this timber. Pretty incredible, especially when you realize this piece of lumber is representative of only a small fraction of tree growth.


Sample #1

This is the first sample I made for the client. After adding some general texture to resemble a hewn surface, I used a wire brush in a drill to remove the softer earlywood. The process didn’t take much time, and because the densities of Douglas fir earlywood and latewood vary quite a bit, this effect is pretty strong.


Sample #2

After hearing back from the client, I made a second sample. This one had no wire brushing, and the hewn surfaces were a bit less dense and pronounced.

Panel sample

The Oldest Trees in the World

This infographic shows the age of the oldest trees in the world and where they’re growing. Many of them are on the west coast of North America.

oldest trees on earth


Tops on the list is a grove of quaking aspen in Utah. Although it looks like a forest of aspen trees, it’s actually one large organism that shares a large root system.

Pando trees
Last modified: May 15, 2022

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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