From Forest to Structure: Maple tree “Atlas” becomes a main post in our CLT project

A tree for a mass timber project? What started as an idea branched into reality as our team selected a west coast Broad Leaf Maple tree to be a central post in our Cross Laminated Timber project. Mike W, one of our timber craftsmen and an avid nature lover, applied his skills and artistic eye from unloading the big Maple in Oregon to hand-crafting the joinery and leading the raising in New York. Along the way he formed an attachment to this “post” and named it ‘Atlas’. He shares his adventure with Atlas below:

moving tree into shopThis tree had a purpose, a destiny even. The 60-year-old Acer Macrophyllum Big Leaf Maple was selected by my co-workers Randy and Noah (from Randy’s land) for its particular size, shape, and branch structure. It would become a load-bearing post and not just any post – it will support a 30,000 lb gravity load and an 84 foot glulam beam line in our new Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) building in Farmington, NY (the first complete CLT building in New York State!).

Using some experience from previous projects, the support of my colleagues, and a little book knowledge I picked up at the Timber Framers Guild conference, I got started.

tools of the trade for tree joineryFirst, I snapped out the reference lines – this would orientate the precise position of the beam pocket and base cut (where all the pressure is). Second, I set the tree onto sawhorses and played with the overall shape. This was my favorite part because it is all about balance and feel. This was where I got to imagine how the piece I was working was going to orientate when it was done. I had to get high over the tree and observe its relationship with the lines I snapped. I even laid down and looked at it from the side, imagining how it will look as the post I wanted it to be.

tree in shopOnce I was set on the position of the tree in relation to the joinery I began to mark my datum lines and started layout of the beam pocket. One thing to mention is that plans were for the beam pocket to be made up of two upright co-dominates. (Co-dominate, in this case, refers to how the main trunk splits and becomes two. This is a fun thing I learned from our newest addition in the timber frame shop, Noah Mize.  He comes from an arborist background and is very knowledgeable.) I got out the laser to guide my cuts, after all it is the 21st century.

cutting joinery on tree mcminn

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A little customization on the joinery. According to Mike, it represents “With love from the west coast to the east coast.”

The chisel work was a true joy. The chisel seemed to glide effortlessly allowing me to really push for precision, without losing sight of efficiency. That was the first upright. The second proved to be much more difficult. Long story short I had to tap out the lap joint all upside down and overhead. I had to squat on a block of wood 7″ off the ground while operating my chisel at shoulder height to make a flat which was facing the ground. Awkward, to say the least. To add to the difficulty the location of the work was right near the union, or point where the trunk splits into two. Needless to say the grain got harder and ran in all directions at once, or so it seemed.

tree joinery mcminnvilleThe time for the post bottom cut was upon us. Randy brought in his O44 chainsaw with a 42″ bar to preform this work. We made a couple test cuts and away we went. The final cut was cleaned up with a 12″ planner to flat with the layout marks re-written on the fresh surface.

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Our McMinnville and Portland OR teams, as well as our Farmington NY teams, signed the base of Atlas prior to raising.

With the base cut done this was no longer a tree; it was a post. I could imagine myself as this post, holding my arms out wide supporting the timber [much like Atlas]. I can truly say it was my honor to pour my love and energy into tree. It was my privilege to be part of giving this tree to its new life, a post at the heart of our new fine woodworking shop.

Mike was a key part to raising Atlas earlier this week. The post is now in place and connected to the frame, supporting substantial glulam timbers. More CLT panels are going into place and will shelter Atlas for decades to come. A video and photos of the raising are below:

Raising Atlas Video

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Atlas arrived to Farmington, NY on a typically snowy January day.

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Mike readies Atlas for raising.

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Mike applied leverage and muscle to turn Atlas into the precise orientation for the frame.

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