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Trees of the Bay Area

Douglas Fir

Douglas Fir

Pseudotsuga menziesii

Tony Wolcott

This article appeared in the 2015 January issue of Chips & Chatter.

Political tree issues are a good way to start the new year. Wood is plentiful in the bay area. This does not just refer to California native trees but also to the hundreds of exotic species that have been planted here for over a thousand years. There is no reason to pay high prices for exotic turning wood imported into this area. In fact there are several reasons not to pay those prices.

If you do not know the source of your wood, there is a good chance you are supporting criminal removal of trees, cut down just for their economic value and at the peril of that local environment. This does not just refer to third world countries or to rain forest clear cutting. If you are buying redwood burl, you are supporting the massive wounding and eventual death of the world’s largest trees. In the last year this has become epidemic. The local sale of burl wood, redwood or otherwise should be carefully investigated for the source.

Another reason for sourcing wood locally is to keep the industry local. There is no reason for long distance hauling of waxed over wood blanks. In a day we waste more good wood locally than what fits in a big semi-truck trailer. The notion of not wasting what we have is environmentally sound reasoning. Clean up construction sites and come up with cutoffs from four by six inch Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). This wood makes excellent bowls and spindle projects. The City of El Cerrito removed an old bridge over Cerrito Creek, the salvaged redwood is choice heartwood. You will never find wood like that at Home Depot or even the reputable wood outlets.

John Cobb and I are taking out some others to visit the dump-off sites for tree services. This is an excellent source of local wood. With a little instruction one can find some great wood and come away with some wood blanks. Whether it is salvaging old wood from construction sites or following the sound of a neighborhood chain saw, this is how we make use of our local resources.

Getting back to our Pseudotsuga menziesii, the Douglas fir is one of our Gymnosperms or conifers. These are cone bearing trees with needle like leaves. Most conifers are evergreen, but some like the western larch (Larix occidentalis) are deciduous. Douglas fir is evergreen and is one of four genera that have pitch pockets and resin canals. So do not be surprised when you are working with this wood and you suddenly get a splash of pitch over your face. Or you may have a nice bowl sitting in the hot sun and at the end of the day your bowl is half full with resin. Pine is by far the worst for these pitch pockets. The family Pinaceae contains all four genera with resin canals – Pinus (pine), Larix (larch), Picea (spruce), and Pseudotsuga (Douglas fir). 

Another not so subtle reminder that common names are problematic: Douglas fir is not a true fir, not a fir at all. Only Abies spp. are true firs. The Latin ‘Pseudotsuga’ means false hemlock due to the similarities of hemlock and Douglas fir. So, just to summarize, Pseudotsuga menziessii or Douglas fir is closely related to pines and spruces. They all have resin canals while true firs do not. The reason for the pitch pockets is immediate response to insect attack into the bark or wood. These trees literally drown the invaders, not exactly a well developed defense mechanism. Over the millenniums the gymnosperms have been out-classed by the sophistication of the angiosperms. We are witnessing the decline and eventual fall of the cone bearing trees. 

The simple structure of the Douglas fir makes it easy to identify in many ways. Tracheids are the cells in coniferous wood. These cells are 100 times longer than they are in diameter. That makes for some pretty outrageous end grain. This wood often exhibits a dramatic difference between early wood and late wood, so as a child you could count the rings. As a bowl turner you might grow weary of the difference in density of early and late woods. Douglas fir is sometimes finished with sand blasting, and you can texturize the bowl quite nicely this way.

However, cones are the best way to identify conifers. The Douglas fir cone is squeezable. Each individual bract has a seed half way in and half way out of the bract. There are many Mother West Wind stories about nature. The one that goes with the Douglas fir cone involves mice. It seems that a large collection of mice were once frightened so much that they took quick refuge into the Douglas fir cones. If you look at the bract, you can see that a mouse was only able to get half way in. All you can see are the two back legs and the tail. The needles of the Douglas fir have two white racing stripes on the underside. The bark is craggy and quite thick. For all its construction value Douglas fir does not like to get wet nor does it like the dirt. Once this tree hits the forest floor it is immediately attacked by wood engravers, so be advised.

Douglas fir is a solid wood, quite strong but easily turned. The spectacular grain is eye popping. You will have to solve the end grain, and I have tried many techniques but none that I would recommend. Any help on this? 

Post Script: Please notice that not once in the entire text was the word ‘soft’ used.