In the cold waters of the Great Lakes, treasure hunters and commercial divers considered them a nuisance. Huge logs stuck in the mud, suspended underwater or resting on the bottom were everywhere. But before long, the divers realized what they had once cursed was indeed a sunken treasure of a different kind.
They had discovered logs of red oak, yellow birch, white pine and maple that were lost between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s while the wood was en route to lumber mills. It turns out, the quality of this waterlogged wood was actually enhanced during its long stay underwater because much of the resin had leached out.
Today, sonar equipment, mechanical log loaders and polypropylene rope help to salvage the logs from the water. As this virgin timber is reclaimed from the water, many woodworkers are now able to buy this wood with its tight annular rings (sometimes as many as 77 per inch) and grain structure directly from salvage companies.
“When we bring a log up, it’s kind of completing what these guys had started to do over 150 years ago,” says Greg Sveinsson, co-owner of Timber Reclamation International, a business in Ashland, Wis. The company, founded in 1998, locates submerged wood, saws it and sells it. “One area in the Great Lakes where a team of horses … went through the ice with a load of logs … the skeletal remains of the horse are still there, harness, logs and all.”
Hardwoods sink much faster than softwoods, so loggers made rafts out of pine to transport them. But often these rafts would break up going over a waterfall or get caught in a lake storm and the logs would be lost. Even back in the 1800s, hardwood was very valuable. Most of the wood that sank as deep as 20 feet was recovered by loggers with piking poles. They would stab into the water, screw the end of the pole into a log and pull it to the surface.
“(Logs) all weigh more than water,” says Chris Pilot, co-owner of TRI. “The only reason they are floating is because they have some air trapped in their cellular structure.” Hardwoods such as red oak have a more open cellular structure than softwoods, so they absorb more water and sink much faster.
Log salvagers consider themselves lucky if they find any hardwood underwater, but a good place to start looking is near old mill sites. TRI uses sonar equipment costing $34,000 to pinpoint the location of the logs. The sonar buoy is towed behind a boat and a cable attached to it sends information back to a computer kept on board. “You can actually measure the logs with the computer, so I can tell how long … and how thick they are,” Sveinsson says. Once he locates the wood, he’ll swim to it and identify the species.
But TRI doesn’t pull the logs out of the water. It only helps other salvagers find the wood. “We prefer not to recover them ourselves,” Pilot says. “We prefer to teach people how to do it. The only thing we ask in return is the first opportunity to buy the logs they do bring up.”
One of the salvagers TRI works with is Clay Bingley, a 43-year-old resident of Pembroke, Ontario. He runs C.J. Marine Services, a company that has recovered logs for 15 years.
Sveinsson helps locate the logs with sonar, and Bingley sells the hardwood he finds to TRI. “It’s no worse than greenwood (to use),” Bingley says. “In some instances it’s quite a bit better.”
TRI’s not the only game in town. Superior Water-Logged Lumber, a competing company founded in 1992, recovers the logs it locates, cuts, dries and sells the wood. Caz Neitzke, the president of company, declined to be interviewed for this story other than to say, “We are the clear-cut leaders in the industry.”
For woodworkers, the fact that the log was underwater is good. The wood doesn’t have the gum content, so it’s easier to work with.
Joseph Nagyvary, a professor of biochemistry at Texas A & M in College Station, builds violins, violas and cellos using reclaimed timber. He says that legendary instrument maker Stradivarius often soaked the wood he used for making violins — sometimes for as long as 20 years.
Nagyvary says that when wood is submerged, bacteria eat away at “hemicellulose” and starchy matter in the wood, creating wood ideal for instrument makers.
“It’s pretty obvious that you can put a log deep in the water, or in sea water, and it stays healthy for many, many years — easily 100 years,” Nagyvary says. “Apparently you extract a number of gooey substances. If you remove them, the wood becomes lighter and drier so it resonates better.”
But submerged lumber isn’t only for instrument makers. Woodworkers such as Bob Bickel use salvaged timber to make furniture. He owns The Suites, an antique reproduction shop in Houston, Texas.
“The virgin growth gives us a better grain consistency,” Bickel says. “In some instances, we get some of the most beautiful grain quality and grain pattern because of the tightness of the grain and growth rings.”
In fact, furniture catalogs such as Sundance, which is owned by actor Robert Redford, are beginning to feature furniture made with submerged lumber. Redford’s catalog, and many like it, are promoting the wood as a way to get beautiful furniture using rare wood that is ecologically responsible.PW
Gregory Crofton is a former contributor to Popular Woodworking