Building a boat with Tongass timber, woodworker finds local lumber hard to come by

By November 8, 2019 November 11th, 2019 Economy, Southeast, Timber

Frances Brann lays out two pieces of flitch cut yellow cedar in her Sitka woodshop. (Photo by Ari Snider/KCAW)

Every year, logging companies harvest tens of millions of board feet from the Tongass National Forest. At the same time, it can be surprisingly difficult for people living in and around the country’s largest national forest to get access to local timber. But that hasn’t stopped one Sitka woodworker from trying.

Frances Brann has a shipping container stacked high with the Southeast Alaska woodworker’s equivalent of pure gold: flitch cut yellow cedar planks.

Flitch cutting is a way of slicing up a log to get boards with matching grain — a prized commodity in fine woodworking circles. Brann is going to use these yellow cedar boards to build the interior of a sailboat.

She’s building the boat, which is still in the design phase, with her friend Erik de Jong, who is also a metalworker and naval architect. They plan to use the vessel to transport environmental researchers around the Arctic. The hull will be made of steel, strong enough to withstand the enormous pressure of getting frozen in by sea ice.

Brann said constructing this vessel will be like building two boats at once — a metal one on the outside, a wooden one on the inside. (Photo by Ari Snider/KCAW)

Brann, a professional woodworker and experienced blue water sailor, will construct the wooden interior. And it seems only reasonable to use environmentally friendly timber for an environmental research vessel.

“Preferably dead or salvage wood from trees that have fallen or had to be taken out for other reasons,” Brann said.

Now, you might think that living in the Tongass would make it easy to find whatever sort of wood product you need. But that’s not always the case, as Brann discovered when she tried to source local timber for carpentry projects.

“I was unable to buy any local lumber locally from any normal supplier,” Brann said. “I managed to pick up small pieces on Sitka for Sale,  somebody would have a little left over that they had got by who knows what method. And I scrounged little bits of local timber wherever I could.”

The irony of scrounging for wood scraps in the country’s largest national forest isn’t lost on Brann, who has long been frustrated with Alaska’s export-focused approach to timber management.

To be clear, getting your hands on any old stick isn’t the problem. Plenty of people gather firewood or get special-use permits to harvest specific trees. The hard part is finding locally-sourced boards and other value-added forest products; the material you would need to build a boat, for example.

That’s partly because the Tongass timber industry mainly ships unprocessed logs out of state. And for the smaller sawmills that do supply local markets, equipment costs can be a serious barrier to making processed building material.

Wes Tyler, owner of Icy Straits Lumber in Hoonah, says his mill is able to buy a wood drying kiln and manufacture value-added products thanks to a Forest Service grant it got in the early 2000s. But, he says, Icy Straits is more an exception to the rule when it comes to smaller-scale mills.

Brann admires some of the yellow cedar she got from Gordon Chew of Tenakee Logging Company as it dries in a shipping container. (Photo by Ari Snider/KCAW)

“You’ve gotta have space to do it,” Tyler said. “You gotta be able to put up buildings to put your machinery into. It’s just very expensive to put it all together.”

Southeast’s other mid-sized sawmill, Viking Lumber in Klawock, faces similar challenges with supply and production. And from the consumer side, even if you are able to purchase boards from one of these larger mills, the next challenge is transporting the material to your project site. For customers outside of Hoonah, or off the Prince of Wales road system, rolling up in your pickup truck isn’t an option. That leaves ferries and barges, or — in Frances Brann’s case — your other sailboat.

That’s how she got to Tenakee Springs, where Gordon Chew of Tenakee Logging Company had a standing dead yellow cedar with Brann’s name on it.

“I was really happy to meet her and I think she was surprised to discover that we were selectively harvesting species that she was interested in,” Chew said.

Tenakee Logging Company is a family operation that sells sustainably-harvested Tongass timber products to clients mainly within Alaska. Crucially for Brann, they harvest standing dead timber, meaning she could get her flitched yellow cedar without having to kill a tree.

For his part, Chew said it was rewarding to get involved in Brann’s project.

“This probably brings us the most satisfaction of any of our clients and that’s largely because of the fact that we are shipwrights, and boat builders and blue water sailors,” Chew said. “Also, you know new construction is quite rare, especially on the scale that Frances is attempting.”

After a fruitful trip to Tenakee, Brann sailed back to Sitka, the deck loaded down with over 1,000 pounds of wood. Going to this extreme to buy a relatively small amount of sustainably sourced local lumber has only hardened her opinion that the large companies exporting whole, unprocessed logs are pursuing a misguided strategy.

“If they would make construction longer, tongue and groove, take some of the really fine trees, sell them as flitches for fine woodworking and cabinetry, there’d be a tremendous market,” Brann said. “And I think you could actually have a timber industry that did something other than cost people money. ”

For now, though, Brann says she’s happy to have her flitch cut yellow cedar, which is neatly stacked and drying in the shipping container.

Frances Brann on her sailboat in Tenakee Springs, aft deck loaded with boards. (Courtesy Photo/Heather Bauscher)

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