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As a woodworker I think about trees and forests and wood a lot. Show me some wavy grain and I will be
drawn into deep thoughts about the meaning of life. There is a large coffee table in front of my recliner
made from a section of western white pine about three feet in diameter. In 1978 my Forest Service
research crew was working along the Lochsa River near Lolo Pass on the border of Idaho and Montana.
We came across this section that someone had cut off and left in the woods. It took all of us to drag it
back to the truck. Eventually, after lots of trimming and sanding, it turned into a coffee table. I carved a
dwarf to hold up one side that didn't have enough wood for a leg. Now it sits in front of me, whispering
something about telling its story. So this month let me share some reflections on the King of
Pines - western white pine.
Figure 1. From the Hall of the Mountain King under the Selway -
Bitterroots, a western white pine coffee table.
There is something about a complete tree section that demands our attention. Here is the whole story
of a tree spread out in front of you marked in the growth rings. My particular tree is about 320 years old,
popping out in the sunshine about the time the first Europeans were settling the east coast. The tight
rings show that it was growing shoulder to shoulder with its neighbors throughout its life in the narrow
river valley of northern Idaho. The Lewis and Clark expedition trekked past in 1805 when this tree was
about two feet in diameter. Chief Joseph and the retreating Nez Perce went by in 1877 as they sought to
escape the US Army. In August 1910 the valley was choked with smoke as hurricane force winds drove
the Great Burn across 3 million acres of Idaho and Montana in two days, one of the largest wildfires in
US history. Somehow this tree survived unscathed. Finally, in the 1960's, the trail was widened into US
Highway 12 and this tree was cleared from the right of way with its stump left waiting for a Forest
Service research technician to wander along.
Western white pine, the state tree of Idaho, is also called the "King of the Pines." Before 1900 it was the
dominant pine and one of the most commercially valuable trees in forests of the Northwest, growing
150-200 feet tall with straight clear trunks soaring up to crowns high overhead. From an ecological
perspective, the white pine is an early succession dominant, meaning it is one of the first species to
regenerate in open disturbed areas. Eventually, if the forest keeps growing, white pine would be
succeeded by more shade-tolerant types like firs, hemlock, and larch. However, the fact that western
white pine was so abundant in the early 20 th century is a testimony to the natural history of large fires in
In the early 1900's a non-native fungus, Cronartium ribicola, was introduced into the western U.S.
through infected nursery stock from Europe. Ironically, the nursery stock was imported to help replant
US forests that had been cut over. But instead the seedlings carried the pathogen that would cause the
downfall of the King of Pines. The fungus causes a disease called white pine blister rust that invades the
growing tissues of the tree and blocks the flow of nutrients. When a disease canker forms on the main
stem of a tree it kills the tree. While an infected tree can survive long enough to reproduce it will never
live to old age.
When foresters recognized the threat of blister rust, they initiated intensive efforts to save the forests.
The rust fungus can't spread from pine to pine - it has to go through a secondary host which happens to
be gooseberry bushes. In the 1930's the Civilian Conversation Corps put thousands of people to work
rooting out all the gooseberry bushes they could find. However, by the 1960's it was clear that this was a
losing strategy with some serious side effects. Now scientists are trying to develop rust-resistant trees,
however it is unlikely that we will ever have the forest giants of the past. At this point western white
pine is reduced to less than 10 percent of its historic range and will likely decline even further. In the
meantime the fungus continues to spread and has recently been found infecting bristlecone and limber
pines in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
I don't know if you have ever had the pleasure of working with western white pine (or one of its close
relations like sugar pine), but the wood is very even-grained and easy to work. There is little difference
in hardness between earlywood and latewood making it easy to carve or shape with cutters. I cut some
white pine molding with a wooden handplane today and it was one of those, "Ahh, this is how it
supposed to work" moments. It has been a preferred species for molding and millwork with long clear
boards that take paint well (Lowery 1984).
Figure 2. Western white pine carves easily and darkens to
beautiful honey brown color.
Western white pine was also one of the primary woods for making wooden matchsticks. In a match
factory, short blocks are peeled into thick "veneer" that is then chopped to width and length. And this
finally brings me to Grandpa's workshop. Grandpa Rummer was a smoker. Every pipe or cigarette meant
a short stick with a black end needed to go somewhere. So he started collecting the burnt matches and
turned them into matchstick folkart.
Figure 3. A matchstick folkart cross (courtesy of Etsy),
similar to one Grandpa Rummer made.
There is a long tradition of this craft with people making wall art, dollhouse furniture, musical instruments, and models of everything under the sun. All you need is a little bit of glue and some
matchsticks. Patrick Acton, of Gladbrook, Iowa, is probably the Michelangelo of matchsticks today. His
largest creation has over 1 million matchsticks and used 35 gallons of glue. If you are traveling through
Iowa, stop in the Matchstick Marvels museum.
When you know wood, and you look at wood, you begin to sense something of its story seeping out of
the pores and grain. As I look at my coffee table there is some sadness, a sense of loss, in the story of
this tree and its species. The stump has a memory of primeval greatness that will never be realized
again. Looking at the stacked growth rings I am also reminded of the pageant of people that passed
through the forest - people on journeys of discovery, people on paths of conflict and despair, people
that came to harvest timber and fight fires, and people that fought a losing battle against a fungus that
was brought here by people. Every woodworking project has a stump somewhere that speaks of the
But every woodworking project is also about the future. As woodworkers we are part of the complex
relationship between people and forests. The things we make (stump coffee tables or matchstick
marvels) speak of an appreciation for the basic material and its amazing properties and beauty. The
value that we create is value that grew from a forest. We give the tree a new voice and a new story to
tell through the things we make. And in the end, I think that makes a difference. When you see the
wood on the workbench in front of you as something that came from a forest and not just the big box
store you truly are a woodworker.
Lowery, D. 1984. Western white pine.USDA Forest Service, Forest Products Lab Fact Sheet FS-258
USDA Forest Service. Return of the King. Rocky Mountain Research Station. Accessed online 12/26/2021.
Bob Rummer lives in Colorado and is a part-time woodworker. He can be reached directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can see his shop and some of his work at www.JRummerSons.com.
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