Woodworker sees treasure in tumbled Portsmouth trees

Dan Keirns poses with an old Cherry table top in his yard in Portsmouth. Dan Keirns poses with an old Cherry table top in his yard in Portsmouth.

Dan Keirns poses with an old Cherry table top in his yard in Portsmouth.

PORTSMOUTH — If a tree falls near Portsmouth’s Glen Farm Road, expect Dan Keirns to be first on the scene.

A lifelong woodworker and furniture maker, Mr. Keirns says he is blessed to live in a place with plenty of big, old, interesting trees.

And much as he admires them standing, he’s not entirely heartbroken when one of them tumbles. For that’s when he gets to see the beauty hidden beneath the bark.

Mr. Keirns and his wife Holly moved to 390 Glen Farm Road in 1999 and soon began a habit of walking the tree- and stone wall-line roads in the neighborhood.

“About four years ago, some of these big trees began dropping” — wind, rot, bugs — “It’s all natural causes.”

With permission, of course, he began hauling away the carcasses.

“After the first couple, the word got out and now people call me,” he said.

Among the ten or so to fall are some real beauties, he said. “There was a red elm almost four feet across … a big oak down by the creek in the Glen — that one was almost three feet across,” a gorgeous silver elm, a gigantic maple and an immense cherry tree whose wood has “a really warm red glow.”

Alerted to a tree down —”I don’t mess with branches or small stuff” — Mr. Keirns swings into action.

He puts a call in to Middletown friend Paul Kile and the two set out with Mr. Keirns’ powerful Alaska chainsaw mill. Even cut into six or seven foot lengths, tree sections this size are way too massive too haul home.

So they use the chainsaw mill to slice the logs lengthwise into two-inch thick, full-width planks.

“It’s a big saw, as big as they get,” he said, able to slice logs with diameters of up to five feet. He leaves them “live edge” — all the natural curves intact.

“It’s hard work — we had a real struggle with one down in the woods.” And even these slices are mighty heavy, he said. An especially wide hardwood piece can take an hour or two to slice through, with a pause for sharpening along the way.

Back home, the wood is stacked with spacers to air dry for several years. The rule of thumb is a year per half-inch, so two-inch thick wood needs at least four years.

Even after stacking and drying, wood this wide isn’t completely tamed.

“These things are lively” and can still bend, check and warp a bit even after years in a stack. “It’s pretty wild but I don’t consider that a flaw.”

The boards are smoothed, first with grinders and course power sandings, then with ever finer sandpaper up to 220 grit. It’s eventually finished with at least seven coats of satin polyurethane.

With each step, the boards reveal more of their unique grain and character. “It’s like mining for gold … More shows itself with every step … worm holes and all.”

A favorite piece is one he cut from an elm burl that measured five feet long and three across. “I’ve bought boards in specialty lumber shops in Boston but you can’t find wood close to this interesting in lumberyards. The more you look at it, the more you see.”

He transforms this big stock almost exclusively into tables, although he has fashioned some into headboards and other things.

“It’s not so much about making furniture as it is about showing off this incredible wood. Tables are a good way to do that.”

It’s also a good change of pace from other work he does that involves making furniture from plans given him by designers. But with these, “The only plan is what the wood tells you to do.”

He’s made lots of tables so far — sold a few through his Glen Farm Furniture business but has kept most of the rest. He should probably sell some more, he said, since his Portsmouth house and the one up in Vermont are filling up fast. To that end he was invited to show his wares at last weekend’s polo match at Glen Farm and has also exhibited at a Fine Furnishings Show in Providence.

They are not inexpensive — prices can run into the several thousands — but given the work involved and the one-in-a-kind materials, Mr. Keirns and his customers think they are well worth it.

“They don’t make 200-year-old cherry anymore,” he said, running his hand down the curved edge of a three-foot wide, red-hued piece awaiting legs.

For more on his work, visit Mr. Keirns’ website — http://www.fishheadfurniture.com/dk/

 

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