The Adventure to Create the Most Earth-Friendly Oil Painting on the Planet, Part 1: Sustainably-forested Wood

My efforts to make the most sustainable and Earth-friendly oil paintings possible are leading me on some fun adventures. The latest was to a small town in Northern Minnesota to collect responsibly-forested lumber for making my stretchers.

I spent much of 2022 researching local sawmills that practice sustainable forestry techniques to acquire the wood for their lumber. This usually means that, instead of clear cutting or going in and removing a whole species of trees from one area, the forester goes in and selectively removes trees from an area. This leaves the ecosystem intact and does little to disturb animal life.

I contacted what I considered the best sawmill and inquired about their ability to create small dimensional lumber for my stretchers - the frame I stretch the painting canvas on. We had agreed on sizes, amount of board feet and cost. At a later date, when I inquired about how they would like payment and how delivery would happen, they ghosted me. I followed up many times but received no response. Sharing this experience with a friend of mine from the Oberholtzer Foundation, he put me in touch with Alan who runs a sawmill and had provided some custom cedarbark siding for the foundation. Most of the lumber from these sawmills is used for siding, flooring and custom carpentry or carving work. They seldom make small dimensional lumber.

I contacted Alan and we went back and forth on what dimensions I wanted and whether the wood should be rough cut or smooth, species preference, and lengths. Because these sawmills are taking trunks and sawing them into planks, or slabs, and then refining them down, you really can ask for anything you want. It’s just a question of if they want to provide that service for you. It is not like shopping at a Big Box lumberyard. I think the first sawmill I contacted simply realized they didn’t want to get into providing small dimensional lumber because it can be more work.

At first, I had set up delivery of the lumber from Alan. But the details of delivery were always a little fuzzy and the weather did not cooperate. Alan lives in a very remote part of Northern Minnesota, about an hour from the Canadian border. This winter of 2022-2023 ended up being the third snowiest winter in Minnesota history. Access was an issue on the remote country roads where Alan lived. Finally, I decided the best way to make this happen was to buy a cargo van (something I had needed any way for carting around my large artwork) and go up and retrieve the lumber myself. The first three attempts were hampered by bad weather.

Finally, there was a break in the weather. We had three days that shot up into the eighties and we planned the pick-up for a Friday. The week before I arrived, the weather at Alan’s had been five degrees below zero and the ground was covered with thirty inches of snow. I drove the four hours from my house to Alan’s to find that there was little snow on the ground. The weather had been so warm the melt rate was impressive. But this meant water everywhere. The ditches on the sides of the roads were full. All of the bridges across rivers and streams had water up to the bottom and the banks were nowhere to be seen. As I drove off the major highways and onto smaller and less maintained back roads, I kept seeing signs on side roads that they were closed because of flooding. As I maneuvered one sharp turn I came upon signs warning that water was over the road ahead. There were no signs that the road was closed. I continued to drive through a stretch of water that looked to be about four to five inches deep and about thirty yards wide. My van had no problems traversing it.

I was driving down a dirt road and finally came to Alan’s long driveway that led to his house and sawmill. The driveway was edged with piles of tree trunks that would, someday, become lumber. Alan’s wife was out in the yard with a couple dogs. She greeted me, told me where it was dry enough to park and went to get Alan.

Alan is my age - just a few months apart. He is a big guy who has a friendly smile. We did introductions and he led me to his barn where he stores, dries and then cuts up the wood into lumber. The outside of the barn was old and deeply weathered with large gaps in the walls where boards had either fallen off or were never nailed. There were piles of wood in the yard around the barn. Alan casually pointed to the piles and mentioned that he hadn’t been able to go through the wood as, until a couple days ago, it had all been under snow. He directed me to a small doorway in the side of the barn. We entered into a large workshop on one side. There were wood slabs everywhere; piled on surfaces, leaning against the walls and strewn on the sawdust covered floor. He had a table saw, joiner, planer, dust collection system and various other tools in odd places.

He took me to the other side of the barn where he stored more wood and then took me upstairs where even more wood was stored. A pile of giant slabs were leaning on each other against the far wall and looked like whole trunks. It was weird to see wood in this half-formed state enclosed in this half-formed wooden structure. It was like I fell into some alternate universe where wood wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be.

As we toured, Alan talked about each species of tree and where he forested them. He talked about the properties of each species and we discussed the best species for my needs. As the discussion progressed, I realized that Alan may not have even cut my lumber yet. I asked about this. He mentioned that he wasn’t sure what I wanted so, no, he had not cut my lumber yet. He asked me what woodworking machines I had and if I wanted large slabs of wood or if we wanted to cut them up right there. Of course, I was expecting my order to be ready for pick-up. I am not sure what I would have gotten if it had been delivered to my studio.

Since he had the tools and I had the time, I said “let’s cut ‘em up.” We spent the next three and a half hours creating nine-hundred board feet of lumber for my stretchers. We went through his wood slabs to find any that might be of the right thickness and were clear enough, without knots, for my purposes. We used the joiner to straighten out one side of each slab, some as much as fourteen feet long, fourteen or sixteen inches wide, and one and a half inches thick. We then cut them into the widths I wanted and ran them through a planer to get the smooth surface and the exact thickness I wanted.

At times, I was reminded of my days in high school and college when I worked with a guy who made toys out of wood and sold them at art fairs across the country. The smell of cut wood often takes me back to that little basement toy factory where I learned so many of my woodworking skills. Although, at first, I was a little irked that my order was not ready and waiting for me, I ended up enjoying the day very much. I got to work with my hands, explore a remote part of Minnesota, and got to know a nice man. And, of course, I got the lumber I was wanting to provide better material for my art practice. Not a bad way to spend a day. The four hour drive home after all that didn’t seem long at all.