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Be a Burl-Hunter

August 15, 2011

One of my greatest joys is “bagging the big burl.” It has the joy of the hunt to it, because the really good burls are quite rare, and you need to have permission to harvest the tree when you do find it, which is unusual. I have a number of ways to find burls. Sometimes loggers will sell them to me directly. Sometimes I get calls from people or talk to them at shows and they have burls for me.  The more people know you and of your interest in turning burls, the more they will let you know what burls they may have.

And it isn’t easy to know what they have.  Often I have to sort through their information to find exactly what they have.  It sometimes helps to tell them that the kind of burl I am looking for, an “eyed” burl, always has a dome-like, circular shape.  Even if it is built up of multiple smaller domes, you can generally see that underlying pattern.  The other kind of burl, and “onion” or layered burl, is often the result of an injury.  For example, sugar maples often get a frost split when the sap rises up into the tree too early in the spring and a sharp overnight freeze will crack that trunk from top to bottom.  That crack will develop a “barky” growth that will cover the crack, but it has little solid wood in it and won’t amount to good turning blanks.

Sometimes I still won’t know if a burl is an eyed or layered burl until I cut it open.  This huge oak burl had good color and figure, but it wasn’t an eyed burl and therefore I didn’t use the burl for bowls but used it instead for stool tops and other lower grade projects.

This burl, posed with the forklift, is unusual for its quality, yielding dozens of fine bowls and also that it came from the Wisconsin Dells, while most of mine are from short miles around my shop.

This is the right way to cut a burl, with generous length of log on either side of the burl.

When I find the burl, I usually have a big cutting job ahead. This very fine eyed burl, which is boxelder, is very close to the ground and I carefully brushed away the dirt from the lower edge in order to cut as low as possible without dulling my chain too badly.

This is a very good boxelder burl with lots of crimson spalting, strong eyes, and a good shape for coring out multiple bowls from one blank.

This was a very fine grained and beautifully spalted boxelder.

I cut it into smaller pieces in order to haul it home and because I need manageable chunks for my lathes too. But I try for the largest quality pieces I can. When I cut them, I look for “fault lines” in the bark that indicate that there is a crack or a bark inclusion between two burls that have grown together. That is an obvious place to cut. I often use cardboard circles of various sizes to lay out the best way to cut up the burl.

What a rush!


It's good to have some help when you're hauling the burls home.

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From → Celebrating Wood

  1. Dan hart permalink

    Just felled a dead 140 year old oak with a 4 foot tall burl. It does not go all the way around the tree and some of the tree has already begun to rot. Hopefully the burl is intact. What is your experience with dead wood versus freshly felled?

    • Dan, it depends on how long the tree has been dead. For some reason, oak tends to rot very quickly and as a burl, it is not so desireable because it splits too easily. I think it is because it is very dense and the wood as it dries tends to fracture along the rays, which are at right angles to the grain. It takes me lots more gluing and fussing than any other trees. Another change that comes from being dead when cut is that the lighter colored character of the sapwood disappears and the wood becomes all heartwood. Some people like that and others do not.

      I wish you well as a burl-hunter. You just have to try them all.

  2. Teri Cayton permalink

    I would like to know if weeping willow is a good wood for burl hunting? I have found a great one if the wood is good for turning

    • Teri, weeping willow would generally be pretty soft for turning, but a burl tends to be more dense than the regular wood, so the burl should turn well. One of the nicest burl trees I’ve ever had was black willow and that was just wonderful stuff.

      • Teri Cayton permalink

        Thanks for the quick reply. If I take a picture of this tree could you tell me how much it is worth? I do not have a woodworking shop, but I would love to hunt burl for resale.

  3. Adrian Veach permalink

    I have a huge burl ( globe Shaped ) on a tree that is forsale! I’m from Oshkosh, WI email me asap

  4. Tim Smith permalink

    I have a number of basketball sized cherry burls that i’m going to have because of a land clearing project. Could you tell me about what they go for and some buyers in the area?

    • Tim, I don’t know where you live, but one way to find buyers is to contact your nearest woodturning club, which you can find through the website and ask them to email their club to see who might be interested. If I had a chance at them, and if they are solid and good quality, I would probably give you $100 each.

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