This is the beginning of a series discussing tools used in the process of log building. Of course, a lot of these tools can be used for many other applications, but log building will be the main focus. I’ll be interspersing these tool articles with others that share with you our restoration project of a 1903 log home and other related log home topics.
Transforming a pile of raw logs covered with bark into material that is ready to scribe, cut and stack can be approached several ways. Your choice will be based on how much time you have, how you want the end result to look and when the wood was cut.
The most common method is to use a debarking or peeling spud and drawknife combination. A debarking spud is a tool that removes the bulk of the bark by prying it off. These tools are available in short- or long-handled versions and the blade can be from 2 to 6 inches wide. The blades can be straight or curved. The blades on these tools don’t really need to be very sharp, as their main job is to try to get under the bark layer on the log and pry it off. Spuds work best on non-winter-cut wood. When logs are cut in the winter, there is no sap flowing so it is generally harder to remove the bark and peel them.
Although many professional log peelers use only a drawknife and a chainsaw and/or grinder for knots, using the spud before you begin to use the drawknife will save you time and energy in the long run and save sharpening time on your drawknife blade. Many logs are skidded over rough terrain and this can embed dirt and bits of rock in the bark. Trying to peel logs like this with only a drawknife will result in, at best, a very dull blade, or at worst, a damaged blade that will be difficult or impossible to repair.
After most of the bark is removed, you can use a chainsaw and/or grinder to smooth the knots before you begin peeling with the drawknife. You’ll be going over these knot areas again with your drawknife, which will make the log look more evenly peeled, but this step will minimize the chance of "nicking" your sharp drawknife blade on the hard knot wood or a piece of gravel or grit that often gets embedded around the knot.
A drawknife is used to finish the job before the log is ready to scribe and cut. Drawknives come in a wide range of sizes and several different handle angles because, to date, no one handle-to-blade angle has been satisfactory for all people. The handles are generally made of wood but can also be made using bicycle handle grips, as shown in the photo here. Drawknives can have straight blades or be curved and the blades can range from just a few inches to 16 inches wide. The blades can be drop-forged (cheaper, but will probably require initial and more frequent sharpening), hand-forged (top quality), or made out of old industrial planer blades. Overall weight of the drawknife can be a consideration for many people. Professional log peelers, (yes, there is such a profession and a more physically fit group of folks would be hard to find), lean toward heavier drawknives. Here the heft of the drawknife is actually helping you peel.
If you experience tearing or jagged edges while peeling, first make sure your blade is sharp and try peeling in the other direction, as often you have to peel toward knots. The end result of hand peeled logs will depend on your style—some people peel in long, flowing “pulls,” others will have shorter “pulls.” Some people will dig in their blade more aggressively and others will just skim off a thinner layer of wood. You can play around with different looks and see what you like best. If there are several people peeling logs for the same project and you want some level of uniformity in the look of the peeled logs, it’s best to discuss this and practice together at the beginning of the project.
Many people want to leave some of the inner bark on the logs for a more "rustic" look. This is often what is meant by "skip peeled" (see the photo above). Before you do, consider that the bark can harbor insects, which can start chewing into your logs. Bark can also act like a sponge, holding moisture in contact with your logs, and it can eventually curl up and fall off, taking with it any stain/finish you've applied and leaving your logs unprotected in those areas. You'll probably be fine in a dry, non-buggy area but think twice about leaving bark on in a moist/humid area where wood-boring insects abound.
Over the next few entries, we’ll cover other tools used to peel logs — adzes, broadaxes, the Log Wizard and rotating pressure-washer nozzles. Until then, Happy Thanksgiving from our house to yours.