Monday, May 3, 2010

The Hunt for Tamarack

L'Anse Aux Meadows Harpoon wood detail
I need some dried tamarack wood for the L'Anse aux Meadows harpoon reproduction.  Its a fairly common wood in the forests of Newfoundland, but its not a popular wood for lumber, so I didn't have any luck calling around to lumber yards in the city.  Its not a common building material, so it looks like I'll either have to collect and dry the wood myself or find a specialty woodworker who might be willing to part with some that is already dry.

Tamarack or Larch or Juniper
Tamarack is also called "Larch" and, in Newfoundland, "Juniper".  I'll probably use the term tamarack, because it seems to be the most widely used name for Larix laricina.  Its one of the hardest softwoods and unlike most coniferous trees it loses its needles in the fall.  Its pretty easy to spot from a distance at this time of year, because they are the naked evergreen trees, that grow with slightly snaky, twisty trunks.  When you get close they have little buds on the branches. 

Tamarack heartwood and sapwood
I've been told that it makes an excellent firewood, even better than birch, although it can take up to 3 years to dry completely.  When it does dry, it is very hard and burns very hot.  Like yew, the wood has a dark orangish interior with tight growth rings, and a distinctly dark heartwood and lighter sapwood.  I think it might work for bow wood and since I'm going to be collecting it for future palaeoeskimo harpoons, I'm going to keep on the lookout for straight logs long enough for a Beothuk bow reproduction.

Typical snakey limb
The L'Anse aux Meadows harpoon needs to be completed and installed in a few weeks, so I won't have time to go from a fresh cut tree to a finished and dried reproduction.  I need to start with wood that is at least partly dry, if I have a hope of getting the project done on time without fear of future warping.

Lori's Mom and me cutting up windfall
Lori and I went to her parents cabin, about an hour out of St. John's, looking for deadfall to collect.  Lori's mom was a big help in pointing out a few trees that had fallen in the past 5 years, so they are at least partly dried.  We collected a few big logs and split one out there.  Lori wanted me to point out how its her and her mom helping saw up the lumber - her Dad and brother were in the cabin cooking and playing legos with her nephew.

Lori splitting the log
The wood is definitely a good match for the harpoon and when you knock on it, it seems very solid.  The plan is to bring these split staves into the basement, strap them to something flat and try to rapidly dry them out over the next few weeks.  Whether or not they are ready for the L'Anse aux Meadows harpoon, I'll at least have them on hand for future jobs.  I also collected a bunch of forked limbs that I can use as adze handles.
Hopefully one of these trunks will have a harpoon in it

Split tamarack
The wood we collected yesterday is plan "B", plan "A" is still to find a couple 5 foot long 2x4 sized pieces of already dried tamarack.  When we got back from the woods, I heard from a custom woodworker in the province who works with local wood and makes traditional Newfoundland furniture.  He has some on hand and is willing to help out.  I'm hoping that he'll have something that is ready to go that will also be a good match for the wood grain in the L'Anse aux Meadows artifact.

Photo Credits:
1,2,3,6: Tim Rast
4,5,7: Lori White


  1. We've got tamarack here in NS, too. If you get desperate, you could call some NS wood places.

  2. Hi Tim
    You might want to contact the Winterton Boat-building Museum. They build boats on site and Tamerack is used in the process. They might have some on hand.

    By the way we recently got the Wapusk reproductions up here in Churchill. They look great and I can't wait to use them in some of our public programs.


  3. Thanks for the leads! The plan "B" wood is drying in the basement. It has a long way to go and a short time to get there. However, plan "A" is looking good - the wood worker I mentioned has offered to bring some dried tamarack into town the next time he comes in. I'm optimistic that he'll have what I'm looking for and he also gave me a phone number for someone in Stephenville who regularly cuts and dries tamarack for flooring. I'll be out that way at the end of May if I need a Plan "C".

    Duane, If you get any photos of yourself using the Wapusk reproductions in public programming this summer, I'd love to get copies.

  4. You didn't have to go far from the cabin. Looks like it was a fun day!

  5. John, it was a nice day. The kind of day that inspires you to make your parents homeless so that you can reclaim the "cabin" as a cabin.


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