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The Great Straw Debate, Plus Things You Can Learn from My Equipment Mistakes

Dendrochronology is a relatively small field, and when it comes to field and lab techniques & equipment, there tends to be a Way That People Do Things. Those ways are not always the best ways. Here are a few adjustments I’ve made over time and some recommendations to hopefully make your tree-ring work easier.


Field Stuff

Straws: Since this debate was raging on Twitter right as I was about to write this post, I'll start by wading into the straw debate to say that paper straws are the best choice most of the time, but there are good paper straws and bad paper straws. I was taught to use Artstraws, and I used them for several years. Are you a person who would like to collect cores in the rain in your Artstraws, when they essentially become toilet paper, and then you can feel melancholy and wonder why life is so hard? If so, great; if not, use Aardvark straws. They are sturdy & can get wet. They can be reused many times (I haven’t had to buy new straws for many years). Your cores won't get moldy like they will in plastic straws. (I mean, they will if you live in North Carolina & you leave them in there long enough, but don't do that.) Best of all, they come in a lot of different sizes. I put two sizes together and then they are expandable for the size of your core!!!

Two different sizes of straws fit together to make an expandable core holder.
Small core or big core: it’s adjustable!

Buying Borers: A certain company I won't name, let’s call them Forestry Papayas, ships borers by putting them in an empty box, where they become missiles that launch out of the boxes during shipment, so that you are delivered an empty box, perhaps with some promotional sale ads still inside. This leads to rounds of phone calls and claims. If you have to order from Forestry Papayas, take a photo of your box before even opening it if it looks damaged or feels light, and keep the box, which you might have to take to the post office later. (I was really asked to do this, about 3 months later. I did not still have the box.)


Collecting Data in the Field: I’ve done fieldwork with people who happily run around from tree to tree, collecting many cores in a short time, and I admit it looks fun. But I recommend collecting all the data and notes at each tree that you can handle. I made myself field notebooks by printing on Rite-in-the-Rain paper and use those to record GPS coordinates, species, core locations, tree height, tree diameter, slope, aspect, and sketches. Now my lab is in the process of converting to ODK Collect so we can enter these data in electronically. Do I always need or use all these data? No. But I have used some data fields later even when I wasn’t expecting to need them. For instance, I ended up having to relocate individual trees I had cored for a later project, and the simple sketches made a big difference in distinguishing between trees.


Measuring Height: One set of data you might want to collect is tree height, which can be useful for ecological studies. I was taught to measure tree height using the following method: 1) have a person stand next to the tree; 2) make little pinchy fingers from afar like you are about to squish them; 3) record how many people-heights it takes to get to the top of the tree; and 4) multiple that by the height of the person. Voila! – tree height. It wasn’t until I saw the aghast look of the superstar undergraduate in the field with me that I realized this seemed scandalously unscientific. Now I use a hypsometer.


Getting your Stuff to the Field: If you have to fly to your field site instead of drive, did you know that you can FedEx stuff to yourself and they'll hold it at a FedEx store for you to pick up when you get there? I found this a lot less stressful than taking things on a plane. You have to pack up about a week before your trip, which also makes travel day easier.


Organizer Bins: Anyone who has done field work with me knows I am a Super-Nerd about organization. But honestly, you will thank yourself on Day 2 when your field truck has not become a pit of despair. Get plastic bins. Label them. Keep things in the right place. Reorganize each night if necessary (when you are, OF COURSE, also cleaning your borers).


A clear plastic bin marked with contents
Organizing bins for field work: you will thank yourself later!

Sharpies, Pens, and Pencils: You can never have too many. Take boxes of Sharpies. They will disappear. I once had to write a justification memo to my university bean counters about why I needed so many Sharpies. Totally worth it.




Lab Stuff

A very large band saw
I’m sure this would work great if I ever turned it on.

Band Saw: Do you really need a band saw? I didn't. I found out that the dramatic arts people have band saws they were happy to let me use, and now there is a makerspace on campus with a woodshop & band saw, too. For me, this was not a good use of space or money. Now it just looms over me in the lab, reminding me of my youthful folly.


Belt Sander: I was trained to take a hand-held belt sander and turn it upside down to sand cores. You don't need to do this. You can buy a belt sander that is already pointed the right direction and has a dust port and is secure on your bench. Thanks to Matt Dannenberg for suggesting this change.

a belt sander on a lab bench
The right tool exists!

Microscopes: When I started out, I got a couple of cheap AmScope microscopes off of eBay and a couple of expensive ones from the university-approved science vendor. Everyone strongly prefers using the cheap ones!


Organizers: I bought a LOT of plastic bins from an industrial supply company to keep processed cores. The bun cart idea is from Dan Griffin -- these can be purchased from restaurant supply companies & are great for "in-process" cores -- you can have a tray for not sanded, sanded, dated, measured, etc.


organizing bins & a bun cart
Lab organization is a beautiful thing.

Final Thought

It’s a great idea to join people in the field or visit their labs & get as many tips & tricks as you can. Importantly, though, the Way That People Do Things is not always the best way! Many of us were trained in the same couple of labs, or trained by someone who was trained in one of those couple of labs. Always keep an open mind for new ideas. It’s okay if your new ideas don’t work out; you learned something & maybe gained an experience you can laugh about later.


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