Readers of last week’s blog were asked to comment and describe what they like about woodworking. Although I can’t enter the contest, I will add my two cents. What I like about woodworking is working with my wood. The wood from the tree I watched grow, the tree I pruned when it was just a pole, or the tree my dad’s cattle would hide under to seek shelter from the hot southern sun.
Brian Lockhart, USDA Forest Service, bugwood.org
I have always loved forests and everything in them. I studied them from the time I was old enough to wander through them alone (which, on a small farm in Mississippi in the 1960s, was a very young age). That is what eventually led me into my profession. I am a silviculturist, best described by The Society of American Foresters, as one who practices silvics, which is “the study of the life history and general characteristics of forest trees and stands, with particular reference to environmental factors…” In a nutshell (I know. That’s why I didn’t go into standup comedy), I try to manage forests for the benefit of the trees, wildlife, water and the people that use them. It is an odd profession, because if you think about it, the end result of what we do in a forest today will not be apparent for tens or hundreds of years. So, it is a science of faith.
The best way to kick off your projects on the right foot is to start with stock that’s flat, square and of consistent thickness. That, of course, involves a round of surfacing at the jointer and planer with wood that’s thicker than you need. Our field editor discusses how to buy smart the next time you’re stocking the lumber rack for an upcoming project.
A few years ago I had the good fortune to run across a supply of wormy chestnut lumber. The tree was felled here in Ohio, and the gentleman who owned the lumber remembered where the tree had stood in the 1920s when he was a boy. The boards were thick and wide—virgin timber that can’t be replaced. After significant consternation, and with much care, I decided to use that lumber to build a tool chest for my shop. We ran it as a project in our June 2008 print magazine.
Among many varieties of lumber I’ve had the chance to build with, this chestnut is the most special to me. You probably already know that American chestnut trees have been all but extinct in this country since the middle of the last century. Massive forests of native chestnut, which once covered much of the eastern part of the United States, were wiped out by a blight that came here from Asia around 1904. Within a period of only 50 years or so, it decimated the species, leaving stands of dead trees in its wake.
The blight continues to weaken and kill the few remaining native chestnut saplings that spring up from old stumps today.
I have to admit that I like art. A beautiful photograph, a lovely piece of sculpture, or a well-done painting – I have all of those in various places in my house. Of course, one of my paintings is of pointing dogs, another of an old train engine – they strike my fancy. As the saying goes, art – like beauty – is where you find it.
The reason I bring this up is that, a while ago, I found a really interesting looking piece of wood – it was cut from the outer aspect of a huge bubinga log. The tree was a monster, almost 400 years old, and for that reason, this piece – which contained bark and exposed sapwood – was able to be sawn flat. The shape of the bark remnants and the graphic nature of the exposed wood kept bringing me back to the piece … but I could think of no really good way to make use of it. Then it struck me: it looked like an abstract painting. So I bought the piece of wood, took it to my workshop, and got busy.
In a recent eZine issue, Rob asked you all to tell him which wood species is your favorite. Not surprisingly, and to our delight, the emails poured in. He was downright cyber buried! If you didn’t happen to read his editorial, click here to catch up.
So, now that we know which woods are good as gold to you, I want to ask the logical extension to his question: Where do you get the wood you love most?
As a card-carrying member of the woodworking fraternity (and sorority … no bias here, sister), I have no problem making this general observation – we are a thrifty bunch. No shame to our tendency to stretch a dollar until it snaps, in fact, our penny-pinching ways are a badge of honor to most of us. Perhaps connected to this money saving mania, but perhaps a separate malady of it own, is the fact that we are opposed – perhaps on cellular level – to throwing scrap wood away. The combination of these two traits can lead to some frighteningly large collections of virtually unusable wood … until now!
There are cheaper ways to buy quality stock than with bar codes on it, but you'll have to tool up to make the most of those savings.
When I started woodworking, and my tool budget was really lean, I bought my boards from the home center. It seemed logical to shop there. They were already surfaced, and that was necessary because I didn’t have a jointer and planer. Plus, I could see the knots, pitch pockets and splits easily, which gave me some confidence that I was finding the best of what was available.
I’d dig through the stack looking for the straight stuff. Usually I could find a few good pieces. If I couldn’t, I’d settle for less and live with some twisting and cupping. I didn’t like it, but what could I do? Even then I knew I was spending too much money on that wood. And, I was.
What's in a skid ... trash or treasure trove? You decide.
In a manner of speaking, I’ve hit the skids.
Well, hit them, tripped over them, shoved them around the shop and eventually, piled them just outside the door here. My stack of skids come from various places. Sometimes two skids arrive with a tool shipment, but only one goes back. Other times I’ll order a load of lumber, and the only thing left when the lumber is gone is the skid. The pile keeps growing…they don’t seem to go away on their own.
Do you ever run across a wood species at your lumber supplier that’s brand new, but you don’t know where to learn more about it? That often happens for me when I’m experimenting with new turning woods. The yard help or store clerks don’t always know, either.
Before I dive into using a new type of wood, I think it’s wise to find out what its working characteristics are and what, if any, health implications there may be to cutting, sanding or even handling it. You’ll definitely want these kinds of details to prepare for gluing or finishing.
Well, thanks to the internet, databases abound for just about everything these days — even unique types of wood. Recently I reported on Woodworkers Source for our “Industry Interview” in issue 233 of our eZine. If you didn’t happen to read that article, here’s a link to it:
I can’t smell the roses anymore…and I don’t mean that figuratively.
I’ve literally lost my ability to pick up their aroma, for some reason. My wife likes to tease me about it, especially since I find that loss a bit alarming. But, thank goodness I can still smell wood.
Hopefully, that doesn’t sound too weird in the company of woodworkers, but I really do like the odor of most woods. I’ve been known to do a “scratch and sniff” test to wood right on the rack at the lumber dealer, so I’m not afraid to do it—even in public. Especially if it’s a wood I haven’t worked with before. It’s all part of the fun of woodworking for me.
Here are just a few of my olfactory favorites, and I’d like to hear about yours, too. That’ll give me good reason to head to the lumber store sometime soon and sniff out something new (as if I needed another reason to go…).