Here’s a simple premise with deep implications… "read the wood."
A three word phrase that can save a project from a fire pit, if you heed the advice. A second wise person from the world of woodworking would add a second admonition: “There is such a thing as too much precision.” Allow me to start with the former, I will come back to the latter.
Read the wood is a chance to step back and think about what you really want to accomplish. Hence the lumberyard differentiations between construction grade and their best cuts. When I am framing walls, the construction grade is cheap 2x4 at 8 feet. Typically poorly milled, the timbers are twisted, may have bark on the inside of a few cuts, and certainly would embarrass a carpenter who looks to achieve perfection. Nonetheless, construction grade has its place in the world of carpentry. If you have a home—regardless of when it was built—the interior frame was considered construction grade. Good enough to hold up walls and roof, but nothing you wanted to show the neighbors.
Now step up the game.
Cut and finish on materials one wants to employ for art, boats, boxes, or furniture is going to require some significant thinking. Honestly, you have to think through a pile of lumber.
Question one is the type of material you want to employ. Hardwoods are expensive, but leave a finished product that potentially could last centuries. Softer materials are more pliable—think having to cut, plane and sand—but are also susceptible to damage and casting a “cheaper” impression with your fellow craftpersons. Again, it all depends on what you are seeking to accomplish.
The most nerve-wracking moment in my furniture building was the day a client asked me to take a joined oak coffee table top and make a three piece item that could be slid apart and then put back together. Not only that, she wanted the resulting table to have three separate stands beneath and the cuts to the top should be curved in a manner to suggest a puzzle.
Here is where reading the wood becomes imperative. How is the grain running? Where are the knots? (Only the blessed get wood without knots) And how will it all finish with a stain and varnish?
Read the wood.
I lost a lot of sleep before making the first cut, and only did so after consulting with the local wood guru. This was one of those many occasions when it is nice to live in a community of wood aficionados. I would have made the cuts without the advice, but the results would have been less pleasing to the eye and touch.
Ah yes, eye and touch. This brings me back to the subject of precision. If you have a few minutes—nay hours—pick up By Hound and Eye. George Walker and Jim Toplin, working with artist Andrea Love, have produced a text that makes all that high school geometry simple and renders some of the need for endless precision a moot point.
Remember the kid in your physics class who could render every curve perfect and every corner sharp? Turns out humans and wood don’t really live in the science lab. We and wood like smoothed shapes and a soft touch. Well most of us. I concede there is a space for the austere and abrupt. It’s just not me. Maybe that’s the sailor coming out. My whole world is seemingly shaped to a dimension that is not quite square.
Add “read the wood” to “there is too much precision” and the space for creativity comes to a fore. Working with the wood rather than torturing a shape from the material creates an opportunity to weave grain and carve new joints without ripping timbers. Leave a space for compression and gluing—well there goes the demand for precision down to 1/32 of an inch. Might even take away the 1/16th.
Just my thinking out loud for another day. Enjoy the sawdust and remember, wood, like a good book, deserves to be read carefully.
Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard. A new resident of Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.