Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition


Indulgences at the Lumberyard

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.

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.

Here’s one of the little-known secrets of being caught up in the world of woodworking: a trip to the lumberyard is akin to taking an automotive buff to the used car dealer.

There are the collection of classics on can visit and fawn over, but somewhere in the lot is an item you simply must have in order to feel the appropriate karma.

I am very much guilty of this indulgence.  

Despite the fact I have no shortage of projects that need to be accomplished—to say nothing of mowing the lawn, doing laundry, or purchasing groceries—I find few excuses to pass on a trip through the nearest mill shop when wandering into town.  The smells, textures, and colors all bid for my attention.  There is a small voice in the back of my head that consistently murmurs, “think about what you could do with this piece.”

Perhaps this is what causes painters to wander out into fields or under trees to study landscapes and hues. I can imagine one of the great impressionists looking across a farmer’s planting of sunflowers and then contemplating a canvas waiting to happen. Splashes of yellow, orange, black and green.  This is the stuff of a masterpiece.  

I am not so vain as to believe classic furniture is going to happen in my shop, but that does not dissuade me from looking at large planks as an opportunity waiting to happen.  Like a brush stroke in oil colors, a properly drawn line and skillful application of a saw should render a bit of timber that will blend into a finished piece worthy of passing along to the next generation.

I like to think of woodworking as a cumulative experience.  While there is much satisfaction to be gained in simply running a saw along a true measurement, smoothing the resultant cut and then assembling at a measured pace, the end result is a sense of satisfaction to be relished.  Something like the old ketchup advertisements--“anticipation.”

But I get ahead of myself.  Before the slicing, sanding and joinery, there is the art of selecting a canvas.

In a majority of industrial and basic home craft cases this is fairly easy.  Pine, poplar, or oak are standard responses.   My local guru suggests ash and cedar are also a good place to begin—so long as you know where the final product is likely to land.  His advice is always wise to heed.  I have crafted items that looked fine in the shop but were no match for the weather once placed outside.  Even the best stain and varnish cannot save you from Mother Nature if the item in question is to sit exposed year-after-year.  Hence the desire for teak in maritime circles.

All of which brings me full circle to the latest acquisition.  Sitting in my shop is a piece of sapele measuring 3x10x1. Perhaps I should clarify.  That would be a plank measuring 3 feet wide, 10 feet long and an inch thick.  Weighs about 120 pounds and consumes no small amount of space.

Sapele is often referred to as a close cousin to mahogany, and is no easier to work with.  Approach from the wrong angle—now we are at the art of “reading” wood”—and you have a gouge that is not coming out in the next three hours of sanding.  Nonetheless, the texture and finish on the right cuts make for fine cabinets and, in my case, a new desk.  Yes, I am going to indulge in constructing a writing table that would make this humble scribble feel proud to pound a keyboard.

So there I was, sitting at the backdoor of my favorite lumber purveyor trying to figure out if the latest purchase was going to fit in the van—say nothing of unloading singlehanded at home.  Luck was with me.  Having managed to haul the last of my most recent construction job out of the vehicle, the plank went in without damage to wood, me or the interior.  Unloading was equally uneventful.  (I will spare you the collection of mumbled grunts required to get this particular item through the door.)

And so I am ready to indulge in the next round of learning to be a craftsperson.  Ever so cautiously I have sketched a set of dimensions and considered the appropriate finishes so as to bring out a feel that befits the wood and looks nothing like the plastic (laminate) upon which I presently practice my typing skills.  I see much sanding and sweat in the future, a labor of love that will only further encourage another trip to my favorite locale—the neighborhood lumber store.

         Sapele plank

         Sapele plank

Amy SleeperComment