Picking Out Wood

Picking out the wood for a project always brings with it surprises. How often do we woodworkers mention to people that we are woodworkers and hear the exclamation, “Oh, I love wood!” My own take on this has changed through the years in that at one time it would have been wood that they loved because wood it would have been. Today that’s all changed in that it has become more difficult to know whether wood is actually wood or a man-made alternative. I recall being fooled myself by cleverly faked furniture only to find its chief core to be MDF.


Ripple sycamore throughout this door I’m making

Though I do like that people love wood, most people actually only catch a snapshot of what wood might even be. I say that because to fully know what it is you love is a much deeper and more intimate issue. Looking at a table top or cabinet door with raised panels cannot give much insight to what’s inside. Even machinist woodworkers enter this consideration from a more shallow level.

Ripple sycamore rail

When I cut dovetails by hand, chop my mortises with chisels and a mallet, I negotiate fibres very differently. Using a machine you are limited to one way and that is the rotary cut of cutter or cutter head of some kind. When you start to get used to working with hand tools it’s surprising how much the dynamic changes from machining wood only. Suddenly you are surprised by its well-hidden depths of character you will just not see with machining operations. Using hand tools becomes more and interpretive negotiation twixt wood fibre, hand and mind. With your hands it is as if a discussion begins taking place and your interpretive translation by skills requires give and take compromise until your intent results in the reality of a a well-crafted piece of workmanship.

Curly maple above in my chess board project. Compare to ripple sycamore top image.

This week, my working with sycamore and maple made me think more deeply about the characters of the different species and why apparently there may often be confusion as to the differences in the species and then within the actual same species too. Sometimes it is most subtle and at other times it is radical shifts.

Three configurations of quarter-sawn sycamore

This image shows three results of quarter-sawn sycamore. Colour, grain configuration and indeed other elements make you wonder if you are not looking at beech or lacewood, plane and some other such tree species.

Now I have had figured maple with striping that looks as absolutely identical to some of the rippled sycamore I am working with here as it could possibly be. You know, whiteness, creaminess, ripple and such. Now, because they look the same does not mean that they at all work the same. There are textural differences perceived only when I feel those contrasts when working with my hand tools that I cannot detect doing the same work by machines such as mortise machines, planers, tablesaws and mortisers or tenoners. So it’s this experiential knowledge that then redefines the considerations. We feel inner workings through the chisel tip and plane edge that tell us about the grain in terms of texture, density, hardness, and then resistance, interlock, elasticity, tenacity and so much more.

Bottom two sycamore and the top one maple but the middle one could easily be curly maple and the bottom sycamore piece might easily be determined as beech.

Whereas these three sections are really quite different by appearance they are also different texturally. This image is maple top, sycamore middle and quarter-sawn sycamore bottom.

My door here is all ripple sycamore.

So you see, the benefit of handwork gives you an in depth knowledge  leading to understanding woods. When someone says I love wood, I am always glad that they feel that way, but when you work its substance, discover its idiosyncrasies, penetrate its inmost fibres, that’s when you discover a much  deeper love for it.

Making my cabinet in rippled sycamore could be compared to making violins and cellos made from curly sycamore and curly maple on the back plates and bouts of the instruments. Both work well and impact the sound quality markedly. These figured woods also add greater resistance to cracking because the interlocking grain is stronger too.

Not always do things go according to plan.

I was not hard on this piece of wood, I did not hit it hard and used only hand pressures, not mallet blows. Both maple and sycamore have many qualities that are indeed closely similar or even identical. Whereas the science might [rove other differences, from a craftsman’s view the two woods could be said to be no different.


  1. “When someone says I love wood, I am always glad that they feel that way, but when you work its substance, discover its idiosyncrasies, penetrate its inmost fibres, that’s when you discover a much deeper love for it.”

    That sentence reminds me of a conversation during a summer’s evening out in the garden, many years ago. A friend’s daughter remarked that she loved animals and would later want to work with them.

    My suggestion of her becoming a butcher then wasn´t quite what she had in mind….

    More on-topic though, recently I was chopping a large chunk out of a piece of pine. As I was chopping away the piece came out prematurely due to a large resin inclusion and knot, leading to quite a bit of torn out wood in the bottom surface too.

    At the moment itself I was very annoyed, wondering how to solve the damage (perhaps filling with epoxy), but in the end decided to leave it as it was. I scratched it up as a lesson in wood and to look out better next time for knots on the outside. Because nastier surprises could linger underneath the surface.

    I did consider that if I had made the notch/cutout using a table saw (which is a non-option as I don’t have one), removing the large bit of waste with many saw cuts next to eachother, I wouldn’t have ended up with this problem – the inside bottom surface would have been smooth, instead of a large chunk of wood having torn away during chiseling. Then again, I learned more about wood and its properties than I’d have using a machine, and what to be more attentive to in the future, which also counts for something.

    Per ardua ad astra, I suppose….

    The downside of having an intimate knowledge of one’s own work is that, invariably, I am annoyed with little details that I feel were wrong (or at least, could’ve been better). Whereas an outsider would immediately remark, “Oh! That’s very nice!”, my response is usually more, “it’s ok, but this didn’t work out well, and that could’ve been done better, and I should’ve thought of (this) before I did (that)”, etc.

    When you’ve made something yourself you become especially aware of its shortcomings, even if not directly visible. At least that’s how it works for me.

    1. I too am very critical of my own work, looking at any small defect that could have been more exact. But the more I work at projects the more precise the joints etc. I personally have improved immensely following Paul showing us all his techniques and procedures.

    1. Though many woods will change colour, hue, vibrancy and indeed go brown even, it is far from true that “all woods will go brown in the end!” In fact most woods won’t go brown at all so not sure why you said this. Just so people aren’t misled.

  2. I like pine, all pines. I like to work with it the best. Many consider pine inferior and as a secondary wood. Most look at an object made of pine and say how wonderful it would be if only it were made of (insert main stream hard wood) I’m just the opposite.

    1. Yeah I like working in pine it’s what I have the most experience with. Then I get my hands on different hardwoods and they have been easier to work in most cases. It’s then that I really appreciate how much pine has taught me.

  3. Yes, I love Pine as well, didn’t used to, but the more experience I get as a woodworker I’ve learned to love working with it and my view of wood has changed. It’s cheap, easy to get, easy to re-saw quickly into the boards you need, sustainable, grows quickly. Perfect when looking at it from the eyes of a woodworker. I’ve started lining my walls with it, all my shelves, cupboards, etc in the workshop are made from Pine, jigs, workbench trays, all sorts of handy functional things made from Pine. So I guess my love for different woods has changed over the years, it’s no longer a hobby, it’s my life and business. Pine plays a major role in all that and I couldn’t live without it.

    Customers hardly ever choose it, I don’t blame them, if you’re paying someone a lot of money to spend time making something then you might as well use a wood they will appreciate more and provide a lifetime of use. Most of the total cost is time, the timber choice is only a small percentage of the total cost in this case so making it out of Pine won’t really make it that much cheaper anyway in my experience. I do love it when they say they don’t mind if it’s made from Pine though – means I don’t have to worry about anything, I know I can get it locally all the time as needed, don’t have to stock pile it all and store it. It’s fantastic from the eyes of a woodworker! Go Pine!

  4. Hi Paul, curious to know if you salvaged the tenon by gluing up the broken piece and reshaping or if you cut a new piece? When a break occurs, even a jagged one from a hand tool such as a chisel, in my experience, is mended easier than say tearout from a thickness planer or jointer. A healthy film of glue and some clamping pressure will mend many a break so long as the broken pieces mesh together, which they often do.

  5. I bought some rough cut black cherry boards a few years ago that had been stored outside for a number of years. Some of the boards were badly split down the centre; water had gotten in the cracks and the wood had started to rot, so I set these aside. I decided to try and salvage some of this wood in building a small box. I discovered the wood was beautiful quarter sawed cherry which was close to 90 degrees. The badly cracked centre was pith wood and the boards were cut from the centre of the tree. I managed to get nice pieces, up to 10 cm wide, from what appeared to be wood only fit for the wood stove. And I discovered that if the annular rings on cherry are very close to 90 degrees you get a very pleasing effect.

  6. Your descriptions of how you know the differences between woods that look very similar, only when working them with hand tools brings to mind the concept of “tacit knowledge” introduced by philosopher/scientist Michael Polanyi. He explained it as knowledge acquired by doing something you love doing for a long period of time, with the result being that “you know more than you can tell”.

    1. That is so nicely put, isn’t it Bob.”You know more than you can tell.” I liked that. Thank you.

  7. Reclaiming wood destined for the fire is a great satisfaction for me. A hundred-year-old eight-foot pine fascia board fell off the outside of my house several years ago, which I put in my woodstore to use on the barbecue one day.

    Now I am building a model train layout round the inside of my attic for my young nephew and have planed this board up to reveal some lovely old grain. I will use it as a track bed bracketed to the wall. One never knows when old wood will come in useful.

    1. Don’t forget to note somewhere on it from whence if came and everything possible about it’s past. Somebody someday will find it.

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