Causing Ripples – A New Composition

Open pores make notes and medullaries form the lines on my music sheet

My plane skims the surface of quarter-sawn oak and I feel the corduroy corrugation I want to telegraph from its inner fibres through to the finished surface the work justifies. Undulations follow the long and wide cells in emanating rays intrinsic to oak in the uniqueness of oaks structure and colouring. Other woods have beauty, but non reflect rays like oak. The rippled surfaces extend from end to end of my tabletop. My fingertips trace the furrows they create and in my mind’s eye I see a ploughed field uniformly striped in a perfect symmetry of parallel lines. Sometimes the lines curve slightly around a knot to warn me of the care I must take not to rip the rootedness from its centred support in the interlocking grain of the wood. That’s seldom considered until it’s too late. So, so easily done.

A complex range of pores create the ring porous dynamic of my oak score

The scraper becomes a useful tool for exaggerating the corduroy pattern. This ribbing comes well from a duller card scraper which tears the softer aspects where hard and soft growth rings cut well on the hard aspect and rip on the soft.

The notes vibrate across my wood and I sing the notes in my new composition.

The texture to different woods can be as much a part of the decorative elements of wood as the colour and grain configuration. Those tiny, subtle shifts I see between cherry and walnut, oak, ash and dozens of others. I dislike grain fillers for this reason alone. Grain filling and smoothness can distort the reality of the wood so that it ends up looking like the very material I despise the most – plastic.

The notes are wrapped up as a new scroll of my music.

On a recent table I took the plane to the grain and then the scraper too. The texture I felt was so lovely and even sanding the surfaces gave the loveliness of undulation rather than the kind of sterility sanding often brings.

The composition ripples through the whole as the notes reach deeply in my being
I am ready to sing as I close the doors for home and I sing riding my bike.

Join me on this one. I think you will be part of the new orchestra forming that began a decade or two or three ago! Leave the cacophony behind you and listen to the new music of an unfolding age. Your hand tools and the wood are waiting. We have a house full of furniture to design, draw, sketch and build. You can learn to play new instruments you never thought you would or even could. Yesterday I enjoyed playing alongside two other friends in my band. We each played our parts in the whole stroke by stroke and it was the loveliest thing to be a part of for a few hours. We practiced two times this week and oh what resonance. And the orchestra grows one by one!

We stood singing at our workbenches.We sing our own songs and yet they seemed as one.


  1. I sometimes come across quarter sawn oak on old furniture that has been broken up. A local woodyard I use (that saws up trees) says it’s the best cut but is very wasteful to produce for a saw mill as the logs need to be cut radially and is therefore very expensive.
    He said the best option is to look out for pieces that emerge from the normal tangent cuts and then dry these slowly.

  2. “Grain filling and smoothness can distort the reality of the wood so that it ends up looking like the very material I despise the most – plastic.”

    Yes, a resounding yes! to all this. Thanks for the post Paul.

  3. Ah but it is still frustrating when one is still building up their scraper skills, I’ll swoop off the file marks on part of a handle and leave the most awesome looking finish… and then I go a millimeter too far and pluck up a flake of grain the wrong spot and end up driving myself nuts trying to get it all smoothed back down like it was before that stray stroke.

  4. Speaking of oak: in a former post, you mentioned Ikea transforming incredible amounts of healthy wood into plastic-added, heavy, more fragile and much less durable replacement material, further processed into aesthetically and otherwise questionable industrial products, labelled as wood furniture. According to that discussion (that I did not check further), 1% of world wood production is concerned in this wasteful procedure, considering Ikea only. Well, I am living in France. You can avoid Ikea: sometimes you can find more expensive, but still affordable, and even acceptable, furniture in hypermarkets (F: “grandes surfaces”). The other day a guy found a table with chairs, all real oak. And the dealer confirmed it had grown in France! How come? Yes, grown and cut in France, shipped to and processed (manufactured? mass-produced?) in China, then back again to France! Chinese investors are diligently buying oak forests in France (as they do with grapes, vineries etc.), oak price quadrupled in a dozen years or so. This is global, open market economy. The catch is, as you can deduce, that it is very heavily resource-intense, that is, environmentally pessimal. Wages in China – for this sort of production – are kept low, say, 80-120 €/Ł/$ per month. That is why costs are under controll, so end prices appear to be affordable for middle-class people in Europe. In France, woodworkers, formerly flourishing small entreprises, skilled workers (“artisans”) living on their products full time have been becoming as rare as you describe this about the UK. And many young people, in France, are jobless (more than 30%), unhappy, simmering either with or without reasons. Global economy, in its present form, is certainly neither humanly, nor environmentally friendly – on the contrary! I have got an investment banker friend: almost twenty years ago they went to China with lots of money to buy factories there! I see the results now.
    Oh, and still speaking of oak: some months ago I made two one-meter-long-each oak benches, and an elm one, too, all with larch legs, for my daughter. Another elm one is under consideration, using hand tools, a valuable ancient wooden French jointer (“varlope” Goldenberg), 6, 5, 4 iron planes (new Silverline (!), older Darex, older Stanley), and a comparable French Darex metallic one (the recent Fischer-Darex one is of much lesser quality). Darex 4 and Stanley 4 planes are quite similar, almost identical in dimensions, however, the Darex one being metric and the Stanley imperial, the screws and bolts are, alas, totally incompatible: buying a old Stanley on E-Bay UK, in France, may require further hunting for small and rare spare parts. And, even worse, no die and tap exist anywhere for those idiosyncratic old Stanley sizes, I am afraid.
    I learned from your old plane renewal and preparation videos, sharpening methods (while I still use a Veritas honing guide with 4 diamond plates (250-1200)), sawing advice and Youtube tutorials. All are very good quality, I appreciate your dedicated, exceptionally well thought-out and helpful approach. Your lessons helped me enormously: you always emphasise attention to the working quality of the tools, frequent sharpening, and it pays off indeed: often it is the only way to reach the aimed result. I have got an ever growing woodworker handtool-set, largely influenced by you, and what I have done in wood in recent years is based on your remote (and, for you, invisible) tuition. I was able to rip through long (~1 m) pieces of wood in their depth with a frame saw, by marking the wood with a sharp knife then deepening the saw-path with a chisel, besides many other important tricks and astuteness you offered generously. Thank you!

  5. I have laid a lot of solid oak flooring in my home and have many offcuts and a few full planks left. I love working with it to make small item but it can be sometimes quite difficult to work with twists and turns in the grain. Although as an ex-aircraft engineer I can appreciate that the fine tough grain can be worked with great accuracy.

  6. My day could not have been different from those here and yet similar in many respects. I have been making a workbench, something I have wanted for 30 odd years, carrying the one sheet front and back plan from a defunct timber and building merchants association in a collection of small school exercise books in which I write my plans and lists. Stapled, installed and stapled again. But unlike beautiful oak, although I have some oak flooring offcuts that are being set aside for the cheeks of the wood vice. I have gathered old timber, old floor joists cut into almost 6 ft lengths. Once in an old Federation house (your Arts and Crafts some say Queen Anne revival). About 100 years under a floor and a hundred or so in the tree. Tough Australian hardwood. I took the old no 7, swapped the sharp blade and cap iron from the 6 and propping the up with old g clamps and cheap wood ones on the frame of the bench I cleared away years of old wood. Revealing the saw marks of the circular saw that cut it up after the breakdown saws had done their work. Going beyond into the grain. Squaring or trying to, the narrow face where timber flooring had been nailed. The cutting it so that it would be square and comparing the rings against the younger hardwood post offcuts that supports the old vice. Smelling the timber when cut. The old turpentine timber stretcher gave up its aroma when I drilled it with my Grandfather’s brace and using bits given to me by a friend. This is what it is like. Saving and building something from old rafters. Joists and offcuts. Having to vary the design, to take into account the old timber used. So different from the beautiful new but beautiful in its own way.

  7. The shavings — essentially a microtome slice — are a wonderful way to illustrate the complexity/regularity of the wood structure. I’d be interested in seeing a comparative collection of these; I think it would have both aesthetic and pedagogical value.

  8. Is it normal after sharpening and tuning a plane to go into your garage, clamp a scrap of wood into the vise and just start planing to hear the sound and feel that feel? Because I do this all the time. Its kind of an addictive sound.

    1. I don’t think there is a single wood worker who doesn’t do this. That hissing sound.

  9. I just finished a small frame and panel cabinet made of quartersawn white oak grown in the Eastern U.S. I know how to sharpen planes, but the wood was so hard I had a very difficult time smoothing it, so I used my thickness planer and a scraper. Even my scraper would only create very small curls and dust. I used a standard Stanley #4 with a thick aftermarket blade. I appreciate comments by anyone else who has had a similar challenge with oak.

  10. Sounds like “poetry in motion” to me and most of 350,000 others i suspect.

  11. The close-up photos in this post are stunning. Not only do they sing, they also dance!

  12. Singing off tune…..Hi all you smart folks. I am finally using a Stanley #4 smoothing plane. New blade, sharpened and slightly rounded edges. When I plane a walnut board, I get lines I can only see in reflective light, almost as if the fibers are compressed. Doesn’t seem to be the blade. Any thoughts?
    Feel free to email any suggestions, [email protected].

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