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Taking the Rough…

...and Making it Smooth

At first I wasn’t sure of the wood. It was too modern to be true mahogany so I thought maybe Malaysian wood, but quickly saw it was a red meranti from the Philippines. It’s a common enough wood here in the UK. Stain it and it can look like sapele or even mahogany. It doesn’t take long to see through the staining when you start working it with chisels and planes though.

I had shown my older box with the drawer that I had made from pine 2-3 decades back. I never thought people would think much to it but the request for a video series came and I did indeed film the whole process. To watch the series for free you will need to be a signed up subscriber (and it is free) of woodworkingmasterclasses.com and I think it will be well worth watching as there are many elements to making it that don’t appear elsewhere in other series.

When I first saw the wood in the skip I did a double take. “How could they just do that?” I asked inside my head. I must have been the first to see it or at least see its potential. Dragging it out amused passers by. There is an old man over-stretching himself to pull firewood from a skip, they must have thought. I gave some wood to Jack and Hannah for them to use and Jack is making his wall clock from some of the choicer pieces. It’s going well for him with all the ploughing of grooves and seeing him quietly getting to grips with the joinery is heartening. He’s in today as I type this and by tomorrow I am sure he will be near finished with it. I can tell by his body language that he’s perfectly happy doing this work.

It has always saddened me to see wasted wood. Here is an example of what I often see. We can all assume that it goes to recycling and that all recycling is good but I am never sure that we truly see the end result. I would like to see this wood in a free resource centre with donated wood and donated contributions when someone wants some wood. The problem then is dealing with elements of human nature. As you can see in the pictures the wood is pretty much clear pine a good inch and more thick in some cases and roughly its usually between three and four feet long. This is long enough for a wide range of projects and don’t just think growing boxes, compost heaps and dog kennels. Think tool chests, saw horses, chests and chests of drawers too. That’s where my mind races to.

I did want to show you how beauty is often hidden from our gaze but not by stains and rubbish covering it but our imagination being entrapped by the constraints the way we have been programmed. I can afford to buy good and new wood of most species. I am not necessarily looking for a bargain in the bin so much as striving to be responsible and not see good wood get pulverised to make wood chip pathways, particle board or whatever else. I would hate to think it would go into the ground somewhere to be buried or worse still burned, even for firewood. I wondered to if organisations like Men’s Sheds wouldn’t be interested in starting an arm to their existing charity. Something like that. Here in the UK they have 500 chapters. Imagine the interaction that would bring about if they did.

56 Comments

  1. Gordon on 21 November 2019 at 11:48 am

    Having once been lucky enough to score a car full of (what I think is) sapele from a skip I was gutted to discover that (what would have been a lifetime’s supply) of sapele floorboards being ripped out of a local condemned building were contaminated with dry rot. I’d guess that enough to fill a Luton van 3 times over simply went to be dumped or burnt.

  2. Jim on 21 November 2019 at 12:21 pm

    Being encouraged by your workbench building series where you state that you are using recycled wood, I started looking for where I may find some and came across The Aldingbourne Trust who have a wood recycling centre who are a social enterprise linked to Community Wood Recycling. The wood is not free as they have costs to cover, but very reasonably priced.
    Have a look there maybe one near you!

    • Paul Sellers on 21 November 2019 at 12:28 pm

      Thanks and I know that that’s true but a lot of us like the whole of DIY through and through and there are enough homeless pallets out there just begging for a home. I have a roof rack and fairly good sized floor space both of which will take pallets. IO also have a small trailer. You don’t need much of one, and it keeps the car clean and clear of that’s a bother. Whereas mine is a 4×8, a 3×4 or 3×6 works well too.

  3. JEAN CLAUDE PEETERS on 21 November 2019 at 12:26 pm

    An old man over-stretching himself to pull firewood from a skip… Some people should over-stretch a little more often. They have no clue. See what a beautiful box you have made from that wood. I can’t wait to see what Jack and Hannah made.

  4. Keith on 21 November 2019 at 12:39 pm

    Did you stain the drawer pull or use a different wood?

    • Paul Sellers on 21 November 2019 at 1:54 pm

      The draw bar is true mahogany from a Victorian table leg. No stain.

      • Keith on 21 November 2019 at 2:15 pm

        Nice touch with the accent wood, it matches closes to the meranti end grain

  5. Carlos M. Zaccaro on 21 November 2019 at 12:41 pm

    Hi Paul
    Me too, I always keep looking for “scrap” wood.
    Most of the times, here in Argentina, pallet wood is hard hardwood (Aspidosperma quebrachoblanco is the species), difficult to work with regular tools. But it sands beautifully.
    Anyhow, what I want to remark, is that not all “scrap” wood is safe and suitable for “in house” applications: as a rule (at least in Argentina), pallet wood is treated with a triple mixture of sodium cyanide, copper sulfate and arsenic, three chemicals highly poisonous. It should not be used indoors, and certainly must not be burned nor as firewood neither for barbecue!!!
    There are some cheap and easy chemical tests that you could run in order to be safe… look for them!
    Best regards
    Carlos

    • Dennis Burdett on 22 November 2019 at 9:26 am

      Thanks for the heads up…..

    • Michal on 26 November 2019 at 10:37 am

      The standard pallets at least which are used in Europe have all been marked how the wood has been threatened. So in our case you’re looking for big HT which means heat treatment only. You can see more details on Wiki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pallet

    • Robert Groh on 28 November 2019 at 6:12 pm

      Here in the US, it is a bit touchy with regards to the pallet’s chemical treatments so I don’t chance it. However I am not at all adverse for grabbing any other wood that looks promising. Had 4 well weathered pieces of wood that were extension tables for an old grill that died of rust – the wood , however, I saved and, although short pieces. cleaned up wonderfully with a few strokes of a hand plane! Also was given several long’ish (10″ x 8 ft or so)pieces of some type of hardwood that had been used to protect a shipment of other wood – the store was going to pitch them but, in this case, they went into my car!

  6. Gav on 21 November 2019 at 12:48 pm

    If you keep your eyes open there is so much timber available it is hard to use up before running out of space. I like the comment you made Paul in a previous blog about the misnomer of ‘trash’ wood. Even the pieces I have retrieved or sorted not suitable for working have been found a use for. I can’t recall purchasing a garden stake for instance and the plants being supported are not fussed by the looks. In some ways in parts of the world we have it a little too easy in terms of how readily available material is and don’t really value it. There is work involved in sorting, cleaning recycled material and offcuts from skips, building sites, industrial areas etc but generally speaking most of us have to work in some way to pay for newly sourced material. I met a fellow woodworker who visited one of the collection points for timber classified as waste and he ended up with so much he couldn’t put any more on his one tonne utility in a very short period of time. People would be aghast at the volumes discarded simply because it is too hard to store, or sort , or clean up. The majority of my customers are happy for it to be put to good use if there is surplus or offcuts from a job. There have been some incentives by government in Australia with increasing landfill charges to discourage dumping it in a hole in the ground but there is a long way to go yet.

  7. Eric Swenson on 21 November 2019 at 12:51 pm

    I like this box alot. But I can’t find the video. I only find the two drawer organizer box. I would like to take a look. Thanks.

    • Paul Sellers on 21 November 2019 at 1:23 pm

      You won’t. We only just filmed it so it has to be edited yet. It’ll be few weeks.

      • Eric Swenson on 21 November 2019 at 3:30 pm

        Thank you Paul.

      • Joe Leonetti on 21 November 2019 at 7:30 pm

        Thanks Paul. Very much looking forward to this. If possible, it would be nice to see a segment on getting the reclaimed wood and going from its rough stage to ready for use on this project. There was a project you did a few years ago where you took an old pine wardrobe and showed a bit of the reclamation process. I very much enjoyed that.

        In the 1970s, my father used to go to the hardwood lumber dealer near us. They kept the large waste container just outside of their locked fences. They did this so that folks could come afterhours and take offcuts for either projects or firewood. Otherwise they would have to throw it away. My dad went there for years to get some nice wood. I thought this was a nice solution for both the company and individuals.

        Then, it stopped as there was a fight between two individuals over the free wood.

  8. Gav on 21 November 2019 at 12:52 pm

    By the way , if anyone is interested in a selective novel recycling effort for timber search for pianos recycled .

  9. Stephen McGonigle on 21 November 2019 at 1:56 pm

    I have for years been what is known as a ‘skip rat’. Recycling at it’s best. I always ask to take from a skip, and have never been refused. My best ever recovery was several meters of decades old pitch pine. Once planed, it was beautiful and the smell was intoxicating. It’s a tough timber though, requiring frequent sharpening of my plane.

  10. Dave R on 21 November 2019 at 5:35 pm

    The box looks great. Looking forward to the video series. Thanks for documenting that for us.

  11. Samuel on 22 November 2019 at 1:08 am

    Let the hunting begin

  12. Alec Garner on 22 November 2019 at 9:13 am

    Lovely work and design, but it’s not one of nicest looking timbers when finished naturally (clear finish), looks like a poor man’s Sapele, which itself is a poor man’s Mahogany. I’ve used a Potassium Dichromate solution to successfully age / deepen the colour of similar pseudo Mahoganies… but don’t know how it would react with Meranti.

    • Paul Sellers on 22 November 2019 at 12:33 pm

      I have often seen this said but it hinges only on opinion. I tend all the more never to use substances that change the appearance beyond just the finish itself. My worry here though is that Potassium dichromate is so highly corrosive and is used in wood preservatives as well as the manufacture of pigments. To add further: Potassium dichromate will severely affect the respiratory tract and can further result in causing internal ulcerations. It can also cause shortness of breath, bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma and go on to affect the gastrointestinal tract, liver, kidneys and your immune system. Potassium dichromate is a known human carcinogen associated with an increased risk of developing lung cancer and cancer of the sinonasal cavity.
      Overall I don’t feel as you do about the wood. I accept every species on its own merit. I don’t think it is the poor relation but I was told exactly the same when I was a boy and that impacts how we feel. Ultimately I decided that this was not a substitute but an alternative. People often are inclined to use some drinks as a substitute say for coffee when in reality the drink should be seen as a stand alone otherwise you are always comparing this or that with the real thing. As a vegetarian `i am not looking for something to fill the hole on my plate I just want each flavour to be itself. I wish veggie burger was never on the menu and so too butternut squash this or that. Soy latte for instance tastes nothing like latte coffee.
      Here is my question: Why introduce any material, and especially something so harmful, to something you made that is otherwise completely natural, beautifully attractive to look at, and safe as is? Whereas people are often allergic to different wood species, mostly that is caused when they breath the dust from machining and machine sanding etc. Adding Potassium dichromate is a no no for me.

      • Alec Garner on 22 November 2019 at 2:45 pm

        Thank you Paul for your reply. You raise a very important point about the possible health implications of using potassium dichromate, and this should only be used with a high level of caution, and personal protective equipment for anyone reading this.

        The problem as I see it is; there’s a level of risk with many things associated with woodworking or furniture restoration (in my case): it was suggested in the 90’s that Danish oil in is liquid state was carcinogenic through skin absorption, whether this is the actually the case, I don’t know, but it didn’t stop it being the go to finish for many makers, who like myself took basic protective measures when using. Paint strippers can be particularly nasty, and I personally only use them as a very last resort, where as others slosh them around with scant regard. I once and only once used some Mansonia veneer; the sanding dust was akin to mustard gas; the project was quickly scrapped, and remade with an alternative veneer. Where does one draw the line?

        With regards Potassium dichromate; I’ve only ever used it for blending mahogany repairs on antiques, and with hindsight it was probably not a good suggestion to make on your page. The reason I guess it’s still used today is because it’s so very effective at darkening / aging mahoganies… as it reacts with the wood (tannic acid?) it’s unlikely to fade like many wood stains.
        When it comes to antiques; the richer the colour of mahogany, the better the piece, when this mantra is driven into your psyche, you can see why I might be somewhat snobbish about some straw coloured meranti. I suppose an off the shelf wood dye (you’ve had success with leather dyes if I’m not mistaken), or French polish tinted with a spirit stain would also give a desirable and controllable way to adjust the colour should one wish.

        • Joe on 22 November 2019 at 4:37 pm

          Hi Paul,

          I’m a Ph.D. chemist (and a woodworker thanks to you). I did my undergraduate studies in the 1980s. The one solution that folks gave us the most warning about by a large margin was potassium dichromate.

          As you aptly pointed out, it is a carcinogen. Personally, I would avoid ever using it. There was an article in Fine Woodworking about a year ago about it for its use in woodworking. I was shocked to see it quite frankly. Needless to say there were numerous letters to the editor pointing out what you succinctly mentioned above.

          Sincerely,
          Joe

          • Paul Sellers on 22 November 2019 at 4:49 pm

            Hey Joe, As soon as I saw PD my red flag popped up. Can’t have anyone touching the stuff as a result on my site.



  13. Jim on 22 November 2019 at 11:47 am

    I love the fact that people are recycling wood like this. In going to work I now seen several skips of timber. I think it is time to get the trailer out! Sorry Su.

  14. Samuel on 22 November 2019 at 1:34 pm

    I’m not able yet to really prepare my stock perfectly and my tools aren’t sharp enough tho I try. When I can I’ll get another no.4 I think. And the recommended knife. All of which may make building a work bench possible — so I’m not making a wall clock.
    I’ve used pallets to make file handles and a replacement chair slat plus practicing.. But I’ve been amazed at the beauty of the timber and the freedom to learn the use of pallets gives. Finding freshly fallen local species of interest and axeing into flitches is also a liberating idea Paul demonstrates.

  15. Danny Roberts on 22 November 2019 at 5:44 pm

    Keep on trucking (or skipping) man. Ref ’60s &/or Grateful Dead.

    I have an allotment (US community garden/veg plot/jardins ouvriers etc) with a large tarpaulin covered space where I store my recyclable wood. No growing space is lost as there are grape vines and pumpkins (in season) climbing all over it.

    Paul, yours is an important message for this over-stretched world which needs every living tree possible.
    Danny Sheffield UK

  16. Keith W on 23 November 2019 at 4:51 pm

    Before banned, many people were exposed to burning Ammonium Dichromate from Snake in the Grass fireworks used indoors. Equally it was a common chemistry demonstration. Remember from my schooldays a student teacher using a massive pile in a demonstration filled the lab with fumes, now if done would be in a fume cupboard.

  17. Jez on 23 November 2019 at 7:39 pm

    I’m currently making a Paul Sellers workbench out of 70x70mm pallet bearers – solid birch wood! I also have a store cupboard containing beautiful straight grained oak from an old gate leg table, and various unknown hardwoods and softwoods from pallets. Not paid more that £1 for any of it. It’s only frustrating when I have to walk away from good finds as I don’t have the time of space to deal with it.

  18. Pat Lundrigan on 25 November 2019 at 3:17 am

    What is the actual name for the “box with drawer” project? I could not find it on Masterclass.

    • mercified on 25 November 2019 at 3:34 am

      In a comment above, Paul says: “We only just filmed it so it has to be edited yet. It’ll be few weeks.”

  19. Trevor Hosken on 25 November 2019 at 10:49 am

    A skipologist is a worthy profession. I have a self accredited PhD in it!
    One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure.
    Well done Paul. Give yourself a master’s degree.

  20. Andrew Churchley on 25 November 2019 at 12:29 pm

    I’d like to complain about the general quality of pallets! They are often made with poor quality wood. Those ringed nails can be the devil to pull out, especially when rusted. A lot of damage results when dismantling. If only the pallet makers would aim at a high level of quality and craftsmanship, we recyclers could have a much more rewarding time! Just one further thought: I wonder whether it would be economical to mass-produce a glued, nail-less pallet?

    • Noel Rodrigue on 28 November 2019 at 7:35 pm

      Man, removing a glue that will be strong enough to keep the pallet together through its life=cycle will be a right royal pain and likely will destroy whatever tool used or your health! 😉

  21. Anthony on 25 November 2019 at 1:02 pm

    Thank you for the comments about PD. I ordered some years ago. I have not used it yet and will never use it after learning the how unhealthy it is.

  22. Lou Carreras on 25 November 2019 at 1:27 pm

    Hi Paul, when I was doing boat shows looking for marine carving work I paid my booth fees by selling spoons, spatulas and cutting boards made from the cherry scrap of a mill that sold mostly to contractors putting in flooring. All the scrap from their mill floated my business for several years, and saved some beautiful wood from the skip.
    By the way, I’ve often wondered how Meranti carves Is it crossed grain like some of the African mahogany substitutes?

  23. Richard King on 25 November 2019 at 1:28 pm

    My U3A woodworking group have rescued quite a few pallets, but its not just second hand wood that is skipped by builders. They price a job and if there are materials left over they dont care because the customer has already paid for them, so they would rather just chuck them than go to the trouble of transporting and storing them. One builder actually admitted this to me. Also, when any property gets a new owner the first thing they do is to gut it, even if recently refitted. Not to mention shops, the turnover and continuous refitting must make the the shopfitters laugh all the way to the bank.

  24. Robert Brunston on 25 November 2019 at 2:05 pm

    Now that’s a beautiful box Paul! Thank you.

  25. Jeff D on 25 November 2019 at 2:07 pm

    is danish oil safe?

  26. Rick on 25 November 2019 at 2:34 pm

    I once had a gentleman offer me over 300 lineal feet of 1×6 solid Walnut flooring. I thought he was joking but said sure I’d be interested. 3 months later he called me and I went and got it for free. Gave some to others as well. Unbelievable!

  27. Marc Reymen on 25 November 2019 at 2:53 pm

    I’m so lucky ….I live near a factory (dimec) who veneers mdf with very expensive wood (all export to arabia) .
    the people who make the veneer however, send the veneer on wooden pallets…
    made from……the middle planks from the trees from witch they make the veneer….all quartersawn ……
    They simply put them at the garbige ……ready for me……

  28. Matt on 25 November 2019 at 4:30 pm

    Aside from pallets, I try to salvage any usable wood when it is available.
    Most of the time, it is easy to tell solid wood from cheap material covered with laminate, but a few times I have been fooled. One time, I thought that I had found some solid oak table leaves. I was very excited, but when I got home, I discovered that they were made of well disguised, cheap laminated particle board.

    I still think that it is worth the effort to try to rescue wood when I can.
    -I appreciate the article

  29. Keith Mushenski on 25 November 2019 at 4:40 pm

    Had a tree cut down here in Virginia and instead of sending to the dump or fire wood I had it slabbed and it is now drying in the yard for later wood working. 373 board fee of birch for $165 US.

  30. Loxmyth on 25 November 2019 at 4:56 pm

    Always ask before rescuing palletsyl. You don’t want to make someone waste a trip if they’ve been promised elsewhere.

    There are companies which collect them, rebuild them, and offer them for reuse. They don’t iffer much if anything for them, so you’ll usually be told take all you need..

    In the US, the blue-painted pallets are actually rented rather than purchased; they’re built more strongly and do get reused. So leave those alone. Not that you really want to deal with the paint anyway.

  31. Richard King on 25 November 2019 at 6:06 pm

    We have those blue painted pallets over here as well, but their cost must be very low because they still get dumped.

  32. Nathan on 25 November 2019 at 8:49 pm

    I don’t know about anyone else but it always feels like I’m winning, when I take used timber that people throw out and then turn it into something beautiful.

    • Yakov on 26 November 2019 at 1:24 am

      I feel the same! Creating something of value feels especially good if the starting point was zero value:)
      I’ve just finished making an oak mantlepiece from an old staircase somebody threw away and I’m really happy with the result:D

  33. The Great Peacemaker on 26 November 2019 at 1:51 am

    For us there is no good and bad wood if it is solid and not rotten. I believe God made all type of woods good. Just one is better than another for a given/particular application. I commented like a couple of months ago that we used to visit the ‘Brake Depot’ once every week, sometimes more. I push the brakes of my car and pick up wood that people throws away, be a damaged bed, or place under construction, and so. Even kept a little trailer attached to an old Camry on permanent basis. As Paul said, some people look at me like…’poor man,’ and some friends do not believe I do that every week; however, when they see something useful made from that ‘trash’, they just think a little. The real small pieces after cutting and the rest, I use it for a home campfire. You can even cook with it. Those are corners, or about six inches pieces or less, and still have two buckets full of them because even those are handy many times. An 82 yrs old friend always tell me: ‘I just cannot do that, cannot help to see people seeing me picking up trash.’ We laugh when he says that, and more than once he has come to me asking for a couple of pieces he needed…ha…ha…ha. Well, I had always some attraction to wood, since childhood. If I could treat wood as a person (not possible) I will say that it is a noble thing, a serviceable creature. How many times wood had played a role in humans’ history? Then watch it trashed like a useless piece is a kind of dismal. Just glue two-three pieces and you already have a bigger chunk ready for something, or a new future idea. Thank you.

  34. Andrew Cormack on 26 November 2019 at 1:59 am

    Someone already asked, but the issue was raised. Is Danish Oil safe? I use it a lot and would really like to know. Can anyone help?

  35. Tracy Fort on 26 November 2019 at 11:34 am

    My wife and I built a small cabin on a parcel of land we have out in the country. As is all the rage here in the States, she talked me into doing a pallet wall on one end in the bedroom. I resisted but finally agreed. I liked it so much I did the entire inside in pallets and sealed it with a clear stain polyurethane. It looks awesome but it wore me out breaking down pallets. I had everyone I know bringing me pallets.

  36. Jim on 26 November 2019 at 12:51 pm

    My understanding is that Danish Oil is made from tung oil or polymerized linseed oil. All Danish oil I have used states it is made of natural oils. I would still use it.

    • Paul Sellers on 26 November 2019 at 5:46 pm

      Just quickly, Jim, you cannot really say that Danish oil is this or that oil as depending on the manufacturer and the country or state you are in there is no defined method of manufacture. Usually it is a combination of oils together with other ingredients and there are more restraints on the contents of finishes in say Europe than in other continents and countries etc. We have to state either the country its sold and allowed in as we reach a global audience on my blog.

  37. Jim on 26 November 2019 at 12:59 pm

    Remember that using any finish requires respect and care. A pile of rags soaked in Linseed oil can self combust. So always be careful and understand what you have in a bottle.

    • Paul Sellers on 26 November 2019 at 5:42 pm

      It’s safe in a bottle or a can, it’s when it’s on the rag or in the air or in the aerosol can.

  38. Jim on 27 November 2019 at 11:14 am

    Paul,

    Absolutely right and I apologise for my generalisations. My view is still firmly focused in the UK and my experiences.
    Thank you for pointing this out to me.

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