Walnut Records


I looked after I planed. Glimpsed first. Stopped. Looked again as if looking back at what caught my eye, stopped me in my tracks. And lifted the wood closer to look inside the pores I’d just opened with my plane’s last stroke to where no man had ever seen before, been before and I saw a year’s growth, in a single band split in two by two seasons and I knew then that life lived had been recorded in a tree and for me it was a first glimpse into a history of life during which I was yet unborn but about to be born into a world unknown to me but one I would live in alongside a tree with pores that were cells reaching from earth for the warmth of a sunlit sky and here I planed the release with certainty the history that included the day I was born in the one growth ring encaptured before and after by many rings of grown wood recording the year I came into being and seeing the pores inside a tree stem in a section of wood I first sawed then planed with a newly sharpened edge that left the pores crystal clear by the severing edge for me to know my life had purpose in the things I made and was making now as texture to texture the lives of others in the generations yet to know and understand what I saw in stopping my work to catch that brief glimpse and record it in my mind’s eye and write of in a few narrow bands like the growth ring of a solitary tree but typed out and computed for another to read what they would never could never read in the band of a fallen walnut tree as me in my workshop and the push of a plane that caught me, caught my eye in the sense of arresting me as though life itself spoke and said some need galaxies and others need science but a section of tree holds more than a man can know though he spend a lifetime with it in his working.

17 thoughts on “Walnut Records”

  1. Thanks Paul. One of the aspects I really like about woodworking and using hand tools is the familiarization I obtain with the specific pieces of wood I am using. Many of the projects I work on take somewhere between 50 and 200 hours to complete. As such, there is a lot of time looking at the wood and grain initially to sort out the base way to shape it but then to peer more deeply into it as you have nicely described above. Not many folks I talk to about it because I don’t think most folks would really understand unless they are wood workers. Then, at the end, I get to apply the finish and the wood starts to pop and show others what I have been seeing all along. Also love the imperfections in wood. I may put the knots and cavities on the inside as a non-show face but in fact I think I like these features even more than the more theoretically perfect show face.

    1. Unlike the grammarly-inclined, waxing poetic amidst the sweep of sawdust-laden floors, I chose a path unchosen to pursue. No, not fine wood with tales that tell. But laying claim to timbers that found their way to a planer’s discards, forsaken yes, but not forgotten. Beauty is oft revealed below the surface of pieces neglected from another’s vision. So I dare to claim the hidden loveliness that another scorned. As if ordained by time itself —these lowly scraps — verily shout with joy as one who cares reveals the secrets that lie dormant; caressing away the fibrous mask until a whisking blade bares the soul within!

  2. I often think when sawing and planing wood, and ask myself things like – when was this tree planted or did it grow from a seed blown by the wind. Where did it come from and what history did it live through, and amazingly how Destiny has brought it here to me in my little modest workshop and has given me the privilege to make something from it. Funny how you reflect on some things that you just usually take for granted.

    1. In 2019 I made a dovetail box made of poplar, inspired by Paul’s Shaker Candle Box. The wood came from a tree I had planted 43 years ago here on our farm. It, along with 7 others had been blown over in a fierce wind storm. I let it dry for about 9 years before milling it into 3\4 inch boards, planing everything by hand of course, something I had always wanted to do. The wood is not particularly attractive but the box turned out to be quite beautiful and has added significance for me, knowing that I had planted it so long ago, Destiny indeed.

    2. In 2019 I made a poplar box inspired by Paul’s Shaker Candle Box. The wood came from a tree that I had planted 43 years ago here on our farm. I let it dry for about 9 years before milling it into boards, something I had always wanted to do, planing everything by hand of course. The wood is not particularly attractive but the box turned out beautiful and it has special significance to me knowing that I had planted it so long ago, Destiny indeed!

  3. Your last sentence just keeps on going and going like the rings of growth in a beautiful old walnut tree.

  4. Peter Littlejohn

    It’s not only the growth rings of the tree that captures history. There can be physical things embedded within the tree that records history of both the tree and man. Years ago an old woodworker told me of a bullet he found in the timber he was working with. He found out the tree had grown in Norway and was told the bullet was of German origin. The sobering thought for him (and me) was what unknown battle had the tree “seen”.

  5. Walnut
    Sweetly cuts, accepts the plane,
    but denies the pencil,
    hides the gauge.
    And so makes a fool of me
    with beautiful cuts
    wrongly placed.
    I rip it straight
    and then
    behind my back
    it twists,
    and crawls about the shop.
    Burn, damn you,
    Dark, cantankerous tree.

    Walnut has been giving me a hard time, of late.

      1. As I said, Walnut has been giving me a hard time lately. I must have wood from a tree that was growing sideways out of a hill in a continuous gale with another tree leaning on it. Every rip led to large twists and bows. The first pass at the project when to the scrap pile. This was a project last year. This year, I’m working with walnut again, but have run into the same behavior, but to a lesser degree. I was wary this time and left a lot of room for movement when dimensioning the lumber, which has helped. But, it has still been a challenge.

        This is unsteamed walnut, kiln dried. The first batch was from a local sawyer and was ungraded wood. The more recent batch is from another local sawyer, but is graded, some of it firsts and seconds.

        I do like walnut, but walnut and I have an uneasy, wary relationship with each other.

        Maybe I should ask, what untruth?

      2. I’m afraid that I spoiled your moment of wonder and awe that you captured in your poem, which was not my intention. I actually meant my poem to be lighthearted, but also to capture that learning and developing can require determination and perseverance and isn’t always “fun.” You captured your moment of awe and reflection and I only meant to capture my experience with that particular tree. One has to love the craft: It isn’t always easy, at least not for me, yet this brings much of the growth and value.

    1. Not the black walnut I bought many years ago in southern Pennsylvania. It was wonderful to plane and carve when I bought it as a college student and the leftover boards that have sat stickers and happy since has always been an absolute pleasure to be around. Thanks for your insights Paul.

  6. It would be neat if they had a way to “play” the growth rings. I was once at a “science center” that had this laser player that would shoot a laser at ancient pottery and spin the pottery around. You could hear the ambient sounds that were around the artisan because the vibrations of sound would transfer to the pottery and creat little undulations in the clay almost like record grooves. Thats what I thought of when I read the title.

  7. Dust to Dust,
    Ashes to Ashes,
    From the continuous tumult that is the cosmos,
    How rare is it that a consciousness appreciates its’ own mortality?

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