Something that I think is important to new woodworkers is understanding their wood and learning about the species they work with early on in their woodworking. For the general carpenter working in construction, he will generally be working with softwoods like pine and fir, spruce and such. Trim moulding modular homes mass made in factories will most likely never see a handsaw or a hand plane of any kind. The same is true of site carpentry where most wooden components will be premade factory assemblies arriving on site as shrink-wrapped units where the carpenter inserts the frame into an opening aims a nailgun or string of screws at it and walks away job done. Working with three or four softwoods in a given month, year and decade will not give you too much working knowledge about wood and neither do you need it for most of today’s carpentry work as we now know it. In today’s furniture making and machining wood, pressed fibreboard, MDF and so on it’s become somewhat the same. Crosscutting, ripping, planing and creating joinery depend on thousands of rotating cuts spinning on a central axis. Most surface grain will be sanded level and smooth with some kind of rotating abrasive belt and finished yet again with rotating pads velcroed to a random orbit sander — more spinning.
And then there is us!
We see then that the reality is different for those who work primarily with hand tools to make their one-off pieces in the home garage shop or shed. And by that I mean we rely on hand planes and saws for most of our cutting and truing, work the faces level with #4s or #5s, scrape awkward grain with a #80 scraper and pare the shoulders of tenons with a 1″ bevel-edged chisel. For us, we must consider every face and edge we plane, shave and shape by looking at the wood, questioning what’s written into its surface texture that changes every inch or so and then go for it. Total woodworking in the most real of ways. Totally engaged. Single-minded, Focussed.
In our early beginnings, we might think all woods to be the same and apply any early success with pine to be the same when we start on another light-coloured wood. But spruce is not like pine and pine is different than fir — all softwoods but with hand tools, they all work differently. Add into the mix light-coloured woods like birch, ash and a half dozen more and you get a brief glimpse into the reality that ALL wood work differently. They can and will be problematic by degrees and there is no one-size-fits-all. Reality hits, the grain tears and we are flummoxed. We think that the wood should and always will submit to our keen edges, but experience makes all the difference to our expectations. We offer the plane gently instead of aggressively, feel for the response at the earliest point of contact. We’re sensitive to resistance felt and respond. Any resistance tells us to plane the other way straight off and we change direction with the flip of a plane. By this, we start to know that every species of wood works differently and begin to acknowledge that we cannot always predict the outcome of a plane stroke. For me, this has proven both exhilarating together with some very sad disappointments — the predictability and unpredictability both hold fascination for me. I’ve learned which woods will plane and saw and shape well and those that need every ounce of my care and patience. Mastering techniques and tools take time and exposure to woods that come in the future for you. Try hand planing yew cut by the tree surgeon from local woodland and you will discover a wood with the most diverse omnidirectional grain you will ever encounter. Spiral grain favours you one way, flip the wood to the next face 90º and you may well wonder when and how someone switched the board on you while you weren’t looking. For most of us, we will likely work with only a half a dozen species common to our sphere. Most furniture will usually be made from hardwoods and not softwoods. This should give you a clue as to what you might be dealing with. Hardwoods do not always mean hard or dense-grained woods. There are many more soft hardwoods than there are softwoods in the world.
Bridging the gap between working knowledge and having none are the Googled online resources. Mostly they comprise good images for colour and a basic grain configuration of perfect grain, unfortunately along any given length of wood the grain dips and dives and twists and turns to make it impossible to capture the diverse nature and characteristics of each species. That means that to really understand grain from pictures would need a hundred images of any species you care to name. And of course, these extremely generic examples can never take you inside the wood to read and interpret what grain really is. Most of the ones I have read look like they were copy-and-pasted from vintage books using some quite archaic terms and not really capable of transmitting the kind of knowledge I speak of. I try to constantly encourage woodworkers new to wood to try to relate to their wood species as they use each different type and then too to see the differences in the same board or a board of the same wood but from a different tree; and then too, it’s important to look at the wood where it grew in different parts in that board relating to its position when it was in the growing tree. Many of the things I encourage are pretty non-standard. I think the majority of people working wood cannot relate to my reasoning because if I say plane directly across the grain to avoid tearing out they think power planer and putting wood in sideways. Planing grain with complex grains that are highly figured, coarsely textured or fine for us is a complex issue.
Unlike the machined wood coming from the planer in short chips, our shavings come off in long ribbons an inch or two wide and ten to twenty inches long. Awkward grain presents real problems to us yet we have no choice but to work out what to do. Would I use a belt sander? Well, on some woods, yes I would, but not until I have scraped it with a #80 cabinet scraper to see if this will work. It always does. But I am not opposed to using a belt sander in some circumstances. Not at all. But here we are talking about the grain we must plane, chisel into and saw. In this, we gain the superior knowledge we need to accumulate so that we understand our material as much as possible. You will be surprised how quickly you can accumulate such knowledge and better relate to your working if you work with hand tools. Machining wood does not give you any kind of ‘insider knowledge,’ of course, it cannot help us to relate to the wood in the same way for many reasons not the least of which is the reality that machines distance you from the wood because it is not in any way related to handwork as we know it.
End grain tells you a lot about a wood species when it is planed with a sharp plane. Here you will learn about tracheids and capillaries, ray cells and early- and late-growth periods in woods of temperate climates and so on. With a sharp plane and using my end-grain plane guide, you can take off ultra-thin shavings in a good width and length to get a clear picture of the growth periods of different species and the spring and summer seasons, spurts of growth in warm periods and slow seasons in following years compared alongside the slow down of autumn and then winter shutting down in its fullest or partial shutdown according to growing regions.
Planing along the grain on different faces of a single stick will show different dimensions when the light passes through the open areas of the grain. The ripple effect in beech shavings is often quite unique to the wood itself. This seersucker puckering would never be seen ever in machining the same wood. You won’t get the same ripple in most other woods that even grow side by side with beech showing the specificity of the woods. Taking that plane stroke on beech and then the same stroke in oak with the same plane setting tells you a lot about resistance so you have both sight and felt insights into the wood. Imagine taking your children and grandchildren into the workshop and doing this alongside them. What an experiment that would be for everyone. Then take the shavings from end grain, face grain and press them as you might leaves and flowers and label them in a scrapbook. You could look back together in the coming years and enjoy the treasure. I am planning to do this with my granddaughter — face grain, quarter sawn and end grain oak to start with. Then rippling curly maple and some mesquite. I already keep many samples of wood I have gathered through the years.
Additional insights come from splitting grain too. Split beech and you will see an amazing ducking and diving of the grain that gives some answers to the seersucker look when you plane it. Such things give interrelated connections and multi-faceted insights you just cannot get any other way including magnification with telescopes and such. The relational knowledge far supersedes reading about grain and wood and tools. It just does, and especially for those of us who rely mainly on our hand tools.
When the trees fall we can see inside and understand how the fork in the tree gives us crotch-grain configuring.
Did you know that pare cutting a tenon in beech gives a completely different sound than say in pine, oak and sycamore which all, in turn, have their own distinctive sounds too?
A split-cut tenon before paring has a very unusual textured surface that I think looks more like a moonscape than wood grain.
Paring across the same tenon face has a much different feel and sound than oak or walnut. It’s its own unique feel as the chisel slices.
I have a dozen sets of pictures showing a dozen woods but my hope is that you will copy what I have shown and do the same with your own woods to start your own experiential investigation and investment in knowing the woods you will be relating to.