Relating To Your Wood
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.
Could you comment on working with cedar and whatever insights you could share when trying to built small boxes that would set on a dresser top? I’m not having much luck trying to use a plane on the surface of such material. Thanks
There are several woods lodged under the catch-all name of cedar and some of which are not cedar at all. I think of Ashe Juniper growing through vast tracts of North America from northeastern Mexico and the south-central United States to southern Missouri. The largest areas are in central Texas and the Texas Hill Country where I used to live, here you’ll find extensive stands occurring and every Texan I know calls it just plain cedar when it’s Juniper as in Juniperus ashei, a drought-tolerant evergreen tree, and yes native North American. Then too you have its cousin that it’s often mistaken for which goes under the commonly used name Eastern Red Cedar but again it is Juniper Juniperus virginiana . Either way, they look similar to the novice and working them is radically different. Both these tree are coniferous and both readily catch fire and until you’ve fought the fires in the middle of a wilderness you will not realise how quickly and readily they catch aflame. The eastern red cedar is softer and planes more readily than the Ashe Juniper. It’s most commonly used for lining blanket chests to deter moths and also for gun cabinets where it goes with the image of the Texan hunter. It’s distinctive purple colour with heavy streaking in depth of colour contrasts markedly with the creamy to white sapwood but it eventually loses that lovely purple to turn more a dull brownish hue. The Ashe Junuper seems to me to be twice as dense and hard and is incredibly difficult to hand plane. I made and sold many a thousand bandsaw boxes from the “Hill Country Cedar” surrounding my different country homes in Texas.
I recall visiting my aunt and uncle in central Texas one winter, and my uncle made a small fire for us kids out in a cow pasture. My dad asked if we should surround it with rocks or something, my uncle scoffed. First, because my dad was from Houston, not the country, and second, because there were no rocks. So it was a mixed bag — should we be lighting a fire in a bunch of bone dry grass? Probably not. Were non-existent rocks the solution? Probably not. Then the wind picked up, and the fire started to spread in the grass, and a dry shrub caught on fire (maybe mesquite!), and my uncle instructed all dozen or so of us to stomp out the burning grass starting from the outside. The older children had to chase the embers that were carried on the wind. Then we went in for dinner. Who knows, my uncle might’ve almost burned down your house! I still remember for a moment looking at him in the middle of all that and seeing this look of utter terror in his eyes reflecting the orange flames. Horrifying.
Very much appreciate your article about different wood and grain, after using mostly spruce and pine over the years, (thought it would be better to learn and make mistakes on less expensive wood). Now starting to use some oak, and maple, so being aware of the different grain patterns can make a big difference, in the projects.
Thanks again!! Paul
I just love reading your thoughts and experiences with wood. They just show your tremendous love for the craft and material you get to work with.
I can relate to the beech as a somewhat ’harder’ to work wood than most others I got the pleasure to use. It behaves quite differently than the pines, fir, oak (red or white).
I try to use wood from trees that actually have grow around where I dwell on this world so not to have them transported all over the globe… as to reduce my ecological footprint. So I haven’t used many a different species so far.
On beech I have some difficulty with what I can only describe as plane chatter especially in the beginning of the stroke. And then only with a few but not all of my planes or spokeshaves… Despite a fresh edge or not. Quite puzzling.
I know I have a lot to learn…
Every image you post of Hannah Matthews’ work is fantastic. Very inspiring.
Understanding wood. That is an adventure that will last a life time and reward you with the beauty that is beneath the bark.
Thanks Paul. Wonderful post. I like trying different woods for all the reasons you mention. This quite self-discovery how different woods behave at the bench brings me much joy.
Whenever I am making bulk gifts such as crosses, your small server trays, etc, I always look to get lots of different woods just to see how they behave. Rather recently, I got some Yew, African Mahagony, and Alaskan Cedar for some gifts I am making this year. Can’t wait to work with them.
After a scrutinous reading of “relating” and “winding sticks”, the world needs to know the depth of passion and dedication Paul Sellers and his art. I am truly inspired and simultaneously in awe of this living legend. Genius !!!!
By your early comments in the article I assume you do not use a Brad nail gun in furniture construction. I am considering buying one. Any thoughts on this matter.
I have just started doing primarily hand woodworking. I am trying to turn a common #1 Southern Yellow Pine 2″ x 12″ into a free-standing shelf for the bar between our kitchen and living room. While all of it comes from a single 16′ board the changes in the wood are many and interesting. The wood is teaching me much about itself. And as I have worked it, I have gotten to know a lot of what you speak about in this post plus what you have talked about in many of your videos. I look forward to working other woods into useful articles and what they will teach me.
hi paul (or others),
i’ve been making spoons from celery top pine. there is one bit of celery top pine that feels heavier/denser, and works beautifully. Another bit of celery top pine from a different seller/tree weighs less (per metre), and splinters and splits a LOT. It seems to be “drier” than the nice bit of celery pine, but appears otherwise visually much the same.
When i make stuff out of pallet wood, there are sometimes bits of wood that appear extra ‘dry’, and i have noticed these also splinter and split a lot.
does wood behave so radically differently due to just different moisture content… or is this notion misconceived, and in fact the wood is splintery or not due to the way the tree initially grew etc (which is not modifiable)?
Can a bit of wood be ‘over-dried’ for pleasurable woodworking?
And then can moisture be added back to make the wood more pleasing to work (eg if i put it in a bucket of water for a week, dried for a day, worked the wood, then let it dry properly)?
apologies in advance if these seem dumb questions, or i havent managed to quite communicate accurately, but any answers from community appreciated. kind rgds paul
This is so true and so much fun (to learn). As a complete novice (working for about 6 months now) i find that working with cross grained pieces, especially in exotic woods like wenge, ebony and rosewoods, you have to be reeeeally careful, take mimimal cuts, try all plaining directions if necessary and sharpen (or at least polish) every 10 minutes.
Most of the time i screw something up and have to find a different way to approach it. But this is how you learn and it is so much fun.
Thank you Mr sellers for everything.
I’ve just had a yew tree cut down by tree surgeon who said it wasn’t worth using for woodwork. I’m going to rescue it after reading your early comments about this wood, Paul. Should I just keep the pieces of trunk and larger branches and if so for how long? Just till they feel dried out?
You haven’t said if the Yew “pieces of trunk” are still in the round, or already split with the bark still on or not. However large in diameter these logs, limbs and branches may be, they should be stored off the ground, sticker’d every 16″ to 24″, covered with a sheet of weighted down plywood that overhangs by about 2′ and the ends have to be sealed with a wax-emulsion paint like Anchorseal© to keep the ends from drying too quickly and (usually) splitting. You could also wrap around the stack with shade cloth (found in Garden Centers), or burlap as an additional layer of weather protection that still allows airflow.
Intriguing idea. I’m tempted to start cataloguing.
On a slightly related note I recently worked some oak that gave me a bit of unexpected tear out. The surprising thing though was the day after the tear out was worse (albeit recoverable). Is this some kind of moisture related shrinkage?
Unfortunately I’m not a fan of Beech – I’m one of those that finds it a bit plain. But more Importantly I had incorporated some in a large chopping boards and found, around a year later, that a number on of (to me) inexplicable small cracks appeared seemingly at random.
Anyway, I’ll root through my offcuts and take some shavings of various woods while plane setting.
The cracks are almost certainly medullary rays, obvious cells occurring visibly as cellular structures in some wood species like beech and oak. They appear as lines emanating as perpendicular flashes across the growth rings and in a transverse section, end grain, they appear as radiating lines from the centre point of the tree. These cells often part when wood expands and contracts and as cutting boards this can be considerable especially if the wood is slipped into the dish water or is perpetually soaked then dried, soaked then dried.
Yes makes sense now. The beech I used was from an older solid face grain beech block that had split so must’ve seen a good amount of exposure to water over time.
Next project on my list is the wall hung drinks cabinet but I wanted a base unit too so I think I’ll adapt the tv stand one to the same style.
Wow. A lot of information. I’ll be reading this a few times more for sure. Thank you Paul.
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