I had a very interesting experience recently when I taught a class for the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers. The class, named “Selecting Hardwoods for Your Project”, was proposed by Chip Webster, who chairs the Guild’s education committee. Chip originally floated the idea nearly three years ago to another Portland-area woodworking school, but the school was never able to drum up enough students to make the class economically viable. So he proposed it for the Guild, and the class was held a few weeks ago.
The first half of the class was a discussion during which we talked about the influence of design on lumber selection. I was intrigued by the various techniques the students use to pick out their lumber. As I listened to one of the attendees describe his technique, I realized that the woodworker likely came to this process by reading Fine Woodworking, Popular Woodworking, or one of the other publications delivered to our mailboxes every other month.
His technique involved sketching out each of his project’s workpieces and then assembling the sketches into the shape of a stick of lumber:
At the lumber yard, he searched for a piece of lumber in the bin that had the required dimensions, and added that stick to his cart. As I thought through this process, I realized that the publications we subscribe to might be doing a disservice to many readers, because this selection process is a lesson readers take away from some of the project-based articles. Thinking about this on the drive home after class, I recalled many articles that included the same sort of graphic seen above. What’s wrong with this technique? It omits any consideration of the graphics – the “figure” of the wood, and how that figure plays into our design. It’s just a way to buy enough wood.
I also remembered the recent debate, both online and in one of the publications, about the value of cut lists. During the class many of the students agreed that they calculate their stock requirements extremely closely – some trying to get within one-half board foot. I wondered if there was a tie-in between the cut lists and their lumber selection processes.
Wood is precious, yes. It is also a renewable resource: every year, every tree gets a little bit larger. New trees sprout from seeds, and many people – including a great many woodworkers and those who supply wood to us – plant new trees every year. I count myself in this group, and you should too. Each year I collect acorns, and start them in small pots. Those that sprout get planted in my yard in spring. Long after I’m gone, my front yard will be a grove of Oregon white oak, with some Douglas-fir thrown in for good measure.
We’re not in danger of running out of wood. I do not advocate being wasteful. I am as guilty as the next woodworker of hoarding wood, holding onto little cutoffs and slivers that clutter my bench and shop that should have found the burn pile long ago. I have also seen trees that should never be cut down, but should be allowed to die on their own schedule, and left where they fall. But through all of this I have come to realize that there is a more valuable commodity than wood. That commodity is our time.
The value of our time is measured in several ways. For most woodworkers, any time spent with tools and wood is time well spent. It becomes paradoxical that as much as we love our shop time, we hurry to complete our projects. Might that be related to the frenetic pace of our non-woodworking lives? Hurry to work in the morning, hurry home, and rush to get the boy to football or the daughter to dance. Find the time to change the oil. Spend time with the spouse. When the pace of your life is governed by the second hand on your clock, is it any wonder that the same pace continues in the shop?
One byproduct of speed is injury. We all know that. Another is a mis-cut workpiece. And if we have calculated out material requirements precisely, how do we make up for the mistake? Another trip to the lumberyard. Often, too much rushing produces work that won’t last. Work that won’t stand the test of time. Work that maybe shouldn’t last?
Before we go to select our material, we should take the time to design. We should visualize what, in the best of all worlds, our project would look like. Before you make the first mark with your charcoal on the sketch pad, you’re at the very top of the design funnel. No limits: your possibilities are limitless.
The closer you get to finalizing your design, the closer you are to the narrowest part of the funnel. And once you’ve selected the wood you’re at the top of the funnel’s spout. As soon as you cut the material wood into the component work-pieces, your design options are gone. From this point on, you’re a technician, doing the very best you can with the decisions you’ve already made and executed. You are done designing.
Do we carefully consider the desired graphics of each of the components? Are we making a paneled door for a cabinet? What statement should the panel make? Are we looking for the relative calm of straight-grained Douglas fir, or a bolder statement? Have we carefully selected stock for the rails and stiles in a way that does not conflict with our design intent?So many questions to answer.
Questions cannot be answered if they are not asked. That’s why, for me anyway, shopping for wood is designing, or part of it. If I have done a good job of visualizing the project, maybe making a small sketch with a little bit of detail, I will have a guide that helps me pick out boards that will help me translate an idea into an object. If all I have is the project – “cabinet”, “table”, “box” – but have no idea what it should look like – then I am lost if I go to the lumber yard. I need the vision first. And If I can’t fine the wood I need, what then? Buy whatever is available? Go somewhere else? Go home empty-handed and return another day? What impact do these decisions have on the final result? Will I regret the choice, or be glad?
Sometimes it’s the other way around. Occasionally you come upon a plank of exceptional beauty, and neither you nor the wood knows what it wants to be. While you can certainly force the issue, you won’t be happy with the result. An obvious example: flat-sawn wood does not do well as rails or stiles for a panel door. The graphics of that wood are not well-suited to frame the panel. Straight-grained, rift-sawn wood is often a better choice. Use the flat-sawn pieces in the panel instead. Bring home the beautiful plank, if you can afford it. Stare at it for a while. Eventually you’ll know what it, or parts of it, should be.
The point of all of this is that a trip to the lumberyard can either be a logical and planned step in the translation from concept to object, or it can be a brick wall that abruptly stops that journey. You’re either carrying out your design (by thoughtfully selecting the wood to execute it) or you’re constructing barriers between design and execution (your material selection imposes limits rather than possibilities).
Good work requires thought, deliberation and time. Thoughtful, sensitive wood selection makes your valuable shop time more rewarding, and helps to ensure your effort results in a piece that really should last for generations.
Our days are limited, and our shop time is, and so is our shop’s output. Each thing we make should really be the best we are capable of.