Understanding Wood

As you strive to improve your mastery of woodworking, much of your attention will be devoted to learning about tools and the techniques for using them.  But in your quest for perfection, do note neglect the most fundamental component of every project--the wood itself.

Rarely perfect and always varying, each piece of wood exhibits its own character, just as certainly as a human being:  Some woods are plain, some colorful, some are stable, some unpredictable; some work easily, some with difficulty.  A knowledge of these properties will allow you to make the most of your abilities, achieving a wedding of form, substance and technique that can transform even an ordinary project into a work of art.

You can obtain much factual information about properties of wood in readily available books and articles.  Learning to apply that knowledge is more challenging.  For example, the knowledge that maple boards may contain wide variations in color, texture, and figure will assume greater meaning as you learn to use these characteristics to best advantage.  Likewise, although Douglas-fir is an attractive, easily worked wood, variations in its surface porosity can make it difficult to finish well.  But when you learn how to seal the wood, you will find many uses for Douglas-fir.  Experience will also tell you that a resilient wood such as pine is more forgiving of less precise joinery, while dense, brittle species such as mahogany demand joints that are cut to close tolerances.  And every beginner quickly learns that sanding wood across the grain, rather than parallel to it, results in scratches that are accentuated when a finish is applied to the piece.

Remember, too, that how a particular piece of wood behaves in your shop depends in large measure on what happened to it before it reached the lumberyard.  How the wood grew in the the tree, the weather the tree endured and how the wood was cut and dried all effect the final product.  The wood of a leaning tree, for example, will react differently during machining than that sawn for the trunk of an erect tree.  And whether a board is quarter sawn or plain-sawn has an impact on its dimensional ability.

One way to obtain intimate knowledge of your material is to saw it yourself from a tree using a portable lumber mill.  Selecting and felling a tree, bucking--or crosscutting--it into logs, and milling the planks impart a hands-on understanding that is impossible to acquire any other way.  The work is arduous, and it also takes considerable time to cut and dry the boards.  But the rewards--both in the unique lumber produced and the personal satisfaction in producing it--are well worth the effort.