- A Splintered History of Wood: Belt-Sander Races, Blind Woodworkers, and Baseball Bats
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Few large-scale efforts, public or private, are being made to replant cherry, walnut, and other hard- woods for the woodworkers who will be crafting fine furniture two hundred years from now. One forest there has been managed since North American plans are based more on thirty- to sixty- year cycles. In areas where trench warfare raged during World War I, the mills carry shrapnel in- surance.
Along the same lines, he talks of a walnut tree he cut in Westchester, Penn- sylvania. But it turns out a pre- vious owner had owned a caliber machine gun and used the tree for target practice. The tree was absolutely loaded with caliber bullets. Though perhaps a bit overzealous in his admiration of the species, William Bryant Logan, in Oak: The Frame of Civilization, states: For ten thousand years — oak was the prime resource of what was to become the Western World.
Because of its strength it was the preferred material for building the ships that ex- plored the New World. Because it was easily split and long lasting, it was used for fencing, which helped domesticate animals. Because of its denseness and easy workability, it was used for the gears of the earliest machines — windmills, waterwheels, clocks, and mills. It was used for barrels, which transported bulk items for trade and consump- tion.
It was used for furniture, roads, heat, and buildings. The bark was used for tanning leather. Brickmakers, glassblowers, ceramists, and iron makers all used prodigious amounts of oak char- coal. It was used for refining sugar, boiling soap, and burning the lime required for mortar. It was the natural gas of the classical, medieval, and Renaissance worlds. Balanocultures — cultures that have relied heavily on acorn consumption for survival — have been found worldwide and throughout history. Ovid, Lucretius, and Pliny all mention acorns as a splendid food source. The Chinese still whip up a wicked acorn stew, the Turks a hot acorn-based drink called racahout, the Spaniards an acorn liqueur and olive oil substitute.
One California-focused study concluded that acorns could have fed Native American villages of up to a thousand people and that two to three years worth of acorns could be gathered and stored in just a few weeks — not surprising, given that a single large oak can bear up to pounds of acorns. Oak produces another surprising progeny. Cork is harvested from the bark of the evergreen cork oak, which grows primarily in Portu- gal, Spain, southern France, Italy, and North Africa.
People have used cork for five thousand years for items ranging from simple floats used by Chinese fishermen to sandals worn by ancient Greeks. Cork can last decades, even centuries, as witnessed by the seventy-year-old cork floors found at the St. Paul Public Library. After the tree has reached the age of twenty years, cork is normally harvested on seven- to nine-year cycles. There are somewhere between two hundred and four hundred fifty species of oak, about half of them being evergreen.
We love oak so much that it is the official national tree of the United States, Germany, and Great Britain. Oaks are planted in cycles lasting a hundred and fifty years or more. Three or four generations of beech trees are har- vested to provide income during the time it takes an oak to mature, but each oak is allowed to reach its prime. It is so versatile that its name crops up in nearly every chapter of this book. One characteristic that makes wood unique is that even a single piece of wood is variable unto itself.
If you take a cubic foot of most things — water, plastic, iron, Jell-O, Styrofoam, or granite — place it in a vise, and squeeze, it will react the same way no matter which sides of the cube are between the jaws. But not wood; wood is anisotro- pic and heterogeneous. Depending on which way you place it in the vise — or drill it, dry it, stretch it, glue it, screw it, plane it, cut it, or almost-anything it — it will react differently.
It even looks different from surface to surface. There you can be amused by an entire freak show of woods — a display that includes the arboreal counterparts of the fat man, Leopard Girl, and Tom Thumb. Weight and density. Specific grav- ity is a ratio used to compare the weight of oven-dried wood with that of an equal volume of water. The heaviest of the heavyweights are certain tropical ironwoods a generic, not a scientific, name with a specific gravity of 1.
A Splintered History of Wood: Belt-Sander Races, Blind Woodworkers, and Baseball Bats
The wood of the canyon live oak was so invincible that it was used by early pioneers for crafting both splitting wedges and the mauls that whacked them. Some of the hardest hardwoods register 2. Hardness is closely related to density, which is closely related to weight. The lightest of the lightweights is the Cuban wood Aeschy nomene hispida, with a specific gravity of 0. The tree grows fast, dies young, and lives wet.
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The trees are ready for harvesting by the age of seven and begin rotting in their early teens unless harvested and dried. The name Roy G. Biv should ring a bell — at least if you were paying attention to the mnemonic taught in grade school to help memorize the colors of the visible spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. One can come close to creating this rain- bow of colors with woods of the natural world. Red you could glean from the redwood or incense cedar.
Orange you could pluck from the Osage orange or yew. Yellow could be whit- tled from the yellow poplar or yellow buckeye. Green could be shaved from the magnolia. The sapwood, colored by a blue-staining fungus, is even marketed by one company as Denim Wood. Indigo and violet could be requisitioned from purpleheart.
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If one wished to add the color that represents all the colors of the spec- trum, one would need to add holly for white. And if one wished to represent no color at all, one would select black ebony. It is extractives — the chemicals that work their way into the heartwood belly of the tree as it ages — that produce the richest colors. Different genetic traits and environmental factors produce different extractives, which produce different colors in different woods.
Some colorations are quite distinctive and specific; some lumber buyers specializing in African mahogany can reportedly tell which area and port a specific log came from, on the basis of differences in color in the heartwood. A cocobolo board I have perched on my desk has white sapwood that butts up to the deep red-brown heartwood with absolutely zero hem- ming and hawing in between. Purpleheart morphs from purple to brown when exposed to light and air; eastern red cedar can do just the opposite.
For a slab of wood to be branded as figured, three fac- tors come into play: 1 the type of aberration, 2 the way the aberrant section of wood is cut, and 3 whether one perceives it as beautifully figured or something defective to be thrown on the scrap pile. One hallmark of most figured woods is a three-dimensionality and translucency.
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Blistered, ribbon stripe, snail quilt, and lace figure are a few of the less common types of figure. Here are a few of the more common.
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Exactly what this dull pencil is in nature is unknown. Fungi, soil conditions, stunted growth, and other causes have been suggested, but none have been proved.
And yet, ul- timately, it remains a mystery. The look is not unlike that of the amoebalike figures projected over the stage during a s Grateful Dead light show. Temperature, humidity, type of fungi, and chemical reactions all affect the end result. Once the wood is kiln-dried, fungi can no longer grow, and the spalting becomes frozen in time. The key is to catch the wood after the magic has begun but before it gets too punky. Place a freshly cut 2- to 3 -foot long log upright on the bare ground, place a mound of dirt on the top end, and cover it loosely with black plastic.
Keep it at a temperature between 60 and 80 degrees F. When the right amount of spalt has been attained, lower the humid- ity level to stop the progress then dry it. B urls are the geodes of the woodworking world: baffling in their creation, plain-jane or outright ugly on the outside, but often magnifi- cent when cut open to reveal the mystery within. Burls are often described as a cancerous growth — and this description may not be too far from the truth.
Most appear to be some type of genetic flaw that manifests itself in the form of a knoblike outgrowth. They can occur on any tree, anywhere, but are commonly found on elm, walnut, cherry, redwood, oak, and again our old friend and free-spirited maple. On the basis of arti- facts, kings and queens of bygone days seem to have been particularly fond of burlwood items. Really, the ugliest thing about burls may be their alleged involvement in introducing Dutch elm disease into the United States; the disease may have come over from France in the s when elm burl was being imported to create veneer for the fur- niture industry.
Quilted figure is revealed when wood with wavy grain is flat sawn. The overall effect is a surface with a soft, cumulus cloud- like appearance. Again, it is a maple — this time, bigleaf maple — in which this pattern most frequently manifests itself. Blister figure is the miniaturized form of quilted figure, and quittle is the nickname bestowed upon wood that has a blend of both quilted and curly figure. Wavy, ribbon, and curly grain are by-products of spiral grain that reverses itself periodically as a tree grows to produce something called interlocked grain. Visually these boards have a washboard effect, and as the varied grain intersects the wood surface and light at differ- ent angles, a hologram-type of depth emerges.
And the list goes on. Bear scratch figure forms when growth rings are indented. Crotch figure reveals itself when the crotch or branch of a tree is cut lengthwise. And it is this rich, rare, one- of-a-kind figure that is the golden grail from which woodworkers can create works of unspeakable beauty — and for which hardwood deal- ers can charge unspeakable prices. Scientific study is lacking; trees do not fit in test tubes, and rare is the scientist who has the patience, foresight, and funding to conduct a thirty-year-long experiment, with little chance of monitoring progress along the way, and no way of determining results without a chainsaw.
There have been a few successful attempts at growing or stimu- lating figure. Wilkinson grafted cuttings from a figured walnut tree and saw evi- dence in the offspring twenty-two years later.
But for the most part, figure remains a mystery. Wood knocks on all of our senses, including smell. Blind- folded, nearly everyone can detect incense cedar; average woodwork- ers can often sniff out sassafras, red cedar, and Douglas fir; and avid woodworkers with a keen nose can detect the subtle aroma of catalpa, teak, and other woods they commonly work.