As you strive to improve your mastery of the demanding craft 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 not 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 the 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 tree, the weather the tree endured and how the wood was cut and dried all affect the final product. The wood of a leaning tree, for example, will react differently during machining than that sawn from the trunk of an erect tree. And whether a board is quartersawn or plain-sawn has an impact on its dimensional stability.
One way to obtain intimate knowledge of your material is to saw it yourself from a tree using a portable lumber mill (page 36). 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.
A stand of Douglas-fir trees basks in the sunlight in a West Coast forest. Many softwoods, like Douglas - fir, are ideal for interior trim or cabinet work.
Harvested from the trunks and branches of trees, wood is a resilient, dynamic building material. Understanding how trees grow can shed considerable light on why wood behaves as it does when it is worked or finished.
All trees consist of three major systems: a root network that draws water and minerals from the soil; a crown of leaves, where water and minerals are combined with carbon dioxide in the presence of sunlight to produce food for the tree (photosynthesis); and—of most interest to woodworkers—a supporting trunk that transports the water and food.
Viewed in cross section, a tree trunk at first appears to be a fairly homogenous column of wood, marked by a series of concentric bands called growth rings. However, a close view reveals a series of distinct layers wrapped around each other, some living, some not. At the center is the heartwood, the densest—and dead—part of the trunk. Encircling the heartwood is the paler sapwood, which in turn is surrounded by the cambium, the trunk’s only actively growing segment. The cambium’s growth accounts for the layers of sap - wood that are added each year. On either side of the cambium are layers that transport sap throughout the tree and store surplus food. As the inner sapwood recedes from the cambium, its pores gradually clog with resins and gums, and become heartwood. As the outer sections become dormant, they form a trunk’s outermost layer, the bark.
The differences between sapwood and heartwood are important to every woodworker. Because it is more porous than heartwood, sapwood absorbs finishes better. But the denser heartwood is usually more durable and decay-resistant. The carbohydrates present in sapwood cells make the wood vulnerable to fungi and insects. The colors of heartwood are also generally richer and more vibrant than those of sapwood.
A concentric ring divided into earlywood and latewood indicating the amount of wood added to a tree’s diameter in one growing season
Active part of the tree’s wood through which water and minerals are conducted from the roots to the leaves; also stores nutrients and helps to support the tree
A thick slice from the trunk of a mature oak forms an oval-shaped tabletop. The growth rings that characterized this tree are clearly visible: Light-colored earlywood alternates with darker bands of latewood, etching a distinct line between each year’s growing periods.