Southern Yellow Pine vs. Douglas-Fir vs. Etc.

One effect of my cross-country move from the San Francisco bay area to Maryland is that I now have easier access to more types of wood. In particular, I can get southern yellow pine (SYP, also called simply “yellow pine” by actual southerners). Even if the local supplies of it are kind of weird, there are big-box stores carrying it within a 2-hour drive.

Since I finished one substantial laminated-top project (the “auxiliary bench”) with SYP along with a few other utility pieces, I have now used it in addition to a bunch of other woods for workbench construction. I asked some friends back in California if they were interested in my thoughts on SYP now that I’ve had a chance to work on it, and they said, “yeah, why not?”

Here’s what I will survey:

  • Southern yellow pine
  • Douglas-fir (several varieties)
  • Beech (F. sylvatica and F. grandifolia work similarly)
  • Soft maple

To recap the Chris Schwarz book, you’re not looking for the “perfect” wood when building a bench. You generally want something that’s reasonably heavy, reasonably stiff, and cheap. That last bit is important because you’ll use a lot of wood on a bench, and you’re also probably going you beat the crap out of it as well. Workability also helps, especially if you plan to use a lot of hand tools.

Southern Yellow Pine

When Christopher Schwarz first started to research workbenches, he was lucky to have a source of cheap wood that he wouldn’t feel bad about consuming and mauling with abandon. Or perhaps we were the lucky ones. Things might be very different for all of us if he had no access to southern yellow pine in his local big-box stores. Even in those retailers, which tend to be overpriced for lumber, this stuff is currently running between 50 and 75 cents per board-foot.

So it’s cheap, it’s stiff, it’s usually pretty heavy, and you can get it in wide, thick sizes. The 2×12 is the go-to size; if the pith runs through it, in clear enough pieces, you can slice that out and have good quartersawn stuff as a result.

Moreover, it’s sold dry. This is a requirement: If you don’t kiln-dry yellow pine, the sap/pitch makes for a wretched sticky mess. Even when dried, it’s still possible to run into “pitch pockets” with clumps of goo that hasn’t fully set into resin.

You gotta clear that stuff out. Ick.

So you’re thinking that there’s got to be a catch. There are two principal issues:

  • It’s not available in many parts of the country. Well, at least if it’s not pressure-treated.
  • You might need to pay attention to the latewood.

At this point, I should mention that there are several different kinds of “southern” yellow pine. The kind that you’re most likely to get commercially is loblolly pine, and that’s what we’ll concentrate on.

So let’s talk about those growth rings. Many woods have a substantial difference between the so-called earlywood (sometimes called springwood) and latewood (summerwood) in their annular rings, but in SYP (and douglas-fir, which we’ll get to soon), it’s dramatic. Simply put, the earlywood is fairly soft and the latewood is dense and tough.

This varies from tree to tree. There’s a lot of detailed information on the factors in publications like Summary on Growth in Relation to Quality of Southern Yellow Pine by B. Paul and D. Smith, 1956, USDA Forest Service, Forest Product Laboratory Report No. 1751. It’s best if you get a feel for it in practice.

The factor that you’ll feel the most is the latewood, especially when working with hand tools. In some boards, the latewood will be really tough. You’ll also get a wide variety of early- and latewood quantity per annual ring. This view of the side of the new bench should give you the idea:

The pieces with the smaller annual rings (often with the thinnest latewood sections) were the toughest to deal with. Strangely, the third from the left with the very thick sections of latewood was not too bad.

By “tough to deal with,” there are two difficulties, at least that I noticed. One was simply that when planing or chopping or whatever, the tougher ones tell you when you needed to sharpen your blade because it just refuses to work. The other problem is that when ripping, your saw can track the latewood grain. Here’s the offcut from a large tenon cheek where this sort of thing can occur:

The earlywood is generally pleasant to work. It’s not as soft as, say, eastern white pine or that radiata stuff, but it’s not a bear, either. It’ll mush and smash up (for example, when chopping) if your tools aren’t particularly sharp, but it’s not a big deal.

Most softwoods have a higher tendency to “spelch,” that is, splinter out of an end when cutting across the grain. SYP varies in this respect, but it’s not terrible. Though it’s very stiff, the fibers deform pretty evenly. Flattening the new bench (going cross-grain with a jointer plane) was the easiest flattening job that I’ve ever done. It might have helped that the bench was pretty flat to begin with, but it was a smooth, even motion, and the shavings were very uniform.

To give you an idea of what you can expect, I took the smoothing plane shown earlier (and later), and just went at this endgrain with its 45-degree blade. This is pretty close-up; the piece is about 1/2″ thick:

SYP machines really well. Here’s a sub-1mm offcut that I took with the bandsaw; this is actually two pieces glued together:

This was with a pretty aggressive “Wood Slicer” blade.

There is one thing I wonder about yellow pine. Supposedly, the jeffery pine that you see up in the Sierras is a yellow pine. It gets really big. Could it have properties like this? Not that I have any idea how you’d get any, especially kiln-dried. Maybe someone has an operation up there. Or maybe it would be like (or even sold as) ponderosa pine, as this is also a yellow pine.

Douglas-Fir

Oh, douglas-fir, what a tangled web we weave.

First off, Pseudotsuga menziesii, you are not a fir, and that is why I put the dash in your name. You should probably be called Douglas Weirdofreak, but I suppose that we’d need approval from Pseudotsuga wilsoniana, or whatever that thing is being classified as these days. OK, I digress.

The wood, being very stiff and strong, has many uses, such as wooden boatbuilding, where it can be used for many purposes, including masts. As far as most people are concerned, most of the douglas-fir available for purchase is for construction and framing. This makes it somewhat inexpensive, but it’s still not as cheap as SYP.

And it’s almost invariably sold green. Quite green. For the benchbuilder, this is obnoxious for several reasons: It’s going to shrink and move a lot when it dries, so after acquisition, you’re going to have to wait a while for that to happen, at least a little. It hard to gauge how heavy individual pieces are because they’re sopping wet. The earlywood is even mushier than usual.

Here is a piece of real bottom-of-the-barrel construction-grade douglas-fir, from the 2×4 (stud) pile:

You probably don’t want to build a bench with that kind of stuff. The annular rings are huge, they’re always from the worst part of the tree. and there is a lot of earlywood without much latewood. The good news is that, as is the case with SYP, if you make a foray over to the wide pieces like the 2x12s, you find better stuff. You’re going to have to be picky, as usual. Wilbur Pan built a fantastic Roubo out of 4x4s; he took his time collecting the pieces he needed.

If you’re lucky, you can find another grade of douglas-fir. This is sometimes called “old-growth” (and sometimes it is), and at other times it’s just called “clear.” In the photo below, the three pieces on the left were sold as “clear”. I got them at Minton’s in Mountain View, which has unfortunately been out of business for several years:

The two pieces with the holes in them were stretchers on my very first bench before I replaced them with wider stuff. They came dry and extremely well-dimensioned.

The two pieces on the right may look similar, but they are of much different origin. They were reclaimed from an old warehouse in San Francisco, and came to me by way of Bill K., to whom I’m very grateful. I built the Screwbo out of that stuff, and a friend back out in San Francisco recently completed a cousin bench that he calls the Jacques Roubo from the same source.

But wait–there’s more. What if I told you that there was douglas-fir with even tighter annular rings? Well, get a load of this:

That square sitting on top is metric (a.k.a. “sensible”), and each tick is 1mm. I found this board dumpster diving while a neighbor in SF was renovating. When I pulled it out, it was covered in some sort of contact paper and had been originally used as a shelf. (I’ve been working on making it into some kind of box for years now, but clearly not working terribly hard at it.)

OK, it’s stiff and strong, but will dent, especially while green. So far, on paper, this is pretty similar to SYP. But what happens when you take tools to it?

Mostly, it’s not too bad. Douglas-fir saws pretty well, and planing it works fine, too. If you like to pound nails into stuff, doing that when it’s is green is super easy.

However, there are two elements of working this wood that drive people nuts. The first is that it spelches horribly. Observe what happened when I did the same thing with the smoothing plane that I did earlier:

All of my woodworking buddies out west know what I mean. Douglas-fir doesn’t just blow out at the ends. The fiber bond fails at a substantial distance from the end, and the wood really wants to follow the shake a long ways down (like being riven). The result is a mess of appalling huge splinters and chunks cracking off of the end. It will do this if you so much as look at it funny. I’m not sure why this is; it might have something to do with how strangely “dry” it feels to the touch. Redwood also pulls this stunt to a certain extent, for whatever that’s worth.

This effect is worst in green wood and gets marginally better as it dries and ages, but it’s still awful. The piece above is 100+ years old. It’s so bad that you have to be extremely cautious even when sawing boards to length–especially with a hand saw. If you don’t take the protective measure of rotating and sawing in from all corners before completing a cut, it’ll snap off badly, invariably in the most ugly way possible.

Still, with this awareness, you can prevent bad splintering, at least until some assclown mover decides to bang the underside edge of your benchtop onto the concrete.

The other thing that I dislike about working douglas-fir is how it has a tendency to wear your tools. Green stuff is OK, but the old stuff is especially cruel to your edges. You just seem to sharpen constantly. I ran into this when using my scrub plane to dimension the pieces of my bench, and that’s not a tool that usually needs a lot of sharpening. Just take a look at what it did to the sole of that plane:

Think twice about taking a woodie to douglas-fir.

It machines OK, just be careful about what kinds of blades (or whatever) you use. I imagine that the carbide-tipped stuff does a lot better against the old stuff.

Still, this is an extremely versatile wood and should not be discounted when building a bench or in any kind of utility work. It’s extremely stable when dry, not moving much under different humidity conditions. I wouldn’t think twice about using it for a workbench base even if I were dead-set on a hardwood top. Speaking of which…

Beech

Now I’m going to talk briefly about two other woods that I’ve used in benches. The first is beech, which is pretty traditional for Europeans. It’s moderately hard, fairly heavy, and stiff. As with the softwoods we’ve just talked about, the fiber structure is quite fine, so you’re not likely to get crud caught up in places.

Beech is a go-to utility wood in Europe. It’s been well-managed there for a long time, and they do all sorts of stuff, like coppicing and so on. So it’s readily available and inexpensive there, and there’s pretty much no reason not to use it for benchmaking, at least if you’ve got it. The species that grows over here in North America is similar, but it’s rarely harvested, perhaps because we have trees such as the soft maples that are easier to manage. Still, you might find a sawmill that’s sawn one up.

For some unknown reason, beech happens to be one of my favorite woods, and I’m always interested in picking some up. There’s something about the grain that I like, but I can’t really put my finger on it.

That’s not to say, though, that beech is my favorite wood to work. It’s not too bad, but it will put up more of a fight when planing and chiseling than something like cherry or walnut. I also don’t like it when the grain reverses (sometimes old knots telegraph through in weird ways), but that’s at least rare. I personally wouldn’t use it for a bench unless I had ready access to a lot of it.

It’s really easy to machine.

Soft Maple

The last wood that I’m going to talk about for benchmaking is not an obvious one. When people think of a maple bench, they think of hard maple, because, you know… it’s really hard. When I think of hard maple, I think of a wood that’s a royal pain in the butt because it’s so freakin’ hard. It also isn’t cheap.

Soft maple, on the other hand, can be a joy to work as long as the grain doesn’t be a big ol’ jerk and reverse. It’s usually not as hard as something like beech, but it’s no pushover. And it’s also relatively inexpensive for a hardwood–we can’t compare it to something like SYP in that regard. You’re also more likely to find big cuts of at a sawmill than beech.

When I was looking for a hardwood to line the ends of my auxiliary bench (just like I used beech on the front of the Screwbo), a board of soft maple immediately caught my attention. I’d picked it up at the lumberyard for odd jobs.

Auxiliary Workbench: Getting Started

With the coffee table in the finishing stage, it’s time to move on to the next thing. I haven’t quite figured out what the next furniture project will be, but I do have a fairly immediate need in the shop for something to help out with a number of tasks, including assembly, storage, and miscellaneous kinds of work.

There are a few partial solutions to this problem, including framing up a wall to add some shelves for storage, but due to current events, I don’t think I’ll be getting the help I’d prefer with the framing down there.

So I think I’m going to make another workbench, meant as an auxiliary to the Screwbo. The reasoning is that it will solve the immediate organizational problems, and then when I get around to framing the wall or something, I can move the new bench to another part of the shop, where I already know it will be useful.

To that end, I picked through my hoard today to get some wood to get the frame started:

This is southern yellow pine. I don’t have a good source of it here (apparently the closest big-box source is in Richmond), but the borg nearby has “project wood” that happens to be SYP. The catch is that, due to bad planning, it’s cut into three-and-four-foot lengths.

The length should be OK, because I’m imagining something perhaps around three and a half feet (1060mm or so) long. I haven’t decided on the benchtop thickness yet.

This will be the first “big” thing that I’ve done in SYP. I made a stand with it about a year ago and was happy the way that turned out (even if it was sort of a quickie).

In any case, it’s a fair amount of wood to mill. Time to get rolling.

New Large Tenon Saw

In my previous post, I briefly mentioned that I’d filed the plate of a new saw. I have now completed that saw; it’s a large tenon saw.

This particular project has been lagging for a long time. I’d gotten the plate and back from Mike Wenzloff several years ago, but they sat in a box for years. Finally, I filed the plate back in April. It’s 19″ long, and I filed it at 10TPI rip, with zero degrees of rake. Then it sat for a few more months until an informal gathering with some friends in June.

I decided to get started on the handle then. The wood is allegedly “Peruvian Pepper Tree” (Shinus molle); it comes from a piece that a local brought to a BAGathon several years ago and has been bouncing around several subsequent gatherings. I don’t really know if this is actually the wood here or not, but whatever; here’s a photo of the roughing-out process at my friend’s (awesome) shop:

(Later on in the day, I would get to use his Versa Vise. Very nice!)

This wood isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever worked, but it’s certainly got its quirks, namely wavy, reversing, interlocked grain (much to our amusement, as we initially tried to rive it with a froe). It’s about as hard as beech. I found it easiest to smooth it out with a scraper. Even then, I didn’t take a whole lot of care smoothing out the final surface, figuring that it would get dinged up anyway. (This hypothesis was quickly confirmed when I dropped it on the floor as I was just completing the rubout of the finish.)

I was initially going to use a Kenyon pattern for the handle, but decided on a Disston pattern at the last moment because I’ve been very happy with the comfort of the Disston-based patterns I’ve used in the past. I modernized certain parts (as I always do), but left this one mostly alone.

As usual, the finish is varnish. I used about five coats this time. The wood has some strange inclusions, but you can redefine those as “character.” Here’s a closeup of the completed handle.

The saw hardware is my usual (see here whoops, cross-reference broken for now). Here’s the whole saw:

All of this is fine and good, but does the saw work? I picked up a piece of the wood that I like to hate the most (some really hard birch), and checked to see if it could saw straight and quickly:

Hey, it wasn’t so bad at all. I came to my senses and switched to a bench hook to finish off this test cut:

Then I tried it on some less horrible woods. It slices through yellow-poplar like butter.

So it’s done. It would have been nice to have had this saw for the big tenons on the workbench project last year, but that’s the way it goes.

Five Years of Galoototron

It’s been five years since I made my first post on this blog. At that time, it was on Livejournal, and I was doing it just because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Apparently, I’m still posting, so because it’s been a nice “even” number of years since I started, I figure I ought to do a review post because I have nothing better to do.

(You won’t see too many of these posts on this blog, so bear with me.)

Before starting, I should mention something about the name of the blog. It doesn’t mean anything. It was just something that rolled off my tongue. It is a dippy name, it’s difficult to remember, and I’ve always been open to changing it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of anything better at the time, and that condition persists to this day.

The first post is my introduction, but perhaps there’s a little more that I can add to it. At that point, I had never done anything resembling semi-advanced woodworking. In hindsight, this was a natural time for me to start because I’d finally gotten some measure of stability in my life after years of grad school, moving across the country, working in crazy environments, and living in cramped places. I’d moved into that particular San Francisco apartment not too long before. It was nice and roomy, I lived alone, and I finally had some extra time. Sure, I’d like to have started earlier in life. I didn’t, so there’s no point in thinking about that.

Regarding tools: I don’t know what was going on in my mind, but I must have been researching old tools quite a bit. For example, how did I know that I needed to sharpen my own saws at that time? My initial tool list wasn’t too far-off. I still haven’t bought a shoulder plane unless you want to count the mini Veritas version. And although I have a miter box, I haven’t used it (I haven’t even sharpened the saw). But I had one special tool right-on, and that was the Winchester handsaw I’d picked up (but never used) in 2003, three years before starting. It was a long time before I actually sharpened that thing, but ever since, it’s really been one of my favorite tools.

That a very common style of saw is special to me may provide some insight into the type of woodworking that I like to do now. I feel that I went after too many planes in the beginning, and did not realize the amount of work that saws do. In time, I began to appreciate saws more and more, and even made a few of my own.

I thought that I would be very project-oriented when I first started. I had the idea to make bookshelves–perhaps I believed that I’d make them within a year? I was wrong. I still haven’t made a set of bookshelves (I did make a prototype). What I did instead was learn the process of milling wood and basic joints. The first larger thing that I put together was my workbench, followed by tools such as my mallet and scrub plane.

But about a year and a half into the process, I slowly made a dovetailed box, and that got things rolling. Though I didn’t have much time to work on it, that box went together more smoothly than I expected, and I still use it. By this time, things were changing in my life, and soon enough, I moved from the apartment to a house that actually had room for a shop. I spent the first few months trying to get organized there:

Then I started to build projects in earnest. The first big one was the shoe rack, which took some time but ultimately was a success. That was followed by the prototype bookshelf, the stool, and the first nightstand–I did all three of those projects in less than a year. At the same time, I made some shop improvements such as the saw till.

Incidentally, I switched the blog to the galoototron.com domain about a half-year after I moved to this shop. It was September 2009, and this shoe rack post was the first on the new domain. Before the switch, no one other than some family and friends knew about the blog, but then I started to tell a few more people (such as Luke Townsley at unpluggedshop.com) about it. Suddenly a lot more people than I really ever expected were reading this thing. That’s about as far as I ever went to promote it, though, and I don’t have plans to change that. I do appreciate all of the comments that I get from fellow woodworkers.

In retrospect, the two years I had in that shop were pivotal. I went from dorking around with tools and wood on a somewhat irregular basis to building projects. I gained speed and confidence in my joinery. The shop itself had a lot to do with this. No longer did I have to be completely fastidious about cleaning up after each session–I could leave a small amount of shavings or sawdust on the floor and it didn’t matter. Because I had enough room, I could put down my work at any time and pick it up again whenever I had the chance. This helped me establish a work pattern; I’d come home from work and have fun with a project for as little as 10 minutes or as much as an hour and a half before finishing for the day. I could even do a little in the morning before I went to work.

Of the projects I built in that shop, the nightstand seems like an obvious choice for a favorite, and it is. However, the little stool is a co-favorite:

The nightstand was the last project I completed there. Then, in the span of a few months, life got really busy, and after that, I moved again.

The new place also had room for a shop but it was more “raw”–as part of a garage, I really had to work to define the space. The old shop had room for me to put tools on tables all over the place. It was mostly disorganized, but I sort of knew where everything was, so I managed. There was no room for that in the new shop. To make up for it, I was allowed to hang cabinets, racks, and hooks on the walls and ceiling to my heart’s desire.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the new shop organized quickly enough for my taste. Part of this was a chicken-and-egg problem; the tool cabinet is an example of this. My first task in the new shop was to get some of the tools on the walls, and I had to finish the cabinet so that I could put tools in there. Unfortunately, my tools were all packed away in boxes (from the move) that surrounded the workbench. I really had no idea where anything in particular was and I didn’t have places to put them temporarily.

At the same time, I also had more furniture to make. The second nightstand project kicked off this year, and it turned out to be far more complicated and time-consuming than I expected. (And I’m still working on it, but I’m almost done.)

Every now and then, I add to the wall storage in the shop. That situation isn’t fully resolved (see below), but it is much better. Things are getting done, and I have to say that I prefer the new shop to the old one.

Also, I’m making a concerted effort to work out some of the annoying little stumbling blocks that I have to deal with from time to time. The two biggest problems I come across are tool and project storage (both temporary and permanent) and workholding. I have plans to solve those soon.

Going forward with projects, I have a long list in front of me. The most pressing, according to those in the know, is an entertainment center. We’re also looking at the rest of the living room–coffee table, bookshelves, who knows what. With the exception of our couch, the living room furniture is crap and it makes sense to concentrate on that room. Whatever I do, I’ve decided that I’m not going to make anything as brutally complicated as the second nightstand project(s) for a while.

But then again, I may just make more complicated things. Here’s how.

The title of this blog is no lie. Everything I do is by hand, and that includes stock preparation. I didn’t go down this road out of principle or some other similarly silly reason. I did it primarily out of interest and necessity–the apartment I once lived in was no place for power tools.

Unfortunately, it turns out that flattening, thicknessing, and resawing by hand is a lot of work. A large majority of my time and effort goes into stock preparation. That’s not even mentioning how much time I spend sharpening plane blades as I go. It’s getting out of hand. I can flatten a board quickly now (and wow am I glad I learned), resawing isn’t so incredibly horrible when you keep your saw blade sharp, but that last step of getting down to final thickness is totally bogus when you have to repeat it dozens of times, even with my scrub plane that can take off 1/16″ at a time.

So I think I’m going to get myself a stupid lunchbox-style thickness planer sometime in the new year. I’ll continue to flatten stuff by hand–it’s a great way to get to know the wood and the board that you’re about to use–but when it comes to getting that other side down to something reasonable, I won’t think twice about feeding it to a machine. I’ve got furniture to build and I do not have the time to lollygag.

However, the blog remains the same. The preceding paragraph (I hope) will be the only mention. I don’t plan to write about it when it happens, and I’ll continue to do all joinery by hand.

At this point, it would be remiss not to mention that I’ve had help. Schwarz says that the modern woodworker works alone and I think he’s wrong. Even if one never meets another woodworker in person, and even if one never takes part on a discussion forum online, the modern woodworker has an incredible resource mass available. It’s sometimes easy to overlook that a person wrote what’s on your screen, and when you learn something from someone, that person is very much with you in spirit as you work.

And wow, have a lot of people been working with me in spirit in my shop. There are just too many to list, but I’d really like to thank anyone who’s written anything that I’ve learned from or even read.

Also, there are the BAGs (Bay Area Galoots). Several of you have really helped me out in more direct ways–lending me tools, giving advice, being generally cool, that sort of thing.

Now, back to the work on the new nightstand projects. Progress has been (inexplicably) made.

BAGathon 2011

This year’s Bagathon (Bay Area Galoot meetup) was last Sunday, awesomely hosted by Greg Isola. Upon arrival, most of us wandered into his shop to check it out and there was a lot of drooling. (He’s got one seriously nice shop.)

I’ve gone to this event every year since I got into woodworking and started this blog, and it really is a treat. Seeing all of the tools that attendees bring along is one thing, but the demonstrations and interaction that you get with fellow woodworkers is priceless. It’s strange to wrap your head around this, but five days out of five years have really accelerated my work.

There was no shortage of good demos this year.

Mike Suwczinsky did a demo on scrapers, starting with cutting up beat-up handsaws. Here he is on the right demonstrating the use of a #80 cabinet scraper (if it’s not a #80, let’s pretend that it is):

That’s Bill Kasper on the left, sort of steadying that nasty piece of cocobolo.

Note the attire: Bill’s got a BAG shirt, and Mike’s outfitted in the more traditional Woodwright’s Shop garb. Not feeling content to leave it at the shirt, Mike also gave himself an Underhill-style cut on his arm (see foreground). Unfortunately, we weren’t filming, so we have no idea how he managed to do it.

Tom Conroy gave a demonstration on leather-bound bookbinding, gluing a piece of leather to a cardboard book cover. The technique is a little similar to how you might glue leather to a desktop. It was fascinating to see how one massages the material into place, and also how you can form it to shape with glue (and water).

Kirk Eppler demonstrated how to make leather sheaths for axes, adzes, and tools of a similar nature. This was fascinatingly easy-looking–installing the rivets and snaps appears to be a quick process once you’re used to it. Mike made one for an axe.

A perennial feature of Bagathons is the wine box feeding frenzy. Greg Hahn shows up with a whole bunch of empty wooden wine boxes, and we take them. This year, our host had the idea to surprise him, so several people brought projects they’d made with the boxes. A great many of these are tool holders, as you can see:

Greg H showed us his appreciation in advance by bringing another truckload of wine boxes. Thanks, Greg! Also, thanks again to Greg I for hosting, and to everyone who went.

The Embellished Story of a Simple Box

There I was, working on the latest project, when SWMBO approached and asked for some sort of container to put in the cabinet for some spices. She drew something that suspiciously resembled a box, so I inquired, “would a box work for this?”

Affirmative was the reply, and in the words of Topato Potato and Sheriff Pony, it was time to “spring into action!” The valiant woodworker never misses an opportunity to trot off to Mount Carcase to face off with the Dovetail Dragon, no?

I selected a target and started milling. Then I realized that the chunk I had chosen didn’t have enough wood to make the piece, so I looked around for another piece, which turned out to be this:

It was a measly offcut from some much larger board that I’m saving for a rainy day. Making the second call to “spring into action,” I was successful at milling the necessary pieces.

At about this time, I realized that I had no idea what this wood was. I still do not. Here is a cross-section of this ring-porous (without tyloses) angiosperm for the sole purpose of an excuse to use the macro lens again, and on the off-chance that one of you crack wood identifiers knows:

At this point, I just made the box. I think most of everyone who reads this knows about through dovetails, so I’ll digress on that. The sole excitement was getting to use the 1/8″ blade on the Stanley #45 for the groove on the bottom, and since that doesn’t reach high enough on the excite-o-meter, let’s just skip to the end.

Box.

Hand Resawing Notes

When you’re resawing by hand, there is a big consideration in determining how difficult it’s going to be: Under how much stress is the wood? There are two big factors that I’ve noticed:

  • The cut of the wood
  • Moisture content

Let’s start with the moisture content, because that’s perhaps a little easier to understand. Green wood is usually under a lot less internal stress than dry stuff because that’s more or less its natural state before being cut down. As R. Bruce Hoadley’s book explained, you can cut slices off of a fresh log and it won’t crack apart until it starts to lose moisture. Sure, there might be pitch, resin, sap, or whatever else inside to make it more difficult to cut, but it does mean that the wood will be less likely to close up on you.

Because I rarely get the chance to work with green wood, the cut of dry wood is what causes me the most grief. Dry wood is always under stress of some sort; it’s unavoidable because you’ve taken away the water that was maintaining equilibrium when it was (probably) a stable, living organism. What you want is another state of equilibrium where the lignin is strong enough to hold everything together without cracking. Quartersawn wood is great because it’s under the least stress–because it’s got a consistent density pattern across the cut, it dries evenly and doesn’t tend to cup. Just a little more shrinkage at one end is pretty easy to handle.

Well, that’s nice, except that quartersawn wood is more expensive and it’s a lot harder to find than flatsawn stuff (not to mention that the figure may not be what you’re looking for). So this is the sort of thing I usually end up with:

This is a cross-section the 8/4 stock for the new nightstands that I wrote about earlier. The wood on the bottom that’s closest to the pith (center) is under a lot of stress. You can see a minor check here–this was due to that knot and its proximity to the end of the board.

You can see that this board was fed through a planer a little after drying because the cross-section across the cut is flat. But below is what happens when you resaw it:

That pencil line (and the sawcut) was straight when I started, but as I got further into the cut, the stress along that cross-section was relieved slightly, and this cupping was the new state of equilibrium.

The problem is that this stress relief is a major pain in the tuchus when you’re resawing dry flatsawn stock by hand. Basically, some part of the wood inevitably closes up around your saw as you are sawing, and you find your saw incredibly hard to push or pull through the cut, especially if you’re using a deep-bladed affair such as a Disston handsaw. It’s less severe with a frame saw, but it’s still there.

To work around it, break out your wedges and keep tapping them in as you’re working:

They’ll keep the kerf from closing in around you and it will be easier to saw. You really want to put them in as soon as you can, because the easier you saw, the straighter your cut will be. If your blade is pinched by the wood, it is being bowed out of a straight line, and your cut will wander.

Wedges are easy, except for one minor detail. You mostly want to be working like a bandsaw, perpendicular to the grain. However, when working with a fairly thin blade such as this, you need to be able to establish a shallow kerf in both sides so that your blade can track inside. To get these small kerfs, you need to tilt the saw at a diagonal, and this is precisely where the wedges and/or stress-relieved wood will get in your way. If you pop out a wedge or if you’re not able to drive them in deep enough, the wood will close up around your blade.

So what you often end up doing is tilting the saw just a little and establishing a small kerf until you can get deeper.

A bandsaw arguably does this better, because it always cuts perpendicular to the grain because you’ve got a fence, and the blade will always be cutting next to some (hopefully) straight wood. But that’s not to say that the wood isn’t under stress and isn’t closing around the wood–it is, and that’s why you’ll hear a POP at the end of a particularly nasty cut. You need a fairly beefy bandsaw to resaw wide flatsawn stock. You can cheat a little with wedges by turning the machine off in mid-cut, banging some wedges in, and resuming, but this is to be avoided if at all posssible…

As far as the current project goes, I’ve chosen to cut the thinner slice from the more stressed parts of the wood, the “pith” side. The result is that the thicker slice, having a more consistent density, mostly retains its straight profile, but the thin slice (shown above) cups like crazy. My plan is to make those thin slices into panels, where I can use their more interesting figure to my advantage, and not care about their increased instability, because they will be flexible and slide in grooves.

That said, here is what became of that 8/4 piece of cherry in an intermediate state (the chunk on the right is what remained at the end and I probably won’t use it):

It’s hard to believe how large that board used to seem, and now it’s so much more compact. The crazy thing is though it’s not much different in volume (I was actually efficient at slicing this for a change), it seems like it’s a reasonable weight now, whereas before, it was really unwieldy. Of course, there will be a significant change in volume when I whittle those panels down to desired thickness.

Eh, whatever. What it boils down to is that I’ve got my new project frames right there! There are a few more notes I have for how I chose to cut this, but I’ll save them for a later post.

Nightstands v2: Wood Acquisition

Normally I wouldn’t write about the mundane process of purchasing and transporting some wood for a project, but after some thought, I noticed that I really haven’t talked much about how I’ve gone about that process. Then, I realized that I actually hadn’t done any halfway serious wood shopping in a few years. I’d gotten the beech for the stool and first nightstand projects through a group purchase off of craigslist, and a fellow BAG dropped it off at my house (thanks again, Kirk!), and the rest of it was either really cheap home center softwood or some stuff I’d gotten long ago in this initial purchase (wow, is that ever a blast from the past–I was still living in my Inner Sunset apartment then!).

I’d also gotten another piece of beech somewhere between those two, which marked the first time that I’d used my roof rack for that purpose. We’ll get back to that rack in a second–it goes along with this post. I’ve seen a few posts from other folks regarding wood transport (including some crazy(?) stuff like bicycles), but not many, which probably indicates that a lot of people have trucks. And for those of you wondering, yes, I may do all of my work by hand, but when I need to move some wood around, you can believe that I’m not going to do it by wheelbarrow or drag it on the sidewalk. [Edit: Turns out that was wrong about that last method, but that’s another story.]

Let’s go back and start with the wood selection. My design was for cherry and called for 1.25″ thick legs and 1″ frame pieces, meaning that I’d some 6/4 or bigger stock . Then each nightstand will have drawers, panels, a top, and a shelf, which calls for the usual 4/4 stuff. I had the amount of board-feet and linear feet necessary for 6″ wide stock computed before I went.

But when you go to the lumberyard, you really don’t know what they’ll have. That especially holds true for cherry, where the stock on hand has all sorts of variations in in color, grain straightness, and especially defects. So you have to have a basic plan at what stock you’ll need for your cutting list, but you need to be able come up with a plan B.

And plan B it was. I really didn’t like any of the 6/4 cherry boards that I saw today. However, the 8/4 stock was only 16 cents more expensive per board-foot, and far better-looking. So even though it will mean a bit of exhausting resawing, I bagged a decent-sized one of those for the legs and the frames, and a 4/4 piece for panels and drawer fronts. I may get another piece for the top later, if necessary.

I also got a piece of 4/4 birch for my secondary wood. I don’t know if that was a great idea or not, but I like birch, and it doesn’t cost much.

Now we get to transporting the wood, and it’s where we get back to the story about the rack. Here’s the load of three boards back at my place:

The rack is a Yakima system that I’d gotten off ebay when I had my CRX. Now, if you know anything about these rack systems, you can switch them from one kind of car to another, as long as you’re willing to pay the king’s ransom that Yakima wants for the little clips that will fit your car (essentially, very expensive powdercoated pieces of pressed steel). As a special surprise, I also had to get new crossbars, because the new Civic’s roof is much wider than the old one. Thankfully, I was able to dodge Yakima’s cash vacuum on that one by just getting some 3/4″ galvanized pipe from the hardware store.

Now here’s how the choice of car gets a little tricky. I like my 2-door, mostly to annoy any passengers that may end up in the back seat, but this is one instance where having the 4-door is better. You see, on the 2-door, you place the bars only 18″ apart (unless you pay another arm and a leg for Yakima’s extender kit), but on the 4-door, you put them 32″ apart. A longer spread helps keep the load from rotation forces and keeps boards from springing around so much. To avoid that altogether, you can tie the load down in the front and the back. Because this was a short trip (and wood has a much smaller aerodynamic profile than, say, a canoe), I didn’t need to do that.

So, yeah, had I thought about this when deciding between the coupe and sedan, it would have been a consideration. However, the 4-door had a big problem that I don’t think I could have overcome: You can’t get it in the color you see above. [Edit: Also, new for the 2012 Civic 4-door, you can’t get the EX trim with a manual transmission. This is far worse than the wrong color. But you can still get it with the EX coupe.]

[Note: The Schwarz also has a what is essentially a Civic, and but he’s basically gone the infill route by getting the old Acura version. I have to admit that I miss the hatch of the CRX.]

Okay, back to the load. Let’s see how I fasten the boards to the roof. Here is the driver’s side, which has the 8/4 cherry:

I put pieces of foam pipe insulator around the bars, then put the wood on top, and fastened things together tightly with a ratchet tie-down–which is essentially a band clamp. The ratcheting ones let you get the grip good and tight, compressing and locking the board into the foam. This not only takes a lot of slop out of the fastening, but also adds some friction to the surfaces; everything is always in contact with something else, even if you hit a bump in the road (and California roads have plenty of those). The boards were shorter than the length of the car, so I did not need to put a red flag on the end to indicate an overhang (as you would need to do if you let your boards hang out the back of a pickup or van).

These tie-down clamps have really long cords, so you have to do something with the excess. On the driver side, I’ve wrapped them around the board several times, then tied the loose end to the bar. It doesn’t need to be a strong knot because the ratchet mechanism is doing all of the hard work.

On the passenger side, I put the two thinner boards together, but this time, I got lazy and put the loose end of the straps into the car. I wouldn’t do this on a long trip because it makes too much noise:

Once I was finished fastening everything, I gave them a bunch of pretty hard shoves to make sure that they wouldn’t budge.

As far as the capacity of the rack goes, I’m pretty comfortable with these two boards on top of each other, but I don’t know about three. In any case, there isn’t room for much more. The weight limit on the rack and the roof itself is 125 pounds, which translates to around 35 board-feet of this density of wood. There were 23 board-feet on there today. This is just fine for a small-time woodworker like me; it’s just very unlikely that I’d ever need to buy much more wood than this at once, given what I currently do.

But what if I did need to haul more? Would I get a truck? A significantly cheaper option would be to get a trailer. My car’s towing capacity is 1000 pounds.

Qilan Mountain’s Divine Trees

Sometime during the last year, I read about Qilan (Cilan) Mountain in Taiwan and have been wanting to go there ever since. I’d read that there were large, old-growth trees of both Taiwan red cypress (Chamaecyparis formosensis) and Taiwan yellow cypress (C. taiwanensis) there, and had wanted to go there ever since. Somehow word of this got to my mother-in-law, who promptly booked a family trip for us; the family had been there before. The post on Luodong describes what we did on the first day of this trip. Many thanks to her for arranging all of this.

The area is called “Divine Trees.” It’s not wholly virgin old-growth forest; it has been logged, but many trees here were saved. Though it’s not far from Yilan or Luodong (maybe about 25 miles as the crow flies), getting there gives you plenty to think about. You start out in the valley (400m/1312ft). Here is the view from the forest recreation area there, next to the hotel where we stayed:

Then you head up highway 7. If you’re familiar with mountain roads, you probably have an idea of what this is like; if not, refer to C. W. McCall’s lyrics on Black Bear Road–”it looked like a bunch of Zs and Ws all strung together.” Unlike the Black Bear Road, highway 7 is actually paved, and you go up from the valley for about a half-hour or so. Then, around 1000m (3280 feet) or so, you turn off, go through a staffed controlled-access gate, and ride for another half-hour or so on an unpaved road that isn’t really any different in shape than the paved one. If you want to go there, it’s best to go on a tour. For one thing, a guide can tell you a lot about the place, and furthermore, I don’t know if they’ll even let you in without a guide.

During the trip, if you’re not battling motion sickness, you see the forest changing around you. In the valley, the forest is far more of a jungle, with broadleaved trees, fern-like plants, and vines all around (monkeys in the warmer months, too). But as you ascend, you start to see Taiwania (Taiwania cryptomerioides, an important timber species, but not the subject here). If it’s not a clear day, you reach the cloud cover and it becomes foggy. You start to see trees with the scaled foliage sprays that you see in so many genera/species in the Cupressaceae family. It’s a sign that you’re getting closer. Then you see hulks of grey, dead trees towering out of the forest on the mountainside:

At some point, you’re at your destination at around 1550m (5085ft). It’s time to get out and see some real trees. There’s a trail here with two variations; the longer one is about 2km long, with more than 50 trees, the other has a little less than half.

The first trees on the trail are among the largest and oldest in the area. Everything at the beginning of the trail is a red cypress. It’s hard to get an idea for the scale of these trees, especially when you look across to them from higher up on the hill:

A few notes about the Taiwan red cypress are in order:

  • It’s got a branching form, usually high up on the trunk somewhere. The branch forms seem to vary quite a bit; the example above has the vase-like form that you might see on an elm tree. Others don’t split quite like this.
  • It grows really slowly. Think “coast redwood or old-growth douglas-fir” really slowly.
  • In time, its bark and shape do not expel the elements as many other trees do. You can see all sorts of moss and fungus on this one, but did you notice the pepper tree growing high up in the crotch?
  • After about 500 years, the tree starts to become hollow; bugs eat from the pith out. They don’t eat anything younger than this. I didn’t catch what the relationship was to the sapwood, but in any case, the ideal tree for harvesting is about 500 years old because of this. Anything older was often spared because it was not high-quality wood. There are a few examples of 500-year-old trees in the area, and they definitely have a different look.

But I did mention that these things are big. When we got around to the trunks of the larger trees, you start to understand what the “Giant Cypress” part of Wilbur Pan’s blog name is all about. The preceding photo was a first impression of a particular tree. Then we got around to the other side of it and got a better idea at what was here:

It’s not only big, but it’s quite pretty, too. As with all of the big trees, it has a marker with its name and some information:

Most of the stuff on here should be pretty self-explanatory (DBH being diameter; breast height). It’s a little difficult to compare this to trees such as the giant sequoia and coast redwood, which are a little thicker and a lot taller, but the dimensions do generally match the historical record of a tree that we may be lucky enough to resurrect in time: the American chestnut. Botanically, of course, the chestnut is far different (being a fast-growing angiosperm and all), but now I finally have an idea for what the presence of those things was like.

(All of the large trees have names such as this; Szuma Chien was a famous historical figure in China that lived around the same time this tree sprouted.)

And so on we went through lots of red cypress (some even comical); here’s one that’s “only” about 1000 years old. You can see how its form at this age is far different than the older ones, and in particular, how much larger its crown is:

According to the sign for this tree (No. 31), it is 34 meters tall, 1.5 meters wide, and is named Shin-ma Kuang.

We saw a few other types of trees, but then, somewhere near the end of the walk, we stopped at a big tree and I knew immediately that there was something different here. First, the bark was different; it was shaggy, not unlike a shagbark hickory. It also didn’t hurt that the trunk had a fence around it:

The guide explained that this was a Taiwan yellow cypress (“hinoki”, sometimes classified as the C. obtusa hinoki cypress, but otherwise known as C. taiwanensis). It is principally famous for its aroma, the fact that bugs hate it (unlike the red cypress, they do not hollow with age), and that they have a remarkable resistance to rot. The wood has a tremendous number of uses. It’s also extremely rare because the lumber is so valuable that most of it was logged. There are only five old-growth examples in the entire area! Think of our own C. lawsoniana (Lawson’s cypress, or “Port Orford-cedar”).

And of course, the fence is necessary to keep people from picking at the bark when they learn what this tree is.

Looking up at a yellow cypress, you can see that its form is more excurrent than the red cypress. It’s hard to relate the sort of effect this imparts in words or a photograph.

(If I were into sayin’ profound stuff, I’d say that the tree is saying “The cypress tree on the mountain” to us. But I’m not, so I’ll just say that the tree is telling us that trees don’t talk.)

This tree, named Chu Hsi, is about 900 years old and 1.8m in diameter. I don’t know why I found this one particularly nice-looking, but I did.

Coming up: Back to woodworking and tools! Of course I went shopping for tools when I was in Taiwan.

Nightstand: Drawer Tuning and Pulls

All of the dovetail joints for the drawer are now cut, the bottom panel grooves are in, and the panel itself is glued up. That leaves some fine-tuning of the drawer.

I found that the sides were a really tight fit, one that was likely to become too tight with the addition of too much humidity (or finish, for that matter). To fix it, I knocked off 1/32″ from each side with my jack and smoothing planes, and now it’s much more comfortable. I also had to trim a little off the tops, which was not a problem, either.

The matter of the pull remained. I could have bought something, but I decided that since this piece already had one thing that I stole from Krenov, I’d just do it again and make some sort of tongue-like thing. So after one false start, I pulled out a cutoff of the pacific madrone that I’d fooled with earlier and started sawing:

After some cuts and a little bit of planing, I got down to a roughly-rectangular chunk:

Then I put this into the vise, got out my favorite shaping tools and started working:

Before long, I had the basic shape that I was looking for:

Check out all of the rays that madrone has. Working with this little piece has been fun. It planes, cuts, and pares very easily, similar to apple or cherry. I’m a little unsure what to make of the way it feels when you touch it. It has sort of a soft, dry feel, but it’s not a terribly soft wood. It’s almost a “chalky” feeling. I’m looking forward to playing with some larger chunks.

Then I put a mortise in the drawer front and (carefully) cut the tenon in the pull:

A test-fit indicates that it seems to look the way I intended:

I think I might have some final smoothing to do on it, but that can wait until the drawer is glued up, and that step will come in a few days. There isn’t much else left to do on this project other than finish off the top and varnish everything.