What makes the joinery I practice “green” woodworking?

 Way back in the late 1970s, I read two books that ultimately directed my woodworking towards what it is now. Make a Chair from a Tree, by John Alexander, and Country Woodcraft by Drew Langsner, were both concerned with working wood riven or split from freshly-felled logs. It seems that Alexander coined the term “green wood working” to describe the use of this material straight out of the log. Some years later, Drew wrote a book called Green Woodworking, centered around a number of techniques & projects, all derived from riven stock. I met both these woodworkers at Drew’s Country Workshops in 1980, and it was truly a turning point in my life…didn’t know how much at the time, but that’s how things work sometimes. (Country Workshops is still going strong, see www.countryworkshops.org )

 The ease of working green wood is one of the benefits of working this way; it cuts much easier than wood that has lost most of its moisture. As wood dries, it becomes tougher & tougher to cut. That green wood can be easily riven along its fibers is an additional benefit; with a carefully selected tree, you can produce your rough-dimensioned stock quickly & easily right from the log – with a good deal of careful practice. Once the log is on the ground, one person can reduce the log into working stock right where it was felled, if needed. Working just with wedges, maul, maybe a hatchet here & there, and a saw for some cross-cuts, splitting stock out is very appealing work. It’s very physical, gets you outdoors, working in the woodpile or woods, instead of inside the shop. The other day I was working some stock outside on the best type of New England day there is, cool fall weather, golden sunshine filtering through the last few leaves on the maples…

twisting the froe

 There is a considerable amount of waste with this technique; just as there is when a sawmill is used to reduce a log into boards. However you get a log into stock is going to result in some of the tree not making it into your product. Riving waste is easily converted to fuel, sawdust is more complicated to turn into fuel…

 Nowadays, I think some folks are changing the way we interpret the phrase “green woodworking”; leaning towards the environmental angle for “green.” There are a number of woodworkers in the UK who are pursuing the use of small-dimensioned material that might otherwise be chipped or trashed, and using wedges, hatchets & axes, drawknives & pole lathes, making various household items for use & for sale. Many belong to the Association of Polelathe Turners and Green Woodworkers.  Their forum is worth seeing: http://www.bodgers.org.uk/bb/phpBB2/   Some of these craftsmen are using coppiced material; stock that is harvested on a rotating basis.

 To me, the best example of this type of green woodworking is the project that has run for many years now in Honduras and Peru. Called “Green Wood”  this organization uses techniques of chairmaking and other green woodworking in an attempt to train people living in the tropical forests.  Below is Curtis Buchanan teaching windsor chairmaking:

Curtis teaching Windsors

A quote from their website captures what the project aims to acheive:

“GreenWood is designing sustainable development for the real world. We work alongside residents of remote forest communities to help them earn more by managing their forests and creating valuable wood products than they would otherwise derive from conventional slash-and-burn agriculture or illegal logging. We employ small-scale, appropriate woodworking technologies and creative niche marketing to support good forest management and sustainable development.”

They really are doing great work. Please see their website here: http://www.greenwoodglobal.org/

When I say that the joinery I do is green woodworking; I’m afraid that the environmental angle is not really applicable. The oaks I prefer are LARGE trees that take a couple of lifetimes to grow. The trees I buy were cut to be sawn anyway, I go to a sawmill to buy my logs. So if I am there or not, these trees were coming down. But still, the ones I like best are over 150 years old…not-so-eco-friendly. My tools are “green” in that sense, but the timber…

Thus in my work, the “green” in green woodworking just refers to the moisture in the log – all it means is that the stock is riven from freshly-felled green oak. I split the stock open and plane the boards for a few projects at the same time; depending on what stock the log will yeild.  I only work a small section of the log at a time, leaving the bulk of the log in larger sections. This keeps it green longer, the smaller you break it down, the quicker it dries out. Much of what I do in my shop is counter-intuitive to what many woodworkers I meet practice. I want to keep my wood supply as wet as possible as long as possible – where many woodworkers are trying to keep their kiln-dried wood from gaining moisture outside the kiln…

So once a log is broken into half, I shove one half aside, and work the other into quarters, eighths, etc. These become the first stock I then plane up in the shop.

sixteenths red oak

The green wood planes very easily; but its surface finish is not the best it can be. Thus I typically work the stock a few times; once when it’s dead-green; then I stack & sticker it in the shop for a short while (2-6 weeks) compared to air-drying sawn stock (accepted norm is 1 year-per-inch of thickness). Once that’s all planed & stacked, I split the next section, and work it up. By the time I am done with that, I might leapfrog around between some other projects in the shop, before the first stack from this log is ready to go. Then I select the stock I need to get started on a given project, and take that wood from the stacks. I trim it to the widths I need, and plane a last few strokes with a very sharp plane on the face of the stock. This gives me a nice finish.

planing green oak

People often think that I am building the furniture with the tree-wet wood. More often than not, the stuff I am using is in a state somewhere inbetween wet & dry…Alexander & I have struggled for years to come up with a term that will capture the condition of this stock. It truly is neither green nor dry. “Workable moisture content” is one we have used; but it’s clunky and vague. Also, to convey in print this ease of working, and the appropriate moisture content to aim for is quite tricky. Many factors apply; the time of year, (winters usually drier, summers wetter, thus wood dries more quickly or more slowly)  the relative humidity in the workspace, and the individual tree. Practice & experimentation are the best way to see what we’re on about.

Well. So that is my first mini-essay on “green” woodworking – a confusing term to many; and a changing term these days…I’m sure there’s more to come on this subject. Chime in, if inclined.


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