what is green woodworking?

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.

 

27 thoughts on “what is green woodworking?

  1. I think the term green woodworking is confusing for the reasons you mention. Also, a green woodworker might be interpreted as a greenhorn.

    Maybe wood right from the felled tree could be called “fresh” wood. Wood that has dried for a few weeks could be called “firm” wood, and “dry” wood would continue to mean air- or kiln-dried wood.

  2. Peter,

    I’ve been wondering what methods/equipment you’ve found work best for getting an oak log from the stack at the log yard to your yard.

    Thanks!

  3. I’m also very curious as to how you go about purchasing a whole log and getting it to your shop. Do you have them saw the log into manageable lengths? 4-6 feet maybe? How do you haul and move around such large pieces once you get them home?

    • John & Jason – you both asked essentially the same question. I hope to get to the sawmill this month to shop for a new log & intend to take the camera with me…

      but in the meantime, I would say if you have no means to move the big logs, split them at the mill…bring wedges, maul and axe & work the stuff into sections you can manage. I used to do that when all I had was a small pickup truck…
      Typically I work with logs about 6-10 feet in length. I like to crosscut it shorter than that when I can see clearly where to make the cut (i.e. a large obvious knot or other defect helps plan where to trim the log.) – but split it as long as you can, then once it’s open you can see more of the quality which helps in planning the cross=cuts.

      As it stands now, I often buy logs in tandem with the carpenters at the museum where I work. If we buy enough logs, it’s worth hiring a log trucker to deliver them. Then he just picks them up & drops ’em where we want ’em. Otherwise, we use a large open rack body truck that can handle two big logs at a time…take the racks off, and roll the log off the side of the truck. carefully.

  4. Peter, Not sure if I had your correct address, but I recently sent you pictures of a carved stool and was wondering if you received them. Sorry its off topic.Wasn’t sure how else to contact you

  5. I like this article, it encourages us to think outside the box a little. Many people work strictly on store bought materials on projects straight from the web or a magazine or book. However, what I find I really appreciate about wood working is the ability to create beautiful and unique works of art.

  6. Halfway between ”green” and ”dry”: ”half-green” (or, ”half-dry”, ”half-seasoned”, ”semi-green”, ”semi-dry”, ”semi-seasoned”).

    –GG

  7. LOL @ “Workable moisture content”, yeah, way to clunky. I think the term green is fine, it capures the nature of the woodworking in a single, concise, easy to understand form. Afterall, it is still green compared to most woodworkers preferred moisture content of say 7-10%.

    There is no doubt though that the word “green” has taken on an additional new meaning as eco friendly. This sort of thing happens all the time though so even if you and Jennie came up with a brand new super duper word to describe this woodworking, theres no guarantee the same thing won’t happen to it.

    I vote to stick with the term Green, besides, it’s my favorite color.

    HAPPY THANKSGIVING EVERYBODY

  8. Peter,

    I agree with James comment, sitting around the shop for awhile the top 32nd to 16th does pickup a dry skin. plane down more and your right back to nice moist shavings. Easy on the tools and your back!

  9. Not that I object for one moment what the Green movement represents or achieves, but they can inadvertently hi-jack other ‘green’ activities.

    How about ‘malleable wood’, ‘acquiescent wood’, or wood in its most malleable or acquiescent state’?

    If the Rubber Tree didn’t already exist, you could call it rubbery – but then the Chinese might just think it was very nice wood.

    Riveable?

  10. How about:

    “felledware”

    “recently green”

    “best served hot”

    “hot off the tree”

    “recently ‘desapitated’ ”

    “friends dont let friends use kiln wood”

    “driven for riven”

    ….but yes I agree, green is problematic.

    Happy Holidays everyone!
    Drew

  11. Seriously…what about “whitewood”….that actually makes a lot of sense.

    Most green wood is rather whitish.

    Kiln dried tends to be rather yellow/tan-ish in color.

    White also implies newness, freshness

    Freshwood also works. I like whitewood though.

  12. Just a question with all this talk of using Green wood: Do you have issues with wood movement as it dries later, especially checking and/or cracking? I thought the purpose of using dry wood was to help alleviate those issues.

    • Curtis
      I will address this in some detail in a future blog posting, because it’s quite important. The short answer is that the radially-split, straight-grained oak will be quite stable. It’s shrinks about like quartersawn timber, actually even less I bet.
      As far as cracks & checks; thick dimension stuff like table legs need to be handled very carefully. I try to keep track of the shop environment, winters are quite dry with heating on, thus then I need to be more careful – in that situation I often will bury green stock under the shavings from planing it, and leave it there for a few weeks. Otherwise, I will move the planed green stuff to an unheated, or less heated room…also I sometimes will seal the end grain to slow down the transmission of moisture. it helps.
      It’s been my experience that white oak is more touchy than red as far as checking goes…but both will work fine if you pay attention.

      More on green wood to come. thanks for bringing up this critical issue.

  13. Yeah, i look forward to Peter’s take on the stability of green wood/working, it’s really quite remarkable how stable this form of woodworking is.

  14. Every time I tried to split green wood the wedges just sank into the wood and the log would barely split. What is the process with large logs? Should I use wooden or plastic wedges?

    • Matty: You don’t say what wood you were trying to split. Some woods, lilke elm, won’t split radially at all. Other cases, a log might have grown in such a way that it will not split either, even if it’s a wood like oak, that splits well.
      I use steel wedges to start the split & wooden ones to further open the log. Look for the straightest-grained log you can get. These should split well.

  15. Hi Peter,

    I thought a possible word for the right moisture content for working might be a combination of the words wet/dry, WRY.
    When the wood is just right for working it is wry wood.
    Thanks for a great website.

    Molly.

  16. Thanks Peter,
    As I’ve been working through your blogs I was wondering just how green you were working things. Now I know, it all depends!
    How dry and how to store your wood as it is worked comes down to experience with your local timbers(oak, ash, poplar etc), your work-space, your storage space and your tools. At a guess I would think soft/less dense woods need to be drier than hard/dense woods and blunter tools will have a narrower tolerance for moisture content. I’m still learning to sharpen and working with cypress too, so that applies for me.
    Stick with ‘green’ if there are woodworkers using ‘Green’ to market salvaged and craft wood products then the confusion is theirs not yours. Any good book on woodwork discusses shrinkage differences and the resultant distortion as the wood drys from ‘green’.

    Folk should also get the distinction between air and kiln dried. Air-dried comes down to a moisture content that averages the surrounding conditions seems most places this is 20 – 24% of wet content while kiln dried is around 12%.
    Kiln drying does help stabilise some timber species perhaps because lignin starts to plasticise at around 60C which would allow some release of growth stresses and the drying stresses that cause end checks. but mostly kiln drying is a commercial decision ‘time is money’.

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