what is “green woodworking”?

Some time ago, I wrote a column for Popular Woodworking and asked the question “what is green woodworking?” (December 2014, #215) I’m not going to repeat the article here, but want to look at the subject. The column stemmed from a talk I gave at Lie-Nielsen’s Open House last summer.

I used to know pretty clearly what “green woodworking” meant. But the older I get, the more I realize the less I know.

spoon 14-109 new photo side viewMaking a carved spoon is a great example of green woodworking – you can make them from dry wood, (I wouldn’t) but the best ones come from trees, and are worked while the wood still has a high moisture content. More direct, easier to cut, exploiting the fibers of the riven/split form – all of these are hallmarks of green woodworking. Hewn bowls, and many turned ones fall into a similar category. But bowls and spoons are single pieces of wood. what about furniture, when you put stuff together?

Robin Wood's bowl
Robin Wood’s bowl

When I first learned of this method of woodworking, it was Drew Langsner’s Country Woodcraft, Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s Shop – and the book that coined the term for the modern day – Make a Chair from a Tree: An Introduction to Green Woodworking by John (now Jennie) Alexander. What puts the green in green woodworking? Is it moisture content? Is it riving the wood? Is it “country crafts” like the British books that inspired all of the authors listed above – Jenkins’ Traditional Country Craftsmen” and Edlin “Woodland Crafts in Britain”. Alexander felt left out of the “country” aspect of this traditional woodworking, living in the heart of the city. Hence her book’s subtitle has “green woodworking” – not country anything.

JA chair

The ladderback style chair Alexander learned even got a great deal of its strength from the moisture content manipulation – dry tenons in wetter mortises. the mortise shrinks, the tenon swells. Presto! You’re a chairmaker and have never been to a lumberyard. The way I remember it, in the 1980s  green woodworking was ladderback  chairs, some bowl-turning (I remember folks used to turn them green, let them dry, the re-turn them round again!) and a few other disciplines. Timber framing comes to mind.

cooperage
cooperage

I think about coopering – is that green woodworking? Usually riven stock, worked with a hatchet, drawkinives, shaving horses – but the critical parts are either executed or at least assembled when the stock is bone-dry. Or else.

c a chair

Windsor chairs? In America, these usually had, and have, softwood seats. Often white pine. That ain’t worked green. But the hardwood components are often riven from green stock. They’re selectively dried, like parts of Alexander’s ladderback chair, before assembly. Even the hardwood seats of British Windsors can’t be dead-green…

Some approach the “green” like the modern use of the term, renewable energy; careful use of resources, that sort of thing. Coppice crafts, are perfectly aligned with this idea. This work has long been very popular in the Old World, yet to my knowledge, never caught on here in the New World.

 

joined & carved chest, 2010
joined & carved chest, 2010

Starting in 1989, Alexander and I explored another furniture craft, seemingly more complex, until we got through with it & stripped it down – joiner’s work of the 17th century. It had riven stock, high moisture content – but some of it was not “country” in its format – some were very elaborate forms; with lots of decoration. This work has been my main focus since then. It does not fit the eco-groovy definition at all. I call it “Imperialist Swine” woodworking – you need a whole new forest to sustain it. The oak trees I want take 200 years to grow to size. And I will only use a small percentage of the tree. The rest goes in the fire.

In the end, I decided I don’t think of myself as a “green woodworker” although probably three-quarters of my stock is riven from green logs, and primarily worked up while it has a high moisture content. Trees are wood, I’m a woodworker. Sometimes I use stock fresh from the log, other times I need stuff that’s air-dried. I work the wood at various stages between wet & dry. Most of my furniture is a combination of the two. I think that’s a traditional approach….

Oh, no! What’s “traditional” woodworking????

 

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18 thoughts on “what is “green woodworking”?

  1. for me green woodworking is about pre-industrial woodworking, so imperialist swine or country woodcraft doesn’t matter, it’s the techniques that predate the industrial/capitalist version of woodworking, and whether made for kings or peasants is connected to an age old method of working ‘with’ wood.

  2. Viva the green…!

    Be it a chair, table, spoon, or one of our timber frames…this has been the core of my woodworking my entire career…I see the other form practiced today as strange and alien in nature, often having little to do with woodworking as I was taught, and more to do with “machining.”

    Great Post!!!

  3. Jennie here
    Peter thank you for your concern about the term “green woodworking.” You question its application to 17th Century Joinery. I am aware of the sinful pride of authorship but I submit that the term applies to joinery as practiced in the
    17th Century. Such joinery today is difficult in part due to lack of suitable oak. But that does not change the fact that 17th Century Joinery was a green woodworking craft. I have repeated the story perhaps too many times how Charles Hummel at Winterthur Museum literally , without comment , put my nose inside a Thurston chest in the collection. What I saw was clearly the product of green woodworking. (I had green wood worked hardwoods for chairs for year and years.) I fell for it and you did too.The more we studied and experimented it became clear that almost all the principal members of 17th Century English and American joinery were made of hardwood (almost always oak) that was first prepared by wedge, froe,hatchet and drawknife-the principal green woodworking tools. You have written persuasively of the tool mark evidence on surviving period pieces. As we commenced joining piece It became clear that substantial moisture was present in the early stages of stock preparation. Indeed as we learned, the iconic drawbored mortise and tenon of the period was designed, among other things, to function even if some excess moisture were still present at the time of assembly. We published our findings in Peter Follansbee and John Alexander, “Seventeenth-Century Joinery from Braintree, Massachusetts: the Savell Shop Tradition” in American Furniture, ed., Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1996) pp. 81-104. This article is available at the Chipstone Foundation Website. Peter, by this time you (the full time joiner) had passed me (the pettifogger) far by and were the principal author.
    I agree with your concerns about 17th Century joinery today. Indeed one of the reasons that the first comprehensive book on the subject was our Make a Joint Stool from a Tree (Lost Art Press). One of the reasons we chose the less dramatic stool was that it required only readily available sized oak. To practice the green woodworking joinery craft as it had been practiced almost 400 years ago teaches that just because people are dead does noy mean they were stupid. Indeed given the circumstances, their practices are most impressive. My friend Danny Barker would have said the journey that you and I went on, ” …..was a real primitive deal.” I am back to making humble post and rung chairs where I belong. I am with you whatever.
    Jennie

    • Great to read your words here Jennie, we need to catch up sometime…

      I would further suggest to readers that there are some of us still here in the world that have kept our “wood cultures” alive and went on to study many other vernacular systems….all done in “wet wood,” for the most part….

  4. Enjoyed your post on green woodworking. You did not mention the Foxfire series of books that had information on the subject and was one of the first places I read about green woodworking and other country crafts in the U.S.

    • As I ponder this post and the following comments, I feel part of what Peter has alluded to…at least for some of us…Is there really is no such thing as…”green woodworking.”

      We, those that follow Peter, et al, and our craft artistry are simply those that never left the traditions of our cultures, families and teachers…We work wood the way it has been worked for the last…10,000 years?.

      As I have said many times, since the IR (industrial revolution) so much has been “forced” upon society…including the many ways we “think” we have to do something. Often this is completely different in modality compared to our ancestors, and in my experience very seldom better…just modern.

      The IR homogenized just about everything. In wood working we stopped moving tools through material and switch to forcing material through a machine. This “force” seldom is an improvement in anything other than maybe speed…and even that is sometimes an illusion…

      Some of us have understood this folly from the beginning of our careers, while others are just discovering it…

  5. Sounds a bit like the Arts and Crafts Debate. I think it is a useful term when intentionally using wood in an uncured state. ‘Green’ helps to distinguish what bodgers and your 17C American joiners were doing from what might be termed conventional turning and joinery, that starts with dimensioned and fully air-dried or even kiln-dried wood, processed with powerful machines.
    However you make a good point in that ‘green’ is only part of what you do and quite frankly can define your work and skills however you choose. The question is how do you separate what you do as a woodworker from what a conventional woodworker does?

    • I don’t really try…I guess?

      I have left it up to others, as some call me (et al) traditional, students have called it “real,” wood working…Most I know call what I do “conventional” as the synonym for “conventional” is, “traditional, normal, standard, regular, ordinary, usual, etc.”

      What has become common today is an interpretation of “woodworking.” What we do has been around for much longer…so…if history and chronology is a guide, my methods are “conventional” and what folks are attempting (and experimenting with) is but a concept application formed after the IR “machined methods.” I guess for me, as I said, most modern things made of wood I call “machined” or “machine made” not wood working at all…but that’s just my interpretation…

      I have never actually seen any of this, per se, as a debate at all, though I know some take it there. If someone chooses to use power tools that is fine…we often do ourselves as Timberwrights without a minion army apprenticed to us to do our many tasks, just to stay competitive in “modern and powered” marketplace. So I am not always just a purest and take full advantage of chain saw to fell trees, and other such mechanical advantages…but we usually finish by hand in most applications…and our understand of wood and its methods are orthodox in nature I guess one could say…

  6. You’ll see some very green woodworking, or is that a green woodworker?, when I’m learning to carve a spoon this year at Roy’s….

  7. I won’t pretend to know what green woodworking is, but I think this quote from George Sturt captures some of the qualities of green woodworking — it involves actually working WITH the wood:

    “[The wheelwright of old] had no band-saw (as now) to drive, with ruthless unintelligence, through every resistance. The timber was far from being a prey, a helpless victim, to a machine. Rather it would lend its own subtle virtues to the man who knew how to humour it: with him, as with an understanding friend, it would co-operate.”
    –George Sturt, The Wheelwright’s Shop (1923)

    • Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful…

      That is a lovely quote and does speak volumes to this way of working…

      Thanks!

      • I am fascinated by the continuing dialogue about green woodworking crafts. They are crafts where wood of substantial moisture content is initially processed by riving, not sawing, in the direction of its long fibers. Glossary, Make a Chair from a Tree, Third Edition, Lost Art Press…..when it gets published. So there.
        Jennie

  8. Great information on green or not so green reliable joinery woodwork for beginners like me.

    The wit in it is the best. Thanks for keeping a blog as I know your busy.

    The joinex frame and panel chests with 2 drawers are the best and the proportions of drawers to chest are my favorite of all the furniture ive seen

    Travis from Brandon, MS A former 14 year US History teacher and hobby woodworker.

    Travis Dunlap Former Army National Guard Student Minister Skyway Hills Baptist Church tdunlapbrandon@gmail.com cell phone: 601-942-4890

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