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.
Making 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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????