slow-growing oak vs fast-growing oak

fast grown on the left, slow grown on the right. Red oak

The other day I posted a photo of some oak I’d planed for a joined stool, and mentioned that it was too slow-growing for chair work. I didn’t explain why, so this post will look at how oak’s growth rate affects its strength. This notion applies to ring-porous woods like oak, ash and hickory. Those are the ones I have the most experience with. I’ve used other ring porous woods like catalpa and sassafrass for various things, but I think of them as too soft for much furniture – certainly for chair work.

THESE NOTES APPLY ONLY TO RING-POROUS WOODS – THINGS LIKE MAPLE, CHERRY, ETC DIFFER. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO EVALUATE THEIR STRENGTH. SOFTWOODS ARE ANOTHER WHOLE STORY. MY BAG IS OAK, SOME ASH, ETC.

Below is a piece of white ash (Fraxinus americana) – each growth ring has two sections; the early wood/spring wood is the open porous bits. Then the latewood/summer wood is more dense. Generally the spring wood is the same size in each ring – the summer wood can vary from year to year, depending on various factors – light, water/nutrients, competition and more.

white ash end grain

Next photo is of two boards I’ve kept as samples to illustrate this concept for maybe 20 years. On the top is a fast-growing red oak; the bottom board is the slow-growing example. (these boards are in the opening view of this post too). Both came from southeastern Massachusetts, both are 6″ wide. One has about 13 or 14 rings, the other over 90. It becomes hard to see them near the right-hand edge.

For my joinery work, like this chest, I prefer the slow-growing wood. It’s much easier to plane and carve. The way the chest is constructed the lesser strength is not an issue. The stiles (corner posts) are nearly 2″ thick x 3 1/2″ wide, the rails are 1 1/4″ x 4″ or so. Drawbored mortise & tenons throughout. So no problem.

joined and carved chest, 2010

For this sort of chair – same story – huge parts, 2″ thick posts, 1 3/4″ thick seat rails. Slow-growing ash is fine for this.

But if you want to make a light but strong ladderback chair, like those I learned from Jennie Alexander and Drew Langsner – that stuff won’t work. The rungs on this chair are just over 5/8″ in diameter. The posts on mine are about 1 3/8″ thick – Alexander’s were thinner. So this is a case where you have to be sure your material is up for the stress placed upon it.

Here’s another end grain shot, of two green chair rungs I shaved very quickly this morning. The one on the left is that new log, 12 growth rings to the inch – deemed useless for chair making, but ideal for joiner’s work. On the right is something I pulled from the firewood pile – 6 growth rings to the inch. How nice that they worked out 12 versus 6. Easy comparison.

I shot a 2-minute video showing how you can test your chair parts (or possible chair parts)

Below is a shot of those two rungs – the top one is the fast growing one that bent quite a ways before de-laminating – if I had shaved it more carefully, it might have bent without its fibers pulling up like that. Then the bottom two sections are the shattered rung. On the bottom view you can see the year-by-year fracture.

results

Bruce Hoadley’s book Understanding Wood: A Craftsman’s Guide to Wood Technology is where I go to read about what wood is doing & why. The updated edition is from 2000. I see it’s still in print from Taunton Press – or wherever you buy books.

some shop work today

I’ve been disinclined lately. No work, no photos, no writing. I’ll leave it at that. Started in some today. I got word that Michael Burrey had some free wood for me. Most free wood is not worth it, but his is.

red oak bolt

He had a butt-section of red oak, about 26″ long. Dead straight, it included the felling cut. So some shorter than this. The section in the photo above is about 9″ wide across that radial face. I had planned to use it for chairmaking – it could make all the parts (except the seat) for Curtis’ democratic chair – but when I looked closely at it, I saw one problem. It grew too slowly to have the strength required for chairmaking. This piece, a stile for a joined stool, has about 25 or more growth rings in 2″.

stile for a stool

Other sections out closer to the bark had 20 rings to the inch! Below is a 1 1/8″ piece – now a reject chair part – some of the rings are quite indistinct.

So it’ll only be fit for joined stools, maybe some box parts from the wider bits. Here’s a set of stiles, with a new year marked on them –

first set for 2021

There was also a few bits of leftover hickory slabs from sawing something or other. Also, dead-straight. This is about 28″-30″ long. I split one section up into spindle blanks, 3/4″ square, tapering to the top. Splitting & shaving hickory is as much fun as you can have at a shaving horse. A piece like this one will make about 18 spindles or more. I might make chair rungs from some of it for ladderbacks.

Here’s my most recent modern attempt at Windsor chairmaking. I’m mostly happy with it – I need to get the inshave sharper for one thing. But all in all, this one is fine. If you’ve been watching Elia Bizzarri and Curtis Buchanan make this chair recently or have seen Curtis’ youtube videos about it, you’ll notice I changed the crest rail.

I decided to try a different joint there – Curtis shaves the crest rail down to a 3/8″ diameter tenon to enter a mortise bored in the posts. I bored 2 holes in the post, pared the walls and ends of the resulting mortise, and shaved the crest down only on two faces; front & back. Leaving its height intact.

crest rail tenon

Showed it to Curtis – he didn’t mind the joint, but said “you added a tool!” (turns out I added two – I used a narrow chisel on the end grain, and a wider one to pare the walls.) Another thing this joint means is that you can’t pitch the crest up at the middle, like Curtis likes. Or you can’t do it easily. So mine’s pretty much flat on top. But I like it, and think I’ll do it on the next one too.

cleanup time

Planing that fresh red oak makes a mess of your tools. It’s important to leave enough time (& daylight in my shop) at the end of the afternoon to clear this crap off the irons. I can’t say “brass bristle brush” without tripping over the words – but that’s what I use. And WD40 – learned it from JA. I keep a thin wretched piece of plywood for these cleanup tasks, and some sharpening steps too. The only plywood in the place, except for the stuff that supports the under-floor insulation.

scrubbing

Friday I was over at Michael’s and we dug out some more of the butternut. The four on the left are 7′ long, 20″+ wide in places. That 3rd one from the left I split in half – and there’s some 9″-10″ wide quartersawn stuff in it. Wait til you see the box it becomes.

butternut

While I’ve been on this chairmaking kick lately (you’ll see more about it soon) – in addition to Elia & Curtis’ recent series, I watched the stuff Pete Galbert posted recently. He calls it a foundation course and that’s a good name for it. If you watch this, and pay attention, you’ll learn a great deal about wood, wood selection, chairs, seating and more. I’ve made chairs for 40 years and learned stuff. Highly recommended. https://www.petergalbert.com/videos

Country Woodcraft: Then & Now

In 1978, I had never even been to the country. I was born & raised in the suburbs. When I was little, we had to come in when the streetlights came on…so what was I doing reading a book called “Country Woodcraft” by Drew Langsner? Unknowingly, I was re-directing my just-dropped-out-of-art-school life.

then on the left, now on the right

Drew’s updated version of this book is now available through Lost Art Press, and what a brilliant move to update it rather than just reprint it. Now we get the culmination of 40 years’ worth of workshops held at Drew & Louise’s Country Workshops. I wrote a bit of an introduction to go with this book and in it I mentioned how often you’d hear the words “life-changing” regarding students’ reactions to their experiences there. Fits me to a tee. I’ve written many times over the years about my experiences there; and the impact Drew & Louise have had on my life and career. The book was the seed of that, along with Jennie Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree (the 3rd edition of which is in the works at LAP, don’t worry.) 

spoon carving

First off, the new one won’t fall apart – I have 2 broken paperbacks of the 1978 book. For the spoon-crazies – this is where America first heard of Wille Sundqvist and carving spoons with axes and knives. 9 pages in the old book, 43 pages now, something like that. Similar story with the “half-log bowls” as they are called in the new edition. And on & on – I’ve just got it this week, and am looking forward to reading both the old and new parts again & again. 

bowl carving

And my connection to Drew & Louise is only part of this heap-o’-praise. I’m completely biased, having worked with Lost Art Press now for quite a few years. They have done their usual great job – read Chris’ blurb about the book, including how LAP & Drew both agreed to keep the price of the book accessible for beginners & students – did you ever hear a publisher/author say that? Get it here

title page

the first of the basket-making videos

Daniel & I got the first video in the basket-making series done yesterday. I’ve been working almost exclusively on basket-making for a month & 1/2 or more. I shot lots of videos about it, and we’re going to sift through them and hopefully show how to make two different forms; a rectangular basket with a fixed handle,

and a round-bottom basket with a hinged, or swing, handle.

This first video is just how to split out the “billets” and then shave them all in preparation of pounding the growth rings loose from the section.


Lots to cover, I’m still making them now and shooting more as I go.

 

A new red oak log

No matter how busy I am, when the right log comes along, I try to hop on it. Our friend John Scags had a great red oak that I knew would not be there in 4 weeks when I get back from my trip. So even though I’m too busy to think straight, I took the time today to split open this log. I had John crosscut a couple sections; one five feet long, the other 3 1/2 feet. I even got some stuff from the “butt swell” that I had planned on discarding.

This oak split open so nicely; it was a treat. Very slow-growth too. That represents a diminished strength; but for my joined work it’s fine. The stuff is overbuilt anyway. For the JA-style ladderback chairs, it’s probably not the best choice, but will work…

In this first photo, I’m working on the top end of the 10-foot log. This section was trimmed to just under 4 feet. It opened with two wedges, and barely any muscle. There’s some lousy stuff right near the pith, but the straight wood out near the bark is perfect. Flat, straight and easy to split.

These quarters are split, just with some fibers hanging on. I went in with a short axe and snipped them open.

The main section was five clear feet, just above the flared bottom of the log. I bit more trouble inside, but nothing too difficult. Here I am using one of the heart sections busted off the top bits to pry it open after splitting.

I tried to shoot some video with the new camera. It seems mostly to be me fumbling around and dropping stuff. But I do get the wood opened too. It wasn’t as windy as it sounds, the Nikon has a setting I need to go in & adjust to cut out all that noise…

https://youtu.be/KduuYy499Ps

 

Splitting three spoon blanks

Some limbs/logs are too thick for 2 spoon blanks, and too thin for 4. For oak furniture, I was taught to usually split in halves. But sometimes you can get three out if things go well. I first saw splitting in thirds done by Robin Wood and Jarrod Dahl at North House Folk School in 2014. Here they used 3 axes struck with a wooden club to bust out bowl turning blanks. Robin tells me that this is how all the bowls from the Mary Rose were oriented in the log. He’s on the right, Jarrod next. 2nd from the left is Roger Abrahamson. http://www.rogerabrahamson.com/index.html

Later, Deneb Puchalski showed me his take on it during a spoon class he & I did at Lie-Nielsen. Here’s a grey birch bolt, about 5″ in diameter, that I split in thirds. This small stuff you just need one hatchet, no helpers. I started by drawing a peace sign, or Mercedes Benz insignia on the end grain. Or forget that stuff, and drawer three lines from the pith out to the bark, dividing the piece into thirds.


To start the split, take a hatchet and put its toe right at the pith. I tilt the hatchet so only its toe is hitting the wood. The last thing I want is this split to go past the pith in the other direction. Give it a knock with a wooden club.

Not too hard, I just want to start the split.

Then take the hatchet out, turn the piece and do the same for the other two radial lines.

Keep going around and around, and each time whack it a bit harder…and the splits will begin to develop.

 

At a certain point, you just are committed and drive the hatchet all the way. It usually does this – knocks one third out from the other two.

What fun!

Then take one of your chunky thirds and knock the pith off and go ahead and carve your spoon from it. And the other two…

Red tail hawk from today.

 

Plymouth CRAFT – spoon carving in December and Sharpening in January

The closer you get to the end of the year, the faster time goes by. Maybe the older you get the faster it goes too. Paula, Pret and I have started sorting out stuff for Greenwood Fest, who’s doing what, etc. But in the meantime, we have a few courses closer to the horizon. There’s a spoon carving class coming up in early December at Overbrook in Buzzard’s Bay.

 

We have held classes there a lot, it’s a wonderful place. 2 days, lots of spoon wood and Paula’s lunches. December 9 & 10, 2017. https://www.plymouthcraft.org/spoon-carving – plus both afternoons there’s a German Holiday baking class going on with Kirsten Atchison – maybe if you’re good they’ll let you sample some goodies https://www.plymouthcraft.org/german-holiday-baking and https://www.plymouthcraft.org/more-german-holiday-baking

 

Then the following month, after all the hubbub dies down, is Tim Manney’s sharpening class. This class is a deceptive thing. Sharpening classes are not as glamourous as a project-based class, but the skills you develop in this class reach into every aspect of your woodworking.

knife-detail

 

diamond-paddle

 

Tim gets things fiercely sharp, and is an excellent teacher.  https://www.plymouthcraft.org/an-axe-to-grind Last year, people were scooting around asking “what else can we sharpen?” – I’m going to be around for it, and I’ve been cleaning my loft out in the shop. I plan on bringing a box of tools that will be free for the taking – but you’ve got to sharpen them!

Hope to see some of you there…or beyond.

Greenwood Fest June 5-10, 2018

photo Marie Pelletier

People’s lives get busier every year. Ours too. Good thing we have all these time-saving devices…

today’s post is just a “save the date” sort of thing. Plymouth CRAFT’s Greenwood Fest will be early June again, same venue = Pinewoods Dance Camp, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA.

Festival June 8-10; pre-Fest courses June 5-7. TICKETS GO ON SALE FEBRUARY 2, 2018. We will let you know details as we get it together – this is just so you can get the time off of work, quit your job, cancel graduation/wedding, etc and tell your family you’ll be in the woods.

2017 group photo, Marie Pelletier

Here’s the beginnings of the website. https://www.greenwoodfest.org/

Dave Fisher, photo Marie Pelletier

See you there, OK?

How to Read, by an Oak-snob

I’ve been slow to add stuff to the blog here. Time to correct some of that. Today’s chore is splitting up some leftover bits of oak, and some newly dropped-off bits. Here’s how I read these, and how I decide what to split from a few different bolts. the first one is an old one, been split & hanging around a long time, over a year I’d say. It was given to me about 2 months ago. Free wood is sometimes not worth it. this is one of those cases. Note how the radial plane is cupped. This isn’t from drying, it’s the way the tree grew. The medullary rays curve from the center of the tree to the bark. So if I want wide flat stuff from this, I have my work cut out for me. What I do with such a piece of wood depends on several things: what I need at the time, how much effort I want to put into it, and how much other wood I have around. These days, wood is in pretty good supply, time much less so. Thus, I want to get the best piece I can from this as quickly as possible.

The ruler shows how “un-flat” the split is.

The piece was 26″ long, but with the checking at each end, I expect to get about 22″ length out of it. Just right for a joined stool stile (leg). So I opted to split a 2″x 2″ square out from right below the sapwood. First split with the froe gets off the inner twisted bits.

Next I split off the sapwood & bark. Surprise, the sapwood sheared off across the grain. Usually a log that has been around this long has punky rotten sapwood – I expect that. But to shear off like that means there’s something underneath…

And there was – some deformity curving the grain near one end. So didn’t get my 2″ x 2″ x 22″ stile. The resulting piece could be a ladderback chair front post (something I want to build, but have no time for right now. I’ve made parts for 3 of them so far this fall.) or the leg to a workbench out in the yard. I already have maybe 4 of those benches. On to the next split.

This one’s big & fresh. Just came in yesterday. Bark looks good. Very wide bolt, maybe 12″ or more.

But a big knot creating disturbed grain all around it, the full bottom third or more.

I always am working between getting the biggest piece (widest) I can, or getting the best piece of wood I can. Usually I want the best one. Which in this case, is much narrower than what I first expected from a section like this. See the ruler here, the best (straightest, flattest, least-work) piece is from the 10″ mark to 15″. So that’s what I split.

 

Now the distorted stuff is isolated in the right-hand section, destined for firewood.

Then I further split the remaining stuff into four thin boards for carved boxes, or narrow panels for the sides of some chests. Once I don’t think about where they came from, these are excellent clear, straight boards. This is a case of free wood that is worth it.

One of the older bits looked promising: wide, maybe 7″ or more. 24″ long.

But when I sighted down its length, lots of twist from one end to the other. I didn’t shoot it well enough, but you can generally read the twist down at the far end. Its right hand corner is high, as is the left corner nearest us. Means some hewing before planing. Not fatal, but maybe there’s better wood out here.

Yup. Fresh too. (that means easier to work…) Shorter, but wider.

When I scooch down and sight its radial plane, dead flat! That’s the stuff I’m after…

Gonna have lunch and find some more like this one.

 

Want to learn more about how to read these logs – Plymouth CRAFT has a weekend class coming up that’s just the ticket.  https://www.plymouthcraft.org/riving-hurdlemaking-weekend

Riving, hewing, drawknife work. Me, Rick McKee ( https://www.instagram.com/medullary_rick/  and https://blueoakblog.wordpress.com/  ) and our friend Pret Woodburn will show you all we know about opening oak logs and what to do with them.

 

 

Plymouth CRAFT workshop in October

With Greenwood Fest taking center stage in the Plymouth CRAFT calendar, there is an understandable quiet period in the summer, just after the Fest. But now autumn is here, and we’re back at it. Along with Pret Woodburn and Rick McKee, I’ll be teaching a 2-day class; Riving & Hurdlemaking Weekend in late October; https://www.plymouthcraft.org/riving-hurdlemaking-weekend

An alternative name for this class could be froe, hatchet and drawknife. But even that leaves bits out. Here’s Rick using the riving brake to shave pieces with the drawknife…

This class is an excellent introduction to the ancient method of riving your work-pieces directly from a log, and using simple edge tools to produce your stock for a project. In our case, it’s a garden fence called a “hurdle.” When I first started green woodworking, these were the methods I learned to make ladderback chairs. The 2-day format precludes us making a chair, hence the hurdles.

The workshop takes place outside of Pinecones, part of the Pinewoods Dance Camp where we hold our Greenwood Fest in the spring. The link above tells the details, you can opt to stay at Pinewoods in one of the cabins – it’s a great setting.

We’ll cover the structure of the wood, why we split it this way & that. How to shave it, hew it – the proper shapes of the various tools and equipment like shaving horses, riving brakes, etc. Lots to cover, and a real eye-opener to many who think wood comes from the store or lumberyard.

Here’s a group shot with the nearly-finished hurdles…

 

There’s other classes coming up in the fall and into the winter. Spoon carving, German holiday baking & more. https://www.plymouthcraft.org/