Woodworking has been a part of my life since childhood. I remember making small wood articles from pieces of wood found around our home. When I entered junior high school, I discovered industrial arts class. Learning how to work with wood, leather, plastic and sheet metal, forever changed my view of what one could create with a small amount of tools.
As a young adult, I worked in “the trades,” doing residential framing, and later on as a finish carpenter. I eventually traded in my “blue collar” for a “white” one, but it was my experience in construction that actually landed me an office job. I coordinated space plans for retail locations, worked with contractors across the country, and arranged for the set up and opening of new locations when construction was completed.
Although my livelihood was made in the confines of an office, my heart was always in the shop or the field, designing and erecting a new building or structure. I feel the same way today.
Which explains why winter has a special magic for me. It’s not that I enjoy the cold and snow; what I enjoy is working in a shop warmed by a good, hardwood fire. In winter, the gardener in me is forced to take a breather, so I can put my hands to woodworking projects. I like the change, without nagging thoughts of what I should be doing in the garden or yard.
While we don’t grow a lot of harvestable timber around here, the Oquirrh Mountains had a significant amount of productive forest when the pioneers arrived. Even though most timber, including hardwoods that I use for many projects, is not local, timber production and related products are critical contributors to the U.S. economy.
Some of the most readily available “stateside” grown hardwoods are oak, maple, cherry, black walnut, and poplar. All of these have varying traits, including appearance, hardness and workability.
Oak is popular because of its availability and good economics. With a pleasing grain overall, it takes both tool and stain well. I use it as needed for restoration, or when specified. It’s not my “go-to” wood, but I don’t avoid it either.
Maple is a dense, light-colored wood that is usually finished without staining. It can be used for veneers, decorative banding, or for an entire project. Some of the harder varieties can be used for working surfaces and tools, such as workbenches, vise parts or chopping blocks. The wood is dense, and its weight assists in keeping a bench or chopping surface stationary. Economics are reasonable. When milling this wood, the feed rate into a saw can be finicky. Too slow, and the wood will scorch — which means more work later sanding or scraping. Too fast, and you’ll bog down the saw and possibly overheat and ruin the blade.
Cherry is a beautiful wood that is delightful to use. It mills well, isn’t too expensive, and gets richer looking over time. Sunlight will eventually darken the wood, resulting in a rich, deep-reddish hue. This color is highly desirable, so new cherry is sometimes tinted with a wash or lightly colored finish to make it look aged. Poplar, a much less expensive hardwood, can be stained to look like cherry and it can be really hard to tell the difference between it and real cherry wood.
Black walnut is my favorite. It’s rarely stained, simply because it is so beautiful with a clear finish. Walnut has beautiful color variations, depending if the wood is from the heartwood or outer portions of the tree. It responds wonderfully to tools, leaving crisp details when planed, routed, shaped or cut. I think it smells incredible when being milled.
Poplar is one of the most inexpensive hardwoods. It doesn’t have a lot of beauty on its own, but it mills well, and can lend structural strength. It can be stained to resemble other woods, although it tends to have greenish streaks that give it away. Because of its characteristic strength, I’ve made moldings and door trim pieces from it, as well as frameworks that other higher-end woods have been affixed to.
Construction-grade softwoods, and furniture or finish grade hardwoods, are usually priced and cut differently. When you visit the lumberyard and buy a 2×4 (or any two inch by whatever width), it will be a conifer — spruce, pine or fir.
Construction lumber is called by the size it was before it was milled to finished size. A 2×4 is actually about 1-1/2” x 3-1/2,” but it started out as two inches thick by four inches wide.
Pricing appears to be by the piece, but it’s actually a formula based on a “board foot.” A board foot simply equals 1” thick by 12” x 12.” That is how lumber is priced and sold in the commercial realm, but thankfully retailers have simplified it for you and me. A board foot is equivalent to 144 square one-inch thick pieces — a measure of the volume of wood. In my high school years and shortly thereafter, I worked at a lumberyard and had to learn board foot equivalents for various typical framing lumber sizes. A 2×6 or 1×12 was one board foot per linear foot. A 2×4 was .67 of a board foot per linear foot. It was quite a concept to get my mind around.
Another trait of most construction lumber is that it’s flat sawn — slabs are simply sliced off, working from one side of the log to the other. This produces the greatest amount of lumber, but not the highest quality or best grain appearance. The gain in quantity is enough to offset waste. Appearance isn’t so important when it’s inside the walls of a structure.
Visit a hardwood supplier and you’ll find that lumber is priced by the board foot and thicknesses are expressed per quarter of an inch and are actual size. So four-quarter equals one inch, six-quarter equals 1-1/2”, twelve-quarter equals three inches and so forth. Also, hardwood edges are typically the shape of the outside of the log it was sawn from (called a live edge). It’s up to the woodworker to cut a straight edge before cutting needed strips or planks.
Another key difference in hardwood cutting is that it is typically available in flat, quarter, and rift sawn. Each type of cut has its own characteristics and trade-offs.
Flat gets the most quantity, but has the most grain variation and grain direction changes. Cathedrals, which refers to arch-shaped grain, and strong variations in color and hardness are common.
Quarter sawn lumber will have uniform straight grain and will resist warping, cupping or twisting. Cutting begins by cutting logs into quarters lengthwise. Then boards are cut at about a 45-degree angle to yield the desired grain pattern.
Rift sawn is the most expensive, but most uniform grain. Planks are cut from the log like spokes radiating from the center of the log. There are a lot of wedge-shaped pieces that get recycled.
To me, wood is the smile of God. This renewable, durable and versatile material provides both utility and beauty. I can almost see the artistic hand of God when I mill a piece of wood, see the grain “pop” and smell the wood release its aroma.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.