Woodworking as Farming
I began woodworking somewhere in the mid 1980’s. My first stationary power tools were a Craftsman bandsaw and a ShopSmith clone made by TotalShop. Electric sanders, drill, router, and lunchbox planer followed in rapid succession. These tools, along with their various accoutrements and attendant necessities, gave me a new power: I could now shape wood to my will. I could unload a pickup-load of oak, poplar, pine, plywood, or what-have-you, and in what seemed like no time, have a functional (if not always beautiful) piece of furniture.
Now, 25 years and many projects (and dollars) later, I had a large shop in the country and lots of experience at turning lumber into furniture and sawdust. My wife has but to ask, and practically anything desired can be created in relatively short order.
I had by now discovered the joys of hand tools as well. Hand-cut joinery had become a major part of my style, and I had assimilated the teachings of James Krenov and others on the balance between power and hand tool techniques. I had even transcended the need for plans to the point where most things were designed on the fly using a few notes on scrap paper. It seemed that I was really getting a handle on things.
Then the trees came down.
We had several white oaks and one pecan that had to be cut down on our property. Since we live in the country, we had the tree surgeon leave them where they fell, and we would burn them ourselves (MUCH cheaper that way). My wife commented that it was a shame to burn those trunks. Couldn’t we do something with them – rustic furniture perhaps? Hmm…
I began to think and research. I saw all manner of rustic furniture on Lumberjocks and elsewhere. I dug into books and websites looking for inspiration. I saw lots of things that were nice, but not for me. Finally, one day, I noticed the chair in our bathroom. It was old – how old, neither of us knew. It had been in my wife’s grandmother’s house, and was one of those things that had just always been there. It was a simple post-and rung chair in the ladderback style with a rawhide seat and only a patina for a finish. It was probably close to 100 years old, and was as solid as the day it was made. I had found my inspiration.
There was only one problem: the raw material. You may have noticed that trees are NOT lumber. True, they are both wood, but there the similarity ends. Lumber is this regularly shaped stuff that comes from racks at the lumberyard and is purchased and brought home in the quantity desired for a given project. It is relatively dry and stable, and leftovers can be stored on the lumber rack for years. The regular shape also makes it perfectly suited for quickly machining with stationary power tools. What I had lying about were these large pseudo-cylinders as tall as my waist and in some cases as heavy as my pickup truck. Obviously, my well-polished techniques were now worth exactly zip. It was time for more research.
This change in focus led me to John Alexander’s “Make a Chair From A Tree”, Drew Langsner’s books, and some old books and videos by a fellow named Underhill. I was suddenly immersed in a world of tools and techniques that I had seen in the past, but had never really explored. I quickly built a Brian Boggs-style shavehorse and got busy.
Learning new techniques is always fun. Additionally, this foray provided the perfect excuse to go tool shopping. My old mantra of, “Sure, I can build that, but I’ll have to buy a ” jumped to a whole new level as I dove headfirst into the world of gluts, froes, hewing axes, and spokeshaves. Taking an irregular lump of green wood and transforming it into furniture components using nothing but hand tools provided a set of challenges unlike anything I had done before. Nevertheless, new tools and techniques are not of themselves something to write home about.
What made this new venue special? The rhythm of the work was different. In the past, woodworking involved selecting a design, purchasing material, and creating the object in the time and manner of my choosing. I’ve been working on a magazine rack off and on for about six months as other things ebb and flow in importance. If I was busy, all I had to do was pile the parts on the back table until I was able to return to them. No problem – the wood didn’t mind.
Working straight from the tree is different. Traditional greenwoodworking (Alexander’s term) entails splitting a log open and working your magic while the wood is still green_. If you wait too long, the wood rots or becomes too dry to work properly. Having a tree on the ground is comparable to having a crop in the field – hence the title. In both cases, everything else stops while you harvest and put up your crop. Farmers and those of you with large gardens can relate to this. It seems to occupy every spare waking moment.
Today, I’m rounding dried chair rungs into cylinders and sizing their tenons to a snug fit for the pending mortises. The matching posts for this footstool are now partially dry and ready to be rounded down and prepared to mate with the rungs. Meanwhile, I need to open another log section to rive out and square up another batch of rungs for future chairs. When THOSE are almost dry, another log section will provide the chair posts and back splats, both of which must be rough-shaped and steam-bent to shape prior to drying. This process will continue until all the wood is processed. Thankfully, white oak has a long wet time as long as the log section is kept intact.
Oh yes, at the same time I’m splitting and debarking pecan limb sections to make wooden spoon blanks. These will be plastic-wrapped and stored in the freezer until needed. No, my wife really doesn’t mind, but it freaks my 33 year-old daughter out.
Eventually, the crop will be gathered. New slab benches will be in place in the back yard and on the porch. Stools, chairs, and rockers will sit in the shop loft, awaiting woven seating. A shelf full of spoon blanks will be ready for carving in the evenings, and the burn pile will have digested the remains. The shavehorse will be tucked back in the corner to make room for cabinet work, and I will return to the normal list of projects, starting with a cabinet to hold shoe boxes in the closet.
Then, in early spring, it will be time to go find a small near-perfect white oak to make splits for bottoms for the aforementioned chairs.
Life goes on.
-- Robert - Visit my woodworking blog: http://littlegoodpieces.wordpress.com