I’m overwhelmed by the love shown in my last post in this series, asking if anyone was interested in learning with me (more like teaching me) about different woods, and the trees from which we get them. You were! I’ve found my people. Let’s get started! cracks knuckles
I thought I’d begin not with a tree, but with something very much related and interesting that I recently stumbled upon in one of my habitual all-night online woodworking research sessions: the IWCS, or International Wood Collector’s Society. I actually laughed when I found it, thinking “Who does that?” followed by “I guess there’s a hobby for anything.” However, it stuck in my head, and later I found myself coming back to to it. I’ve collected a ton of weird things, too. It rolled around in my mind. I joked with friends and coworkers about it. They were equally amused that there were thousands of people around the world collecting wood, on the hunt to collect them all, which is essentially impossible.
For me, I had simply wanted to learn about all of the woods, and memorize everything about them, without keeping any in a ‘collection.’ I had selectively forgotten about my shoddy memory :) I recently picked up noted wood technologist Prof. R. Bruce Hoadley’s two outstanding books, “Understanding Wood,” which I got during a book sale at my local Rockler store (favorite place in the world), and “Identifying Wood,” which I got during a surprise one-day-only 50%-off sale through Taunton (email newsletter alerted me – woo hoo!). In “Identifying Wood,” even Prof. Hoadley recommended keeping samples of wood as a reference for later identification. You don’t argue with Bruce. It got me thinking even more about it. It was too late.
I ordered a box of samples. from Woodworkers Source, another site I’m falling in love with quickly. If you sign up now for their weekly e-letter, you get a code for $10 to use on your next order. The sample box contains 30 randomly chosen woods – about 1/3rd domestic (to the US), 2/3rds imported (Africa/S. America, Asia, Australia, etc). Their site breaks their woods up by world regions, includes a lot of great info about each wood on their pages, and has a searchable library that holds info on far more woods than they offer. The samples box came with a $25USD veneer guide for free.
The veneer guide is really nice, if a little off in many of the species’ colors. There’s also a nice page in the back with a big grid of pictures of each of the many figure types, like wavy, curly, ‘muscle,’ and fiddleback, which really helps me, because I have a hard time remembering which is which, or later identifying the difference between curly and ribbon.
Samples, as defined by the IWCS are 1/2” thick × 3” wide × 6” long, cleanly cut and sanded pieces of wood. Woodworkers Source actually cited the IWCS, and that their samples conform to that spec. I liked that a lot. Now it wasn’t going to be about finding giant logs. These were postcard size. I could do that. Prices – they said – ranged from $0.75-$6USD, and members sold and traded them, too. Even better. For anyone unfamiliar with the US dollar, that’s a small amount of loose pocket change through maybe enough for a small lunch at a fast food place. Not bad.
I copied all available samples from their site over to a Google Docs spreadsheet, available to view here. In it, I’ve highlighted the ones I received in green, so you can see what kind of random sampling you might get. The ones in red (and w/o prices) are woods they either don’t sell, though still have a page for, or are woods for which they don’t have samples, though they may have other things (boards, veneers, etc). I’m going to be ordering the remaining 60 over this year in 6 orders of 10, each at around $30US, or about 3/4 the cost of one of Bruce Hoadley’s hardcover wood books.
I should also note that I added up the samples I received, and it came to $117 worth of separate samples. The box is $99 with free shipping, though it’s available through Woodworkers Source on Amazon for $89 + $6.99 shipping, which works out to only $96. That may seem like me being cheap, but that $3 is going to pay for a sample of cedrillo wood :)
Here’s a good place to note that domestics (US) are usually $3.50, sometimes $4 or $5 or so. Imports are usually $5, with some getting closer to $10. The 3 standouts are Kingwood at $12/sample, Tulipwood at $14/sample, and the impressive Ebony Gaboon at $17/sample. I thought that was a typo until I looked it up. $99/bft! I could remake my 12bft desktop (3’x4’) in poplar for about $30, or in ebony gaboon for $1200. Difficult choice… It wasn’t until I started learning about hardwood pricing last year that I finally understood why people would be so ‘cheap,’ going with veneered furniture all the time. I get it now. It’s also nice not to destroy the more limited supply of rich hardwoods in the world by building everything entirely out of them. Anyway, here are shots of all the samples I received in my kit. What fun!
I’m going to be building a wall rack for these, holding them in this fashion, though wall-mounted, smaller, and wider than tall – something ‘Golden Rectangle,” likely. I want it to occupy the position and size of landscape painting on a living room wall. It’ll be all at once a fun collection to add to all the time, a bit of warm, woodsy pop art, and a great reference tool. The samples will help me identify woods in the future, and also let me compare woods under different lighting conditions to see what looks good together for future projects. It’s nearly impossible to tell from books and the internet what wood looks like, and certainly not what it smells like. I had no idea walnut smelled so delicious, especially when cut in my band saw (like warm, chocolaty, cinnamony bread pudding :) until I bought some, and I had an entirely different concept of what wenge looked, and would feel like until I actually held a piece in my hand at Rockler.
I think these IWCS people are on to something here. In fact, when I got the samples, 2, maybe 3 in particular gave me that “I’ve seen this before” feeling. Later, I went through my 4 boxes of hardwood scraps I got through Rockler earlier this year, which also turned into a big ID party, with more spreadsheets ;) and found that one 2×2 turning blank in there that I hadn’t ID’d yet was African Mahogany – looked exactly like the sample thereof. I was able to match another wood, too, and a third one seemed quite similar, except that they had radically different smells.
The IWCS also sells samples on its site, through a more old-fashioned downloadable checklist mail-order form. Will anyone in here be interested in trading around samples one day? I don’t have any extras of anything yet, but I’m curious as to future prospects :) In fact, is anyone here already doing this? Got anything for sale? Of course, I’m pretty adamant about getting exactly the right species on them before I tag and shelve them, so that will be a factor. I can make my own samples from small bits of wood, too, and am skipping sample orders I can get locally. I checked before posting this for “IWCS” through the search box. No results! Could I possibly be bringing new info to this popular site?
If you read all of this, you’re a trooper! I promise not all of my Tree ID Series posts will be anywhere near this long.
-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator