Sapwood and knots

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Project by Daren Nelson posted 04-13-2008 03:13 PM 4247 views 4 times favorited 18 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Here are some pictures of a little project from about a month ago, and you get a story from me (unless you just skip this part and only look at the pictures ) I slipped a couple pictures of this in a discussion here about “buying walnut”, I thought it should be revisited just because of my story ? And what I have learned about wood and myself.

When I first got my mill I viewed things quite differently than I do now. I was weird. I was always taking logs that were way too big for my little mill “You gotta 60” oak ?, sure bring it on over” for example. I thought if I was not sawing boards 20”+ what was the point of even having a mill? Anything under 10” was just a disappointment to me. I took a grinder to my mill so I could get an extra inch on my slabs even (24” was not enough ?)

I only sawed hardwoods for myself. First thing I would do was figure out my best face, get rid of that “ugly sapwood” and start grade sawing hoping for the widest knotfree lumber. I would pull a board 16” wide and 10’ long and if it had a single knot in it 3/4 the way down I would be bummed, I would focus on the “defect”. Back then sapwood was a big defect in my opinion and had to go.

My whole mindset has changed. I am just a hack woodworker, but I enjoy it. The more experience I get the more I could kick myself in the pants for some of the “defective” wood I have hauled off over the years . Matter of fact most of last projects I have posted here have been old busted up stuff that a few years ago I would have burned. I am actually seeking out only character wood to work with now, plain straight grain bores me. Basically I did a 180.

So that was my story, I learn as I go along milling and woodworking. The project, a little walnut stool with as much sapwood as I could possibly find and a big fat knot for decoration . I used sap splines in the heartwood and vise verse, the close up was before finish I am having camera troubles with close ups and glare ?

18 comments so far

View trifern's profile


8135 posts in 3943 days

#1 posted 04-13-2008 03:19 PM

Nice story and project Daren. I am quickly learning a similar lesson. Since I recently started turning, I have discovered that the ugliest, narliest hunks of wood have the most character and beauty within.

-- My favorite piece is my last one, my best piece is my next one.

View CharlieM1958's profile


16278 posts in 4394 days

#2 posted 04-13-2008 03:26 PM

I’m glad you had your conversion, Daren. This is great wood put to use very well.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View jm82435's profile


1285 posts in 3917 days

#3 posted 04-13-2008 03:36 PM

Amen. That is a nice looking stool by the way, I like the way the miters allow the grain to wrap around the corners. This is a very good example of what you are talking about. I noticed you had made a similar piece by gluing up maple and walnut. The natural contrast of the sapwood here is so elegant, mother nature provided the same contrast in a more fluid and dynamic way. By the way I think you mentioned in an earlier post you had borrowed a friends commercial jig to cut the splines. That is a very easy jig to make. I used a scrap piece of 2X4, set the miter on my table saw to 45 degrees, the height about 1/4” shy of cutting through the board, and ripped a “V” channel out of the center by running it through again the other way around making a 90* V. Then crosscut a dado across the top the width of the router template bushing. (done, or you could use your handy finger jointing jig to make multiple evenly spaced slots for the router) It would probably be easier just to send you a picture. Anyway I couldn’t agree more with your philosophy on “defects”, thanks for spreading the good word.

-- A thing of beauty is a joy forever...

View Roper's profile


1389 posts in 3888 days

#4 posted 04-13-2008 03:38 PM

daren, love the use of butterfly dovetails they really make the piece pop. keep it up.

-- Roper - Master of sawdust-

View Bruce's profile


200 posts in 3950 days

#5 posted 04-13-2008 03:54 PM

Read your story. I feel your frustration. Over the years, I too have learned to be more creative with character in wood. The coffee table I buit had a big knot in the top. I used my router to make a round plug to fill in where the knot is/was. I think those butterflies look better. Thanks.

-- I think of Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman when he says "Where does he get those wonderful toys" and ask WHERE DO U GUYS GET ALL THAT WONDERFUL WOOD?

View joey's profile


396 posts in 4079 days

#6 posted 04-13-2008 04:05 PM

Welcome to the dark side, Nice bench. remember the best wood is in the crouch..:)

-- Joey~~Sabina, Ohio

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27250 posts in 3997 days

#7 posted 04-13-2008 04:35 PM


This is a nice project and the contrast adds a lot of visual interest. I read your story with interest. I have often said that the story behind a project is usually as important as the piece itself. Your story only serves to confirm that this still holds true. What others see as “defects” are only opportunities to add character and detail to a project.

Thanks for the post and the story. I enjoyed both.

-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

View sharad's profile


1117 posts in 3980 days

#8 posted 04-13-2008 05:22 PM

Your bench, the choice of wood, the butterfly dovetails and the story behind are very interesting. Thanks for posting.

-- “If someone feels that they had never made a mistake in their life, then it means they have never tried a new thing in their life”.-Albert Einstein

View Blake's profile


3443 posts in 4050 days

#9 posted 04-13-2008 08:24 PM

I’m so glad you’ve seen the light (and the dark, at the same time). This is a really nice stool/bench. It does have a lot of “character.”

-- Happy woodworking!

View SteveKorz's profile


2139 posts in 3889 days

#10 posted 04-13-2008 10:43 PM

That is really cool…

-- As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. (Proverbs 27:17) †

View Bradford's profile


1434 posts in 3998 days

#11 posted 04-14-2008 02:54 AM

You made me see the light again. I hate boring grain wood. The wilder the grain the better. (It’s just hard to come by and afford) I have made a couple of pieces with birdseye and sapele pommele that turned out nice. I tried staining projects with stain alone, but the blotching from the missed step of using wood conditioner, killed the project. Plus if anyone knows of a stain that doesn’t still stink after a month, I’d like to know. I’m stuck on minwax brand #410 honey pine gloss as my preferred method. I’ve read articles about finishing techniques such as french polish, but haven’t had postable results. Anyway I really like your project and explanation.

-- so much wood, so little time. Bradford. Wood-a-holics unanimous president

View Daren Nelson's profile

Daren Nelson

767 posts in 4081 days

#12 posted 04-14-2008 03:31 AM

Why stain ? Some may say “if you don’t know how to finish you are not a woodworker”. I say if you do not know how to start you are not a woodworker.

View Dorje's profile


1763 posts in 4172 days

#13 posted 04-14-2008 08:15 AM

Another nice bench project with the dovetail keys- what are the dimensions on this one?

-- Dorje (pronounced "door-jay"), Seattle, WA

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 4581 days

#14 posted 04-14-2008 02:44 PM

I’m glad you have seen the light also. Good posting. I first saw the “light” in sap wood when I accidentally discovered the work of Cody artisan John Gallis maybe close to 10 years ago.

I remember the first time I saw something John Gallis had made in a magazine, and it wasn’t square, rectangular, or “normal.” I just couldn’t understand how he did it, where the ideas sprang from, how did he find that wood? Oooh, that walnut he used!

So, I was smitten. Not like I was when I first met my wife sitting behind her desk at work in a smart blue dress, but so moved that all of my previous notions and ideas about furniture making just went blank. Gallis can have that affect on a guy. I’ve never seen blue dresses the same since, nor furniture. All by accident.

I’ve discovered others since that first exposure, but Gallis’ work moves me the most. A true genius he is, and later discovered that he was also a great person, taking time to offer advice and encouragement to me in my own journey with wood.

So, I started looking for his work in other places, and ended up in Cody in 2006 at the Western Design Conference mainly because he told me it was a good place to show my work. Then, I discovered Dan Mack’s limb/tool pieces, and that added another whole mystery to using strange and unique things in the work. There have been other influences since then.

This discovering has been Breaking my mind free of the European, Asian, and historical influences of what Furniture is supposed to look like. Earthshaking, unsettling, paradigm breaking.

This is the sort of stuff that wakes me up at night with ideas. Not because I’m stressing out over an upcoming difficult glue-up, like I used to do. And of course, in my mid forties now, I don’t dream of the things a younger guys does, at least not so much.

I stopped waking up worrying over money problems several years ago, not because there aren’t any problems, but because the idea generation process is so overwhelming and powerful, that it has pushed those money worries out during my sleeping hours now. I just worry over those problems during daylight now. Wow, dreaming about knots now.

All of this has pushed me to the point that a wood mill is a high-priority item for my life. I can push back the big surface planer that I want for now, a woodmill is the “real” money maker idea for me. Not because I can sell the wood, or reduce the cost of the wood that I buy, but it will allow me to discover the gems that only a guy who cuts up trees can find. So, now you can add, “woodmill dreaming” to the night time interruptions.

Once you discover the gems in wood that make it “abi-normal”, you can be released from the normal way to see wood, and let it naturally decorate a room. It is so freeing.

When I can find wood like that, I don’t need to carve it, as my carving pales in comparison to the natural look of extradorinarily unique wood, such as a huge knot. This was the essence of the Nakashima genius, still being done by Mira and her team. Their work was another great discovery for me several years ago, causing me to study and see how they use the natural odd things in wood to make a statement in a room.

Once you break your mind free of the square/rectangular/straight paradigm, there are many ways to use wood you hadn’t considered before. This process is still blowing my mind, and I am excited to see where it runs out in my work in the coming years.

I have been enjoying seeing this evolution happening in my work the past 3-4 years, but more importantly, the response by the buying public. When I have taken pieces to a show, the Arts & Crafts pieces show well, and people comment on them, and admire the carving, and talk about their memories reading books on Grandpa’s lap while sitting in his Morris Chair, and it is all warm and fuzzy, and encouraging.

BUT, when they see a piece in my booth with huge knots, and smoothed natural edges, and sap wood, and the “freedom” that this gives off, they just stand there and say “wow.” It isn’t my “work” that got their attention, but rather the natural beauty that I released from the wood. The downside for the woodworker is that you can’t go online and buy “plans” for a piece like that. Conventional woodworking doesn’t work. Cooooool. I gotta get some of that!

Good posting, caused me to break my silence and get excited for you, and where this is heading you.

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View Daren Nelson's profile

Daren Nelson

767 posts in 4081 days

#15 posted 04-14-2008 04:32 PM

Dorje it’s 16” tall, 16” wide and 12” deep.

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