When most people think of building something out of wood one of their first concerns is how dry it is. Ideally they want the moisture content to be less than 6%, definitely no wetter than 10%. It can be confusing to hear that a woodworker like myself (and yes there are quite a few) actually prefers and seeks out “wet” wood. So what do we see in green wood?
Advantages of using green wood.
- It’s usually cheaper than kiln dried. In fact if you’re in the right place at the right time it can often be had for free. For me the wood is easier to obtain than kiln dried since most of it is available right out my door, not a trip into town away.
- It’s easier to work with. Unseasoned wood is a joy to work with. If you’ve only ever turned dry wood you will find yourself giddy at the streams of ribbons you can produce when the wood still has a high moisture content. At this stage the wood is still soft which makes it much kinder on the body when shaping. It’s a much different story when the wood is dry and hard as a rock.
- The wood quality is better. As the wood is split out of the log I only select the best pieces to use. Sometimes it’s all great stuff, often there are pieces that won’t work. These become highly valued pieces of firewood. (There isn’t a lot of hardwood around here for burning!)
- It really is the more environmental way. A lot of the wood I use comes right off our property. That means it doesn’t have far to travel and because it doesn’t spend time in a kiln very little energy is spent producing the timber I need. Since I work by hand all the energy used on the piece comes from me. All the energy saved in the making almost excuses having to ship the pieces to their final homes.
- Checking isn’t an issue. The pieces split out of the log are small enough that they allow the wood to dry out evenly. This eliminates checking. It doesn’t eliminate shrinkage however. If I turn a piece round on the lathe and let it dry it will become oval in shape. Generally this isn’t a problem (in fact it’s a good way to spot a real antique). If I need the piece to be perfectly round I can always re-turn it after it has dried. This isn’t much fun to do though!
- To begin working with green wood doesn’t require a boatload of tools. You can certainly justify buying them (and the more you do the more you will acquire) but you don’t need them to get started. Lots can be created with just a simple knife. It doesn’t even need to be a fancy sloyd knife, just a plain old pocketknife.
The advantages are enormous and the work satisfying. The only time you’ll get into trouble using green wood is when you start asking it to do something it isn’t ready for (like a table top or solid wood door). Don’t ask a fish to climb a tree and that sort of thing.
Go green, you’ll thank me.
I’ve never been unhappy with my old workbench. It’s dependable. Small enough to be able to work on all sides, which makes it perfect for chair making. Solid and heavy duty. It’s great so why build a new workbench?
The main reason is that the new shop really felt like it needed another bench on the south wall. Plus, once I start running chair making courses the extra bench will be a necessity. It was more than that. The extra space will be awesome to have especially when I have more than one project on the go at a time. What I really wanted though was to have an end vise and a bigger front vise. Now I have it!
The base is all mortice and wedged tenons. Very solid. I used some Douglas fir that I milled last summer. It wasn’t quite as knot free as I would have liked, but I’m not worried about lack of strength and the knots give it a bit more character. The top is just over 6′ long and almost 3′ wide by 3 1/2″ thick. It’s very heavy! In fact I almost couldn’t flip it over when I was installing the vises.
The apron is 2 1/2″ thick by 9 1/2″ wide. I really like how the dovetails came together on the corner. At some point in the future I will add dog holes in the apron I just didn’t have the heart to drill holes in it this soon after finishing it. They will probably wait until I’m jointing a long board that needs a little extra support.
The front vise has 16″ jaws and an opening of 13″. The front jaw has dog holes which match the dog holes in the bench top. This means I can use it like an end vise as well.The end vise is the full width of the bench top.
I went with round dog holes because I’m a huge fan of hold fasts and they need round holes to work. Also I can turn an endless supply of wooden dogs (customizable to whatever height I need) on the lathe.
Now, what am I going to make first!
We’ve entered a new world here at SilverTree. Dog sledding and all its associated activities have become one of our new winter sports. Our oldest has become fascinated with all things mushing and as tends to happen around here the rest of us catch some of his enthusiasm.
There are lots of variations of dog sledding. Skijoring, where you ski while being pulled by a dog. Scootering ,where you ride a scooter while being pulled by a dog. Canicross, where you run while being pulled by a dog. I think you can see the general theme that develops. Essentially, musher sports are anything where some of your propulsive force is provided by a dog. It is tremendously fun and there is a wonderfully supportive community out there just waiting for you to join them.
As a woodworker I can’t help but to think of everything through that lens. Where’s the connection with dog sledding? When I start working on a chair I try to begin with the best wood I can find. Nice straight grain, tight growth rings, no knots or other defects. Same with mushing. You want to start with the best dog you can find. Good parentage, nice personality, the right breed. However well you begin, either with wood or dogs, you will find that both have personalities of there own. We were at a skijoring event last weekend and had left our dog in the car as we went to register for the race. She decided she’d rather not wait in the car and so (whether by accident or not) managed to get herself into the drivers seat where she proceeded to turn on the hazard lights and honk the horn until we came back for her. Personalities indeed!
The key, after doing your best to start well, is to work with you’ve got. The best sled teams are the ones where the musher and the dogs work together. They don’t expect their Malamutes to be as fast as their Alaskans but they know they will be able to pull a lot more weight. Even individual dogs will have their own strengths. The key is to know them well enough that you know what you can expect from them and how to motivate them to achieve their best performance.
We woodworkers know that some species of wood are better at some things than others. Cedar looks and smells great but maybe it’s not the best choice when strength is what you’re after. Even individual pieces from the same tree will have different characteristics. You need to know it well enough that you know what you can ask of it. You’ve got to work together!
Oh and the coolest dog sleds are made of wood and involve steam bending. So we’re hooked.
All of my chairs start the same way….., with a walk in the woods. This little ritual isn’t just to get me into the right head space for the work ahead. It has a more fundamental purpose. Out in the woods are where my chairs are born. Chairs are made of wood, wood comes from trees and trees are found in the forest. So here I am, in the woods, looking for a suitable tree.
I live in the central interior of British Columbia. That means my selection for suitable trees is fairly limited. Hardwoods do not abound here like they do in the east. Essentially, I’m looking for a birch. Birch is like the Swiss army knife of trees. It’s really good at everything without specializing. It works easily (especially when it’s still green), bends well, has good strength and looks great. Since I only have one choice for my chair wood, I’m glad it’s birch.
I harvest the wood for my chairs from close to home so I’m very particular about what tree I’m looking for. It needs to be straight and nicely rounded with no branches or obvious defects in the lower half of the tree. Its removal also needs to be beneficial to the rest of the forest. I want my woods to be healthier and prettier as a result of taking this tree down. So I have a list of criteria that it must meet. Is it growing too close to another birch? Are there smaller trees that are being stunted because of the shade my choice is casting? Has it reached maturity and started dropping branches? Is it easy to get to without having to take down other trees?
Once I’m satisfied that the tree is suitable and that the forest will benefit from its removal, its time to put it on the ground and get to work!
A new bench just found a new home.
It’s always nice to finish up a project. Now is when the shop time pays off and the new piece can begin to find its way in the world. After spending so much care and effort achieving the look and finish I want, its now time for this bench to start to live. For a piece of furniture that means getting put to work. A piece of furniture that works will get used, and not always the way it was intended. The proud new owner may hop up on this bench to change a light bulb, or maybe use it on its side to barricade in the new puppy. Who knows. All this use comes with a price, though I couldn’t put a price on it. The dings, scuffs, scratches and assorted wounds that it will pick up begin to tell the story of a life lived. It also creates a beautiful patina that would be impossible to replicate. It my mind it increases the value because it now embodies the memories and stories of a life lived.
So it’s true that soon this bench won’t look like it did when it left the shop. That’s okay. We all look better with a few wrinkles…
This piece was created as an entry bench for a new home. A place to sit down, put your boots on and prepare for what awaits out in the world. It was built using spalted birch. Mortice and tenon joinery was used throughout, with wedged tenons for the legs and stretcher.
If a person is asked to describe what it is that they do, it can be very useful to have a label to answer with. The problem with labels is that they can be very vague. To say that you are a doctor doesn’t really help to describe what you do. That could mean that you are a podiatrist, a heart surgeon or it might mean that you have a Phd in literature. The label needs to be specific and give an accurate picture.
So when I tell people that I am a woodworker it can be a bit misleading. For some, a woodworker is a person with a big shop and lots of noisy, dangerous power tools. That doesn’t describe me. To others a woodworker is someone who works only with hand tools, using exotic wood to create elaborate pieces that are steeped with historical references and nuanced with obvious influence from the great masters. That doesn’t describe me either. To some a woodworker is a person who programs a CNC machine to create parts for whatever it is they are making. That certainly doesn’t describe me.
Green woodworking is a term that was I believe originally credited to Jeannie Alexander. She reintroduced the world to the idea that chairs were made from wood and wood comes from trees so in fact it is possible to make a chair directly from a tree. Revolutionary I know. At that point in time furniture was made with kiln dried wood and heaven help you if you tried using anything that didn’t have a moisture content below 6%. Who knows what the wood would do otherwise.
Green woodworking says, “Look we know wood moves, we know wood shrinks, let’s not be scared of that, let’s use it.”
This is what I do and who I am. I harvest a tree from the woods around my house and I turn it into furniture. There’s no need to truck trees from the forest to a mill where it is sawn into convenient dimensions with no regard for the direction the grain is running. The lumber created in the mill is then “cooked” in a kiln. This may force the moisture from the wood and make it more stable but it also permanently alters the structure of the wood, making it much less fun to work by hand and very difficult to bend. Green woodworking avoids all this by going directly from the woods to the shop. (We will look at some of the myths surrounding the dangers of using unseasoned wood at another time.)
With any speciality there is always a unique set of vocabulary that one must learn in order to sound intelligent and in the know. Chairmaking is not immune from the infection of jargonese. In fact because it is such an old craft the myriad of strange words is legion. Reaming, riving, scorps and adzes. Rails and stiles, rungs and spindles – which is which?
Perhaps one of the most beloved of these strange words is the term – bodger. Getting a decisive definition is an impossible task but Rachel Reynolds does an admiral job in her article “A Bodger is not a Botcher”. While the term has murky origins it seems in recent years to have adopted a modern meaning that may stick for a while. It now refers to green woodworkers who use pole lathes to fashion items out of wood, often chair parts.
As fascinating as word origins may be I need something more to really get excited about a word. Bodger is one of the words that I can get really excited about because I discovered I have a personal connection with it. That’s right. I’m about to add another layer of mystery to the word. My last name is Godber. Godber is an old Anglo Saxon name with deep roots in the British Isles. If you were to rearrange the letters in my last name one of the combinations you would arrive at is bodger. That’s right. My name is actually an anagram.
Godber-bodger. Now the question must be asked is bodger not perhaps an anagram for Godber. Or were my ancestors perhaps part of a secret guild of green woodworking chair makers who hid their true identity behind a clever anagram. I like the intrigue of that idea. I also like the idea that I am once again shouldering the mantle of a green woodworking, pole lathe using chair maker. Sometimes a name just makes sense!