On a whim, about 8 weeks ago, I signed up for a “Woodshop for beginners” class in Calgary, through continuing education at Chinook College in Calgary. After wrapping up the last class last night I can now sit back and reflect on what was a fascinating, humbling and extraordinary look into the vast world of woodworking. Not to mention that it was really, really rewarding and enjoyable!
Working with wood means working very closely with trees. Trees and forests are integral to our natural world; as the kidneys (to employ the Gaia theory) they bring down the rain from the clouds and they filter our fresh water, and they are incredibly diverse and rich ecosystems for both flora and fauna in most biomes of our Earth. All ecosystems (except for deserts) if left indefinately to their own devices, want to and do eventually become forests. In Permaculture we talk non-stop about maintaining at least 30%, if not more, of our site under tree cover. Within the zoning system we have zone IV which is dedicated to productive trees, and zone II, the orchard, which is also partly wooded. From all sides I hear of the importance of wood and trees, so I turned to the one great gift of wood that I didn’t know the first thing about – woodworking.
In our 15-ish students class, we had a good mix of guys and gals, and there was a wide variety in ages, interests and backgrounds. Some had worked previously with wood, whether fixing a floor-board or a tool-shed at home, and wanted to learn more, others like me, couldn’t tell the difference between a table and a hand saw even if you smacked us over the head with a dowel (yea, I didn’t know what that was either!). It didn’t matter, our teacher was responsive and kind to even the most seemingly “silly” questions and he walked us through our learning processes with patience and a practiced-eye, and we all successfully completed our three main projects: we each built a tool-box, a bench-hook and two push sticks.
Overall, the projects were much more about gaining an appreciation and respect for woodworking and for learning the processes than about attaining the final products themselves. We were introduced to different types of power tools such as a wide variety of saws, routers and drills. However, every step of the way, we learned the hand-tool equivalent of the bulky and noisy power tools, in so doing, realizing that it may perhaps take more effort and time, but the vast majority of woodwork can be done by hand.
Throughout, my attention was constantly drawn to the nature of wood, as a varied and living material. You always have to pay attention to the grain of the wood (which way the fibres are running) and the figure on any given piece of solid wood (the shapes, colours and designs that are an effect of the tree’s rings, or any fungal or bacterial life in it). The figure is also affected by how the tree is felled and how boards are cut from any given piece of timber (there are many ways to cut a piece of wood!). There is a lot more going on inside of a tree than first meets the eye, and oftentimes those that cut boards will get pieces of wood with miraculous shapes and designs on them, like the “birds eye” shown here.
It’s as if the wood was still living, even after being felled. It contracts and expands with differences in temperature and humidity levels. It is affected by sunlight and UV rays and can change colour significantly over time. The Paduak tree (Pterocarpus), of African origin, is actually a bright orange when first cut down, it then ages to a deep red and with exposure to direct sunlight turns brown! Other fun facts included clarifications on the names of the wood and the trees they come from. A board of English brown oak, for example, is simply English oak that has been infected with a fungus which turned it brown. Some names, though, are very clear indicators. Poisonwood (metopium toxiferum), for example, is not to be taken lightly. It really is poisonous!
Oh, and did you know that rosewood is thus named because it smells like roses when it is cut? And tulipwood smells like…you guessed it – tulips.
We also briefly discussed the business and environmental aspects of lumber. Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra), for example, is an endangered wood, and it is now illegal to export it from Brazil. Koa (Acacia Koa), a tree that grows in abundance on the islands of Hawaii, is greatly valued as a furniture and decorative wood as well as being a valuable tonewood (excellent for making musical instruments). Luckily, the locals have become engaged in protecting this valuable wood, and it is now no longer exported as boards but only as finished product.
My respect and fascination for the tree world and for woodworking has attained new levels. I am thrilled at the thought of making, with my own two hands (and some tools too…) beautiful, practical and long-life products from wood! It’s very fulfilling to turn what looks like only a few innocent boards into something as useful as a tool-box… and maybe in the future into a cabinet, table or chair! Furthermore, there are so many different types of woods to choose from, so much to consider as well when buying your boards: if it’s local, how it will change over time, how easy it is to work with (especially important for beginners), whether or not it is endangered. A little perspective and respect can’t hurt either – trees and forests do take hundreds of years to grow, after all, and once felled, we should aim to make the derived product’s usefulness last for as long as the trees took to grow…
…and plant a few more to replace the ones we use, of course!