Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Great Designs in Wood (63) - The Forest Sciences Centre at UBC

I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to travel out west to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. They had invited me out to participate in a review of their Wood Products Processing program, one of the degree programs available in their "Faculty of Forestry", as they call it. Based on the preliminary material I reviewed, I expected to see good things...but how good, I didn't even come close to imagining.

As I entered the building, a world of stunning timber construction opened up...and I felt right at home.







The Centre was built in 1998, I believe, a decade or so before our modern era of the wooden-framed tall buildings, so much of its structural core is traditional steel and concrete. However, with its engineered wood roof members and wooden cladding throughout, I have to believe that the building was the inspiration for much of the wooden building progress that has been at the forefront in British Columbia since.

The visit was not without its unique cultural memories. I had a couple of hours on the first day to stroll down to the beach opposite the dormitory in which I was staying. The place was called "Wreck Beach", and I'm guessing that in earlier times, shipwrecks on the point on which the beach sits were common. These days, the bay encircled by the beach is stock full of rafts of logs, awaiting delivery to local sawmills.


These logs give the beach a really unique character of its own, as many of them break free of the rafts and end up strewn along the beach, giving it a rough and tumble character.







But the biggest surprise to me was the "Naturalist" tradition of the beach, which I discovered only on the way down to the beach.


We're not in Pennsylvania any more, Toto!
So, these peaceful and fun-loving folks found thick fog, icy waters, boulders, and logs battering the beach, and thought...Nude Beach! A hardy breed, these Canucks.

I can't end this post without sharing my thoughts on the UBC Wood Products Processing program. What a great program it is. You can check out its curriculum here. The program is designed as a broad exposure to the critical components of wood products manufacturing, and with its optional minor in Commerce, students are ideally prepared for managerial positions in the forest industry the world over. The best component of the program is its optional "Co-op" program, in which students can take advantage of up to five different co-op opportunities with different companies, all coordinated with and monitored by the department. I witnessed first-hand the result of this approach...in interviews of current graduating students, I met the most mature, well-prepared, soon-to-be college graduates I've ever met. One of the department faculty members told me that the Co-op is a win, win...the faculty members are continually pushed to keep current with the techniques and technology that the students are experiencing in their time with the companies.

And as for the onsite education...the college has its own Centre for Advanced Wood Processing, which is right next door to the Forest Sciences Centre and filled with the latest in wood processing equipment, donated from their many industry partners. And best of all, the Centre was filled with students actually working at the many machine centers, a positive sign that students are getting the perfect mix of hands-on experience to go with all the theory they're learning.










Finally, the professors I interviewed were all highly professional, courteous, and open to any new ideas they could glean. They reminded me, to a person, of the best engineering and management professors I've met in my career. They were intense, but in a comfortable, confident way that inspires the same confidence in their students.

I came away from the visit thinking...if any child or grandchild of mine is someday interested in forestry or wood products, the University of British Columbia is the place I'm sending them.


 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Great Designs in Wood (62) - The Violin...and the Secrets of Stradivari

A couple of years ago now we looked at the violin, and its magnificent design, in GDiW (39) and GDiW (43). In those posts, we naturally enough focused on the wood component of the violin, and how the species and wood specimens used impact the tone of the instrument.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual Penn State Private Forest Landowners Conference, and my presentation topic was "The Wonderful World of Wood". In it, I skimmed very lightly some of the most popular wonders of wood from around the world, and one of those topics was the marvelous design of the great Italian violins. However, I was limited to only a few minutes on the topic, as always, and predictably, I could tell the audience would have liked to know much more about these great violins.

So, for those folks, and for the rest of you Go Wood readers who love the topic, I have found a lecture by violinist Rose Mary Harbison and Professor William Fry given in 2009 at the Boston Museum of Science. Professor Fry does an excellent job of describing the physics of the violin, and how they are achieved, in a way that we non-physicists can easily understand, sort of...and Mrs. Harbison illustrates the principles as Dr. Fry explains them on several great violins.

This video is about an hour and a half long...and it seems like half that. We learn that the selection of the wood was not the only key to the violins, and perhaps not even a significant one...but that the secrets lie in the scientific artistry of the construction techniques. So, for the rest of the story, watch...




Unfortunately, Dr. Fry left us in 2011, but his legacy as a great researcher and teacher is cemented in history in this video. And what a legacy he left. From his obituary...
"During World War II he was a commissioned naval officer, stationed at the Naval Research Laboratories in Washington, D.C., where he led the research on jamming devices for guided missiles. Then on to the White Sands, New Mexico rocket site, where he was in charge of researching German V-2 rockets. Dr. Fry was Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin from 1952 to 1998. He was an experimental high energy physicist at the University and pioneered the astrophysics program. He also established physics programs at the University of Padova and Milan University in Italy in 1957. He was a Guggenheim Scholar and Fulbright Lecturer and served as a consultant to the International Atomic Energy Commission. He spent over four decades in violin acoustical research, uncovering the secrets of Stradivarius. His accomplishments in violin research are recognized in books and film, and are detailed in a scientific video book he completed last year. Jack was an avid historian who collected Italian manuscripts from the 12th century through the Fascist period during his extensive travels in Italy. He donated over 40,000 books and documents to the University of Wisconsin library, making the largest collection of Italian Fascist-era documents available to scholars worldwide. He was a man with an astonishing range of interests and passionate curiosity, and his many accomplishments too numerous to mention here. Jack always remained modest to a fault, and was a dignified, generous, and fine friend to all who knew him."
Thank you, Mrs. Harbison, and to the Boston Museum of Science for introducing us to the wonderful work of Dr. William (Jack) Fry, and to the Secret of the Stradivarius.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Make Wood, Not War

Recently, I was granted permission by the Board of Directors of the International Wood Collectors Society to re-publish in a blog format the best articles from the pre-2000 issues of their Journal, World of Wood. In late January I started that blog with the minutes of the first meeting of the Society in 1947. It's a very interesting piece of history for everyone who has ever picked up an unusual piece of wood and taken it home, just for the sake of having it or using it in some wood-working project.

This week, I shared an interesting re-print of an article entitled "My Conception of an Ideal Wood Collection", by a member named Dr. Wolfgang Mautz. Coincidentally, the speech by Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to our U.S. congress this week gave me an interesting perspective on Dr. Mautz' contribution to the early Wood Collectors Society membership. Allow me to explain the connection in my mind of these two completely non-related events given sixty-five years apart.

Dr. Mautz' article was published, in 1949, in the newsletter of a fledgling organization that had one-hundred and seven members at the time, seventy-nine of whom were Americans, twelve British, with the small remainder from the rest of the world. Two were Dutch. None at the time were Germans or from any of the countries allied with Germany in World War II. And yet, the German Dr. Mautz was invited to share his passion for wood collecting with this group of folks who, in entirety, would have considered him "the enemy" only four short years before.

As I read Dr. Mautz' article, it brought back fond memories of another German wood scientist, one that had a profound impact on my career. I met Werner in my first year in the wood industry. He was the company's residing "technical expert" on all things wood, and I and my buddies in Temple-Inland's Product Development Center soaked up as much of Werner's expertise as we could. In addition, we got some great stories about his experiences serving first on the frozen Russian front of the war, and then later waiting on the French coast for the inevitable invasion of the Allies. He had been in university, studying wood science, when he was conscripted into the German army. He ended the war sitting in an American prisoner-of-war camp, which he said was the best thing that ever happened to him, considering the alternatives. Werner completed his studies after the war, and moved to America, to begin his wood industry experience at a fiberboard plant in International Falls, Minnesota, if I remember correctly. By the time I knew him, Werner had more knowledge about wood and wood products in his pinky finger than the rest of us put together. We knew it, and respected him for it.

I was re-publishing Dr. Mautz' article the day after Mr. Netanyahu's speech to Congress. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I was able to watch the speech live in my office. If you're not familiar with the contents of the speech, it was primarily a warning to our government that the current nuclear negotiations we are having with the government of Iran were, to the best of his knowledge, not well considered, to put it mildly. The objective of his giving the speech was to let our leaders know that Israel considered the logical outcome of the negotiations to be a direct nuclear threat to the existence of the state of Israel...and he made a pretty strong case for that conclusion. The most memorable line in the speech was, that, "in the case of ISIS and Iran, the enemy of your enemy, is your enemy."

And in this case which he is so close to, Mr. Netanyahu is probably correct. Nevertheless, as I typed Mr. Mautz' article into the computer the next day, I found myself considering the concept of the enemy. Dr. Mautz had been an enemy of the other wood collectors in 1945; by 1949 he was taken as a colleague in wood. The love of wood, in a period of time shorter than President Obama has been in office, had overcome the hatred of war, and turned an enemy into a friend.

And here I was, re-creating a wood article from a German wood scientist in 1949 on the internet, that both my Israeli and Iranian wood science colleagues, as well as most everyone else in the world, can read in their own language, thanks to the Google Translate widget on the site. I've received emails relating to wood science questions from all three countries, and hope to receive many more in the future. And I suspect that none of these folks care any more about the political agenda of their leaders than Werner did when Herr Hitler drafted him to fight for Nazism's evil cause. I know I don't.

Thus my plea in the title of today's blog. Make wood, not war. Focus on the business of living, speak out against the rhetoric of violence and destruction, and actively resist those who would lead you into hating another enemy of their making. Making bombs and launching missiles is the easy path to conflict resolution, but not the best by far. For as Dr. Mautz and Werner both stood for, at our core, we're all really interested in the same thing...how to Go Wood, and get along.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Logging the Swamp, Now and Then

There's a TV show on discovery these days called "Swamp Loggers". Seems the populace just can't get enough of logging-related reality shows. I guess most folks can't believe how hard a few people in the world still work for a living.

Here's a sample...




The load of "pecky" cypress being loaded is a very unique specialty wood that people either love with a passion, or hate. I'm in the first boat...perhaps you can see why.

Source: http://heartsart.us/id1.html


But what our modern swamp loggers go through, with their powerful rigs and high-flotation tires, looks like child's play compared to the feats of amazing strength, dexterity, balance, and nerve the old-time swamp loggers performed. If you liked the other old logging videos, you'll love these. No sound, just sights that you won't believe.




Thursday, February 19, 2015

Paper Made Here: A Portrait on Paper

Pretty straightforward message here today.

North American wood and paper industries are among the most productive, most professional, and environmentally-conscientious companies in the world. Our environmentalist community can take a share of the credit for that last one. It's a great story of when people work together for the right things, good things happen.

So let's give credit where credit is due, and celebrate the results. Let's hope that our efforts influence others in areas of the world where industrial production is not as professional, nor conscientious. Communication, and collaborations are indirect ways to send that message.

But the best, most direct and effective way to share our industrial heritage is through the marketplace. "Buy American" is not, at its root, a dirty protectionist rallying cry for wealthy corporate shareholders or flag-waving crazies. It's a bit of wisdom for demonstrating through consumer purchases that healthy values mean something to us. Something that we care enough about to invest our hard-earned wages in.

When we lose that commitment, we lose a bit of ourselves.




Thanks to the folks at Domtar for the reminder.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Loggers Work While the Rest of Us Stay Inside

Well, the temperature was -8F this morning, which to the best of my memory is the coldest it's gotten here since I moved to Pennsylvania twelve and a half years ago. Feeding the stove last night, I found myself thinking about my timber buddies who would be getting up around 4 am to fire up their trucks and get back at it, after (if they were lucky) a Sunday off for rest.

Which reminded me of this video, which seems appropriate to share this frosty morning.




If the size of some of those loads raised your eyebrows a bit, they should...loggers are allowed to horse out as much as they can get on their truck while traveling private (usually company) roads, and well, you know, time is money. So stack 'em high and wide, and get out of my way.

Which is pretty much the attitude I was raised on, back in the day, when my dad was working hard and Johnny Cash was his favorite yodeler. I used to get into his albums, and on one, there was this great old song I remember word-for-word to this very day.



I especially loved the line...
"Well I learned this fact from a logger named Ray, you don't cut timber on a windy day...stay outta the woods when the moisture's low, or you ain't gonna live to collect your dough."
I always assumed Johnny was signing about my Papa, and that he and Johnny were old friends, which is why my dad had all his records. Anyway, not only did the lyrics impress me enough to avoid cutting timber on windy days, but the thought of not living to collect my dough was encouragement enough to study hard and get a desk job.

And to stay out of the woods when it's 8 below. But someone's got to do it, so thanks, guys. Stay warm if you can while you're Going Wood on the ground.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Is Wood Part of the Ecosystem?

Well, as this over-caffeinated young man explains so well in the following video, that depends on what ecosystem you are thinking about.


There has been some controversy in the "forestry" world because so many academic forestry programs have transformed themselves into "ecosystems" programs over the last decade or so. That includes your beloved Penn State School of Forest Resources, which is now the Penn State Department of Ecosystems Science and Management. The main complaint against this trend is that this new definition of "those who study the forest" is too broad for potential employers to evaluate. And the main argument for this trend is that this new definition of "those who study the forest" is broad enough to encompass all the areas of interest included in the video...and then some. So, you see, it really is a matter of perspective.

Also a matter of perspective is whether wood and wood science is part of ecosystems science, or not. Many scientists who are interested in the ecosystem energy flows as measured by the living, growing components of the system view wood as a simple product, or outflow, of the energy system. In particular, commercial lumber, engineered wood, and paper products are seen as by-products of tree harvest, and as net extractions from the ecosystem under study. In life-cycle analysis terms, these folks have framed their ecosystem "outside or before the gate", that is, the gate of the mill to which the logs are delivered.

Another type of scientist who focuses on the wood as raw material to a manufacturing process, may frame his or her system "inside the gate", as engineers usually do. This is the reason that most of our "wood products" faculty opted to move to the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering once the School of Forest Resources label was changed. Because of their training, they prefer to work with the wood from a process perspective, not an ecosystem perspective.

Although I was trained as a forester, I spent the majority of my career in this latter camp, working happily away inside the gate where wood is good and efficiency and quality are king and queen. As the time for a career decision neared, however, I found my interests turning back to my roots outside the gate. For over the years, I had perceived that most who spend their time and interest in the woods have little interest in what goes on inside the gate, and therefore discount wood's role in a larger ecosystem we could call human life.

And so I work to reverse that trend. Because not only is wood vitally important in the forest as a support for those carbon-dioxide consuming and oxygen producing things called leaves, and feeds the detritivores mentioned in the video who feed off all the remnant biological energy that finds its way to the forest floor...it feeds a lot of omnivores called humans competing for resources in the global ecosystem.  And the question of how much wood is good in the forest versus in our living rooms is a question that folks will be discussing for a long, long time...and that is as it should be.

So, Go Wood in your ecosystem, and feel good about it.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Another One in the Books

Well, here we are again...another year in the books.

We got 2014 started slowly, very slowly, with a wooden snow roller...

Said goodbye to old friends...

Listened to a tree tell us its sad story...

And watched a groundhog nearly leap to its death.

But things began to pick up on a trip down memory lane with Allison Logging in the 1930's, the most popular Go Wood post of the year...

And we surveyed the real value of wood in modern home construction.

We paid homage to some of the greatest of all wood designs...one of the simplest, and one of the most complex.

We kept a wary eye on that crazy world through the looking glass...and another on the tinsel-town world in which productive folks are nearly always the bad guys.

We learned how man conquered the world with wood...and then contemplated the functional beauty of wooden boat that got him there.

We experienced the thrill of victory...and rebounded with wood when Earth try to deal our Italian friends the agony of defeat.

We (meaning I) nearly killed some little fish friends, but the experience brought us some great knowledge of European and American bow-woods.

And we experienced the joy of youth, both in going up the ladder, and going down a hill.

2014 brought a couple of little tweaks to Go Wood which you probably didn't notice, but one in particular should have significant impact on our ranks.  If you look at the top right-hand corner of this panel, you'll see a little box titled "Translate." Go ahead, try it. Click the little down-arrow and then pick your favorite foreign language. Amazing, huh? Now people can Go Wood in nearly one hundred different languages.

And by the end of this year, nearly half a million folks will have done just that. Thanks to all of you that make Go Wood what it is...just a simple source of woody inspiration.  Keep it coming in, and I'll try to keep it going out. More folks need to know about the miracle of wood, so keep tuning in and sharing with your friends.

Because what the world needs now, is wood, sweet wood.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Wood as a Fewel, According to Adam Smith

Everyone heating with wood, or thinking of heating with wood, soon or later gets around to considering the cost of doing so. Since heating with wood has been around since man discovered the benefits of fire, you might call this a problem for the ages.

It certainly was back in 1776, when our American forefathers were declaring their independence from our English cousins. Soon to experience dearly the value of wood as a source of heat in a tiny encampment called Valley Forge, George Washington and his men knew first-hand the value of firewood when one is cold.

Staying by the fire, even when Generals Washington and Lafayette rode by, was the better part of valor in the encampment at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valley_Forge
Less noticed than the beginning of the War of Independence, an elderly Scottish professor published a book in that year of 1776 that was to become, over the ages, the most well-known and respected classic in the field of economics. Adam Smith's treatise, originally published under the scholary title An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, was later shortened into the now-famous The Wealth of Nations, and scholars still refer to its wisdom.

What? You've never read it? You've never lingered over one of the hundreds of delicious passages found in its 1,100+ pages? Then you may be surprised to know that professor Smith considered the cost of wood with respect to its competitor of the time, coal...and even displayed his knowledge of air quality, animal husbandry and forestry in the same passages. Enjoy.

"Coals are a less agreeable fewel than wood: they are said too to be less wholesome. The expence of coals, therefore, at the place where they are consumed, must generally be somewhat less than that of wood.
The price of wood again varies with the state of agriculture, nearly in the same manner, and exactly for the same reason, as the price of cattle. In its rude beginnings the greater part of every country is covered with wood, which is then a mere incumbrance of no value to the landlord, who would gladly give it to any body for the cutting. As agriculture advances, the woods are partly cleared by the progress of tillage, and partly go to decay in consequence of the increased number of cattle. These, though they do not increase in the same proportion as corn, which is altogether the acquisition of human industry, yet multiply under the care and protection of men; who store up in the season of plenty what may maintain them in that of scarcity, who through the whole year furnish them with a greater quantity of food than uncultivated nature provides for them, and who by destroying and extirpating their enemies, secure them in the free enjoyment of all that she provides. Numerous herds of cattle, when allowed to wander through the woods, though they do not destroy the old trees, hinder any young ones from coming up, so that in the course of a century or two the whole forest goes to ruin. The scarcity of wood then raises its price. It affords a good rent, and the landlord sometimes finds that he can scarce employ his best lands more advantageously than in growing barren timber, of which the greatness of the profit often compensates the lateness of the returns. This seems in the present times to be nearly the state of things in several parts of Great Britain, where the profit of planting is found to be equal to that of either corn or pasture. The advantage which the landlord derives from planting, can nowhere exceed, at least for any considerable time, the rent which these could afford him; and in an inland country which is highly cultivated, it will frequently not fall much short of this rent. Upon the sea-coast of a well-improved country, indeed, if coals can conveniently be had for fewel, it may sometimes be cheaper to bring barren timber for building from less cultivated foreign countries, than to raise it at home. In the new town of Edinburgh, built within these few years, there is not, perhaps, a single stick of Scotch timber.
Whatever may be the price of wood, if that of coals is such that the expence of a coal-fire is nearly equal to that of a wood one, we may be assured, that at that place, and in these circumstances, the price of coals is as high as it can be. It seems to be so in some of the inland ports of England, particularly in Oxfordshire, where it is usual, even in the fires of the common people, to mix coals and wood together, and where the difference in the expence of those two sorts of fewel cannot, therefore, be very great."
And he goes on from there to explain the reason coal and all other such commodities are limited by transportation and labor costs relative to their competitors.

I think you can see why The Wealth of Nations is such a classic. It's great reading, especially if you're a history buff...and the principles explained by Professor Smith still hold fundamentally true today. Consider these points in his passages above:

  • Coal was recognized as less "wholesome" than wood. (Although, coal's energy density is much greater than wood, making it more wholesome that the good professor probably understood, providing it can be burned cleanly. But cities of the times were shrouded with noxious clouds from the primitive coal stoves of the day, and indoor air quality was certainly one major source of  the health problems that prevailed.)
  • As a more abundant and concentrated commodity (in those places that had coal deposits), the price of coal (per unit of volume, we presume) would never exceed that of wood, since wood can be gathered and traded by individuals when coal becomes too dear. In today's context, we could say the same about all primary and alternative fuels...when they exceed the price of wood heating, people who have access to wood begin burning it. Which, by the way, is also why wood is and will always be a fuel of last resort, not of first resort...unless you're the owner of a productive woodlot.
  • Since wood is usually more expensive in more-developed countries, it will be common for wood to be imported for building purposes from less-developed countries. Back then, it was America...these days, it is New Zealand, Chile, and Canada. Like his amusing anecdote of "not a single stick of Scotch timber" in Edinburgh, it is today equally likely that there is not a single stick of Connecticut timber in New York City.
So, if you're heating with wood, consider yourself blessed. You're burning the most precious fuel in the world, in terms of fundamental economics. And you get to enjoy that crackle.

And if you're not...well, enjoy this for a while. I swear, I can feel the heat coming off the screen.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Vision of Christmas Past

Christmas is a great time to feel sentimental. I'd just like to thank all you folks who've been kind enough to read Go Wood, and even more so to those of you who've written to add to the pieces with your own comments, or who have passed along more material.

And in the spirit of Christmas sentimentality, I like to share a short video I shot of two of the Ray clan seven years ago this season. The boys are a lot bigger now, and not nearly so cute...but the memory of them sliding down this hill in our yard on Christmas Eve is literally, for me, a vision of Christmas Past.

Here's to your own memories of Christmas Past, and blessings to you this Christmas 2014.



Peace on Earth, Go Wood toward man.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Things are Heating Up

Well, sorry to you wood burners out there, who are complaining that I haven't done more wood energy posts recently. Yes, I still love my wood stove...but my gas boiler and upstairs stove are so cozy, inexpensive, and easy, that, I admit it, I haven't yet starting burning wood. After Christmas I'll share more wood-energy stories with you.

Speaking of gas, I'll bet you've been a little befuddled by the controversy surrounding natural-gas production via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The issue, like so many others these days, revolves around different tellings of the story about the same process.

The telling that seems to get the most press is similar to the one told by The Sierra Club...



Hmmm...sounds bad. But there's another way to tell the story, and that is from a perspective from those who actually perform the production process. For instance, Marathon Oil Company shares this video which looks amazingly like the Sierra Club video, but with a few different details. See what you think.



I think the videos illustrate the concept that the more familiar you become with a product or process, the less (or more) you tend to fear it, depending on whether the thing is an honest attempt to improve life on this planet, or an inherently evil deception of the public trust.

Since I'm a believer in the general concept of "the more energy, the better", I tend to lend a higher level of credibility to the producers, whether they be oil companies, wind turbine companies, or loggers. My experience is that all are working to improve their production and delivery processes in order to enable more and cheaper production. Sure, they're in it to make money, but their profits in the long run depend on their being able to provide a sustainable, safe product.

A great case in point was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago. The company (or its sub-contractors) were apparently pushing the limits of safety and procedures, and a bad thing happened. There was an immediate outcry for more government regulation to ensure that it didn't happen again.

But my limited experience in the oil patch (and my more extensive experience in the timber industry) helped me understand that the incident would be studied intensively by BP and every other oil company in the world, because it cost the company billions of dollars. That alone is a far greater assurance of better, safer processes in the future. No company ever wants the environmental and public relations disaster that BP endured in the aftermath of that incident. Necessity naturally drives the invention of better production processes, at least in a competitive marketplace.

I understand that there is a general fear of the unknown, especially in these days when so much seems to be happening so quickly. But the solution to fear is education, so that the "fearful things" can be recognized and avoided. The opposing viewpoints represented in these two videos are both helpful in the educational process... and it should be our continuing resolution to ferret out the fears from the facts, and move forward when the safe, productive way forward is revealed.

After all, abundant, affordable, and clean energy is good for everyone. Everyone. Everyone.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wood Science 101 (19) - The North American Bow-Wood

Last week we reveled in the properties and history of a great European tree, the yew, with specific focus on the legendary long-bows wielded by the British archers of a thousand years ago. But did you know that there is an American equivalent, a tree with wood of unique properties that has been utilized for many, varied uses, including wood for the bows of Native Americans?

Well, there is...and I stumbled across one yesterday in Winchester, Virginia. If you're a country folk, you'll recognize it by its unmistakable fruit.



The Osage-orange, or bois d'arc tree (Maclura pomifera), bears this somewhat unearthly-looking fruit pod. Slightly larger and heavier than a softball, many a young lad has had horse-apple fights with their buddies that ended up with in a sticky mess in someone's hair.

Birds seem to love the Osage-orange, and have contributed to the spread of the tree across the land.  As I stumbled around a stack of roof trusses in front of the tree, several dozen doves that were roosting under the tree scurried away in a whistle of wings.That greenish fruit is actually a conglomeration of around three-hundred seeds in a fibrous, gelatinous casing. They smell faintly like a honeydew melon, and larger animals somehow find them tasty...hence, the moniker horse-apple. Unlike the deadly yew, though, these trees are only a threat to insects, and the horse-apples were used in olden times as insect repellents in fruit and vegetable cabinets.


Nothing straight on a bois d'arc tree. Click on the picture and you will see the horse apples still hanging.

I was glad to see another old bois d'arc (pronounced bo-dark in East Texan)...they're not too common in Pennsylvania and this one in Virginia was the first one I had seen in a long time. Running across it the week of Thanksgiving brought back some old memories of my youth in Texas, where it seemed every fence line contained at least one bois d'arc mixed in with the cedars, yaupon, and cottonwood. With those big old green apples, bois d'arc command your attention, and they fascinated me...but those apples are just part of this great tree's story.

Early American pioneers discovered that the Osage nation of native Americans, which were roughly centered at the time of the American migration of the mid-nineteeth century at the convergence of Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, had especially fine wooden implements, including their most feared tool, the bow. Bois d'arc (literally, wooden bow in French) became the moniker to the tree from applied by the early French explorers of the area, while to the English-speaking settlers, the tree was named Osage-orange by those who observed the Indians tanning their hides with the orange-colored tannins of the wood.
"Osage orange bow blanks and finished bows were prime items of barter among the tribes. One early report said a well balanced bow was worth a "comely young squaw" in trade. Another said that in the early 1800s the price of a good Osage orange bow was a horse and a blanket. Tribal wars were fought for possession of lands generously supplied with Osage orange trees.
So sought after was the Osage orange bow, it was used by Shawnee and Wyandotte Indians in Ohio and the Blackfoot Indians in Montana. The bows must have been traded over a distance of 2,000 miles.
Early French explorers came to associate the strong powerful bows with the Osage Indians and called the trees "bois d'arc" which means "wood of the bow." This French name was eventually pronounced "bodark," a name that continues to be used for Osage orange in some regions.
Indians had other uses for Osage orange. The stout wood was well suited for war clubs and tomahawk handles. The ridged and scaly bark of the trunk provided both a fiber for rope and tannin for making leather. Root tea was used to wash sore eyes. The roots and inner bark were used to make a light orange dye. Early pioneers adopted this dye for their homespun cloth and later it was used commercially to color the American forces' olive drab uniforms during World War I.
Pioneers found more uses. The wood's hardness and low shrinkage made it valuable for wagon wheel hubs and rims. Supposedly, the first chuck wagon ever built was made of Osage orange to withstand the terrible bumping of the Texas panhandle. Cattle yokes were fashioned from the many angled limbs.
Railroad ties, bridge pilings, insulator pins, telephone poles, treenails, street paving blocks, mine timber, house blocks (used instead of masonry foundations) and tool handles were all uses eventually added to the list. No doubt, some of the first telegraph messages sent west pulsed across parts of the Midwest on wires held aloft on Osage orange poles.
As early as 1806 President Thomas Jefferson referred to the Osage orange in a message to Congress. He had heard from British explorers of the Arkansas country about the tree's potential as a hedge plant, a potential soon to be realized."
- Jim W. Grace, The Enduring Osage-Orange, Missouri Department of Conservation 
You see, as useful as the tree was to our native populations and pioneers, the Osage-orange was soon to become the most-widely planted tree in American history for another, now-forgotten reason.
"It seems remarkable that a tree that produces no pulpwood, saw timber or utility poles has been planted more than any other species in North America. But in the 1800s, on the expansive prairies of a fertile new continent, before the invention of barbed wire, settlers needed fence. And Osage orange makes a great fence.
A single row of hedge trees planted a foot apart would yield a fence that was "horse high, bull-strong, and hog-tight" in 4 years. Some farmers would weave the already twisted and intertwined limbs of the young trees tightly together, a technique known as "plashing," for a more impenetrable barrier. Use of the Osage orange tree as hedge was so common throughout most of its introduced range that "hedge" became the tree's common name.
Few records exist about the extent of Osage orange hedge plantings in Missouri. In nearby Kansas, however, between 1865 and 1939, nearly 40,000 miles of Osage orange hedgerows were planted by private landowners. Prairie settlers in other states, including Missouri, also were planting thousands of miles of Osage orange hedge at this time.
Hedge nurseries sprang up to meet the burgeoning need for seeds and seedlings. Osage orange fruits, commonly called hedge balls or hedge apples, were covered with dirt and straw in the fall. In the spring, the seeds were easily separated from the rotten flesh of the fruit.
One hedge apple would yield about 300 seeds. One bushel of hedge apples in the fall - about 80 apples - would yield 24,000 seeds the following spring. The seeds were then direct-seeded into a prepared seedbed on the farm or planted at the nursery and sold as seedlings. Planting contractors were available to establish hedge rows for 37.5 cents per rod ($120 dollars per mile).
In the 1860s, the Osage orange market went wild. Prices jumped from $8 a bushel to $50 a bushel. In one year alone, 18,000 bushels of seeds were shipped to the northwest United States - enough seed to plant over 100,000 miles of Osage orange hedge! "Hedge mania," as one newspaper called it, was rampant.
A few scattered records give a glimpse of the intense planting period in Missouri: 1844 - Osage orange had been planted in Greene County; 1851 - the first Osage orange were planted in Holt County; 1852 - Osage orange hedges planted in Cass County proved successful; 1853 - Caldwell County: "In May 1853, Mr. Terrill had the hedge fence set out on the east side of his place. The seed for this hedge was brought. . . on horseback from Texas."
By 1879 Monroe County in northeast Missouri and Nodaway County in northwest Missouri each had over 2,000 miles of hedge rows, " . . . more than any other county in Kansas, Nebraska, or Iowa."
But in 1874, Osage orange met its match. A new invention, barbed wire, was now cheaper to use for fencing. Although the Osage orange planting storm had passed, the tree had been planted in all 48 contiguous states."
 - Jim W. Grace, The Enduring Osage-Orange, Missouri Department of Conservation 
Hedge rows, or early-American natural fencing. Interesting that a tree famous for it's bow-wood would be valuable as a hedge...another eerie similarity to its European bow tree, the yew.

There's another interesting story involving the Osage-orange, this time involving our fiery American patriot Patrick Henry. Henry, famous for this oratorical masterpiece...
"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!"
...retired to a planter's life at his Red Hill, Virginia plantation and reached the end of his life on June 6, 1799. Upon his death, his attending physician was recorded to have rushed from the house and wept bitterly under a tree in front of the plantation house. This same tree is now recorded as being the largest Osage-orange in the country.

The U.S. largest Osage-orange is at Red Hill Plantation, Virginia.


Finally, though, we should touch on the really unique properties of the wood of Maclura pomifera. It is a heavy, durable wood, running about 54 pounds per dried cubic foot of wood at a specific gravity of 0.86. What makes it a great bow-wood is that the high modulus of rupture (MOR) with a relatively low modulus of elasticity (MOE). Which means, in laymen's terms, that it is pliable, not stiff, but very strong.

Now, Osage-orange is about 20% heavier than the yew, but it's ratio of MOR to MOE is nearly identical to yew. In an interesting article by Eric Meier of WoodDatabase.com, yew and Osage-orange have "bow indices" of 11.52 and 11.51, respectively, and this rating is exceeded by only the rosewoods (Dalbergia spp.) and muninga (Pterocarpus angolensis) of common trees in the world. So it's no wonder that yew and Osage-orange were the preferred bow-woods of their day on their respective continents.

And, like another of our popular interesting woods, the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), it is extremely durable, and was used for fence posts that could stand fifty or more years in the ground.

So, that's an introduction to the Osage-orange, or bois d'arc tree and its wood. We'll leave this post, fittingly, with a picture of another seasonal use of the hedge apples...for Thanksgiving centerpieces.




There you go. Something to do while the turkey cooks, make yourself a horse-apple centerpiece.

And have a wonderful Thanksgiving while you're doing it. Go Wood.



Thursday, November 20, 2014

An Uplifting Story from the Coast of Maine

Several folks have asked about Carol Chang, one of our 2013 Penn State graduates who has been profiled here on Go Wood, since she got out into the world. I updated the original post with the news that she had been hired by Weatherend Furniture of Rockland, Maine, shortly after that post, thanks to Collin Miller of the Northern Forest Center who shared the post around with his industry contacts. That simple act of extra effort by Mr. Miller resulted in the realization of a great career opportunity for a young woman who just needed a chance to show what she could do.

Well, thanks to Mr. Miller and the good folks at Weatherend, she's gotten that chance.

November 19, 2014
Good afternoon Dr. Ray,
How have you been? I just wanted to let you know that I am doing well and learning so much here in Maine. Gil, president of Weatherend, has been so great to work with. He truly believes in me and has put me in multiple Auto CAD training sessions. I have designed my first piece to add to the our product line. My task was to design an outdoor kitchen cabinet. Below is the link to my cabinet design.
http://weatherend.com/furniture/appliance_cabinet/
I also run our photo shoots which is incredible, especially along the Maine coast. I still can’t believe that this is my career now! I wanted to take some time to say THANK YOU! 
I have been here at Weatherend for one year in August and I plan to be here longer. Rockland is great! A very small town but with great people, outdoor activities, and food! 
Have a blessed week! 
P.S Attached is a shot of the entire company (roughly 40 employees) at the Rockland Breakwater Light House. 
Carol Chang  
Product Development Manager  
Weatherend Furniture

Here's that shot of the great folks at Weatherend on a typical lunch break. Pretty nice. I think that's Carol in the blue shirt sitting on the rocks, looking quite happy.



Here is Carol's first professional design.


And here are some other Weatherend products featured in the photo shoot she coordinated.







Great products, and great photographs. Looks like Weatherend management has recognized and is tapping another aspect of Carol's artistic eye and talent. You have to respect the company's approach to employee development, which appears to be slow, thoughtful, thorough, and open to fresh eyes. When that kind of attention is paid to employees, good things happen.

Good for you, Carol, and our best GoWood wishes to all at Weatherend Furniture.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Commercial of the Year

The Go Wood Woodie Award for the Best Commercial of the Year goes to....

[drum roll]


SPDR ETFs Carpenter Commercial!




I have no idea what SPDR ETF's are, and what they have to do with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but I get the point...they conquer complexity with precision. Whatever they are, I'll take ten dollars worth.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Wood Science 101 (18) - The Yew of Olde

Dear Chuck, I loved the article on Yew wood. I have a question. Taxus, poison, is it the basis for "Taxotere" a chemotherapy drug. I had to endure a couple of rounds with the "bugger juice" and it about killed me. Just wondered. 
Also, I grew up in England and lived very close to Kingly Vale on the South Downs. There are a few very old Yew Trees still there, the area was decimated by Henry II outfitting his archers with strong bows - the forest never recovered. Yew trees were really hated by my father who said the ground was poisoned after a yew was planted - and at my house this is certainly so, very little else has been successful after I "busted a gut" getting one out on the front of my house. 
Love your articles...Wendy, wife of he who get-eth your epistles....
Thanks for your note, Wendy. It gives me a chance to expand on the points you've raised.

Yew is indeed a rich wood. The taxine in yew that is so toxic to humans and animals has, in fact, been of scientific interest in cancer research since the early 1960's. It was then that a botanist named Arthur S. Barkley collected a sample of Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) among four hundred other species, and from that sample the unique story of yew in the fight against cancer began. A drug called paclitaxel was developed from certain taxine extracted from the bark of the yew, and the drug was used for decades against breast, ovarian, and lung cancer. But by the 1990's, a movement had sprung up against the harvesting of the paclitaxel, more commonly called taxol, because the harvesting of the drug resulted in the death of the trees from which it was harvested. Pacific yew, which had been on the decline for centuries, was listed on the IUCN "Red List" of near-threatened species.

However, in the good way that necessity always leads to invention, other, similar drugs were synthesized from species such as hazel (Corylus spp.) and the more common European yew (Taxus baccata). The Taxotere drug you endured (also marketed as Docetaxel and Docecad) is an esterified product of 10-deacetyl baccatin III, which is extracted from the renewable and more readily available leaves of Taxus baccata. So you can feel good that your treatment was derived from a sustainable process and that for the foreseeable future, others will be able to share in your treatment, rough as it was. Hopefully, its work is done and you'll not need to endure it again.

Now, on the other, more delightful point you raised from your childhood memories. Yes, yew has a storied history in England, including the fact that yew trees were planted around most of the old cemeteries in the country so that the prolific roots, of which we've already spoken, could both grow through the eyes of the dead to prevent them from seeing their way back to earth, and to prevent them from rising from the ground. Both you and I could testify to the strength of that yew root system. And, as a bonus, the poisonous yew acted as a great passive deterrent to cattle which liked to trample sacred ground for the fresh grass. Even cattle are apparently smart enough to learn to avoid things that kill their buddies.

But the greatest and most famous use of yew was for the the longbows of the archers of England.

What of the bow? The bow was made in England:
Of true wood, of yew wood, The wood of English bows;
So men who are free
Love the old yew tree 
And the land where the yew tree grows.
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The White Company, Chapter Six.
These longbows were things of legend, as were the men that wielded them. Here's a great little story from The White Company that left an indelible imprint on millions of young readers over more than a century, back before the invention of the cellphone turned their interest to other things...

A sunburnt and black-eyed Brabanter had stood near the old archers, leaning upon a large crossbow and listening to their talk, which had been carried on in that hybrid camp dialect which both nations could understand. He was a squat, bull-necked man, clad in the iron helmet, mail tunic, and woollen gambesson of his class. A jacket with hanging sleeves, slashed with velvet at the neck and wrists, showed that he was a man of some consideration, an under-officer, or file-leader of his company.  
"I cannot think," said he, "why you English should be so fond of your six-foot stick. If it amuse you to bend it, well and good; but why should I strain and pull, when my little moulinet will do all for me, and better than I can do it for myself?"  
"I have seen good shooting with the prod and with the latch," said Aylward, "but, by my hilt! camarade, with all respect to you and to your bow, I think that is but a woman's weapon, which a woman can point and loose as easily as a man."  
"I know not about that," answered the Brabanter, "but this I know, that though I have served for fourteen years, I have never yet seen an Englishman do aught with the long-bow which I could not do better with my arbalest. By the three kings! I would even go further, and say that I have done things with my arbalest which no Englishman could do with his long-bow."  
"Well said, mon gar.," cried Aylward. "A good cock has ever a brave call. Now, I have shot little of late, but there is Johnston here who will try a round with you for the honor of the Company."  
"And I will lay a gallon of Jurancon wine upon the long-bow," said Black Simon, "though I had rather, for my own drinking, that it were a quart of Twynham ale."  
"I take both your challenge and your wager," said the man of Brabant, throwing off his jacket and glancing keenly about him with his black, twinkling eyes. "I cannot see any fitting mark, for I care not to waste a bolt upon these shields, which a drunken boor could not miss at a village kermesse."  
"This is a perilous man," whispered an English man-at-arms, plucking at Aylward's sleeve. "He is the best marksman of all the crossbow companies and it was he who brought down the Constable de Bourbon at Brignais. I fear that your man will come by little honor with him."  
"Yet I have seen Johnston shoot these twenty years, and I will not flinch from it. How say you, old war-hound, will you not have a flight shot or two with this springald?"  
"Tut, tut, Aylward," said the old bowman. "My day is past, and it is for the younger ones to hold what we have gained. I take it unkindly of thee, Samkin, that thou shouldst call all eyes thus upon a broken bowman who could once shoot a fair shaft. Let me feel that bow, Wilkins! It is a Scotch bow, I see, for the upper nock is without and the lower within. By the black rood! it is a good piece of yew, well nocked, well strung, well waxed, and very joyful to the feel. I think even now that I might hit any large and goodly mark with a bow like this. Turn thy quiver to me, Aylward. I love an ash arrow pierced with cornel-wood for a roving shaft."  
"By my hilt! and so do I," cried Aylward. "These three gander-winged shafts are such."  
"So I see, comrade. It has been my wont to choose a saddle-backed feather for a dead shaft, and a swine-backed for a smooth flier. I will take the two of them. Ah! Samkin, lad, the eye grows dim and the hand less firm as the years pass."  
"Come then, are you not ready?" said the Brabanter, who had watched with ill-concealed impatience the slow and methodic movements of his antagonist.  
"I will venture a rover with you, or try long-butts or hoyles," said old Johnston. "To my mind the long-bow is a better weapon than the arbalest, but it may be ill for me to prove it."  
"So I think," quoth the other with a sneer. He drew his moulinet from his girdle, and fixing it to the windlass, he drew back the powerful double cord until it had clicked into the catch. Then from his quiver he drew a short, thick quarrel, which he placed with the utmost care upon the groove. Word had spread of what was going forward, and the rivals were already surrounded, not only by the English archers of the Company, but by hundreds of arbalestiers and men-at-arms from the bands of Ortingo and La Nuit, to the latter of which the Brabanter belonged. 
"There is a mark yonder on the hill," said he; "mayhap you can discern it."  
"I see something," answered Johnston, shading his eyes with his hand; "but it is a very long shoot."  
"A fair shoot—a fair shoot! Stand aside, Arnaud, lest you find a bolt through your gizzard. Now, comrade, I take no flight shot, and I give you the vantage of watching my shaft." As he spoke he raised his arbalest to his shoulder and was about to pull the trigger, when a large gray stork flapped heavily into view skimming over the brow of the hill, and then soaring up into the air to pass the valley. Its shrill and piercing cries drew all eyes upon it, and, as it came nearer, a dark spot which circled above it resolved itself into a peregrine falcon, which hovered over its head, poising itself from time to time, and watching its chance of closing with its clumsy quarry. Nearer and nearer came the two birds, all absorbed in their own contest, the stork wheeling upwards, the hawk still fluttering above it, until they were not a hundred paces from the camp. The Brabanter raised his weapon to the sky, and there came the short, deep twang of his powerful string. His bolt struck the stork just where its wing meets the body, and the bird whirled aloft in a last convulsive flutter before falling wounded and flapping to the earth.  
A roar of applause burst from the crossbowmen; but at the instant that the bolt struck its mark old Johnston, who had stood listlessly with arrow on string, bent his bow and sped a shaft through the body of the falcon. Whipping the other from his belt, he sent it skimming some few feet from the earth with so true an aim that it struck and transfixed the stork for the second time ere it could reach the ground. A deep-chested shout of delight burst from the archers at the sight of this double feat, and Aylward, dancing with joy, threw his arms round the old marksman and embraced him with such vigor that their mail tunics clanged again. "Ah! camarade," he cried, "you shall have a stoup with me for this! What then, old dog, would not the hawk please thee, but thou must have the stork as well. Oh, to my heart again!"  
"It is a pretty piece of yew, and well strung," said Johnston with a twinkle in his deep-set gray eyes. "Even an old broken bowman might find the clout with a bow like this."
Now that's a story worthy of its wood. Wendy, Sir Conan and I dedicate it to the memory and good old common sense of your father.

And for everyone else, here's a pretty good video on yew from the land of the longbow.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Wood Science 101 (17) - Yew Better Know Your Wood

Back in the spring, I was doing some yard work that included winching out several old stumps of Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) that I had cut down seven years earlier. They were pretty bad boys and resisted the call of the winch; my friend's Jeep was sliding sidewards across the parking lot and the cable was singing as the root balls clung to their Mother Earth. But finally, stubbornly, each one came out with a groan and a crackle.

After the sounds of our ritual grunting died down, I examined the roots. Amazingly, they had come out nearly completely intact. The roots were thick, and still fleshy and pliable after all those years sitting dead in the dirt. But they were semi-rigid, and made quite interesting pieces. My friend suggested mounting a big bass in front of each, but I had another idea.

I had begun work on a large (440-gallon) aquarium project. These root balls, I thought, would make great structure in the tank for my pet fish to lounge around. And sure enough, the next day, the roots were dry and fully rigid...they looked great and were the perfect size to fill the large tank and still leave great swimming space for the fish.

Perfect for the tank..I think.

But the next morning, my very first thought on awakening was...Yew?! That's poisonous, isn't it?

Sure enough, a quick check confirmed that not only is yew poisonous, but it is one of the very most poisonous trees, with numerous recorded cases of livestock and human deaths due to ingestion of the branches and needles. In fact,
"The poisonous nature of the yew plant has been cited since the second century B.C. (Bryan-Brown, 1932). Julius Caesar (102–44 B.C.) documented an instance when Catuvolcus, the king of Eburones, poisoned himself with yew ‘juice’ (Fröhne and Pfänder, 1984). Celts committed ritual suicides by drinking extracts from yew foliage and used the sap to poison the tips of their arrows during the Gaelic Wars (Foster and Duke, 1990 and Hartzell, 1995). Some primitive cultures even used extracts as fish and animal poisons to aid in hunting (Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk, 1962 and Hartzell, 1995). During the 18th and 19th centuries, people in Europe and India used decoctions of yew leaf as an abortifacient and an emmenagogue (Bryan-Brown, 1932 and Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk, 1962)."
- Taxines: a review of the mechanism and toxicity of yew (Taxus spp.) alkaloids. Wilson, Sauer, and Hooser, Toxicon, 39:2-3, 2001.
I also discovered that yew poisoning is a real concern among wood turners, who love the look and feel of a well-turned yew bowl or pipe. But after a morning of on-line investigative work, I still hadn't convinced myself that there was any real danger to the fish. After all, the root wood was old and dead, right? And even though horses had been killed by ingesting only a few small needles, there wasn't any case I could find of fish being killed by yew. Sure, there was one landscaping site that recommended keeping yew away from outdoor ponds. But that was, I reasoned, to keep falling needles out of the water. What are the odds that there was enough poison in roots to kill fish? OK, maybe fresh roots...but not seven-year old dead roots, surely.

My first thought was to just stick the thing in there, and watch for any signs of distress. But the thought of twelve-inch barbs going belly-up within seconds (which is the speed that taxine, the poison in yew, can cause heart arrest in horses) gave me pause. And even though the taxine is not supposed to be water-soluble, I have several fish that like to chew on wood to remove the slime...might they trigger a Fish-bola extermination one day while I was away at work?

So, I got scientific, and brought some samples to work. Here, I recruited Brett Diehl, whom you've seen in a previous GoWood video on lignin, to run a mass spectrometer analysis for me to ascertain if there was indeed any detectable taxine. For comparison, I brought in some fresh yew parts and set Brett to work.

A few days later, the results were in. Not only was there taxine in the old root, but both components, taxine A and taxine B, were there in almost identical footprints as in the fresh root and needles. That meant that in fact, the poison was not water-soluble, since it remained essentially the same in the root material for years in the ground and not leached away. So, no danger of the fish dying within seconds of putting the root in the tank. But, several species of my fish are voracious eaters of plants and plant material, and the odds of one nipping off a root tip and heading on to Davy Jones' locker were just too high to risk.

So, I gave up on the yew root idea and bought some plastic plants. Oh, I and did manage to find some wood after all...the smaller pieces on the left-hand side of the tank are mopane (Colophospermum mopane), with a 12% MC specific gravity of 1.08, and the larger piece on the right-hand side is a great specimen of African leadwood (Combretum imberbe) which at 12% MC specific gravity of 1.22 is reported to be the sixth heaviest wood in the world. I can attest to that...the piece in the tank, which was given to me by a generous collector in New Jersey, weighed thirty pounds dry and was a heck of a challenge to get in the tank.


So, be careful on that next wood project, and if you or your loved ones are going to be chewing on it, be sure and do your homework. I was amazed to discover how many woods are poisonous. Quite enough for a future post on GoWood, I guess.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Wood Identification in Context - The Fallon & Wilkinson Experience

Last month I had the opportunity to attend what I think is a unique experience in learning about wood. There are other wood identification short courses out there, and we occasionally teach them at Penn State, but this one included a unique perspective that I wanted to experience. It is a two-day course...in the first day, the class is a hands-on laboratory of whittling wood samples and grappling with the concept of transverse, radial, and tangential planes of view.

But the second day, the class moved to the campus of Yale University, where a collection of antique furniture resides. Tad Fallon and Randy Wilkinson, as professional furniture conservators, have had the opportunity to help the museum staff identify and verify several of the pieces in the study. In the class, they lead the students through the same thought process they go through when looking at pieces that are worth thousands, even millions of dollars. And it is a real learning experience, indeed.

With their permission, and the permission of the Yale Furniture Study, I'd like to share a little of that experience with you.

In our first video, Randy Wilkinson goes through a preliminary examination of a candle stand.




Next, Randy utilizes technology to examine the same piece up to 200x magnification to confirm the preliminary finding using the more technical aspects of wood identification learned by the class on the first day.



A little later, we moved into the "Tall Clock Row" of the collection, where Randy did a nice comparison lesson on a couple of clocks that could have fooled me on cursory visual inspection, mainly due to the colors.





We'll finish with an interesting introduction and demonstration of a high-tech secretary demonstrated by one of the collection's curators, John Stuart Gordon.


All in all, this was one of the best, if not the best, learning experiences I've ever attended, with a value far higher than the cost of the course. And I was at a disadvantage, not being an expert on antique furniture like the other students, who were mostly antique furniture appraisers and collectors. I'm thinking of learning a little bit about our furniture forebears, and attending the course again next year.

If you'd like to learn more about wood identification in the most interesting context possible, consider putting the course on your schedule next year. More information can be found here.

And if you're interested on seeing and learning more of the Yale Furniture Study, FineWoodworking.com has a great audio slideshow here.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Standing on Guard for the Land of Pines and Maples

Over the last couple of years, my favorite football teams have been kind of hard to watch...and one night about eighteen months ago, out of curiosity, I paused a few minutes on the hockey channel to watch the Pittsburgh Penguins.

What a mistake. I am addicted. Haven't missed a Penguins game yet this season...even though I'm not sure I always understand what's going on out there. Hockey is a sport that was unwatchable on TV before the advent of 60-inch high-def screens, because you just couldn't see that darn puck. But now, thanks to the big screens and super-slow motion cameras everywhere around the rink, those of us who didn't grow up with stick in hand can now at least partially enjoy the game.

But those penalties are hard to figure out. Smashing into an opponent seems to be a good thing to do, except when it isn't. Over the eighteen months of watching hockey commentators explain the games, I'm still not sure when a check is legal and when it isn't. And hockey folks aren't real good at explaining the nuances...



For instance, last night, the Penguins played the Winnipeg Jets. Both teams were on five-game winning streaks. The Penguins have been making the games look like a cross between the Ice Capades and the Harlem Globetrotters, with blades flashing and pucks flying into the opponents net seemingly at will. Their new coach routinely explains his strategy with precision, and the guys execute the game plans with precision. This, I thought, was great hockey. Until I learned, last night, I still don't understand what makes great hockey.

All of a sudden, the Penguins were brawling every time one of the Jets gave them a dirty look. The Jets, for their part, were equal to the task...at one point, one of the Jets who happens to be named after a professional boxer, grabbed a Penguin jersey with one hand, and reaching out with the other, grabbed the chinstrap of the Penguins player, daring him to remove his helmet. Which our guy seemed glad to do, and the Jet player graciously responded in kind, and the brawl was on.



And the action continued to escalate through the game...



This semi-controlled chaos continued to escalate until the game was decided by shoot-out in the Penguins favor.

Now, you might think that the Penguins and their disciplined coach were embarrassed by getting lured into playing so out-of-character. Actually, not so much. Star player Sidney Crosby commented after the game, with a smile on his face, what a fun game it was and how it was nice to see everyone standing up for each other. And the straight-laced coach admitted that it was perhaps the most entertaining game the Penguins had played yet this year. In short, a good time was had by all.

Now, we know that Canada is a little different from the U.S., as Sarah and the Crazy Canadian Woodworker have so well demonstrated in prior posts. And even though hockey isn't just a Canadian sport, it was invented there by a bunch of college students in Montreal back around 1875. And so, it is as distinct from similar but tamer sports (American football and basketball, soccer, and rugby) as a game could be. For one thing, the ice is a great equalizer, so that even the smaller guys can compete, especially if they can fight.

But there is a disturbing evolution in the game that should be corrected. All hockey sticks used to be made of wood. But nowadays, professional players are switching to sticks made of graphite, and even though they add more "whip" to shot than the wooden sticks, they break much easier. I actually saw one stick break in a player's hands when a puck shot by another player hit it in flight. Now, a good wood stick wooden do that.



One last note on this hockey Friday...my new fascination with the game has forced me to face a harsh reality...The Canadian nation anthem "O Canada" is way better than our "Star-Spangled Banner."

The Canadian anthem is so good I sing along with it when we play the Canadian teams, and now my two youngest kids think we're Canadians. It's got a great melody, it's very singable, and you never hear a singer mess up the lyrics, which happens routinely with the Star-Spangled Banner. When you sing "O, Canada, we stand on guard for thee!" you actually feel like you're standing on guard for the Canadian homeland...although you're not quite sure what you're guarding against (Mountain pine beetles? Moose in heat strolling down through the town? Americans escaping Detroit?).

And if you don't buy that this song is really that good, look at the second verse...

O Canada! Where pines and maples grow,  Great prairies spread and Lordly rivers flow! How dear to us thy broad domain, From East to Western sea! The land of hope for all who toil, The true North strong and free! God keep our land, glorious and free. O Canada, we stand on guard for thee! O Canada, we stand on guard for thee!

You gotta love a country where pines and maples make the national anthem.

And one where the folks really sing it...even in two languages.