The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Friday, May 31, 2013

Tracking Climate Change with Trees

Did you know that wood is playing a primary role in the scientific study and debate of climate change? Tree rings, to be specific, are leading scientists to understand the climatic variation over the years as recorded by the size of the rings. This British chap explains the basic concept pretty well in a not-too-scientific way...

As the good fellow mentioned in the video above, the science of studying history through tree rings is called "dendrochronology". It's a fascinating field of study that allows scientists to investigate a whole range of things based on the tree ring data provided by wood from living or dead trees, lumber from ships or structures, or even panels on which old paintings were made.

Here is a nice video of a team of scientists working in the Rocky Mountains of Montana to collect and analyze tree ring data to add to our growing knowledge of climate variation. It has some excellent detail of the tree boring and ring measurement processes. As you know if you've ever counted tree rings, it can get a little tricky, and these folks have really got the process "down to a science."

Tree ring counting in the Rocky Mountains...a great job if you can get it.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (43) - The Violin (part 2)

I was just browsing through the latest edition of World of Wood, which is the bi-monthly publication of the International Wood Collectors Society, the group I visited and joined earlier this year. About half way through the edition, I ran across an article about violin woods, originally written in 1958 by Dr. W. Mautz of Oburursel, Germany. I had read a lot about the famous violins and their wood, but this piece by Dr. Mautz has some fascinating insights I had not seen before. Many thanks to the kind folks at IWCS who have allowed me to re-print the article here. I've slightly edited the text...
A Stradivarius. 
"The most famous of European violinmakers who pride themselves for carrying on the tradition of the great past masters of their craft - such as for instance: Stradivarius, Amatius and Guarnerius - and whose ancestors have been devoted to making violins for many generations and several centuries still use the same classical materials which once went into the making of a highly prized, famous “Stradivari” violin. It can be considered an established fact that the old Italian and Bavarian masters whose handiwork is still unsurpassed and nowadays worth a small fortune, had found out by long experience just which woods were best suited for building a violin."
"Is it a coincidence that the woods they and their successors used, grew in the land of their birth? Naturally, in the course of the last centuries, experiments have been carried on with the object of testing numerous other woods hoping perhaps to find still better materials or at least to discover an adequate substitute for the rapidly diminishing supply." 
"The result was, however, that no other woods were found which could equal, not to speak of, surpass the classical materials of old which Stradivarius and his contemporaries once used. These were Curly Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) and the so-called “Tune Spruce” (Picea abies).  (Note: Acer pseudoplatanus is commonly called "sycamore" in the UK and much of Europe, which adds to the confusion about the Plane Tree and American Sycamore that I noted a couple of months ago. Picea abies is more commonly known as Norway Spruce. - cdr)  The latter is used for the top of the violin, whereas the maple is used for the back and the sides." 
"Now as far as these woods are concerned, it is not so much the botanical species which is important but more than that the location and peculiarity of the particular tree. Both the Maple and the Spruce of the desired quality grow only (with certain exceptions) on the slopes of the Italian and Bavarian Alps; the Spruce generally occurring at somewhat higher altitudes than the Maple which, by the way, is called “Bergahorn” meaning Mountain Maple in German." 
"It is usually the very big, old maples which yield a finely textured, slowly grown wood of the desired and highly prized figure of grain, i.e. a fine, regular, curly figure on radial cuts. This figure of grain has always been preferred for the back and the sides of violins and it is due to this fact that nowadays, a very regular curly-grain on quartersawn material is always referred to as “Fiddle-back Figure”. Some trees have curly grain only at the base of the trunk (where this figure of grain frequently occurs when a tree is very old due to the enormous pressure on the wood tissues) whereas more rarely others are curly up to a height of 10 to 12 feet. The figured part of the tree is processed into regular “slices” both faces of which are exactly parallel to the medullary rays."
"The reason for utilizing only quarter-sawn material is of course not merely a matter of beauty, but first of all to ensure that no warping will take place in case of possible changes of atmospheric conditions since a quartersawn board will always remain straight. On extremely rare occasions, old trees of Acer pseudoplatanus show a true birds-eye figure comparable to the well-known “Birds-Eye Maple” of Acer saccharum origin. It is, however, well discernible from the latter, Acer pseudoplatanus being more yellowish white and never having a reddish or brown tinge. The annual rings are never so pronounced as in sugar maple and the “Eyes” are not quite so prominent and with somewhat less lustre." 
"The previously mentioned slices are roughly cut to the size of about 16” x 5 ½” being approx. 1” thick at the thickest edge and tapering down to 3/8”. These small boards are stored and seasoned for many, many years. In fact, it is not extraordinary if a good violin maker uses the material which his grandfather had acquired in his day. Seventy years is considered a good age for the material and the longer it has lain, the better it is. These woods, of course, are not stored in the open but in perfectly dry rooms." 
"A typical characteristic of the so-called “Tune Spruce” is the close and above all, regular spacing of the annual rings. However, this can also be found once in awhile in old spruce trees growing in the lowlands. The most important peculiarity of the true Tune Spruce, however, is the fact that the late-wood is extremely narrow in comparison to the spring growth and somewhat lighter in coloring compared to trees grown elsewhere. This peculiarity is restricted to trees growing at high altitudes where adequate conditions of climate and soil prevail. It is never to be found in trees from other localities. The characteristic structure of wood - close and regularly spaced annual rings with narrow late-wood - is responsible for the “resonance” which in turn influences the sound qualities of the violin." 
"Naturally, due to the narrow latewood, the specific weight of Tune Spruce is considerably below the average of Spruce derived from trees grown in other localities. An old and very experienced violinmaker with whom I am acquainted is carrying on experiments with a view of finding a definite relationship between specific weight and sound quality. Since these spruce boards also have to be exactly quartersawn and because they must be at least 5 1/2 “ wide and furthermore taking into consideration an average of 20 to 30 annual rings to the inch, this means that a tree yielding the desired quality wood must be at least 150 to 200 years old. In fact, a tree usually has to be very much older because when it is young the trunk has branches all the way down and many years have to pass before these branches die, break and are finally overgrown by layers of straight grained wood. Hence the prices for suitable Violin-Spruce are very high and it is not exceptional that for a pair of nicely-matched boards of superior quality prices amounting $50, - and more – have to be paid." 
- By Dr.W. Mautz Oberursel/Ts., Groenhoff Str. 17, Germany
And it gets even more specific than that. Spike Carlsen, in his book A Splintered History of Wood, relates that one firm in Italy that specializes in harvesting violin wood, "cuts trees only in the late autumn while the moon is waning".

So there you have it, even more mystery to add to the lore of the famous violins of the world. Author Carlsen put it best in the closing paragraph of his section on them:
"But in the end, the thing that makes a Stradivarius a Stradivarius is the same thing that makes a Monet a Monet. Its beauty is indefinable. It can't be analyzed in pieces but must be taken as a whole: age, wood, wonderment, craftsmanship, and all. Violinist Itzhak Perlman responded, when asked if he knew what was behind the secret of his Strad, "No, absolutely not. It's wonderful, you know, to have some sort of mystery that cannot be explained, cannot be put in a computer and analyzed. It's nice.""  
- Spike Carlsen, A Splintered History of Wood
Indeed it is.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Jay Leno Goes Wood

Well, the Chrysler minivan in the last post reminded me that though the modern family conveyors might not go so well with wood, they certainly did back in the heyday of the automobile. I've already posted some nice pictures of various "woodies", but here is a video from "Jay Leno's Garage" of one of the best of the best, the 1948 Chrysler Town and Country convertible. This beauty has been resto-modded, which means it has been "restored with modification", but the woodwork is original. The video tells a great story of the durability of wood; they had to replace most of the metal floor due to rust, but the wood was still solid.

Jay wins an honorary "Woodie Award" for correctly identifying the wood panels as mahogany, and he showed some real appreciation of how to work with and maintain the wood. Unfortunately, the fellow who restored the vehicle thinks the panels are walnut, and sort of throws Jay for a loop for a minute. You would think that a fellow who spends months working on a labor of love would at least make an effort to know what kind of wood he is restoring.

They start discussing the wood about the 6:00 mark, and after the restorer confuses Jay on the panel, he decides not to guess at the frame wood. But it so distinctive...the rear quarter panel frame member has great traditional figuring for the species, and the frame member under Jay's arm near the end of the video shows that distinctive wood beauty in a species as American as baseball and apple pie. See if you can guess the species of that beautiful golden wood, and give yourself two knocks on the head if you know it.

If you're a car nut, you'll want to watch the last few minutes of the video when Jay takes the car out for a spin. What a ride.

Chrysler has a great web page on this model, and if you want to confirm your guess on the species of the wood frame, you can find out here.

I still say the day of the Woodies will return. People won't be satisfied with tinfoil and plastic bubbles forever. Go Wood!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Canadian Conversion Logging Vehicle

The world of loggers and logging is a slightly crazy one. You have to hold a different set of values than the rest of the world to even think about being a logger. I remember sitting around the campfire as a kid and listening to my Grandpa telling stories of driving the log truck for the family mill, and needless to say, modern action movies seem dull by comparison. Those stories were reinforced in my memory by watching one-chain wonders rolling down the East Texas highways with bald tires and the trailer swaying from side to side as the rig passed me going about 75 in a 55. I always backed off a little.

Which is not to say that all loggers are nuts; they're, well, just a little different than the rest of us.

A fairly good example of the mindset is displayed for us by the Crazy Canadian Woodworker, Paul Moore, in the following video. Unfortunately, Paul reinforces the negative stereotype of Canadian woodfolk as put forward by Sarah. But eh, I think his video displays a level of ingenuity and creativity few of us ever attain.

Now, you loggers out there will rightly protest the above video under the claim that no logger in his right mind would ever use a Chrysler minivan for hauling wood. You may be right. Yet, the video is a pretty good commercial for Ram-tough, if Chrysler happens to want to use it in next year's Super Bowl.

Monday, May 20, 2013

America's Last Totally Steam-Powered Mill

All of you who enjoyed the post "Woodworking in the 1940's" will love this one. The Phillips Brothers Mill and Box Factory of Oak Run, California, operates much the same as it did when newly built in 1897. What millions used to do on a daily basis, for pennies a day, now is performed by just a few gifted folks who are creating wooden products that are truly unique. And while it may look romantic, I'd bet they'd tell you there are days....

The mill has a website that provides historical detail. Here's a sample paragraph that I love...
"A disastrous accident occurred on their chute where a curve had been made on a steep part of the hillside.  The horses strained and stumbled over rocks with their burden snagging and catching as the chute made the turn.  Suddenly, a log jumped the trough and plunged downward entangling the frightened horses with chains and crashing logs.  Seven horses were killed, including Ed's favorite, Big Vick (a large black horse) that had once moved a thousand pound log when snaking in the woods.  Years later the children used this chute for a slide by swabbing the poles with tallow and using lids, old bread pans, and discs for seat savers as they plunged down the hill, landing on a heap of snow or sawdust according to the season."
From tragedy to children's recreation in one paragraph. Those were the days of living life on the edge, taking it as it comes, and goes.

Thanks to Don Remmey of Remmey Pallet for sending this along...

Fun in the Mud

Here's an entertaining and highly informative field presentation by Penn State plant scientist Art Gover, who is speaking on and demonstrating actions he and his team are taking to reclaim some streamside acreage from the tenacious invader reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea). Over the course of the talk Art touches on the site treatment, and other topics diverse as impact of deer and elk, different tree species planted on the site, plant succession regimes, and other problems such as tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima) which he addresses for the last five minutes of the talk. Art has a great folksy way of teaching fairly technical biology, and we all had a few chuckles here.

I shot the video ten days ago at a forest landowners conference in Central Pennsylvania, so those of you in other places around the world can spend thirty minutes in springtime Pennsylvania with a great teacher, if you care to.

This is a really tough struggle for landowners, as those of you who have ever seen a field of kudzu down south can appreciate. Penn State forestry extension educator Dave Jackson recently wrote a great piece based on his personal experience of fighting the various invasive species we have here in the Northeast, and his story conveys the sense that many landowners feel after fighting this battle for awhile...they just want to give up. It can be that exasperating.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Acting Like Humans

The more times I watch this, the more I see and the better I feel. It's the best of humanity on display, and it sometimes seems to be slipping away. The scenes seem to be something out of the past, something we remember so fondly and took for granted, and miss so much now.

Which is why the young person at the 4:25 mark is so important to me, and to all of us.

Russia doesn't get much good press in the western world, but this video speaks volumes of good about Russians.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Japan, Two Years Later

You'll recall from a Go Wood post a year ago the Japanese people were still essentially digging out of the terrible tsunami damage inflicted on their northern coastal cities. It was a poignant reminder that few things in life are more devastating that natural catastrophes...and of the remarkable community spirit and determined will of the Japanese people.

Another year later, and the story is beginning to take on a sober, yet hopeful, turn. Much of the wreckage has been removed, and the rebuilding process has begun to help start the healing. And the fine people of the Canadian wood products industry have stepped up to help that process.

From the Canada Wood Group...
The Canada Wood Group, in partnership with Natural Resources Canada and the Province of British Columbia, are spearheading projects using Canadian wood in the construction of several major community buildings; the first, the Donguri Anne Public Library in Natori was unveiled earlier this year. That building is a hybrid heavy timber post and beam structure that uses a wide variety of Canadian forest products such as Coastal Hem Fir, Western Red Cedar, and Maple flooring. 
“Our government is pleased to contribute to the reconstruction of Natori City – a community that was so severely impacted by the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011,” said Minister Oliver. “The reconstruction efforts in Natori will serve as an enduring symbol of friendship between Canada and Japan.” 
Canada and Japan share important and strong economic, cultural, historic ties and Japan is a long time export customer for the Canadian lumber industry. In 2011 when Japan needed help, Canada was only too happy to offer a hand. The Canadian forestry sector saw they could help in the rebuilding effort – providing an essential natural resource abundant in Canada, was one key way in which to reach a branch across the Pacific to our neighbours to the west.
Once again, people of the forest products industries demonstrate that their love of the land and its resources extends to compassion for people faced with hard times. It is the history and culture of wood folk.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Would You Trade Jobs with This Guy?

Sean Barrows sent me this wonderful video captured and posted by Stuart King, a woodworker and historian from the United Kingdom. It's a visual reminder of days long gone, before electrification, standardization, regulation, and globalization. For centuries, creative folks have figured out the amazing qualities and applications of wood, and how to work it.

This Moroccan street artist makes it look so easy...with his feet and a bow-turned lathe!

If your answer to the post title is "Yes", you need a vacation :-)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Future Creator of Great Designs in Wood

This is a very special week around Penn State for about 10,000 young folks and their families. They'll fill a jam-packed Bryce Jordan Arena, listen to a speaker tell them they are the future of the world, and then walk across the stage to collect the prize for which they have been dreaming of and working for so diligently for the past twenty years.

This year, I'm familiar with the story of at least a part of the road traveled by one young lady making that walk this weekend.  Her name is Carol Chang of Houston, Texas, and we share a common start in life...we both attended Robert E. Lee High School in southwest Houston.

In late fall of 2007, I found myself on the road in Texas for several business appointments, one of those being an invitation to speak to a couple of wood shop classes at my alma mater. I had an interest in the WoodLINKS program, which is an industry effort to reach out to and support woodworking education in local high schools. It turned out Lee had a wood shop program participating in WoodLINKS. Mr. Johnny Brooks, the Lee wood shop teacher, had found the program very beneficial to the school's program, and he had been able to develop at least one great industry relationship through the program by which students were being trained and hired in the finer skills of working with wood.

Mr. Brooks shared with me the success of his program (which continues to this day) and invited me to stop by and speak to his students while I was in the Houston area. So on a warm Friday morning in late October of 2007, I found myself speaking to about forty young folks, all of whom had looks on their faces that clearly expressed the thought of "Who is this guy, and why is he showing us slides of Pennsylvania?"

For I had thought I would thrill the young folks with some pictures of the Gettysburg battlefield in order to provide some relevancy to my invitation for them to consider coming to Penn State. What better point of reference, I thought, for the young minds of Robert E. Lee to consider, than the place that was the focal point of that great general's career?

But, a few things had changed at my alma mater since 1974, the year of my emancipation from that learned institute. Primarily, the demographics. These were no longer young sons and daughters of the Confederacy, but sons and daughters of the world. Southwest Houston, unknown to me, had become a center of immigration for the southern United States, and the students were more attuned to the World Cup soccer standings than to American history of the 19th century. In fact, the school had dropped the "Robert E." from its name in 2000, and is now known simply as Lee High School.

So, as the picture of the view from Little Round Top appeared on the screen, and I proudly began to explain the significance of that place, it was more than a little disconcerting to realize I had a sea of blank faces in front of me. It dawned on me that perhaps I had been mistaken on their knowledge of the battle, so I asked...

"Can anyone tell me what Gettysburg is famous for?"


"Abraham Lincoln gave a very famous speech there."

A few more moments of disbelief...they, not believing I was asking these dumb questions, I, not believing they didn't know what I was talking about.

Finally, in the back of the room, I saw a small hand go up, hesitantly.

"Was it the Gettysburg Address?" the young lady of the hand meekly inquired.

"Yes!" I encouraged her. "And what war was that?"

She looked like she didn't want to answer, and everyone else in the room still had glazed eyes. Finally, she offered..."World War One?"

That was my introduction to Carol Chang. She came up to me after the presentation; she was interested in Penn State. She loved working with wood, and it sounded like she could learn more about it at Penn State. Mr. Brooks told me that Carol was one of his best students; she had taken an internship with his partnering furniture company that summer, and was currently working on a table she had designed herself. We headed into the shop to take a look at it.

This is about the stage the table was when I saw it. I could tell that the table that was to come, and the young lady that designed it and was building it, were something special.

Her design lines, and the techniques used to accomplish them, were far beyond anything I remembered from my bird house days of wood shop.
Mr. Brooks mentioned that Carol's exposure to the furniture company, and the equipment the company had donated to the school, had enabled her to do things that were far beyond their capabilities a few short years before. The students were well past birdhouses and cutting boards; they now worked on tables, chairs and cabinets. In fact, the class wasn't even called wood shop anymore; it was called Cabinetmaking I and Cabinetmaking II.

I have since found out that high-school woodworking classes across the country have built relationships with the wood industry under several different programs, and that a lot of today's woodworkers are coming into the industry with advanced skills learned in high school. What a great thing.

Here's the finished piece. Carol won first place for it in a national competition that is sponsored every year by WoodLINKS.

And in the fall of 2008, Carol started on her degree in Wood Science at Penn State at our Mont Alto campus, just a few miles from where that famous World War I battle of Gettysburg took place.
At Penn State, Carol didn't have much time to add to her portfolio. In addition to taking a full schedule of courses every semester, she worked for three years in the Model Shop of the College of Architecture. The shop is a great facility with state-of-the-art woodworking equipment where the architecture students are required to build models of their projects for various classes. Carol worked as a technician in the shop, maintaining equipment and eventually, teaching the other students how to use it all.

The little bird she's holding in the picture is her first experiment with "band-saw sculpturing". I think you can see the talent she has.

So, here's Carol Chang this week, proudly standing in front of Old Main in her cap and gown. She walks the stage this weekend, the next phase of her life completed and a Wood Products degree in hand. She's waiting for the next phase to start, hoping that she can find a great job in the woodworking or furniture design industry. If you happen to know of something she might be interested in, drop me an email ( and I'll forward it on to her.

Another young Penn State person, Going Wood.  I have no doubt I'll be featuring some of her future work in this column.

Update (8-21-13): Carol sent me a note this weekend with some details of her new job...

Hi Professor Ray,
I am relocated to Rockland, Maine and will start my first day on Monday... This company has so much room to grow and the people there are amazing. The president is great and already have over a dozen projects for me to work on. Also I think he is going to put me and another worker in an Auto CAD/CNC class so we can be certified. 
I will keep you updated on my progress.
Thank you again,
Carol Chang
Product Development Manager
Weatherend Estate Furniture

Best of luck to Carol and the fine company that has given her a chance to shine. We look forward to some of their great new products.