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


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, 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.
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 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, 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 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 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.