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Flatsawn Lumber Is Not So Flat: How To Fix Cupped Wood

Quartersawn lumber stays flat, but flatsawn lumber does not (ironic, I know). Flatsawn lumber cups during the drying process and it even cups after it’s dry if not cared for properly. Wide boards are especially fussy and panel glue-ups can be a giant pain in the tuchus.

I deal with cupped lumber all of the time, and I was reminded of this common problem when a friend of mine was trying to figure out why his wide panel glue-ups had cupped. Whenever I am asked about this, my first question is always, “How did you store your panels after they were assembled and surfaced?” The answer is usually that they laid the panels flat on a table. A quick bit of logic says that a flat panel on a flat table should stay flat, but that isn’t how it works, at least not with solid wood.

Solid wood needs to expand and contract evenly, on both sides, to stay flat. If the panels are placed flat on a table, they can breathe on one side but not on the other. The bottom side will remain as dry or wet as it started, but the top side will shrink or swell depending on the ambient humidity in the room. Usually, this  problem arises when lumber is moved from a non climate-controlled environment (like a garage or barn) into a dry, climate-controlled shop, so the top of the panels will shrink and the lumber will cup up and away from the table as it dries.

This glued up panel couldn't breathe on the bottom since it was flat on a table. The top dried out a touch after processing and the panel cupped.

This glued up panel couldn’t breathe on the bottom since it was flat on a table. The top dried out a touch after processing and the panel cupped.

 

In a perfect world, rough lumber would be stored for months in the exact same, hermetically sealed environment where the processing is going to happen, but since we don’t live in a bubble, that’s not really possible. Even if you store the lumber in your climate-controlled shop and build in your climate-controlled shop, the climate still changes – in small increments from day to day and more dramatically from season to season. And, since you know that these changes will make your wood expand or contract, it is even more imperative to store surfaced lumber and panels properly to make sure your flat work stays flat.

Again, storage is the key, and there are two approaches to keep things flat. The most common way is to store the wood so that it can breathe on all sides. This is done by keeping it stacked flat on sticks or by storing it upright at an angle, perhaps leaning against a wall. The other approach is to not let the wood breathe at all and keep it wrapped or covered in plastic. I commonly use both tactics, leaning panels against the wall for short-term storage, usually during a day of processing and then covering them with a sheet of plastic for longer storage. Note that dramatic changes in flatness can happen in just hours if the conditions are right (or wrong, in this case).

From fresh sawn lumber (in this photo) to finished product, storing wood on sticks is the best practice.

From fresh sawn lumber (in this photo) to finished product, storing wood on sticks is the best practice.

For short term storage (hours to days) standing wood upright is a great choice. Make sure air is able to get to all sides.

For short-term storage (hours to days) standing wood upright is a great choice. Make sure air is able to get to all sides.

Now, let’s say you didn’t follow this advice and your panels developed a cup in them. They were planed and sanded flat and ready to be put into the door frame before you left the shop, but when you returned the next morning they had a noticeable rock. Since everything was already to final thickness, what options do you have? There is no meat left to machine flat and the wood can’t really be bent back into shape… or can it?

No, it can’t really be bent back, but it can be coerced back by doing the reverse of what caused the cup in the first place. The key is understanding the cause of the problem.

First, you need to identify the wet side and the dry side. If you are looking at a cupped panel from the end and it is shaped like a rainbow with the legs down, then the bottom side is the drier side. It is drier, tighter and smaller, and the outside edges are pulling together. The top side is wetter, looser and bigger, and its outside edges are pushing apart. These two forces, one pushing and one pulling, are working together to make a cupped panel.

After you have identified the problem, the solution is to treat the panel to the opposite conditions. This can be done by drying the wet side or wetting the dry side, but since almost all problems in woodworking are from wood that is too wet (at least around here), you should choose to dry the wet side.

I recommend to use a hairdryer for convenience, but on nice sunny days you can put the sun to work for you too. Both work fine, but the sun can fix a lot of panels at a time, quickly and quietly. The sun works great because it focuses all of the drying energy on just one side, and it focuses it on the entire side, not on just one spot like a hairdryer. (Be aware that some woods, like cherry, change color quickly in the sun and may be a better choice for inside drying).

The process is simple. Put the dry side down on a flat surface, one that restricts air movement across the bottom of the wood. The wide board or panel will be sitting like a rainbow, with the two legs down and the center up. Then just proceed to dry the top side, either with the sun or a hair dryer. If you are not in a hurry, you can simply move the wood to a drier environment, like the inside of your house on a cold winter day and let it dry out on the top side overnight. Any way to dry the top side while the bottom remains as it is should do the trick.

Use a hair dryer (like in this photo) or put the panels out in the sun with  the wetter side of the wood up to reverse the cup.

Use a hair dryer (like in this photo) or put the panels out in the sun with the wetter side of the wood up to reverse the cup.

Keep an eye on the panels and check them regularly. With a hair dryer you will probably end up propping it up in a position to blow on the panel and check it every thirty minutes. In the sun, check the progress every hour. If you just move them to a drier environment, check them once or twice a day. Even with regular checks it is not uncommon to go too far and overcorrect. If you let the wood bake too long on one side and it starts to cup the other way, just flip it and dry the other side. Eventually, you will get a feel for how long it takes and end up with a flat panel, and now a drier panel (both good things).

Follow these guidelines for flat wood:

  1. Build with quartersawn lumber. Quartersawn wood doesn’t cup.
  2. Store lumber in the rough. If the lumber goes wonky you will still have extra thickness to machine flat.
  3. Store lumber and build in an environment similar to where the piece will end up.
  4. Quickly build with lumber after it is machined. Don’t give it a chance to move on you.
  5. If you can’t build immediately, store wide boards and panel glue-ups properly. Give them air on all sides or no air at all.
  6. Make sure assembled furniture stays flat by finishing both sides of solid wood panels the same. This is especially important on wide glue-ups like tabletops.

Remember, wood moves and changes size all of the time. It is your job as a woodworker to understand how these changes happen, how to prepare for them and how to control them. And, luckily, in the case of wide wood, you may even have the chance to correct them.

Natural Playground for Preschoolers

The final touches have been put on the natural playground structure for Immanuel Lutheran preschoolers and they have already been putting it through its paces.

The deck, climbing wall and steps are made from white oak, the posts are eastern red cedar, and all of the twisty branches are osage orange. The three species of wood were chosen for their ability to weather the elements, while the white oak and osage orange have the added benefit of being exceptionally strong.

The climbing wall is made from white oak with cedar chunks.

The climbing wall is made from white oak with cedar chunks.

In the back is a swinging piece of osage orange suspended from a u-shaped branch.

In the back is a swinging piece of osage orange suspended from a u-shaped branch.

The slide has white oak for the structure and an outdoor plastic for the top.

The slide has white oak for the structure and an outdoor plastic for the top.

The two steps are made from large pieces of solid white oak.

The two steps are made from large pieces of solid white oak.

Wind chimes hang from this corner.

Wind chimes hang from this corner.

Thanks to the staff at Immanuel for being great hosts. They always greeted me with a smile and sometimes, even with cookies.

Using an Adze to Make a Hand-Hewn Finish on Wood

I was working in the shop last week doing some adze work on a couple of hollow beams and remembered back to my frustrating first days using an adze. I recalled a couple of tips that I wanted to share in this latest Quick Tip video:

For an extended description of the hollow beam making process and more adze fun click here to read  How to Turn New Wood Into Antique Beams.

Easy Sign, Difficult Customer

At the end of May, my daughter and pickiest customer Mira, turned eight and planned to have a mermaid swimming party at Grandma’s house. Grandma has a swimming pool and we knew that she would be willing to heat it for an early-season swim, so it was an easy choice. The difficult part was finding mermaid themed items that met with Mira’s approval and weren’t for little girls (Ariel, A.K.A. The Little Mermaid, is not cool when you are eight).

While searching for party decorations, my wife, Chris, came across a little sign that she thought was cute and asked if I could make one for the party. It said, “Mermaid Lagoon” and it was pretty simple, and since it was right up my alley, being made of wood and all, I said “Yes”.

I dug out some cypress that had lots of knots and a good rustic look and started cutting. I wanted the sign to be bigger (who wouldn’t) than the one in the photo, so I cut the boards about two feet long to make the height. I trimmed the ends at random lengths, some at a slight angle, until I had enough to make the sign about three feet wide. It went quick, especially since I had no formal plan. If a board didn’t look right, I just trimmed it more or flipped it around or just grabbed another board. I love that kind of woodworking; no tape measure, no pencil, no worries.

After I nailed the boards together, I painted them with a wash of blue/green paint. I already had some bright blue paint in the shop and added green Transtint to get the color right. I thinned the paint down with water and brushed it on as quick as possible. While it was still wet, I wiped it off like it was a stain to show the wood below.

Once the paint was dry, I did the lettering, which I laid out and printed from the computer. I cut out the words with an X-acto knife and used a light coat of Super 77 spray adhesive to hold it in place while I painted it. A light mist of white spray paint did the trick, making the words legible but not too pronounced.

After the sign panel was assembled and painted, I needed to come up with a post. My first attempt was a weathered piece of oak 2″x4″. It had the right look and feel since it was old and gray, but I thought that Mira might not approve since it just looked like an old board, so I continued to search for a better way to display it.

A quick walk to the other end of the shop revealed a piece of driftwood that was perfect. It was the right size and height, and with just a little block added to the bottom, it sat up beautifully crooked. Plus, I wouldn’t have to pound it in the concrete-like ground since it would stand up on its own. That piece of white oak driftwood couldn’t have worked out better.

All that was left to do was screw the sign to the post, which took a grand total of 30 seconds. If it was going to be for long-term use I would have been more serious about it, but two 3″ deck screws worked just fine and quickly put this job to bed.

The perfect piece of white oak driftwood and cypress lumber teamed up to make this sign for my daughter Mira's swimming party.

The perfect piece of white oak driftwood and cypress lumber teamed up to make this sign for my daughter Mira’s swimming party.

I was pleased as punch. I showed it to everyone within shouting distance of the shop and couldn’t wait to bring it home and show the girls. They were pleasantly surprised at how it turned out and I was pleasantly surprised that Mira quickly approved it (I was still a bit worried that my unauthorized driftwood addition might have been a bit aggressive in her mind (even though it was perfect)). We capped the whole thing off with hot glue, a few seashells and then perfect weather for a “Mermaid Lagoon” swimming party.

The sign now resides in my shop, where it generates many inquiries, but as of today, no more official orders for driftwood mermaid signs.

 

How to Make Realistic Worm Holes in Wood

If you want to make something look older, just add some worm holes. Sounds simple enough, but there is a major difference between just poking holes in the wood and making the holes look authentic. Now that the all natural, rustic wood look is in style, even new, or at least not very old wood often benefits from more character, and I am here to show you how to really do it.

First off, let me assure you that I have a lot of experience in this field. I often build pieces that need to be “wormed up” in some regard, either to make new wood look old or to make old wood look even older. Especially on projects like beams and mantels, worm holes help add a lot of age to a piece.

Much of the wood that I use already has worm holes in it because I let the logs sit awhile outside before I mill them into lumber (sometimes even on purpose), so I have a head start, but there will still often be spots without bug holes where the wood needs a little extra love, like in the following video:

To get things started, it helps to first look at truly worm-eaten wood. There are consistencies even in what looks to be very inconsistent patterns. Here are a few principles that hold up in most wormy wood:

1.) Hole sizes vary: Even similar-sized holes are not the same. Your method for creating holes should easily produce random results.

2.) Worms tend to focus their efforts: Holes will usually have an area of focus, with more holes in the center of an infected area fading out to fewer holes.

3.) Not all holes are perpendicular to the surface:  While most holes are just that – holes, many are oblong and some are more like trails.

4.) The bugs that make the worm holes often enter around defects in the wood: Soft or punky wood, spalted wood, cracks, and sapwood are all areas that will focus worm activity. Good, strong, solid heartwood is the last area to be bug infested.

5.) Small holes outnumber the big ones: Older wood that has been attacked by multiple insects will have lots of tiny holes (1/16′ diameter), some medium-sized holes (1/8″ diameter), and just a few big holes (up to 1/4″ diameter).

Here are some photos of authentic worm holes. If you can copy any these patterns you will be off to a good start.

This section of pine shows a nice array of hole sizes from large to small. Notice how the long holes follow the grain.

This section of pine shows a nice array of hole sizes from large to small. Notice how the long holes follow the grain.

This section of hickory has holes that make short lines. They are also very dark and almost seem stained.

This section of hickory has holes that make short lines. They are also very dark and almost seem stained.

This section of maple shows a mix of holes and short trails.

This section of maple shows a mix of holes and short trails.

The holes in this white oak are larger and have stains around them where the wood has started to decay.

The holes in this white oak are larger and have stains around them where the wood has started to decay.

 

Here are some of my tricks for achieving realistic results:

  1. A scratch awl, normally used for marking projects, is the perfect tool for making small to medium-sized holes, after being sharpened to a long, tapered point.

    A scratch awl, normally used for marking projects, is the perfect tool for making small to medium-sized holes, after being sharpened to a long, tapered point.

    Small holes. You’ll be tempted to use a drill bit for the smallest holes, but it isn’t the best choice. Tiny drill bits break easy and the size is too consistent. Plus, they pull out wood fibers that make the edge of the holes fuzzy. Instead use a nail or a scratch awl sharpened to a long fine point. A scratch awl is the best choice because it can be used without a hammer and produces speedy results. The long point will make different sized holes depending on how deep it is pushed into the wood. Push the scratch awl in the wood at different angles and different depths.

  2. Large holes. Use a twist drill bit for the larger holes. Be sure to drill deep enough that you can’t see the bottom of the holes and to vary the drill angle. Put the bigger holes in the softer wood. Sapwood, punky wood and areas around defects are a good place to start. Mix up the sizes in the 1/8-3/16″ range for a more natural look.
  3. Oblong holes. Some of the larger holes tend look like small jelly beans. Drill in fairly deep and then use the side of the drill bit to cut a short trail. The result is similar to two holes drilled right next to each other.
  4. Trails. Trails are often left just under the bark in bug infested logs and sometimes inside the log. Use a twist drill bit about 1/8-3/16″ in diameter and drag the bit in different lengths of crooked lines. Be sure to make some of the areas have more depth. Think of the trail as a river with shallow areas and deeper pools. Trails can have one, both or none of the ends finishing in a hole. Mix it up and have a few ends disappear into holes made with the same drill bit.

One of the most important things to remember when making worm holes or using any other techniques to age wood is to really go for it. You won’t destroy a piece of furniture by adding a few more holes or dents, and you can only miss by doing too little to the surface.

I often see furniture, especially mass-produced furniture, that will have some sort of distressing that looks like it was just phoned in. Usually, someone quickly takes a chain to the surface or pokes a few holes and calls it a day. Don’t do that. Pay attention to Mother Nature’s work and try to duplicate it. And, most importantly, have fun doing it.

 

 

General Tools MMD8P Moisture Meter Is Good On The Outside

The General MMD8P features a bright OLED display, built-in species correction, displays ambient temperature and humidity, and stores multiple readings.

The General MMD8P features a bright OLED display, built-in species correction, displays ambient temperature and humidity, and stores multiple readings.

When the General Tools & Instruments MMD8P moisture meter ($199) showed up to be reviewed, I was excited. I have moisture issues with wood – it seems like it’s always too wet to use and I don’t want to wait. Waiting takes all the fun out of opening up a log, and the longer I have to wait for wood to dry, the less of it I can sell. That is where the ol’ moisture meter comes into play. Much better than just guessing how wet the wood is, a moisture meter should tell me exactly how wet the wood is. It sounds simple enough, just put the meter on the wood or at most push two pins into the wood and take a reading, but it isn’t always that simple.

There are a range of moisture meters out there and they don’t all work the same and they don’t all read the same. I was hoping that the MMD8P from General that just showed up would be the meter of my dreams and for once make me feel confident that I knew just how wet my wood was. And it appeared that is just might.

Though I wasn’t impressed with the light, toy-like feel of the unit, it has more buttons and obviously, more features than I am used to in a moisture meter. It shows the relative humidity and temperature of the environment, which is pretty cool and has a menu for selecting different wood species, which is also cool. My first moisture meter (that I still own) has paper charts for species and temperature adjustment. I don’t bother with the charts, but I will gladly allow the meter to make the adjustments for me, and the General MMD8P does just that.

The first thing I did was play with the species correction. The interface, while obviously not from the great designers at Apple, worked fine and I was able to get to the species I wanted after a quick perusal of the owner’s manual. There are more than enough species to choose from and they are accessible by just pushing the up or down arrows until the desired species appears. It took only a few seconds to quickly flip through the alphabetical list, pick a species, and start jamming the pins into some boards.

A notable difference between this meter and other pin meters that I have used is the thickness of the pins. These are stout, less like pins and more like cones. My first thought was, “Now, these pins won’t break. Finally, pins that won’t break.” They are built like a tank compared to the pins on my Delmhorst (which often break), but after using them, I am not sure that it’s an advantage. I felt like the pins didn’t penetrate very deeply, which made my readings feel even more like surface readings instead of core readings. It also seemed like the pins wanted to eject themselves from the wood, and any difference in pressure while taking a reading resulted in a variance on the readout. If I pushed hard, the reading might be 9% and when I let up a little, the reading could be 12%. Unfortunately, there is no way to know which of those numbers is accurate. In my head I want it to be the drier number, but my heart knows it’s the wetter number, or even worse.

The display on this unit, which is touted as a major selling feature is big and bright and can be configured to display critical information in a few different ways, though I imagine that most users will pick one option and just stick with it (most likely the one that shows all of the information and not a truncated selection). I chose a display option which shows the moisture content reading very large, which seems to just make sense. After all, that’s what it’s for.

I moved around my shop from board to board checking to see how it worked and finding the moisture content of random boards – most of which were around 10%. That is fine if it is accurate, but at the same time very disheartening, and here is why, in the form of a little more background.

As I mentioned, I have a moisture meter, a Delmhorst J-lite, which was the first meter that I purchased. It is a pin-type meter, just like the General MMD8P and it always reads 9-10% or drier. Maybe not always, but it feels like always. I think it is a lazy meter and doesn’t try very hard. It says in a very monotone and cubical job sort of way, “10% boss. Next reading, 10%. The wood that you cut just a few weeks ago, 10%.” If it doesn’t read 10%, it will only read lower (even painfully low), unless I just cut the wood, where it may possibly read higher. I was so sure that the meter wasn’t working properly that I called Delmhorst. Officially, it checked out OK, but I still don’t trust it.

Since then, when I really check for moisture I like to use a Wagner MMC220 pinless meter, which takes readings 3/4″ deep using electromagnetic waves. The numbers go up and down like I expect in different woods and even in different spots on the same board. It will read 10% too, but it can do 9% and 6% and even 13%. Heck, sometimes it even does 17% (crazy, I know). I am still not sure of its absolute accuracy, but at least there appears to be movement in the numbers, and in a logical fashion – wood that is newly cut is wetter than wood that has been on sticks for a while. It will even read accurately on rough cut wood and won’t leave holes when you are checking surfaced lumber or finished projects.

So, back to my review.

I used the General MMD8P meter, and seemed to get the usual 10%ish measurement. I was testing wood that had been dried and had been in the shop awhile, so 10% or somewhere from 9-11% made sense. Then I tried an 8/4 chunk of walnut that I had cut only two weeks earlier. Funny enough, I didn’t get 10% like I expected, but I apparently pushed the meter a bit and got it to go to 13%, which at least told me it was wetter than normal (for reference, it should have read off of the scale, or at lease 30%). I thought, “Here we go again – another ten percenter!”

Now it was officially time to get to the bottom of this, once and for all. This new meter has the right look, it has all the extra buttons, it has a fancy display, but why must it always read 10%. I knew the walnut that I tested was soaking wet on the inside. Sure, the surface was perhaps 10%, but if I was strong enough, I guarantee I could ring water out of the middle of that board. I grabbed the $8 per board foot wood and threw it on my chop saw to expose some of the wood in the middle and took some new readings.

The very center was very wet and read as very wet, above 40%. As I moved towards the outside of the board it got drier, and in logical increments, until the outside reading of, you guessed it, 10%. That was good news. At least this meter had the potential to read something other than 10%, and it seemed to be accurate.

I took it with me to check on the kiln progress and went through the same process with 8/4 walnut in the kiln that was nearly dry. The shells were reading dry, around 6-8%, so I trimmed an end to test the inside. The General MMD8P meter did a good job of showing me the moisture content in the middle of the board and the moisture gradient as I moved towards the outside, just like it did in the shop. The numbers read as I would expect for how long the wood was in the kiln with a high number of 13%, and did a good job of telling me that the inside was still a little wet. So far, so good, for a pin-type meter.

I continued using the General MMD8P meter for the next few weeks. If I found myself wondering about the moisture content of a piece of wood, I checked it with the meter. It turns out that it isn’t just a ten percenter. In the shop, I got a full range of readings, and in a logical fashion. Shells were drier and when I cut into boards, the centers were wetter. The drier shells even showed a wide range of readings, again, all that seemed accurate.

The only problem is that I had to cut into the board to get an accurate reading. I know (and everyone else reading this knows) that the outside is drier and probably around 10%, but I don’t need a meter for that. I need to know the moisture content inside the wood and therefore, the overall moisture content of the wood. I need to know if the wood is still shrinking and how much shrinking it has left inside it. This is especially true in a species like white oak, for example, that doesn’t give up water and can be completely wet in the middle for a long time, even when the shell reads as dry.

The question that was continually in my head as I was reviewing this meter was, “Why would I use a pin-type meter that punches holes in the wood and only gives me a reading near the surface?” Unfortunately, the answer is I wouldn’t. No matter how bright the display, no matter how big the numbers, no matter how many corrections are built-in, no matter how many readings it can store, I wouldn’t choose a pin-type meter and I wouldn’t recommend one, not even at half of the price of a pinless meter. I think the General MMD8P meter is good for a pin-type meter with all of the controls that I could ask for and more, but it just doesn’t do the job that a pinless meter, with quick, accurate and deeper readings, can do.

What is Going on at WunderWoods?

On a semi-regular basis I talk to someone who would have used me for their last project, but they didn’t because they didn’t know everything I do. My woodworking customers don’t know I mill lumber, my milling customers don’t know I sell lumber, my lumber customers don’t know I do custom woodworking, and I blame it all on my inept advertising department.

I am here to change all of that with a new video that shows what is really happening at WunderWoods (when I am working). With the help of a few of my customers, I have put together a montage of the goings on in a three-week span of my daily work life. The clips are chronological in order, but random in their approach. One day I cut a tree, the next day I finish a piece of furniture – just like real life.

The bottom line is that if it involves wood there is a good chance I do it.

About WunderWoods cover photo

Click to watch a short video and see what really happens at WunderWoods.

Thanks to Dwayne Tiggs from Crafty Naturals, Jermain Todd from Mwanzi, and Martin Goebel from Goebel and Company Furniture for starring in the video.

The following photos are of the finished products shown in progress in the video:

Elm is one of my favorite woods. In this case, we used all of the tree, including some big knots with lots of spunk.

Elm is one of my favorite woods. In this case, we used all of the tree, including some big knots with lots of spunk.

After seeing other cricket tables that the customer liked, she ordered this one in a bit smaller size. The top is 23" in diameter.

After seeing other cricket tables that the customer liked, she ordered this walnut version in a bit smaller size. The top is 23″ in diameter.

 

 

 

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