Grow Exhibit Opens at the St. Louis Science Center

The Exploradome (above) was deflated and removed to make way for the new Grow exhibit. Click on the photo to find out more about the now deflated Exploradome.

The Exploradome (above) was deflated and removed to make way for the new Grow exhibit. Click on the photo to find out more about the now deflated Exploradome.

If you have driven down Highway 40 in St. Louis recently, you may have noticed a new structure being erected next to the St. Louis Science Center where the “temporary” Exploradome once stood. After 16 years in service, the inflated building was past its prime and too expensive to operate, so it was replaced with a new, permanent agriculture exhibit called Grow.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is the new building that features massive bent laminated beams which create a beautiful swoosh of a roof. Just outside the entrance of the new building is a vermiculture display that I built for the exhibit. While it pales in comparison to the woodwork that went into making the building, I like to think it makes a nice little earth-friendly welcome mat for visitors.

The bent laminated beams that make the roof structure on the new Grow exhibit building are impressive.

The bent laminated beams that make the roof structure on the new Grow exhibit building are impressive.

The vermiculture unit, designed by Mark Cooley, uses worms to make compost. Built out of locally salvaged Eastern Red Cedar, the two-compartment structure is set up to have green waste loaded in the top and compost extracted from the bottom after the worms have done their job eating the contents. The two compartments, which are side by side, are divided by a wire mesh that allows the worms to move between compartments. This particular unit has glass panels to allow for viewing of the interior from the front of the display, though the glass is not required for use.

Just outside of the new building is the vermiculture unit where worms make green waste into compost.

Just outside of the new building is the vermiculture unit where worms make green waste into compost.

This project was a bit out of the norm for me since it was more carpentry than fine woodworking, but it was a fun change to build something that wasn’t so fussy. I had the most fun when I was able to find some logs in my shop already standing against the wall for the project. They were left over from another project, and I was able to just carry them to the sawmill and cut the parts I needed. I chuckled to myself while I was doing it because I have never just hand carried logs to the sawmill that were standing in the shop like sticks of lumber. It was only possible because cedar is lightweight and the logs were small, but I still had more than enough to make this project.

Cedar is lightweight, durable and cuts like butter.

Cedar is lightweight and durable. I already had these logs in the shop waiting to be milled.

Mermaid Lagoon driftwood sign WunderWoods

The vermiculture unit was a bit more fussy on measurements, but it reminded me of making this sign.

Cedar mills like butter on the sawmill, even when dry, and since it was going outside I didn’t need to do any extra drying. I was able to mill it, plane it and assemble it right away, which made it feel more like I was building a fort or a treehouse, especially since I never get to knock something out like that. It reminded me a lot of the Mermaid Lagoon sign I made for Mira a few years ago, since both went together expeditiously. There were a few critical measurements to maintain, like the size of the footprint, but everything else was somewhat negotiable as long as it looked and worked like Mark Cooley’s design.

The vermiculture unit is nestled in the Grow exhibit along a mulch path surrounded by plantings that are arranged like a garden or small farm field. Nearby are live chickens, two new tractors, a greenhouse and a dairy demonstration area. Inside the building are electronic, hands-on displays that focus more on the places that generate food, from the species of plants to different farm settings. Outside, on the North side of the building, are a couple of displays that focus on water, with a chance for the kids to interact with displays that are both hands-on and hands-wet.

The St. Louis Science Center and the new Grow exhibit are free to all visitors. It opens Monday-Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and Sunday at 11:00 a.m. The Science Center closes at 5:30 p.m. during peak summer hours (May 28-Sep. 5, 2016) and at 4:30 p.m. during off-peak hours.

 

Today’s Glues are Super Strong

When customers stop by to peruse the lumber and slabs I have for sale, they inevitably end up near the back of my shop, where I do my woodworking. They like to see what I am up to and discuss woodworking in general. Lately, I have been making a lot of live-edge tops, so I usually have at least one being glued up, and I can guarantee you that the first question is going to be, “What do you use to join those two pieces of wood together?” They are expecting a dramatic answer full of technical jargon, like tongue and groove or sliding dovetail or dominos or even biscuits, but I always disappoint them and just say, “glue”. I like to say it in a sort of caveman fashion for dramatic effect and a bit of humor, but then I quickly jump in and fill the awkward silence with a more detailed explanation, especially since I can tell that just blurting out the word “glue” isn’t going to be enough.

I use Titebond original wood glue with the red cap. There is Titebond II and III for more water-resistency, but I usually stick to the original unless it is a project that is prone to getting very wet. I like that the original cleans up easily with water and that even dried glue can be soaked and removed from brushes and clothing. I don’t prefer Titebond for any special reason, except that it is widely used and widely available. I would just as confidently use other name-brand wood glues and expect similar results.

 

I use Titebond original wood glue (with the red cap) and clamps on sawhorses. For big tops, I ditch the sawhorses and just use the floor.

I use Titebond original wood glue (with the red cap) and clamps on sawhorses. For big tops, I ditch the sawhorses and just use the floor.

 

Spectrum Adhesives MG-1000 industrial-grade PVA glue is all they use at Goebel and Co. Furniture (along with a JLT clamp rack) to assemble panels and tops like these.

Spectrum Adhesives MG-1000 industrial-grade PVA glue is all they use at Goebel and Co. Furniture (along with a JLT clamp rack) to assemble panels and tops like these.

The glues available today are strong, super strong, stronger than the wood itself. To prove this, I always save the end cuts from my glue-ups, so I can break them later for demonstration purposes for customers and inspection purposes for myself. If the glue is fully dry (results are not guaranteed if the glue is still wet), the glued-up scraps will always break somewhere in the wood. Even if it does happen to spilt close to the glue line, there is always plenty of wood stuck to the glue to make anyone doubting the strength of the joint to become a believer.

In comparison, I have worked with plenty of reclaimed wood, especially old oak church pews, that have a tendency to split along the glue joints. When closely inspected, it is clear that the old glue had become dry and brittle, and though it stuck to both surfaces, the glue itself broke down, like old plastic that has been outside too long. Most likely, the older glues, while strong at the time, weren’t formulated correctly to stay flexible over time. Current glues are formulated to hold strong and not break down during regular indoor use. Note that I wrote “indoor” use – for outdoor use, all bets are off. From extreme wood movement to glue breakdown, there is simply too much wear and tear outdoors for the glue to hold a jointed edge together on its own without any eventual failures.

So, we know that the glue is strong and is more than capable of holding a joint together, but just how strong is it? There is probably some value on some fancy scale to tell you exactly how strong the joint is, but it doesn’t really matter, as long as you know that it is stronger than the wood. At that point, to know the strength for sure, you would need to know the strength not only of the wood you are working with, but the weakest point in any given spot in a board, which you just can’t know, so I say stop worrying about it. Just know that it is more than strong enough to do the job.

Now, for the glue to work correctly, your machining and joints need to be reasonably good. I say, “reasonably” good because I think there is a lot of wiggle room here. Obviously, if everything is perfectly square and straight, there is no question about your joint integrity. You can simply coat the joint with glue, apply just enough pressure to pull everything together, and you will end up with a strong, wonderfully impressive joint. But, what if your jointed edges are square but the boards are long and have a bit of a bow and they will require a bit of extra clamp pressure to pull them together, is that gonna work? Heck yeah! Did I mention the glue is strong? A little extra clamp pressure is fine.

What about a lot of clamp pressure? Now this is where the “reasonably” good part comes into play. I say if you are doing a glue-up and you feel like you have applied so much pressure to pull things together that it just feels wrong, then you should probably work on the joint some more. But, here’s the kicker. I can tell you that I have been involved in more glue-ups than I should admit to that have required an inordinate amount of clamp pressure, and to this day (knock on wood), I have never had a joint fail. Maybe I have just been lucky, since I have done tons of glue-ups, but I use this as a real world testament to the strength of the current glues.

The problem with needing a lot of clamp pressure to pull joints together is two-fold. The first issue is that there are built-in forces that are always trying open the joint with the same amount of pressure it took to close up the joint, which can be significant. The other issue, and the one that is commonly more worrisome, is that more clamp pressure means less glue in the joint. The concern being that if all of the glue is squeezed out then obviously there is nothing to hold the wood together. As far as I can tell, especially since I have not had a failure yet, is that this isn’t easily accomplished. I am not saying it isn’t possible, but it isn’t easy. Many woods have open pores that will hold glue no matter how much pressure you give them (think oak and walnut), and if you are fighting at all to pull a joint together, that means that somewhere along the line things are loose enough to hold some glue. Sure, it might completely squeeze out in one spot and make the joint a bit weaker, but in other spots the glue will hold like it is supposed to and keep things from coming apart.

With all of this cavalier talk about crappy joints with extra clamp pressure, you still have to show some restraint. There are going to be times when you can’t rely on just the glue, no matter how strong it is, to hold everything together and you will need to rework your joints for a better fit. A couple of instances come to mind. Some woods have very tight grain that is smooth and won’t hold much glue (think hard maple), so it is possible to end up with a joint that has almost no glue in it. The second instance where more jointing work will be required is if the boards are tight in the middle and loose on the ends. The ends are where a top will want to naturally split, so trying to use extra pressure in this case, is inviting an issue down the road. I feel a million times more confident closing up a gap in the middle of a glue-up than I do the ends, knowing that the entire joint is holding things together, not just the glue on the ends.

One last category that requires a little extra attention is exotic wood. Some have oils in them that just won’t glue properly. They need to be cleaned with lacquer thinner before gluing to provide a good surface and they are often extra hard, so they don’t absorb much glue. I have had problems with bloodwood in the past, which fell apart during my initial tests because I had not cleaned the wood enough. To be safe, I cleaned the wood even more and roughed up the surface a bit with sandpaper to give the glue something to grab. Before the sanding, the edges were just too hard and too smooth. Since then, the extra hard and oily exotics scare me, so I would never force a glue joint with them. I trust the current glues a lot, but there are limits.

Assuming that you have decent joints and wood that will accept glue, all you have to do is make sure that both surfaces are coated with wood glue and clamp them together until the seam is tight. That is really all there is to it and all that is done at almost every professional shop I can think of. You don’t need any special tricks at all, just “glue,” I remind you in my caveman voice.

Random Width Flooring: Efficient Use of a Valuable Resource

In the normal course of my business, I am sometimes asked to make flooring out of my customers’ logs. Because I mill the logs into random width boards, I would often get stuck with trying to determine the best width to make the flooring, knowing that no single width would have that great of a yield. No matter the width I chose, there would always be plenty of boards with lots of waste. If I chose 3″ wide flooring, I can guarantee you that an astonishing number of the rough cut boards would just happen to measure 8-3/4″ wide, which would yield two 3″ wide boards and one wide scrap piece, absolutely killing me.

This random width hickory floor was rough cut in 3", 4' and 5" widths. I made it from trees harvested on site at Tyson Research Center in Eureka, Missouri.

This random width hickory floor was rough cut in 3″, 4′ and 5″ widths. I made it from trees harvested on site at Tyson Research Center in Eureka, Missouri.

In the past, I have tried to decide the width ahead of milling the logs and pick out which cut was going to be flooring and which was going to be another product, like siding.  It seemed simple enough, if the board I was cutting was long and clear with no knot holes, I would cut siding, and if it was knotty and was going to produce only short pieces that were good, I would cut them for flooring. All I really had to do was sort the lumber into two piles while I was working. But, it wasn’t that easy.

Some logs would have a side that was good for producing siding, but the next side was only good for flooring. When I flipped the log over to a new side, my width was determined by how much I cut off of the last side, and it was always random. So, no matter what I did, even if I was cutting for a specific product, I would get stuck with lots of random width boards.

As I mentioned, wasting lumber kills me, and every time I ripped random-width boards down to some set width, leaving wide scraps on the floor, I thought about how to stop wasting so much wood – then it clicked. Many years ago, a friend of mine showed me a floor he made for his own house out of random width boards. As far as I know, he only did it because he thought it would look different and make his house have a special touch that would only come from someone who made their own flooring. His floor was white oak with tons of character, in three different widths. It was beautiful, and it seemed to me that I could use these random widths in some form to stop wasting wood.

I don’t remember a specific moment when I had the epiphany (though I am sure I must have had one), but I figured out that using just three widths, 3″, 4″, and 5″ would cover every width of board I could produce and always leave me with less than 1″ of waste per board.

Think about it. 3″, 4″, and 5″ wide, rough lumber is covered right off of the bat since they are already useable widths. After that is a 6″ wide board, which will just be ripped into two 3″ wide strips. A 7″ board gets ripped to a 3″ and a 4″ strip, while an 8″ board turns into two 4″ strips or a 5″ and a 3″, whichever is preferred. Any width of rough lumber over 6″ wide can be broken down in some way with just the three target widths of 3″, 4″ and 5″. By the way, these are the rough cut widths. The finished tongue and groove flooring will end up with a face about 1/2″ less in width.

This classroom at Tyson Research Center, features random width maple flooring, I also rough milled it in 3", 4" and 5" widths.

This classroom at Tyson Research Center, features random width maple flooring, I also rough milled it in 3″, 4″ and 5″ widths.

Random width flooring looks different, but not too different. At first glance, the viewer only notices the beautiful wood, and then after closer inspection notices the three widths, which lets them know subconsciously that the flooring is special. It stands out because it isn’t all one width like typical hardwood flooring, and most people have never seen or even thought of using random-width flooring. But, I say, “Don’t be scared of it.” It is different and not typical, but in a good way, especially when it comes to waste.

My First (and Maybe Last) Turning Job

Believe it or not, until recently I had never done any turnings. I have been messing with wood for a solid twenty years and never once have I even turned on a lathe. I’ve seen Norm do it a bazillion times on “The New Yankee Workshop” and listened to plenty of other woodworkers tell me about their turning escapades, but I never felt inclined to do it myself. I guess it’s because I am not attracted to work that has turnings in it, so they rarely end up in pieces that I am building and if they do, I pay someone else to do them.

It wasn’t by my choosing, but I did agree to build a bench with multiple turnings after my customer changed her mind on what she wanted. She showed me a picture from Sawkille.com of their “Tall Rabbit” bench and asked if I could make one like it for her with a variation on the length. Since I already had her deposit on the previous project, I didn’t want to say no and send back the money, so I said yes. I looked at it this way, if I consider myself a real woodworker and I am interested in spreading real-world useable woodworking knowledge, then it can’t hurt for me to have more knowledge myself. After all, was it possible that I would consider myself a real woodworker and die one day never having done a single turning? Sounded pretty hypocritical to me.

First off, let me say that the work from the kids at Sawkille is very nice, and though I don’t know them from Adam, I do appreciate the attention to design details that show in their work. I spent a lot of time messing with small details and proportions, and there is no doubt in my mind that they have spent exponentially more time on those same details and slight variations than I did.

This "Tall Rabbit" bench from Sawkille.com is what started my career as a woodturner.

This “Tall Rabbit” bench from Sawkille.com is what started my career as a woodturner.

The picture above is in black, but my customer saw some other variations and decided to go with bleached maple, and though it didn’t seem necessary on maple, bleaching gave the wood a very different look. The maple went from a light yellow-white to bone white with a couple of applications of two-part wood bleach. That part was as simple as could be – the actual turning was not.

Actually, I take that back. The short turnings weren’t too bad. After I turned the first couple and started to get a feel for it, the next 17 went pretty fast and came out nice. I got my time down to about 15 minutes each, which didn’t set any speed records, but it was a pace I could live with. If I did them all at that rate, I could turn all of the pieces in about 6 or 7 hours, which sounded like a fine day of work.

As you might have imagined, I wouldn’t have much to talk about if it all went down like that.

My troubles started when I stepped up to the legs and long stretchers. All of those are in the 24″ range, and about three times as long as the easy-peasy pieces. Out near the ends, where everything is solid, the work went according to plan, but in the middle, I would simply say that it did NOT. No matter how I attacked the middle, whether it be with a light touch or a hard push or maybe a quick jab or a different angle or a different speed or perhaps standing on a different foot or even just squinting a bit more, nothing improved. The piece of maple just jumped and kicked like a bucking bull, and I couldn’t stop it.

Even though I knew my problems were the result of the longer pieces, I imagined that a better turner (or at least someone who had turned at least once before in their life) could overcome the bounciness with better technique. I kept trying different lathe tools and worked slowly to get the pieces as good as possible, and while the overall shape was acceptable, the surface was not. It was nubby, like off-road truck tires, and there were plenty of spots were the wood was just ripped instead of cut. To finish up, I finally dumped the lathe tools and grabbed the sandpaper. I decided to take full advantage of the easy sanding on the lathe and let the paper do the work. Of course, it took awhile, but it was the only way I could come up with to overcome the bouncing spindle syndrome.

After I had a few of the long turnings done, I talked/complained to random shop patrons about my lathe fun and one of them mentioned using a rasp. Apparently, he had more turning knowledge than me (I think everyone does), and he had used the rasp a lot. It made good sense – a rasp is really just super-aggressive sandpaper. Plus, by holding the rasp more parallel to the piece than perpendicular, the rigid flat shape worked great to form the gradual curves with no humps. It wouldn’t have worked so well on intricate turnings, but it worked great in this case.

This is my version of the "Tall Rabbit" bench in bleached maple.

This is my version of the “Tall Rabbit” bench in bleached maple.

After finishing this project, I have a new respect for wood turners and turning. After all, my turnings were simple and still provided quite the challenge. When I think about some of the turnings I have seen, especially in other works, like large hollow vessels, and I consider all of the issues that the turner might face in a project like that, it really makes me appreciate the craft of it. And, though I may never do another turned project in my life, I am glad I gave this one a go.

 

Why is Walnut Lumber Graded Lower Than Other Hardwoods?

A few weeks ago I ordered 300 board feet of 12′, #1 common walnut from a wholesaler that I use on a regular basis. The customer that I ordered it for doesn’t mind knots, so #1 common, which is not the highest grade, is usually a fine choice – except in walnut. In the order, none of the boards looked very good, many were so crooked that I had to cut them in half to get a straight board, only a couple of the boards were over 7″ wide with a good number of them only 3-1/2″, and half of them looked like pallet wood. They were painful to look at and painful to use. So painful, in fact, that out of the 300 bd. ft., I couldn’t find two boards that contained a 4″ x 7′ clear piece to finish up another order. Out of 300 bd. ft. of medium-grade walnut lumber, I couldn’t even find 5 bd. ft. of clear lumber. If that same stack was red oak instead of walnut, I would have been able to find those two pieces in the first layer of the stack. I may have even found the two pieces in one wide board, between the knots.

This wasn’t a randomly poor batch of walnut from a consistently good supply. Every time I order walnut, no matter which sawmill or distribution yard it comes from, the quality of the wood from any of the grades is always worse than I could imagine. The crazy thing is I know it is going to be bad going in, so I try to prepare myself for it, and I am still surprised when I see it. I do end up using it or selling it, explaining to my customers that it’s just the way walnut is, that it is graded by different rules and even though it doesn’t look great that it is indeed higher-grade lumber. I have a hard time with this explanation, but it is absolutely the truth – walnut is graded differently from other woods.

If you search the internet for the reason walnut is graded on a different scale, all you will find is something along the lines of, “Walnut is graded differently from other woods to make better use of this valuable resource.” This sounds like a quote from someone towing the company line and giving a politically correct answer, and it does nothing to explain why the grade is so different.

Big and straight walnut logs do exist. This one only got cut up into lumber because of bird peck marks that scarred the wood. Otherwise, it would have been shipped off to be sliced into veneer.

Big and straight walnut logs do exist. This one only got cut up into lumber because of bird peck marks that scarred the wood. Otherwise, it would have been shipped off to be sliced into veneer.

The only tidbit you will find that sounds like a real reason for the lower grade of walnut is that it is difficult to get good quality wood out of the walnut log supply. Most of the wording would make you believe that walnut trees don’t grow tall and straight and don’t get to a decent diameter, so there just isn’t anything good to pick from. This is partly true. There isn’t a lot of good quality logs to choose from, but it has almost nothing to do with the way walnuts grow – walnuts grow just as tall and straight and big as many reputable hardwoods. The real, full and complete truth is that, yes, the log supply doesn’t have many high quality logs, but it is because the high-quality logs never make it to the sawmill, it’s not that they don’t exist. I know that I find good-looking walnut logs all of the time, and I don’t have any special powers to find good logs.

So, where are the good logs if they aren’t at the sawmill? They are sold to make veneer, which requires the best logs, and they are shipped overseas where walnut is viewed as even more valuable because it is a fancy import. And, since the demand for walnut is so high, even the “not the best, best” walnut logs are being shipped out and sliced into veneer. Species other than walnut are being sliced into veneer as well, but not in the same ratio when compared to the number of available trees. Walnut accounts for less than 1% of our forest, so there just aren’t as many logs to choose from and since almost every decent walnut log ends up anywhere but the sawmill, the odds of a good board ending up in the hands of a domestic customer are not good.

The situation is very obvious if you visit a higher production sawmill with a big supply of logs, where you will probably find three sorting categories for logs entering the yard. The largest pile of logs will be smaller diameter (14″ and less) and low-grade. The second biggest pile will be larger diameter logs (over 14″), but they will still be knotty and/or crooked. The last pile will be hidden in the back, away from the hustle and bustle of the sawmill where the best logs wait for the veneer buyer. These logs don’t have a chance of being cut into lumber because the sawmill can make just as much or more money selling the logs for veneer instead of wasting their time cutting, drying and selling them for lumber. If the sawmill can purchase a walnut log at $2 per board foot delivered to them and sell it for $3-$4 or more per board foot just for loading it on the veneer buyers truck, it makes no sense to touch it more than once.

So, the problem with walnut comes down to simple economics, supply and demand, that sort of thing. But why are the grades different? Obviously, “to make better use of this valuable resource,” meaning so sawmills can cut the lower grade logs that are available at a reasonable price and still sell them at a higher price. Walnut is that much in demand.

Click here to read the hardwood lumber grading rules for yourself. Flip to page 28 to read all of the exceptions for walnut.

Click here to read the hardwood lumber grading rules for yourself. Flip to page 28 to read all of the exceptions for walnut.

I did some research on walnut grading rules by contacting the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), which is responsible for implementing the current rules, thinking that the rules must have started out the same as other species (called standard grade) and then changed at some point based on the increasing demand for walnut. I found no time when the rules made any sort of abrupt change, so it appears that even though walnut may drift in and out of style, it has always been in demand and in relative short supply. Working with the chief lumber inspector, we went back to the 1920’s and even then walnut had special exceptions to make it easier to achieve a higher grade.

The differences in the grading rules for walnut may not sound so aggressive at first, but when you see them applied in real life, it is easy to see how lower-grade walnut can slide through in the higher-grade categories. Hardwood lumber is graded by the percentage of clear area in each board, with higher grades having fewer defects and more clear wood. The assumption is that the lumber is going to be cut down to make a finished product, so it can contain a specified number and minimum size of imaginary pieces (cuttings) that can be cut out of a single board. The main differences between other hardwoods and walnut is in the additional number of cuttings allowed per board and the smaller size of the cuttings in each grade, meaning that you are allowed to cut a walnut board into more and smaller pieces to remove defects. The percentage yield of clear wood needs to be the same as other species in each grade, but the pieces can be much smaller. A great example is in the FAS (First and Seconds) grade of lumber, which is the highest grade in hardwoods. FAS lumber in walnut can have three cuttings instead of just the two in other hardwoods, and it can have shorter cuttings in lumber 8′ and longer, so the best walnut usually has a knot right in the middle of the board, where other species often won’t. That is great if you only need shorter pieces, but a real pain when you need 8′ of clear stock. You would be amazed how much FAS walnut you will have to go through to get a good amount of wide, clear and long stock, if you find it at all.

The white ring on the outside of this walnut log is the sapwood. It is considered a grading defect if not steamed.

The white ring on the outside of this walnut log is the sapwood. It is considered a grading defect if not steamed.

Another painful part of using commercially processed walnut is sapwood. Sapwood is the white wood on the outside of all logs, and it is a part of living life in the world of hardwoods, but since walnut heartwood is dark brown and contrasts so much, it is considered a defect (at least by the grading rules) and should be removed. Larger operations get around the sapwood issue by steaming their lumber to darken the sapwood. This is a separate operation, performed after the lumber is milled and before it is dried, that has moved walnut sapwood out of the defect category. In researching the NHLA grade books, walnut sapwood was not considered a defect, as long as it was steamed, as early as 1920.

Walnut with steamed sapwood may grade higher and look homogenous in a rough board, where it is difficult to discern sapwood from heartwood, but once the lumber is planed, the sapwood is often clearly visible, even though it has been darkened. This wouldn’t be the worst thing if it just kept a high-grade board with a touch of sapwood from being rejected, but it has allowed sawmills, while still meeting grade, to cut walnut lumber that may have up to a 100% sapwood face. No amount of steaming is going to make an all-sapwood walnut board look like anything more than an imitation of the original, and one that needs to be stained (with a walnut stain, crazy enough) to have a chance of looking acceptable.

Along with allowing the sapwood to be 100% useable introduces our good friend “Wane”. Wane isn’t a person, it is the area on the outside of a piece of lumber that is permissible to be non-existent and not reduce the footage of a board. It’s our favorite spot on the end of a 7″ wide board that only measures 5″ wide, when we really need that 7″. It comes into play now because lumber is being cut to the outer edge of the log since steamed sapwood is allowable. Sapwood and wane is allowable in other species as well, but in walnut it is just another obstacle in the way of producing a board that looks like it has no defects. A piece of walnut lumber can, and often will, have sapwood (as long as it is steamed), knots and wane and still make a high-grade.

At larger mills, walnut is rolled into a steamer like this one and steamed to darken the sapwood.

At larger mills, walnut is rolled into a steamer like this one and steamed to darken the sapwood.

To be clear on the sapwood issue, I am not against sapwood overall. I think the contrast between the sapwood and heartwood can be very pleasing. But some jobs require all dark heartwood or the customer would prefer all dark heartwood, and it is almost impossible to get it, even if you tried to specify it. Plus, while darkening the sapwood, steaming reduces the depth of the color in the heartwood, turning the entire board into a brown gray color instead of the deep-rich brown it is without steaming. Allowing steamed sapwood to not be a defect, just like the other special walnut grading rules is done, as they say, “to make better use of this valuable resource,” or maybe, just to sell more walnut.

I would argue that while there are written rules that clearly explain the different grades of walnut, it is unnecessary and extremely painful to have them different from other hardwoods. It is so painful, in fact, that both of my wholesalers told me that it wouldn’t break their hearts if they never sold another stick of walnut again, especially since they spend so much time listening to unhappy customers and dealing with a constant stream of returns. The point of having a grading system is so that everyone has a consistent and clear understanding of the products they are purchasing, and having such a great variation for one species does nothing but muddy the waters.

Again, it all comes back to economics. Sawmills can now pay a reasonable, if not low price (relatively speaking) for lower grades of walnut logs and sell the lumber as fast as they can cut it for a good margin. If sawmills had to move to cutting the high-grade logs to produce more truly high-grade lumber, the price of walnut, which is already high, would increase even more, probably to a point that it couldn’t be sold, at least that is what the custodians of the walnut lumber market would fear.

I personally think that the market would then just reflect what the real situation is. Just like gold, which is rare and very expensive, walnut lumber would go up in price commensurate with the demand because it wouldn’t be so easy to produce high-grade walnut. It already isn’t easy to produce high-grade walnut, it is just easier to sell it as high-grade walnut. The highest grade walnut might end up selling for twice the price it does now, but at least those paying for high-grade might actually get it.

There have been attempts to move walnut to standard grade, but they have fallen short with the walnut industry members voting to keep special rules for walnut in effect. The way the system is now keeps large walnut producers running their operations like they always have, which seems to be working, so there is little reason to change it. And, after some of my discussions with industry insiders, I found even one more reason walnut producers may want to stick to the status quo, and that is proprietary grades of walnut, meaning that producers can now sell “premium” or “super-premium” or whatever they want to call it walnut.

Since the highest grades of walnut are not that high, mills that specialize in walnut can now sell the clearest and straightest-grained walnut lumber for a premium (well beyond listed top prices) because no official grade exists for this product. They can ask higher prices and get it, as long as they deliver a product that they have the luxury of defining. It is a big win for the sawmill, but another loss for those on the other end just trying to purchase a good walnut board, because now a board that may have been beautiful and straight and perfect has even less of a chance to end up in a bundle of “high-grade” walnut. It just helps guarantee that your next FAS board won’t be clear and it will have a knot or three, probably right in the middle. Well, if nothing else, at least we are making better use of this valuable resource.

To be clear, I am not blaming any of my sawmilling friends for the current walnut situation. They are simply following the approved standards for the industry. I do, however, think walnut should be graded following the standard hardwood rules and without all of the exceptions. It reminds me a lot of playing a game with a first-grader that keeps changing the rules when they are not in their favor, and I just don’t want to play on that playground.

 

Big Sycamore Will Make Big Slabs

Recently, I salvaged a huge sycamore log that I plan to cut into natural-edge slab table tops. In the video below I show how I got the log from a warehouse construction site. After this, it will sit for a year or so to give the sapwood some time to spalt (begin to decay), which will add a lot of visual interest to this giant. Now it is time to cut some logs from last year (or the year before).

Look at the Finish with Your Hands

Finishing wood has several benefits, with the main one being protection. Finished wood is protected from contaminants and other fluids (especially water) that could ruin the piece. Finishing wood also makes the piece look more beautiful than a raw piece of wood. It adds depth and brings out details that would be completely hidden otherwise. Finishing wood also makes a piece just seem, for lack of a better word, finished, like someone cares, like it is more valuable. A good finish is nice and smooth and begs to be touched. Reaching out and touching a finished piece of wood seems to be an instinctual way to determine the overall quality, like smelling your food before taking a big bite. I can tell you from lots of personal experiences that the first thing customers do when they see a newly finished piece of furniture is to reach out and touch the wood. They are using their eyes to look at it at the same time, but they are doing half of their looking with their hands. With that in mind, I would suggest that you do at least half of your looking with your hands when finishing a piece of wood.

Your hands can tell you so much about a surface that your eyes can’t. First of all, you can feel lots of places that you cannot see, whether it simply be hidden from view from a lack of light or from a lack of access or maybe just that it is in a bad position at the time. A great example of all of these is on chair work. A chair is meant to be seen from all angles and there are usually lots of intersecting surfaces headed in all directions, with many hidden from view.

Your hands can also feel things in plain sight that your eyes might never see. This is especially true for clear finish coats. If you don’t have big, obvious, light-reflecting mistakes in a well-lit shop, they may not show up enough to see – that is until after you deliver it to your customer and they put it right in front of their big bay window, the one that is similar to the bay window you don’t have in your shop.

I use my bare hands continually through the finishing process. Combined with a low, raking light to help highlight imperfections, they create a dragnet that catches anything trying to make its way into the finished pice. And, the best part is that my hands never miss, they feel everything (except color).

Get your hands involved early in the finishing process, even during rough sanding and surface preparation. During this phase your hands will let you know if there are any dents or chips that aren’t obvious enough to see, and they will give you an overall feel for the surface, how smooth it is and if there are any unflat areas that need to be straightened out. It will give you a good idea where you need to spend more time sanding and point out areas of raised grain that you could never see with your eyes alone.

After you have finished sanding, use your hands, while you are blowing off the surfaces with compressed air, to wipe the surfaces clean. Your hands will loosen particles that would otherwise stick and the air can blow them away. In lieu of tack clothes (which I don’t own anyway), I always use this method, just wiping my hand on my pants as I go. While you are cleaning the surface, without noticing it, you will also be looking at the surface with your hands. You will feel anything that wasn’t adequately sanded the first time, and have a chance to take care of it before you are in too deep.

Your hands are also fantastic for work in-between finish coats too. At this point, the surface and color should be in great shape and any issues should be small and almost undetectable, except with your hands. After scraping or sanding the first sealer coat, use your hands to help clean the surface for the following coat, just like you did before applying the first coat of sealer. While you are wiping off the dust (and wiping it on your pants), you will feel any dust nibs or rough patches or even runs while you are working. Your hands will tell you everything you need to know about the quality of your surface and how you are progressing.

I usually apply one or two more coats of finish, each of which requires less work, but every one involving my hands to make sure the surface is ready for the next step. In fact, I use my hands so much that I am pretty sure I could do my work in-between finish coats without even using my eyes (insert your own joke here, I teed it up for you).

The next time you are working on a finish, get your hands more involved. Try to use your hands as much as your eyes to recognize what is going on with the surface, even in places that are hidden from view. You will be amazed at how much you can “see” with your hands.

 

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