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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
For Christmas, I decided my daughter needed a bunch of dominos (not to play the game dominos, but to stand up and knock over). I always liked playing with dominos, but was always disappointed when I ran out, so I then decided it should be a big bunch of dominos. After doing a little on-line research, I quickly concluded that a purchase of a big bunch of dominos, even the cheap ones, was going to add up, and since I have a never-ending supply of domino stock in my shop, I set out to make them.
First things first, I needed to figure out the dimensions, and this ended up being the most difficult part of the entire job. I tried searching online, assuming there would be a standard size and I would just copy that, but I didn’t find anything standard. The sizes seemed to be all over the place. Then I thought, “OK, maybe there isn’t a standard size, but there must be some sort of standard ratio or proportions to a domino.” But, as far as I can tell there isn’t, or at least there isn’t anything clearly published that is quick and easy to find. There was nothing with the heading “Standard Domino Sizes,” like I was hoping to find.
Here’s the good news, after scouring the internet for information and making a few hundred myself, I have finally figured out the perfect proportions for what I am calling a standard domino. Now, it seems quite simple and very obvious, but it took me awhile to put it all together (we had to knock over a lot dominos for it to click). The dimension that took some time to nail down was the thickness.
At first, I just guessed at it and made the dominos a thickness that looked in proportion to the length and width. After using the dominos though, it seemed like they were a bit too thick. They look fine and don’t feel unlike a domino, but they don’t fall over very well. They still fall, but they are just a bit too stable and don’t fall with much force. They aren’t bad enough to throw away, but they could be better.
After playing with the dominos more and making structures with them, similar to building blocks, it all came into focus, and I found the magic ratio. When we stacked the dominos in different orientations, things weren’t lining up and the thickness was to blame. We would stack some dominos on their side, some standing, and some laying down, and the ones laying down didn’t quite line up with the ones on their side. It was close, but not that close. Three dominos laying down were just a bit taller than just one on its side, which made them impossible to use as stable building structure. If they were just a bit thinner, everything would line up when they were stacked and they would topple just right.
So, here is the magic ratio, expressed in a three different ways:
Thickness = X, Width = 3X, Length = 6X
Width = X, Length = 2X, Thickness = X/3
or in actual (standard?) size
Length = 2″, Width = 1″, Thickness = .33″
Of course, if you are going to make your own dominos, they don’t have to be 1″ wide. They could be any dimension you want, but be sure to follow the above ratios for them to really work well.
One of the first things I needed to figure out when I started cutting rough lumber on a sawmill was what thickness to make it. I could generally determine if I wanted it to be thick or thin, but just how thick or thin? 4/4 lumber is 1″ thick, so it should be rough cut at 1″ thick, right? Not exactly. For hardwoods, the commercial target for 4/4 lumber is actually 1-1/8″, which allows enough margin to produce dried and planed lumber at a thickness of 13/16″ or 3/4″ (3/4″ is acceptable, but the extra 1/16″ of thickness in 13/16″ material allows room for additional planing or sanding after panels or doors are glued up).
The crazy thing is that back then I couldn’t find solid information on lumber thicknesses anywhere and when I referred to the NHLA (National Hardwood Lumber Association) guide, the thicknesses didn’t match up with what I was finding from hardwood producers. The NHLA guide doesn’t include the bonus 1/8″ of thickness – 4/4 lumber, for example, is specified at a minimum of 1″.
In my experience, 4/4 hardwood lumber cut at 1″ is too thin to consistently produce flattened and planed lumber at 13/16″ thick and will even have trouble producing 3/4″ thick unless the boards are very flat. The only way 1″ thick rough-cut hardwood lumber can plane out completely to 13/16″ or 3/4″ thick is to skip the flattening and just plane the lumber. This will produce thicker finished lumber, but it won’t be flat and straight since the planer will simply follow the curves of any crooked boards. From a woodworkers perspective this is a horrible practice and makes woodworking much more difficult. For this reason, I cut my 4/4 hardwood lumber like all other quality producers at 1-1/8″ thick and don’t accept anything from other sawmills or wholesalers at 1″ thick.
Starting with the lumber measurement and adding 1/8″ for the final thickness is how all of the hardwood measurements go, with a target for 4/4 lumber at 1-1/8″, 5/4 lumber at 1-3/8″, 6/4 at 1-5/8″ and 8/4 at 2-1/8″. These are the commercially accepted numbers, and except for 8/4 lumber the ones that I shoot for. The problem with 8/4 lumber is that since there is more wood it shrinks more than thinner lumber and 2-1/8″ thick just isn’t enough thickness to flatten and plane lumber to consistently finish at 1-3/4″, which is the target for 8/4 lumber. When I flatten and plane batches of 8/4 lumber milled at 2-1/8″ thick it isn’t uncommon for half of the lumber to finish at 1-5/8″ thick instead of 1-3/4″.
Because I think 2-1/8″ is a little thin, I commonly cut 8/4 lumber at 2-3/8″ thick. 2-3/8″ thick is twice that of 4/4 lumber, plus the 1/8″ saw kerf that would have been between the two imaginary cuts. The extra thickness not only impresses the ladies, but it assures a final dried and planed thickness of at least 1-3/4″ and officially uses no extra wood when compared to cutting 4/4 lumber (to keep things simple, a friend of mine simply calls it “double four quarter” lumber). As I mentioned though, 8/4 is commercially sawn at 2-1/8″ thick, so if you cut it at that measurement it isn’t wrong, 2-3/8″ is just better for the end user (none of my customers have ever been upset that the wood is a little thicker).
The previous examples were for hardwoods, but softwoods, like white pine, can be cut thinner since they shrink less and dry straighter overall, plus softwoods are commonly used for construction purposes instead of furniture, which don’t need the extra thickness for secondary planing or sanding, so 3/4″ final thickness is common for 4/4 softwood lumber. For 4/4 white pine for example, I cut 1″ thick, which will finish at 3/4″. And, for cedar, which shrinks very little and is very straight and stable, I will go even thinner, down to 7/8″. In general though, softwoods are cut on the standard quarter scale with 4/4 lumber measuring 1″.
The scale below shows the target hardwood lumber thicknesses for commercially produced, rough-cut lumber and their planed thickness counterparts. These are the sizes you should expect to find when shopping for hardwoods.
Hardwood Lumber Measurements
Quarter-scale measurement Rough cut thickness Planed thickness
4/4 1-1/8″ 13/16″
5/4 1-3/8″ 1-1/16″
6/4 1-5/8″ 1-1/4″
8/4 2-1/8″ (or 2-3/8″*) 1-3/4″
*2-3/8″ is a better thickness to consistently finish at 1-3/4″ thick, but 2-1/8″ is the norm.
I have been cutting a lot of slabs lately and building a lot of tops. This is the first one that I have finished out of a big double-crotch Siberian elm that I milled in the spring. The top is 36″ at the narrowest and 58″ at the widest. The slab was milled 3″ thick and was flattened and finished with a hand-planed surface at 2″ thick.
For those of you that haven’t heard yet, Siberian elm is one of my favorites. The wood needs nothing added to it to make it beautiful – just a clear top coat (actually four coats of Klearvar) is all it takes. The wood for this top is a delicious medium brown with tons of visual interest, especially where the main trunk splits into three branches.
The wood slab and the steel base (built by Commercial Fabrication) are going to serve as a 42″ bar-height community table in my customers newly remodeled basement.
I have been on a sycamore kick lately, and this sycamore slice keeps my streak going. There are three stacks of these rough sawn slices for sale in my shop, and though I have sold a few, this is the first one to officially get finished and installed.
The slice is 3″ thick and is a cross cut of a 48″ diameter hollow sycamore log that had the added benefit of having a long open wound that didn’t quite seal up. In the tree’s attempt to close the wound the new wood took on a curl shape on both ends that make the slice look more like an artistic expression than just a hollow log.
Since the tree was standing dead all of the sapwood is consistently spalted and marbled in appearance. There is some solid heartwood in the piece which isn’t spalted, but has a beautiful rust color.
I was planning on ditching this tree since it was hollow and didn’t seem to have any millable lumber in it, but when I saw the curl shape on the inside of the log I did a u-turn on my way to the dump. Solid logs with complete centers that are sliced like this tend to crack and fall apart because of the drying stresses in the log, but in this case all of the drying stresses were relieved since the center was gone. When the outside wood wanted to shrink it wasn’t restricted by wood on the inside and could freely reduce in diameter without any problems.
I installed the slice on the wall with two lag screws, just like a mantel. I drilled matching holes on the back of the wood and just slid it on the wall (with the help of my customer). This system works great since it allows the piece to get flush to the wall and enables it to be removed without tools should the need arise.
Overall, I am ecstatic to have one of these completed and out the door. Next up is to finish at least one extra to keep in the shop to show off. You wouldn’t believe how much faster they sell with a finished sample around to seal the deal.