This is a section from A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects, which is available on Amazon. Over the next month, you will be able to read the entire book, and I hope that you like it enough to get tour own copy. Enjoy.
How to Decide on Species
Depending on what you are making, it can be a tough decision to figure out what kind of wood you should be using for your project. In most cases, it will be pretty easy, because you can use nearly anything, but in others the type of wood that you choose makes a big difference.
Thankfully, it’s easy to figure out, and you won’t have to worry too much about the species once you have made the project a couple times.
There are times when the type of wood that you make your project with has almost no effect on the outcome other than the look. For example, a pen maker can take just about any kind of stable wood and turn it on the lathe, creating a nice looking pen.
In this situation, the only difference between one piece of wood and another will be the density and the look. All things being equal, the pen will not fall apart even if you used Balsa wood. It may dent really easily, and it may not be the most interesting thing to look at, but it won’t just fall apart.
Another instance would be building a shelf for the wall in your home. You can use a soft wood like Pine to save money, or you could use Cocobolo Roswood and spend a small fortune. The results will be the same, a nicely hung shelf on your wall where you can put your knick knacks.
There are however other times when the species that you choose has such an impact, that the results of choosing the wrong type can be disastrous, and even get someone sick. This is where research and planning are so important when you are making a project for the first time.
For example, a tobacco pipe maker typically uses Briar for their pipes. Some makers use other species, but for the most part Briar is the main type. If you decided to color too far outside the lines, and use a wood that has more toxic properties when burned, you could end up burning toxic resins that the user will be inhaling.
Tobacco smoke aside, the pipe smoker probably doesn’t want anything other than tobacco smoke to come from that pipe.
Another reason that experimenting in a case like this can be a problem is that a tobacco pipe needs to contain the fire and not burn through. Briar is a very dense and fire resistant wood.
There are other pieces like Douglas Fir, Spruce, or Pine that would probably not last more than a few smokes before they burn up right in the users hand. This is not as bad as poisoning someone, but you don’t want to give away a pipe that only lasts a few puffs.
Another good example is making things for the outdoors. There are types of wood that do better outside in the sun and the elements than others, and if you are making a deck, then you really want to use the right kind of wood.
It can be the difference between a five year project and a twenty five year project.
The easy way to figure out the best kind of wood to use for a project is to do a little research before you head to the wood store. There are a lot of ways to effectively research, but the easiest is to Google the project, and look at the commonly used types of wood.
Search your project, and start reading about the types of wood being used. You may even have to type in “what is a X made from” or “what type of wood is best for making X.” In both cases X is the project name, and it will return many results that you can read through.
It should not take you long to work out the main type or types of wood that are used, and you will also see several successful builds from that species. Using this information, you can more confidently go into the wood store and buy something knowing that you are not going to ruin your project right from the first decision.
Another good way to get the right wood is to look for a store that furnishes goods to that specific type of project maker. They will not exist for all projects, but many of the most popular or most specialized woodworking types have dedicated stores that carry things for those makers.
If you find a species being sold for making that project from one of these kinds of stores, then you can be confident that it’s a good choice.
Another thing you can do is ask someone. Either in person, online, or a friend that already makes the same project. If you have a local hardwood store around, many of these employees are also woodworkers and they can answer basic questions for you. Ask them about your project, and they can help you in the right direction.
If you are part of an online forum or woodworking group, ask them. At least a few of them will share some experiences and some wisdom before the thread is hijacked and taken down some rabbit hole that has nothing to do with the topic.
As a final precaution, do a quick search with any information you get, and make sure that they told you the right thing. Sometimes people make mistakes, and you don’t want someone to accidentally guide you down the wrong path.
A simple Google search will solve that. Once you are satisfied that you have received good information and you are interested in trying out the species, head over to the wood store and pick out a piece.
Selecting the right species for a project is normally a pretty straight forward task. In most cases, the type of wood will not have a huge impact on the build other than looks, but in some cases the species is very important.
If you use the techniques that you just read, you can be sure that you are making the best decision possible for your particular project.
Picking Out a Board
Once you know what species you are going to use, the next task is going to be picking out a board. This may sound easy, but once you get to the wood store you will see that there are many to choose from even in the same species.
Some boards are better than others, and this is how you decide on a board from the pile.
The board you pick is going to be a reflection of the tools that you have in the shop, as well as how much time you want to invest in the wood itself before actually making something from it. When you go into the wood store, you will see boards that are really rough looking, some that are smooth, and some that are in between.
The difference is the level of milling that the boards have been through.
If you have a lot of tools, or have access to tools like a jointer, a planer, and a thickness sander, then you can buy just about any type of wood that you like.
Even the rough sawn boards will smooth out nicely with the machinery mentioned earlier, and you can sometimes save a little money buying the wood rough.
For those without a ton of milling tools, it’s best to look for board that are at least surfaced on the two faces, which are still found in the wood bin. The edges will need work in most cases, but the faces may have already been planed and sanded as well in some cases.
These boards are going to be a little easier to work with, because you will not have to surface the faces before you begin.
Next, if you have next to no tools, and you can’t find somewhere that you can use them, stores also sell boards with every surface sanded and the edges jointed. These boards are going to be a lot more expensive than boards from a wood bin or pile, but the benefit is that you don’t need any fancy machinery to work with them.
There are good and bad points to any of the styles of cut that you can buy in a wood store. People that do not have a lot of woodworking tools will need to spend a little more in the beginning to get the pieces they can work the most easily, however that is still better than the option not being available at all.
Wood that is rough cut will require tools, but if you have them you only need to add a little time to surface them before you can start your project.
For most woodworkers, even if you are new to the craft, boards with the two faces surfaced are going to be the most common type that you will buy. The really rough stuff takes a bit to get into shape, even with the tools, and the project wood that has been surfaced like crazy is way too expensive.
Anyone with a table saw and some patience (even a small table saw) can take boards that have the two large faces surfaced and make them into usable pieces of wood for their woodworking projects. Stay in this area of the store, and you will get the best bang for your buck when buying wood.
If the wood store that you frequent mills boards for their customers, they may have an area where the smaller pieces are stored for sale.
These are pieces from larger stock that are not big enough to go into the wood bins, and yet too large for the scrap section. In cases like this, you can many times find well surfaced and jointed boards for the same board foot price as lumber in a bin. This is a great value, because you can buy a much smaller piece if that’s all you need.
Once you understand what kind of wood you are going to buy for the majority of your projects, it’s time to do the actual selecting. This is where you identify the exact piece of wood that you will be taking home.
This is a straight forward process, and there are a few things that you need to look for and avoid when you see them. Done well, you can be sure that you picked out the best possible board, and gave yourself the best possible chance of a successful woodworking project.
Boards are natural items, so they are going to have a ton of variation in them. There are going to be areas that nature made more beautiful than others, and areas that are more plain.
There are going to be sections of board that are nice and flat, and others that are bent or curved. The important thing is to select a piece of wood that will work for your project, and is as free from defects as possible.
Defects in wood can be bends, warps, cracks, or splits, as well as cosmetic things like knots or differences in coloring in certain places. Depending on the defect, and the desired look, some of these are important to avoid and others will have no effect.
In most cases, wood that is bent, warped, cracked, or otherwise not flat should be avoided. It takes more tools and more wasted wood trying to cut off the defective areas to get you down to a nice flat piece of wood.
Now, if you are making an outdoor fence and you want a bent, ragged, and rustic look, those things may have zero effect on your decision making. For most however, starting out with flat wood is going to be one of the most important things you can do to make the project easier in the later steps.
When you see a board that you like, pick it up and sight down the edges. You should be able to see if the board is straight, or if it bends. If the first edge is good, sight down the second. Hold the board at arms length, and look all the way down to the far corner. If the board looks straight, it’s passed the first test.
After that, sight across the grain to make sure that the board is not cupped. This is going to be a little harder, depending on the width of the board. A wide board will be easier, because you can see more of the board to check for straightness.
You can also use a small straight edge to check the board in several places. A flat board across the grain is a passing score on test number two.
Once you have a flat board, check it for cosmetic defects on the surface. Look for cracks, splits, and knots that will have to be worked around or cut off.
Again, if your project does not require removal of these kinds of defects, then pay them no attention. However, in most cases, at least splits and cracks should be avoided, as they contribute poorly to the structure of the board.
Different people will be looking for different types of wood when they are in the wood store. The project itself dictates the type of wood and the detail that you need to go through when selecting around defects.
Someone making a rustic patio chair will probably like seeing knots, cracks, and twists in their wood. It adds to the look, and they will be happy with the results. A guitar maker however will actively screen for these defects, because the wood they use needs to be as clear as possible.
When in doubt, do not buy anything with cracks or splits, and avoid as many knots as possible. The clearer the board you begin with, the better the chance you have at making a project with the least amount of surprises.
You don’t want to have to deal with a split near the end of your project, especially if it is about to prevent your project from going together very well. Do yourself a favor from the beginning, and avoid as many defects as you can.
Finally, some wood stores have milling services that they provide to their customers for a fee, and they can help you get through a tough spot. If you don’t have a thickness planer or sander, having the store smooth out the boards for you first can make a big difference once you get them home in the shop.
People Like Wood With a Story
Sometimes the story about the wood is more of a factor in selling or purchasing than the wood itself. There is a phenomena among woodworkers, and their customers, where people tend to associate wood from far away places with a higher level of quality than domestic wood.
This is obviously not the case at all, especially with wood of the same species, but nevertheless it’s important to know and understand this idea.
Having made many guitars, I have always been fascinated by the types of wood that you can make into an instrument. The number one choice for acoustic guitar tops has always been Spruce, because it offers the highest strength to weight ratio of any known wood.
That being said, there are other small differences that make one board better or worse than another, but for the most part Spruce is Spruce, no matter where you get it from.
The interesting thing is that American guitar makers love working with Alpine Spruce, Italian Spruce, and European Spruce. These trees come from across the ocean, and are artfully made into beautiful sounding acoustic guitars.
The odd thing, is that there is plenty of Spruce available in North America that is just as good as any Spruce from farther away.
The Sitka Spruce from Canada is just as good, extremely plentiful, and there are plenty of European makers that use North American Spruce for the guitars that they make. It’s just funny that those makers want the Spruce from the American areas, and the American’s want the Spruce from the European areas.
With anything, the place something comes from has an influence on the perceived value of the item. A cuff link from WalMart doesn’t have the same zing as a cuff link from a small Italian shop in Milan.
For all we know it may be the exact same cuff link, but the story makes the second one sound so much better than the first.
You can use this to your advantage in several ways as a woodworker. If you are on the buying end, make sure that you don’t fall for a piece of wood what has a story attached for no other reason than having the story.
Spruce is Spruce, no matter how much of the world it has seen. On the selling end, it may be that wood with a catchy story helps you move more of your projects.
As long as you are honest about the story, then you should absolutely use it when you are selling or describing your items.
If you discover that people buy your pepper mills far more when they hear that the wood came from a 19th century barn, then feel free to pay a little more and get that kind of wood. It’s all about the marketplace, and the story does a lot of the selling for you in many cases.
Remember, just because a piece of wood has come from a far away place, that does not mean that it is better than the same species from somewhere local. In some cases, there are regional things like climate and soil type that do make a difference in the grade of wood coming from that region, but they only make a difference to a very small fraction of woodworkers.
These are the type that have been making things for so long that the tiny fractional differences actually make a difference to them.
For the majority of us, a few extra growth rings per inch are not going to make or break our project. The minute differences are so small that they will not have an effect on a typical woodworking project.
The story however is sometimes worth the extra cost, as customers enjoy hearing about where their wood has been.
Part 10 – Wrap Up
I hope you liked Part 10 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects. As you can see, this is a different kind of beginner woodworking book, and I encourage you to get a copy for yourself so you have it all in one place.
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