Woodworking for Beginners Part 12

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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.

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Seasoned Wood

woodworking-for-beginners-part-12When you are building your projects, it’s important to use wood that is well seasoned, and acclimated to the area that you are building in. Seasoned is a term that refers to the wood being dry enough that it is considered stable, and safe to use without much movement.

If you are buying wood from a hardwood store, any boards without wax on them should be seasoned and ready to use. When in doubt, always ask an employee to be sure.

The reason that you want to use seasoned wood for all of your projects is that you don’t want the wood to shrink when it dries, causing it to pull apart. This was covered in the earlier section about wood being hydroscopic, and the reason that seasoned wood exists.

Wood is dried either naturally over time, or through the use of kilns to speed up the process. In most cases, the wood that you buy is going to be kiln dried, which is the most economical way to get the product to marker after felling.

A gigantic dehydrator of sorts is used to remove moisture from the wood at a controlled rate, which reduces the amount of boards that crack and split due to the rapid pressure changes and water loss. Once the wood has reached a dryness level that is acceptable for the dealer, it’s done being dried.

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Wood is then shipped to the store where it’s sold, and it can remain there for a long time. When you are buying from a store, the longer it has been in the building, the better acclimated to the area it will be. This is great for you, because you will not have to wait long for it to adjust when you get it into your shop.

For anything you make, look for seasoned wood because it will be more stable, and less liable to changing shape and causing problems down the line. The only real notable exception to this is wood turning.

Some wood turners use wet wood because it is easier to shape, and they just finish it quickly to prevent any cracks or problems from the wood drying out rapidly.

How to Tell Wood is Wet

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There are a couple ways to tell if wood is seasoned or still wet. One of them is a little on the expensive side, but the other is fairly easy and free.

You can always ask the clerk at the wood store too, as they should know the answers to basic questions about their product.

The expensive method is to buy a moisture meter that is designed for use on wood. These come at a number of price points, and they work by inserting two metal probes into the wood and measuring electrical current.

The data is then converted into a number, and you have your moisture content reading.

A less expensive way to determine if wood is still wet is to look at how it’s sold. Wet wood typically has a coating on the surfaces. This coating can be a wax or a paint, but it has a waxy feel.

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Sometimes the coating is only on the ends of the board, almost like each end was dipped an inch or so into a pot of wax and allowed to dry. Boards like this are typically wet inside, and the wax is there to prevent the moisture from escaping too quickly.

Boards that are waxed on all sides will take an extremely long time to release their moisture. This can be years and years depending on how good the coating is, and sometimes it will never really dry out. Boards that have only the ends coated will dry out over time, though the waxed ends will slow down the process quite a bit.

Dry wood does not have wax on it normally, so you can tell right away with pretty good accuracy if you are buying wet or dry wood.

Lastly, turning blanks are typically waxed and wet inside, which is a normal thing for woodworkers who use a lathe. If you fall in love with one of these pieces, make sure that you are willing to allow it to dry before you do too much with it.

Some Wood Types Cause Allergies

There are some types of wood that smell wonderful when cut, and fill the air with a pleasant fragrance that makes you happy to be a woodworker…and there are others that can make you feel like you can’t breathe.

The problem is that you will not know what sawdust from a certain species will do to your unique body until you are exposed to it.

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Thankfully I have only had the pleasure of one scary allergic reaction to a species of wood that I was working with in the shop. It was Merbau, which is a wood found in Africa and Asia.

I did not experience anything when I used my table saw, but when I switched to my sander I felt like someone suddenly stood on my chest. I ran out of the shop and outside into the fresh air, and it scared the crap out of me.

After a while of breathing outside, I was able to go back into the shop and clean up. I never worked with Merbau again, and never will. However, it really showed me how fast an allergic reaction could cause me to have a hard time breathing. Not only is it a scary experience, it was humbling too.

When you are working with a new species of wood, make a point to take precautions and ensure that you don’t have the same experience that I did.

There are ways to prevent inhaling the dust from the wood in your shop, and you should have good ventilation and an emergency plan in effect at all times.

Thankfully my reaction was only moderate, and nothing that required a hospital stay or emergency services to keep me breathing. That could have left a huge impression on me about woodworking, and I could see it preventing some people from ever going back into the shop again.

If you are concerned about allergies, make sure that you are working in a ventilated area, and wearing appropriate personal protective equipment to reduce or eliminate the dust that gets into the air you breathe.

There are a few companies that make fully enclosed air filtering helmets, and these can eliminate nearly all airborne dust from entering your body. They are not cheap, and they look like a space helmet, but you will do yourself a huge favor by keeping your body healthy.

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Another thing you can do is look up the types of wood that are already known to cause allergic reactions in people, and either avoid them or take extra precautions when working with them.

This is not to say that a domestic species with an extremely low allergic reaction rate can’t be the one that gets you, but you are going to have much higher chance from the exotics.

Allergic reactions in general are pretty rare in woodworkers, and when it does happen it’s more like a runny nose, watery eyes, and mild symptoms that are more annoying than anything else.

The fact that some kinds of wood cause allergies should not steer you away from woodworking as a hobby.

If you are really concerned about this aspect of the craft, do a little research on woods that are most commonly used in toys for kids. These are the least reactive types of wood, and that’s a good thing because kids like to chew and lick their toys.

Research these types of wood really well, and you should have a relatively allergy free experience working with them. The variety will be small, but if it’s that important to you, there are ways to minimize the risk to nearly nothing.

Finally, ask the person you are buying from if the wood species you are purchasing has a history of causing allergies. They may know the answer, or they might be able to point you to a resource that can help.

It’s important to be safe when you are working with wood, and preventing allergies from certain types of wood can help you have a much longer and happier life as a woodworker.

Letting Wood Acclimate

It’s a good practice to allow new pieces of wood to sit in your shop for at least a few days before you start working with them. This is especially true if the wood came from a place that is outside of your local area.

If the wood came from a wood store in your local area, you are probably fine, but if it came from somewhere farther away, then it’s good to wait a couple to a few days before working with it.

Since wood changes in size as it gets wetter and drier, it can change in your shop after a few days. Wood sourced locally will change very little. However, if you bought wood from across the country, it can change a lot.

I learned this lesson first hand when I bought a soundboard online. The board came from Missouri, which is a more humid climate, and I live in Arizona, which is a dry desert climate.

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I was so excited to get the guitar going that I put the board in my press with glue immediately when I received the package. When I checked on the board in the morning after the glue had dried, I noticed that the board was loose in the press.

The whole point of the press was that the pressure kept the center joint tight while the glue dried, and it was really tight when I glued it the night before.

What happened was that the board gave up moisture overnight, and shrank about 1/8 to 1/4 inch over the width, allowing it to become loose in the press.

Thankfully, the center joint was well glued before the pressure came down too far, but it made me aware that I should have waited a couple days for the board to adjust before gluing it.

As a new woodworker, it can be tough to leave something in the shop and not use it for a few days, but if you buy your wood in advance, you can alleviate this problem.

Just buy your wood a few days before you are going to work on your project and then you won’t have to worry about leaving it in the shop to adjust. A few days later, you can go and make your project, and your pieces will have made their adjustments.

Humidity and Some Woodworkers

Humidity is a controversial topic for some woodworkers, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to control every aspect of the climate in your shop in order to be a successful woodworker. You don’t, and you can still make great projects.

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The big thing to control when it comes to your shop and the pieces you create is the condition of the wood that you use, and the finish that you apply.

If you control these two things, you can eliminate the overwhelming majority of the humidity related afflictions that can ruin your woodworking projects.

Start with wood that has been dried to a stable level, and then let it sit in your shop a few days before you use it on your projects. Then, when you finish a project, make sure to coat it with a nice layer of finish that will seal it against severe moisture losses or gains.

That’s it. Do those few things, and you can safeguard your projects from any changes in the future.

If you decide to invest in making your shop a certain humidity all year, and you have a reason to do it, then feel free. However, there are a ton of really successful woodworkers that just use dry wood and apply a good finish to keep their projects looking great.

It’s all up to you, and as long as you are happy and not stressed out over half a percent of humidity change, then you are on the right track.

Even instrument makers, who operate in climate controlled shops for the most part do not worry about very small changes. They control what they can, and understand that the finish, and the wood that they start with are going to have the most impact on their final product.

As with anything, the basic prevention steps tend to solve the most problems, and that is no different with the humidity levels in the shop.

Storing Wood in the Shop

As you begin to collect wood for your shop, you are going to need a place to store it. In the beginning, this is fairly easy, because you only have a small amount, and it easily fits on a shelf or under a bench.

Over time however, the quantity and different sizes will become much larger, and you will need to find a dedicated area.

If you are still brand new to woodworking, and you don’t even really have a shop space yet, you can just store pieces of wood in the house somewhere. Pick a place that is out of the way, like a closet shelf, or a spare bedroom, and store your wood in there.

Make sure you buy the right amounts when you go to the hardwood store, and try not to over buy. The less wood you have at this stage, the easier it will be to store.

Once you have an area that you can store your materials in the shop, it’s time to consider how you will do it. Space is a consideration, as well as layout of the area, and how much you plan on storing. Thankfully, there are ways to create storage areas that answer all of those needs.

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In a smaller shop without a lot of space, look into making a small lumber rack that is portable, and can hold a decent amount of wood. There are designs for these all over the internet, and you can look at several and combine the features you like.

The advantage to the lumber cart is portability, and the ability to store sheet goods in a way that does not take up a ton of space.

The disadvantage to a lumber cart is that it’s on the smaller side than dedicated shelving, and you are going to have to make piles once you get a larger amount of wood into your shop. Even so, for a smaller area, a movable cart where you can store your materials is a good option.

For a larger shop, consider making shelves from inexpensive construction grade wood, and storing your materials that way. You can have an area for sheet goods, and another for lumber and hardwood.

The shelves can also be designated for the type of wood, the size, or the project. Having several shelves gives you the ability to lay out your materials the way you like. As long as they are stored cleanly, and you are happy with the way it works, the area will function well.

I recommend that if you are not a very detailed person, that you at least organize the wood that you have by size, and shelve it accordingly. Most of the time when you go to the wood rack, you are going to be looking for a board of a certain size, or a certain species. When you organize the shelves by Big/Medium/Small pieces, it’s easy to see what shelf you have to look through.

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Having the pieces organized by size actually makes you a more efficient woodworker. When you go to the wood pile, you only have to look through one small section of your entire stock.

If the piece is not in that area, then you don’t have it, and you get to take a trip to the hardwood store. Another advantage is that it gets you in the habit of saving your scraps.

Even really small pieces can be used for something, and just having them will make them available for you in the future. The simple fact that they are in the shop will eventually cause them to be used for something.

Next, once you have the pieces by size, you can then sort them by species if you choose. In the beginning, this may not be necessary. It may be that you only have a couple species to work with so far, or you only have a few pieces on the rack, which are easy to see.

Later on in your wood collecting adventure you may decide otherwise, and having your materials arranged by size and species does help when you are looking for a piece of wood.

For most people, the garage is going to be where you store your materials, and depending on where you live, this is typically an ok place to keep it.

Even in places that get really hot or cold, the garage tends to still be a little nicer than the outside temperature. If you want, you can do a few things to the garage that can make it a little less extreme in temperature.

In a really hot or cold place, one of the easiest and best things you can do is just insulate the garage door. In most cases, the garage door is just sheet metal, which conducts heat and cold really well.

Add some foam insulating panels to the inside, and you can prevent a lot of that temperature transfer. Also, checking the seal on your garage door can prevent thermal transfer as well.

In really humid places, try running a dehumidifier to take the edge off the dampness. With really thin pieces of wood, high humidity can cause them to curl into boat shaped pieces, and make them unusable.

Taking the edge off with a dehumidifier and a regulation system can make a big difference.

Finally, your wood pile needs to be kept dry, and in a way that doesn’t encourage bugs. Infestation and moisture can cause the wood to become useless very quickly, and can also lead to home damage as well.

Pick a place where you can store your materials off the floor, and away from the walls slightly. If this is indoors, then you most likely don’t have to worry about water damage.

However, any wood stored outside needs to be covered and protected from the elements. Water can destroy good wood in a short time, and rotten pieces will have to be thrown away.

When you design your shelving unit, make sure that it’s a few inches off the wall, and that the bottom shelf is a few inches off the floor. This will allow you to see under and behind the shelf, and you can see if there are any issues that you need to address.

Bugs are common in garages, but you can easily spray under and behind your wood storage area when you have these gaps in place.

Any way you store your wood, the most important thing is that you can access it easily, and the pieces are kept in a logical order.

Some people like to go crazy and detail organize the heck out of their materials. That’s great if that’s the type of person you are. If not, then at least group it by size and you will be in good shape when it comes time to look for a board.

Part 12 – Wrap Up

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I hope you liked Part 12 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. 

Happy building.

Continue to Part 13 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking Here!

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  • More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
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  • Bachelor of Arts Degree from Arizona State University
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