Woodworking for Beginners Part 7

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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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Chapter Two – All About Wood

woodworking-for-beginners-part-7The first time I went into a hardwood store I was amazed at all the different types of wood. Up until that point, I had been working with pieces from a home improvement store, so my choices were limited to about four domestic species.

It was like a whole new world walking into that store, and it showed me right away the importance of knowing about wood.

Since wood is the medium that you will be using for the vast majority of your projects, it makes sense that you learn as much as you can about the material. Wood comes in all colors, all sizes, and in every different look that you could possibly imagine. It’s strong, abundant, easy to work, and the right piece can make your project unforgettable.

The more you know about wood, the better you can create projects in the shop. There is far more available to work with than the few species often seen in home improvement stores, and it’s your job to discover as many as you possibly can.

By becoming a student of wood, you will have a greater ability to show your best work.

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You will also be able to confidently choose the right type of wood for the type of project that you are making, and know that it will stand the test of time.

This chapter is all about understanding wood, and how to make good decisions when it comes to wood. Knowing these things now can save you a lot of time in the beginning, and get you off to a better start.

Take an opportunity from time to time to learn a little more about the types of wood in the world. As you build, this knowledge will allow you to create better and more interesting looking projects.

Wood is a fascinating material. Spend some time learning about it, and make sure that you are adding to that knowledge every so often.

An easy trick is to spend a few minutes browsing the woodworking store after you are done getting what you need. Make it a point to learn about at least one type of wood, and you will slowly add to your knowledge of this amazing material.

Wood as a Material

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Choosing wood as your medium is a great decision for a number of reasons. Wood is an abundant material. It’s easily renewable, easy to work, and comes in a large number of colors and densities.

The sheer variety of wood in the world gives you a lot of options, and the price can be low in many cases when you choose the right species.

Wood has a lot of advantages over other materials, including workability, beauty, and weight. When you work with metal, the process is dirty, the materials are heavy, and you do not have as much variation in color or density as when you are working with wood.

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There are some great metal workers out there that make beautiful things, but you can’t match wood for ease of use.

Working with wood is very attractive because the material itself is soft when compared to others. There are types of wood that are extremely hard, and you will discover those as you begin learning about different wood species.

However, the hardest wood is still very soft compared to a piece of metal.

A lot of woodworkers enjoy working with their hands, and wood allows that. Chisels, hand planes, and other edged tools are regularly used on wood, because it is soft enough to cut this way.

Sometimes a mallet isn’t even needed to get through wood with a gouge, and the shaping happens rapidly. That is another attraction to wood, it can be shaped and worked very quickly.

Wood is strong but flexible, light but durable, natural but long lasting. There are so many interesting things about wood as a material that you can spend a lifetime just learning about it. Wood has properties that you can alter by doing things to the material, and you can extend certain properties as you desire.

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For example, wood rots in a couple years when you leave it unattended, but if you add a burnt layer and a finish, it can last hundreds of years. One small change, and your piece of wood can last several generations beyond you.

Wood grows really fast in some cases, and really slow in others. There are trees alive now that are thousands of years old. There are also trees being planted now that will be harvested for wood in less than a decade.

Wood is so versatile that you can nearly always find some species that meets the needs of your project. There are wood species that are extremely soft and light, which can be used for aviation and boat making.

There are also pieces of wood so dense that they are used as bearing housings in machines, and outperform metal or synthetic materials.

Wood comes in nearly every color, but can be stained to match in many cases. It also comes in lots of sizes from smaller pieces for pens to larger slabs for thirty seat conference tables. All of which you can purchase easily from a woodworking store or a larger mill.

The sheer variety in wood is astounding, and that’s what makes it a great material to work with. It’s soft enough to shape by hand, works quickly, and has so much natural beauty that it’s a wonder people work with any other material.

Learn About Different Types of Wood

Every woodworker is working with the same material as every other woodworker. Wood. However, some builders are capable of making far more than others when it comes to their wood choice.

The only difference is that a really good woodworker knows more about the types of wood that are available to work with. The more types of species you know, the more choice you are going to have when it comes time to make a project.

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There are far more types of wood available in the world than Pine and Oak. If all you have access to in the beginning are local woods, then feel free to use them, but start learning about other types right away.

One of the best ways to learn about wood is to go into a hardwood store or a fine woodworking store that stocks pieces of wood. Spend some time looking at the different pieces.

Pick them up, feel their weight, smell them (carefully, some woods cause allergies) and get a good feeling for their properties.

When you see something that you like, write down the name, and ask the person in the store to tell you a little more about it. If they do not really know, then you still have the name written down to search online and read more about later.

Odds are that a piece of wood in a store is something that is safe enough to work with, but you may not know for what types of projects. This is again where doing a little research comes in.

Find pieces of wood what are interesting to you, and spend time learning about them. When you know enough that you want to make something from the species, buy a small piece and try it out.

You can find pieces to work with by looking for smaller blanks, or looking for cutoffs that are typically available in any wood store that does their own milling on site. These smaller pieces are a good value, and you don’t have to take home a gigantic piece to see if you like it.

Another great way to learn about wood is through online research. There are many places on the internet that have wood glossaries, and are filled with pictures and information about the different species of wood available in the world.

You can use one of these sites to figure out what kinds of wood you would like to work with.

Looking online is not as easy as finding the wood in a store first or looking at a project. However, you can help yourself by cross checking the type of wood you find online with projects made from that wood. An easy trick is to type the name into Google and then search for images.

The results that come back will show you what people are making from the species. There will be pictures of the wood itself, but there will also be pictures of projects that were made from the species.

If you are interested in making a certain project from a new species of wood, then search for the species and project name at the same time. For example, Padauk Guitar is a search that you could perform if you were interested in seeing if people were making guitars from Padauk.

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When you combine the online wood glossary with seeing how people are using the wood in a search engine, you get a much better picture of how the wood can benefit you.

Looking in a book can also help, and there are a few books available that detail the different wood species and what their properties are. They are similar to what you will find online, but in many cases more detailed because you are paying for it.

These books are great to have, because you can check on wood properties and see if a new species you are interested in stacks up to what you are already using. Most woods with similar properties perform in similar ways, so you can feel safer once you know the properties of your new species are close to the old one.

You need to become fascinated with the different types of wood available in the world. There is so much more than the types you see in hardware stores, and you can make a huge difference in a project simply by picking out the right species for the project.

Most of the time, the wood is going to be the star of the show on your projects. Since the only difference between a good looking species and a great looking species is a little knowledge, you should learn about as many wood species as possible.

Your projects will look better, and you will look far more experienced right out of the gate.

Bring it Home

A good habit to get into is bringing a small piece of a new species home from the wood store each time. It does not have to be anything expensive, but it does need to be a species that you are unfamiliar with.

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As you make these small purchases, you will force yourself to interact with these types of wood, and may end up discovering a species you are truly passionate about.

This happened to me with Briar, which is commonly used for making tobacco pipes. This is a small piece of wood that is not very good looking when you see it in the store.

It’s also a little on the expensive side for the size, which was a turn off for me right away. I passed by this species for a long time, and never really gave it a second thought.

It wasn’t until I started making tobacco pipes that I discovered what Briar was really used for. Even then I was still not happy about buying a piece of wood the size of my fist for ten dollars.

I reluctantly purchased a block, and quickly discovered that the wood was gorgeous when properly stained, it worked extremely well, and it even smelled nice in the shop.

If you frequent a store that sells smaller blanks for wine bottle stoppers, pens, and other projects, then you can easily pick up a piece that will expose you to different species but not break the bank.

Pick out a couple of these or even just one when you go to the store and begin learning about the different types of wood in the world.

I recommend that you look online for the alternative woods that other builders are using to make the same project you are making. This is a great place to start, because experienced makers have already been using the species successfully.

Once you identify a couple potential types of wood, search for them online again by name this time and read about their properties. From there you can head over to the store and buy a piece to work with.

Unless you make it a point to take home a new type of wood once in a while, it can take a long time to learn about all the different wood species available. However, if you make it a point to try, you will learn much more quickly.

Wood Figure Explained

Most of the wood that you will buy is going to be plain wood, without any anomalies that cause it to be put into a different category.

With nearly all types of wood, there are certain things that may be considered defects, but actually add to the look and the value of the board. This is most commonly referred to as figure, though it can come in many different flavors.

Most people are familiar with what the back side of a violin looks like. The wavy stripes of lighter and darker color, and the depth of the look. If you are not, simply Google search “violin back” and you will see what I mean.

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A violin’s back plate is made from figured Maple, which is why it has the wavy/striped look. Plain Maple would look nothing like it, and just be a solid color of wood from end to end. This particular type of Maple is figured, giving it the extra interesting look.

Figure comes in a number of different types, and there are many names depending on who you ask. The back of a violin can have curly figure, tiger figure, or fiddle back figure, but they all refer to the same wood anomaly.

In Maple, sometimes the wood compresses and causes the grain to run in a wavy pattern rather than straight. When this happens, it causes the surface to react to light differently, which is why we see the lighter and darker areas, and the almost reflective properties when rotated in a light.

This is also called chatoyance, which describes how the wood changes in the light as it moves. It’s a beautiful thing to see first hand, and Maple is the most common way to see it.

Another type of figure that is common is called quilt, and again Maple is the most common place that you will see it. Quilted wood has an undulating, rolling look, and can be similar to a ruffled blanket.

The surface rolls, and looks three dimensional. There are several species that can have a quilted pattern, and it’s very beautiful.

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Another kind of figure is called burl, which is actually from a tumorous growth on the tree in many cases, though some trees grown burls at their bases very commonly.

In this section of wood, which can be as small as a baseball and as large as a sofa, the grain goes in every single direction at once practically. The look of most burls is just amazing, and you can find these in many different hardwood stores and online.

Burl figure is going to cost a lot more than plain in most cases, because the rarity and the beauty are incredible to see. One of the most beautiful is Buckeye Burl, which is not terribly expensive, but has a look that is one of the most gorgeous in nature.

If you want to make smaller projects, and you want some of the most rare and interesting wood in the world, search for burl wood.

Last but not least, Spalting is a term for any coloration in wood that is a result of a fungus. It’s normally used to describe every color variation in wood, though that usage is technically incorrect.

Spalting can cause nice looking streaks of color to appear in the wood, and this can be a really nice design opportunity. Look for spalted wood in a hardwood store or online, and see if you like the look.

Though most of the wood that you will work with is going to be plain, working with figured wood from time to time is a really nice treat. The pieces are going to be more expensive than regular wood, because figure is rare, but many times the difference is worth it.

Especially if you are making smaller projects, that do not require as much wood, you can really get some mileage from figured wood that people with larger projects cannot.

Figured wood is really one of natures most interesting tricks when it comes to trees. In many cases, figure is not easy to pick out while the tree is growing, and the mills have to wait to see what happens when they start milling the trunks.

This is almost like a mini-Christmas for them, because there is a chance inside every long that you can find something amazing and beautiful.

Typically, mills separate their figured wood from their plain wood, and then sell them to the stores at different prices. There is a much lower supply of figured wood, so it commands a higher price than plain.

Even though for most purposes, the wood is exactly the same, the look is what changes the price.

Even with the wood being the same, you can really make a statement with figured wood that you can’t with plain wood. Two projects that are made the same, and from the same species, will look very different if one is made from figured wood and another from plain.

This is a reflection of how different looking the pieces are, and how much the figure alters the look.

If you have a project where the wood itself is the star of the show, try looking at some figured wood and seeing if you can work it into the piece.

Even a figured accent piece on a project made from several boards glued together can add a striking and dramatic look. One stave in a cutting board made from a heavily figured species won’t cost a ton, but will add a lot of value in the look of the final project.

Part 7 – Wrap Up

a beginners guide to woodworking book to help new woodworkers make betterwoodworking projects
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I hope you liked Part 7 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.

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  • More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
  • 7 Woodworking Books Available on Amazon
  • Over 1 Million Words Published About Woodworking
  • Bachelor of Arts Degree from Arizona State University
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