Woodworking for Beginners Part 8

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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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Hardwood and Softwood

woodworking-for-beginners-part-8You are going to hear the terms hardwood and softwood a lot as a new woodworker, so it’s important that you know they actually have nothing to do with the density.

These terms do represent the majority of densities oddly enough, but they actually have to do with the type of leaves on the tree.

Softwoods are typically conifer trees, with needle like leaves that do not fall off every year. These trees grow faster, and are typically less dense. One notable exception is Balsa wood, which is a very light weight wood and is technically a hardwood.

Hardwoods are distinguished by large broad leaves that drop annually, and in most cases the trees grow slower and are more dense. An exception to that being Yew, which is really dense, but is actually a softwood.

This is where the names hardwood and softwood can be a little misleading.

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For most woodworkers, both types of wood are common to see in the shop. Typical construction wood is softwood. It grows quickly, and can be harvested and sold faster than hardwood.

It’s also less expensive most of the time. Hardwood takes longer to grow, so the time invested in maturing trees adds to the selling price.

Knowing the terms helps, and as a broad definition hardwoods are going to be denser than softwoods, but you can always pick up a piece of wood and feel the weight for yourself.

Open and Closed Grain

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There are two main kinds of pore structure in a tree, and they are open and closed grain. This refers to the way the pores of the wood look on the surface. Trees are living things, and they have long tubes inside them to transport nutrients around the tree.

Depending on whether or not you can see the pores with the naked eye determines what type of grain it is called.

If you can see small holes with your eyes, which you can on Mahogany, Oak, and Padauk, then you are working with an open grained wood. The reason this is important is because you have to do more to this kind of wood if you want a nice flat surface and a glossy finish.

Open pores create areas where the finish dips inside, and it causes a dimple on the surface. In order to create a really glossy sheen, you need to have a very flat surface, so it requires more finish to fill in the dimples.

This is not as difficult as it sounds, and there is no reason to avoid open grained wood. In fact, some of the most beautiful pieces of wood in the world are open grain, so you will severely limit yourself if you avoid it.

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Closed grain wood has the same pores that all tree do, but you can’t see them with the naked eye since they are so small. Maple, Cherry, and Birch are examples of closed grain wood. The pores are still there, because the tree has a circulatory system, you just can’t see them.

Closed grain woods finish a little easier than open grain, because you do not have to over coat them with finish to get an even layer. There are no pores to create dimples, and you can get a nice flat layer a little faster.

If you are polishing wood rather than finishing it, closed grain woods are going to give you the most shine. Woods like Ebony and Briar polish like a dream, and have an almost stone-like look when you are done.

When you are selecting wood at the hardwood store, unless your project has some specific need that mandates an open or closed grain wood type, don’t really worry about it.

The differences are not that much, even when finishing, and there are pore filler products that you can use before you clear coat that fill the small holes anyway. Pick what you like, but know the difference in case it becomes important for a project one day.

Wood Pricing Explained

If the beaches were covered in diamonds instead of sand, then sand would be valuable and diamonds would not. The same is true for the different types of wood that you can buy. When you purchase wood, for the most part you are paying according to the rarity and availability of the species, and really nothing more.

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In general a rare piece of wood will cost more than a common piece. This is why figured wood costs more than plain wood. Figure is not found as often as plain, so it commands a higher price. The wood itself is the same, it’s the look that is different and rare.

For this reason, wood that is more expensive than others is not necessarily better. In some cases more expensive wood will be more attractive looking, denser, or longer lasting. These are physical traits though, and again the price will still have more to do with availability than any actual properties of the wood.

For example, Mahogany has been a favorite among furniture makers for a very long time, and the species is synonymous with high end carpentry. If Mahogany grew like Pine does, it would still be loved for the look but it would not be as expensive as it is.

The case may even be that the general view of Mahogany changes to something similar to Pine, where it is less valued by customers because it’s everywhere.

Pine can be considered inferior to Mahogany for many different reasons, though Pine can be considered superior for several as well. Mahogany is stronger, but Pine is lighter.

Mahogany looks better natural, but Pine can be stained in nearly any color, since it’s so light in color to begin with. Mahogany has a deep warm tone in an instrument, but Pine is very soft and easy to work into shape.

The value of a particular species of wood really depends on what the person is making, and what properties they need in the wood. As beautiful as Rosewood may be, an airplane maker will never use it, because it weighs too much.

In contrast, an instrument maker will use Rosewood for several different parts of their builds, because it has a lot of strength and beauty.

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When wood stores price their products, it’s based on the availability of the species, and how difficult it is to get it to the store. Some countries make importing wood very difficult and costly.

This cost depends on where the wood is coming from, and it’s designed to protect certain species and regions from being wiped out. I won’t get into the politics of this practice, but there is plenty to read about if you are interested.

Remember this when you are about to buy a piece of wood in the store. Just because a piece is inexpensive, doesn’t mean it’s garbage. It just means that there is a lot of it in the world.

The opposite is true as well, because an expensive piece just means there are less of that kind of tree, or the wood itself is more rare for another reason.

There are few reasons other than rarity of the tree that make wood more expensive. There is rarity in the look, and rarity in the location that it was taken from.

There is also rarity in a finite quantity left, and in the case of reclaimed wood, rarity in the story. Lastly, legislation can lead to rarity in the case of an endangered species.

Wood is a natural material, so every now and again pieces come available that have a very unique and beautiful difference in their look that makes them stand out from the normal cuts of the species. The most common of these differences is figure.

Sometimes through compression, disease, scarring, or other reasons, the wood takes on a figured look that makes the pieces much more valuable than the standard stock.
Figure most often presents itself in Maple, which you can see on the back of nearly every violin ever made.

The wavy light and dark alternating pattern almost looks like tiger stripes, and it shimmers in the light. This is a huge contrast from plain maple, which has one color and is fairly boring when compared to figured pieces.

There can also be rarity in the location that the wood was taken from. For example, Koa wood is an Acacia species that in a hundred ways resembles Mahogany. It only grows naturally in Hawaii, and because of the geographic rarity of the trees available, it has a very high price tag.

When compared to Mahogany, Koa is nearly identical, and produces work that is hard to tell apart. Most people would have no idea if you told them one was the other, and they work very similarly.

The only real difference and the reason for the much higher price is that there are only so many Koa trees that grow in Hawaii. This creates a higher demand, and the prices go up because you can only get it in one place.

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Another example of rarity that causes the price of wood to increase is when there is a finite supply. This is slightly different than the last example. There is a finite supply of Koa, but you can plant more.

The types of wood in this example cannot be replenished, and therefore are truly gone when they are gone.

The most common example of this kind of rarity is Swamp Kauri. This particular type of wood is actually harvested from below the ground, because it’s theorized that around 50,000 years ago a huge tsunami knocked down many Kauri trees in New Zealand and preserved them in the earth. These trees are dug up, the wood is dried, and then it’s sold to merchants.

There are only a certain amount of these logs in the ground, because the ancient Kauri forest was only so big at that time it was knocked down.

Once they are all pulled up from the earth, the party is over, and there will never be any more 50,000 year old chunks of wood to be purchased.

For this reason, Kauri wood is on the expensive side, even though the look of the species is pretty bland. It’s a beige colored piece of wood that doesn’t have much for grain, and it’s about as flashy as a piece of Poplar. The aspect that makes it interesting is the rarity, because a 50,000 year old piece of wood is not very common.

Reclaimed wood is another example of rarity driving up the price. This is also a finite quantity, but with a great story attached. The romance for reclaimed wood is more about the story than anything else.

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It’s popular among people that want to conserve resources, but it’s the history that really makes people line up to buy.

There is a huge market in finding wood from old barns, wooden ships, torn down churches, and any other old structure to re-sell as lumber for woodworkers. The businesses remove these structures, mill the lumber, and sell it to people that want to make projects.

The most interesting part about reclaimed wood is that you can tell your customers where it came from. It’s fun to tell someone that the project you made was from wood that stood in a barn in Europe for three hundred years. It’s also fun to tell them that the pen you just made was from a real wine barrel.

Reclaimed wood doesn’t have to be old, it just needs to be used at least once already. This is where the story comes from, and the history of the wood makes for a much better sales pitch.

In reality, reclaimed wood is in no way better than new wood. There are fine points that can be argued about old growth wood versus new growth wood, but for the general woodworker, freshly milled Maple is just the same as hundred year old Maple.

Unless you are making something that takes advantage of those properties, your pepper mill is not going to operate any differently.

Lastly, wood can be in the expensive category due to legislation. When a wood hits the endangered species list, the supply is cut off, and the price skyrockets.

This kind of rarity will last until the law changes, which can be many decades after the wood is very plentiful again. In that time however, the wood that is left on the market becomes much more expensive.

Brazilian Rosewood is a perfect example of how a species can go from average to extremely expensive based on legislation. Before the species went on the endangered list, Brazilian Rosewood was the top choice for acoustic guitar backs and sides. Nothing compared, and it was heavily harvested.

Once endangered, a piece big enough to make a back and sides went up several times the former price.

A normal back and side set for an acoustic guitar can run about a hundred dollars, but a Brazilian Rosewood set can be a thousand or more.

A well figured set can be several thousand. Again, the wood itself has nothing to do with that price, and there isn’t even a guarantee that the guitar will sound good. It’s all because the supply suddenly became limited due to legislation.

When you walk into the wood store, take a look around and you will quickly see how rarity is the driving force behind wood prices. You will be able to see ugly pieces of wood that are expensive, and ugly pieces that are cheap.

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You will also see gorgeous pieces that are expensive, and even more that are not.

Remember, buy the wood you need that has the properties you are after. The price does not matter, only the properties of the wood. If you need beauty, it can be found on a budget.

If you need strength, it can be found on a budget. Don’t think that because one piece is more expensive than the other it’s better. It’s not, it was just harder to come by than the cheaper piece.

Finally, don’t feel bad about buying an expensive piece of wood. You are not being duped in any way, you are paying for the privilege of using something rare. You will also reap the reward of showing off a rare looking project, which stands out from similar projects.

As long as you are buying the wood because you like it, or because the look makes you happy, then feel free to spend a little more and get the piece you want. In most cases, buying what you like is going to be the best way to buy.

Sometimes you will spend more for the less abundant types of wood, but sometimes you will spend less because what you like is more available.

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Sustainable Resources

No conversation about wood is complete without mentioning the fact that wood is a resource that can eventually go away. It takes a long time to grow a mature tree, and we tend to consume it faster in many cases than nature can put it back.

As a woodworker, you may not care at all about conservation, you may care quite a bit, or you may be in the middle. Either way, it’s important to know a little bit about working with a natural resource.

Some of the most beautiful and sought after wood in the world is also some of the most rare. Some species are even in danger of going extinct. When something is beautiful, people want it, and other people want to be the ones that sell it to them.

This is where whole forests can be cut down rapidly, and there is a possibility that the type of wood you really love using can be gone one day.

If this concerns you, there are options that can allow you to be a woodworker without as much worry about consuming natural resources. Consider these when you are picking out wood for your next project.

The first is to look at types of wood that are abundant, and that renew at much faster rates than others. There are trees used in furniture making that grow like weeds, and go from a seed to a harvested tree in less than a decade.

In contrast, it can take a hundred years or more for some trees to reach their full size.

When you think about all the people using the wood, it’s much easier to replenish a grove that grows in a decade than a century. It’s also much easier to wipe out a species that takes a century to mature than a decade.

Another thing that you can do is look at using more reclaimed wood in your work. This does not have to be super expensive reclaimed wood either, just something that has been used more than once.

When you harvest wood from a pallet that was thrown away, you are saving wood from being wasted, and you are not killing anything that was not already dead.

That tree went into the pallet already, and since it’s not being used anymore, harvesting the pieces keeps you stocked with wood without taking down another tree.

(On a side note, in the section coming up called Finding Deals on Wood, I give a brief explanation of what to look for should you decide to use pallets for some of your projects.)

You can also find wood from older projects that are being thrown away, and in places that sell reclaimed wood for woodworkers. In some cases, the wood is going to be a little more expensive, but many times you can find second hand wood for next to nothing.

Another thing that you can do is to check the species you are thinking about using and see how it ranks as far as being sustainable. You can make the personal decision to use or not to use certain types of wood based on the amount left in the world.

As long as you do a little research, it’s easy to discover what kinds of wood are doing better or worse than others. Decide based on how you feel about the issue, and purchase accordingly.

As a woodworker, there needs to be at least a small voice that says you don’t want to run out of your favorite wood. This may not mean that you are in favor of any kind of laws about it, but at some level you must understand that without wood, you can’t be a woodworker.

That being said, be sure to make good decisions about the types of wood that you use, and how much. As individuals, it’s hard to make a difference, but together we can make it all last a little longer.

One thing that you can start doing immediately, which is a good practice financially even if you don’t care at all about our wood resources is to start saving your scraps. If you save your scraps, you can use them for other projects, and you keep more wood in your shop.

You buy less wood too, which means you save money and you create less of a demand for wood based on your consumption.

Part 8 – Wrap Up

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I hope you liked Part 8 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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