ponder craft & design
Materials of the Trade
Do you know how to care for your wood product? Certain materials need to be stored away from certain elements (sunlight, water), for longevity.
What are you using your wood product for? Your choice of stain, polish or lack of, should support both function and the type of wood used. For example, does your wood product need to be food safe? Weather durable? Scratch resistant? Emphasise shine?
To answer these questions, ask yourself where the product will be used, and kept, in your home.
Screws, nails and pencil marks are to be removed or concealed unless otherwise intended for the design.
All sides (bottoms, backs, undersides) should be smoothly finished, without scratches, bumps, marks or foreign matter in or between coats.
The wood itself should be of furniture quality. Therefore free of deformations, unless intended by artist. Any knots, warping, cracks, etc. should not affect the work’s structural and/or functional quality.
Does the hardware used fit seamlessly and operate smoothly with the product?
Upon selecting a wooden piece, focus on the relationship between its durability, functionality and aesthetics.
All food serving items and children’s toys must have non-toxic finishes. All toys must meet Health Canada material, production, packaging and labelling requirements, such as age requirements for choking hazards.
Was your wood ethically sourced, harvested via sustainable means? In BC, it is illegal to cut down arbutus trees for commercial use. Therefore, ensure any arbutus materials you encounter are produced from timber that has been scavenged, fallen or removed from the tree by natural causes.
...Ask the Artsit About
Different types of wood have different qualities. This means different woods are better suited for certain uses. Access or availability will also affect whether an artist decides to work with a certain type of wood.
Also known as Madrone, arbutus is appreciated for its richness of grain, variance and beautiful finishes. It is found in a range of colours including pale white to dark brown, with shades of pinks, browns and reds in between. Arbutus is also known for its burl veneer – referring to its surplus amount of closely packed knots and swirled grain giving its wood products a unique pattern.
Arbutus trees are marked as a rare and endangered species in BC, so make sure your product was made from ethically sourced wood. Considered one of the best exotic hardwoods in the world, arbutus trees grow from Northern California to Southern BC, specifically the Gulf Islands. They generally grow within 8 km of the ocean, clinging to coasts and exposed rocky bluffs. Most notably, arbutus trees can survive in harsh climates, from wet and windy winters to droughts in the summer; making it very suited to Vancouver’s weather. Arbutus is a very heavy, hard and brittle wood, making it a very difficult wood to dry, often warping, twisting or cracking upon drying. However, it is an excellent turning wood, also taking well to stains and finishes. Its workability is similar to hard maple – able to withstand both hand tools and machines.
Pieces made from arbutus are typically smaller items, due it its rarity and the legalities surrounding sourcing the wood for artisan and commercial value. Some examples include salad utensils, jewelry, wooden sculptures and other art pieces. Arbutus makes great echo-friendly products, as it is typically harvested from fallen down trees and dead branches.
Cherry is a light shade of pink-brown when freshly cut, but darkens into a deeper golden brown once exposed to sunlight. It has a close grain that is either straight, or just slightly wavy, consisting of a fine to medium texture.
Cherry is easy to work with, by both machine and hand tools. It also glues, turns and finishes with notable ease. However, it is difficult to stain due to its fine and close grain, sometimes resulting in blotchy patches.
Products made out of cherry are often functional and found in the home, including cabinetry, fine furniture, flooring, as well as specialty wood items such as bowls, platters and jewelry boxes.
Elm trees can grow to great heights, having long, straight trunks. They make up many of the ornamental, garden and park trees seen across North America, Europe and the Southern Hemisphere.
Originating in what is now known as central Asia, elm trees can be quite large in size, but many die from Dutch Elm disease before reaching their full growth. They are valued for their interlocking grain, making their wood highly pliable and resistant to splitting. Additionally, elm is resistant to decay when permanently wet.
Since elm bends well, their wood is often used for wagon wheel hubs and archery bows, as well as chair seats and coffins. Their long and straight trunks and resistance to decay make them ideal for keels (hydrodynamic parts) in ship construction. Historically, the body of Japanese Taiko drums were often cut from wood of old elm trees, their non-split wood optimal for nailing skins into.
Hard maples are a light red-brown colour with a straight grain, sometimes with burls or defects. Soft maple’s colour ranges from tan to grey, often with extreme variation within a single piece of wood.
Generally, maple is a solid wood-working material. While good with machine and hand tools, it does tend to burn if machined with high-speed cutters. Maple is often finished with a clear coat, as staining is difficult with its straight, tight grain – like cherry, stains leave a blotchy finish. North American maple is typically divided into two categories: hard and soft. Hard maple, or sugar maple, is heavy, strong and stiff, with a uniform texture allowing it to be sanded to a beautiful finish. Hard maple is also resistant to abrasion and shock. Soft maples, including silver, red maple and boxelder, are much like hard maples but lighter in density. As far as wood, soft maple is still quite hard. Its name simply refers to its softness in comparison to hard maple – the two are fairly interchangeable.
Hard maple can be used in flooring, musical instruments and smaller items such as cutting boards, baseball bats and novelty items. Hard maple is good for cutting boards, as its fine grain has a capillary nature which pulls fluids from food downward, trapping bacteria which is then killed off as the board dries. Softer wood has larger grain making it more prone to splitting, forming grooves which bacteria can fester over repeated use. Instead, soft maple is used for boxes, crates, musical instruments and novelty items.
Plum has a fine texture with a close grain, often with swirled or irregular patterns. It can be found in a wide range of colours, exhibiting streaks of pink, orange, red, purple, olive and grey mixed into its base of yellow-brown heartwood.
Knots and other defects are a common attribute, due to the plum tree’s small size. Though related to cherry, plum tends to be heavier and harder, and much scarcer. It also a very hard wood, well suited for northern Canada conditions. Plum glues, turns and finishes well; it just requires a more skilled woodworker to carefully manoeuvre around knots and defects.
Plum items found around the home include smaller, more decorative products, a result of the plum trees’ small trunk sizes. Some examples include turned bowls, musical instruments, utensil handles and inlay in furnishings such as cabinetry and tables.
Red Alder is the most commonly found wood in the Pacific Northwest and varies in colour from a light tan to a reddish brown, usually having a fine, straight grain.
Red Alder is known for being easy to work by both machine and hand tools. It is also glues, stains and finishes well, making it a popular wood choice.
Red Alder can be used to make furniture, cabinetry, millwork, plywood, and musical instruments. It is a very important commercial lumber.
Walnut is the only North American wood that has a rich, dark-coloured grain. While usually straight, walnut grain can sometimes curl with burls and other defects.
Walnut is easy to work with by machine or hand tools, producing crisp details in finished pieces – a great quality for inlay. It is a popular material for fine furniture, as it does not damage easily, rarely has sap pockets (which can diminish a work by leaving behind blemishes), while its dark wood hides any scratches. Walnut also takes well to fasteners and glue. All these reasons make walnut a very reliable wood, making it favoured among woodworkers.
The workability and durability of walnut makes it great for furniture, cabinetry and interior panelling, as well as novelty items.
Yew is a darker heartwood, ranging from orange-brown to purple and magenta hues, that darkens further with age. It has a thin, scaly brown bark, with an off-white sapwood layer. Yew is a straight-grained wood, with a fine, uniform texture.
Yews are a small to medium-sized evergreen species, with little to no concern for endangerment, as its population is steadily growing. Found in Southern BC, yews are shade tolerant, typically growing along streams in drier environments. They are closed-pored with great elasticity, one of the hardest of the softwoods. Yew is very easy to woodwork with, as it also glues, finishes and turns well.
Due to its elasticity, yew is often used in items that are springy, such as bow and arrows or musical instruments, yew a well-known material for the Lute. Traditionally, Native Americans used it for bows and canoe paddles. Meanwhile, in Japan it is used for decorative purposes.
Food Safe: While all finishes work to protect and enrich the wood, only some are food safe. Such finishes do wear off from repeated use, but remain safe to ingest. Oil is the most preferred food safe finish – wood gladly soaks it up. It simultaneously enhances the wood’s natural grain while removing any scratches that have appeared during use. Directions: apply frequently to prevent the wood from drying out and cracking (effects of constant washing).
Rub-in Oil: These are reactive, drying finishes, changing chemically when they cure to leave behind a less dissolvable material. (Tung and Linseed oils react with oxygen but don’t form a film.) Oils exaggerate the natural patina of the wood, giving a satin effect. This finish is best for pieces that endure minimal wear, or is easily re-oiled, as the oil sits in the wood rather than on its surface.
Walnut Oil: Found at most grocery stores, it is best kept in the fridge to ensure freshness as it is a completely natural finish. Walnut oil is a preferred choice for wood utensils and cutting boards as it has virtually no smell and will not affect the taste of your food. It can be applied via brush, cloth, steel wool or even your fingers, absorbing well and drying after application. Since it comes from a nut, it is NOT to be used by those with nut allergies.
Mineral Oil: It has no smell, drying after application. While cheaper than walnut oil, it is a petroleum by-product; meaning it occurs naturally but is harvested through the oil industry. Thus, it is not the most ethical material, as its recovery process is harmful to the Earth’s biosphere and ecosystems. Mineral oil can be purchased at most pharmacies.
Tung Oil: Popular as an environmentally friendly finish, it is comprised of all natural materials. Since it is very thick, it is often cut with citrus to aid in application. Tung oil has a slight golden tint, does not darken with age and cures to a satin “wetted wood” or plastic look when applied in many fine layers. It has excellent penetrating power, adhering to porous materials, and thus applies well to softer woods. This makes it more resistant to water compared to other pure oil finishes; however, is still not ideal protection against water vapour and scratches. Applied to wood floors, as it is the only drying oil to polymerize, or harden, 100%, effectively a hard, easily repairable finish. Be mindful when purchasing tung oil, as it is often falsely advertised as “tung oil.” Pure tung oil will be clearly noted as so, but always check the ingredients – you are looking for added synthetic chemical driers or solvents. Since it is produced by pressing the seed of tung tree nuts, those with nut allergies should use with caution.
Linseed/Flaxseed Oil: These oils are food safe and are known to have nutritional benefits as a supplement. They darken with age, drying slowly with little shrinkage, but never fully hardens. Linseed and flaxseed oils seep into the wood’s pores, rather than act as a surface varnish, further enhancing the grain of the wood. While not protective against water or scratches, its seeping nature helps prevents denting by filling the pores within the wood. Linseed and flax oils range from a clear to yellowish finish, therefore, avoid staining a paler or lighter wood to prevent it from turning yellow over time. These oils are less common today, with the advancement of synthetic resins that resist this yellowing. As with all natural oils, it is important to be aware of any allergies, especially when applying such oils to items in the kitchen.
Coconut Oil: An easily accessible natural, food safe oil. However, because it never fully cures, it has the potential to go rancid in hot climates. (It is still a better option than vegetable oils, which go rancid in any climate).
Beeswax: This is an evaporative finish, leaving behind a soft and smooth film or wax residue. Wax is typically mixed with mineral or walnut oil to create a tougher finish than just a pure oil. It leaves behind a soft, smooth texture when applied to wood. Beeswax also helps wood become more water-resistant, but not waterproof. It is applied to utensils, bowls, and cutting boards when the wax is in a warm state. It is important not to use wax finishes on meat cutting boards, as the wax poses difficulty when cleaning off any bacteria and residue from the raw meat.
Oil-Varnish blend: These blends combine the ease of rub-in oils with the durability of added resin; however, better than pure oils, they are still not ideal for high-wear objects. While they take on similar properties to their base oil, these are not food safe finishes. Their hybrid composition requires careful attention to their ingredients. Blends have a wider range of sheens and colours than rub-in oils, soaking into the wood giving a natural appeal to the product.
Varnish: These finishes are favoured for their durability and toughness, making them ideal for exterior wood surfaces (deck furniture) and high-wear pieces (cabinetry). Applied with a brush or simply wiped on, sheens range from satin to glossy. Their ability to build up layers of varnish make them more durable, as well as give a more polished, plastic-like appearance. While varnishes due require more care than rub-in oils, they truly protect your wood. Long-oil varnishes have a higher ratio of oil to resin and are softer with more elasticity and are good for environments with lots of moisture. Whereas medium to short-oil varnishes have a higher concentration of resins than oil, cure to a harder varnish, making them good for tabletops and floors.
Buffing: Woods with bigger pores, such as walnut, may need to be buffed. The finish can sink into its pores, creating an uneven surface which can prevent a smooth-as-glass effect. After the wood is filled and finished, it needs a final buff to restore its glossy finish; typically a fine sandpaper and a buffing wheel are used. This technique is perfect for fine woodworking to show off detail. However, it is best to avoid with any outdoor pieces that will just be weathered by nature, nor for irregular works that are hard to level or very light woods such as Maple.
Carving: A method of woodworking that involves using a tool (a special knife or chisel) resulting in a sculpture or ornamentation of a wooden object. Carving allows for intricate details and some pieces take years to complete.
Kerf-Cutting: A method of bending wood done by making many kerf cuts (cuts the width of a saw blade) along a piece of wood, once enough cuts have been made the wood should be able to bend the same way a straw would bend.
Lathe: A lathe is a machine used to shape wood by a rotating drive that turns the wood against a cutting tool of choice. The piece should be evenly turned, well balanced, and of consistent proportions.
Levelling/Filling: The trick is to fill the wood surface BEFORE you apply any finish (oil-based filler for natural colour woods, fillers can be stained to match a specific colour or a clear filler for multi-coloured woods). Then it needs to be levelled (imperfections in the wood or from filling) –with fine-grit sandpaper to remove drips, dust, etc.
Steam Bending: When strips of wood are steam heated in a steam box. The heat and moisture makes the wood pliable so it can easily bend around a former, which is then clamped in place to dry, in order to create a specific shape.
For Your Reference
Breaking the edge: This is the process of sanding down a sharp edge so that it is smooth and slightly rounded.
Burl Wood: Burl wood is highly prized among wood collectors and is much scarcer and much more expensive than normal wood. Burl wood is considered to be a gem of the forest and occurs when a tree grain grows in a deformed way, resulting in a unique pattern.
Finishing: The process of applying a finish to the wooden piece, such as an oil or varnish, to protect the wood from drying out or cracking.
Natural or Live Edge: This is when the natural edge of the wood is incorporated into the finished piece.
Spalted Wood: Spalted wood is any form of discolouration caused by fungus and is primarily found in dead trees but can occur in living or distressed trees as well. Although this can cause weight and strength loss in the infected wood, its effect of unique colour and patterns is highly sought after. Pale hardwoods are most commonly affected by spalting ie. Maple, birch, beech, aspen
Staining: A toner, gel stain or pre-conditioner may be necessary to prevent blotches and ensure an even stain especially if the wood has a straight and tight grain such as maple.