Wood is such a varied and different material that I tend to use wood that works well with my tools. Alder, Walnut, Cherry and Pine are all pleasant to work with. All of them plane easily, are not a problem to glue up and are readily available. Some are harder than the others, but they all are tool friendly. By no means do I limit myself to just these, I also work with Big Leaf Maple, Oak, Teak, Mahogany, Douglas Fir, Pear, Manzanita, Makore, Sapele plus numerous others.
The tools by nature impose some restrictions so I generally don’t handicap myself further by using wood that’s mean to my tools. Woods such as Teak and Rosewood can be worked by hand, as cabinetmakers of the past proved, but they are hard on your edge tools. They can also be a problem to finish not to mention the problems of the forests they come from. They are obscenely priced as well.
Most of my wood is kiln dried from a local lumber supplier. I tend to buy surfaced lumber, as there is little benefit to buying rough lumber when you have to plane it by hand. Not to mention the fact that you can’t even see what you are getting with rough lumber. The wood I buy is only surfaced on the faces and the edges are still rough. All the mill marks come off as I make a piece anyway. The kiln dried versus air-dried is kind of a useless argument unless you are building boats and need the bending qualities associated with non- kiln dried wood.
One last thought about buying wood. I am picky. Just because the lumberyard may have bought some junk doesn’t mean I have to. If the yard does not want to let me pick through the lumber I will go somewhere else. At the same time though, I am reasonable in what I expect from the yard, don’t expect them to unstack thousands of board feet of lumber so you can pick out a few sticks. Buying wood requires some give and take from both sides.
After messing with numerous shops I have come to the conclusion that I prefer vertical storage to stacking things up. I have found that standing boards up makes it easier to sort through them, which I do frequently, and takes up far less space. The only restriction on storing wood this way is the height of your shop. I had to punch out some sheetrock in mine so now the boards go up into the attic space. Do provide some way to prevent your stock from leaning over and falling on you or one of your projects. The rafters take care of this in my shop. Take a look around at your local lumber supplier to see how they do it.
Alder, A Personal Favorite
I stumbled across Red Alder back when I first started making furniture and wanted to move on to hardwoods. I have made blanket chests, dressers, china cabinets and all sorts of other furniture with it. Unfortunately, you are not very likely to find it if you do not live in the Western part of the United States.
Often it is bypassed at the lumberyard as a lowly paint grade secondary wood which is a shame as kiln dried stock has a warm orange brown color when oiled. Air-dried stock has a much more orange color and is prone to what someone described as “watermelon stains”. These are large splotchy white areas throughout a plank. I have also been told this can occur if boards are not put into the kiln soon after cutting.
Alder’s grain is subdued, but can be lightly figured and prismatic. I have even come across a piece covered with bird’s eye, which is extremely rare. I have only seen it once in the couple of thousand board feet I have worked with or sorted through over the years. Small knots are common, but these only add character from my view. One other thing I have run into is small mineral deposits. These are greenish in color and tough on plane blades. One swipe and there will be a good size nick in the blade. Watch for them and plane around them and over them only during the last few passes.
It holds screws well; glues up without a hitch and handplanes leave a surface that is almost glossy. When paring end grain there is a tendency for the wood to crush if your chisels are not absolutely sharp. Taking light cuts will help. Another plus is it’s availability in my area, most lumberyards carry it.
About the only down side to this wood is it’s movement in use and difficulties in finishing. Contrary to what the books say personal experience has shown that it moves a lot, as much as 1/4″ in 12″ of board width, winter to summer, and this is a finished piece of furniture, in a centrally heated home (mine). As long as you are aware of this you can build to accommodate it and avoid problems before they occur. Alder can be difficult to finish as well. I use a lot of linseed oil/wax mixture and when first applied the wood appears “cloudy”, but this clears up in a couple of days. I have no idea why, but it does.
All in all with it’s subdued grain, easy workability, and pleasant color, Alder is my favorite wood. And remember, if you don’t like it, you can always turn it into chips and smoke a fish with it….
Thoughts About Cutting Trees
As a woodworker I am the direct recipient of products from the forest so I am partly responsible for trees being cut down, but this doesn’t mean that every tree standing should be brought down. Cutting apart a tree is always a gamble, you never quite know what you are going to get until you make those first cuts. Trees are wonderful things whether they are providing shade or cut into pieces of lumber. I love wood, but sometimes it’s better left in the tree….