Learning about Wood

Wood is pretty cool.  The wood lobby will tell you that it is ‘renewable, abundant, and sustainable’.  It can be shaped and molded into virtually any form.  There are innumerable examples from woodworking masters like Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, etc. that show how beautiful a brown matrix of cellulose and lignin can become.

I have none-to-very few of those woodworking skills.  As with everything else in life, you can’t know unless you do.  I found a local hardwood shop that had some hardwood slabs and decided to learn more about wood by making an ultra-simple table.  $160 later, I had a 40-pound, 15″x3″x48″ slab of American walnut.  It came as you see here.


With some baseball on the TV, I took a chisel (with hammer, as needed) to slowly and carefully remove the bark.  Some folks elect to keep bark on a few furniture pieces, like end tables, but it was not especially great looking from the start, would only impede finishing, and would likely fall off later.  This step made a phenomenal mess, which is not shown below.


To make rough-cut lumber flat and/or smooth, usually boards travel through one of several power tools: thickness planer, joiner, wide drum sander, or router jig.  Since I’ve not yet opened my own woodshop, I elected for a more traditional, less expensive approach with the bench plane.  Although there are plenty of fantastically high-quality choices out there as well as different types, I just grabbed a nice heavy 9″ plane from my local big box store to learn my way around it.  After some honing, sharpening, and tuning, the plane performed pretty well (mostly operator errors).  Less is more when it comes to blade depth to avoid grain tearout and tears of frustration.


Next up, power sanding.  For some context, the post-Freddie Gray-funeral rioting in Baltimore occured right around this time, so the 10pm curfew allowed for (or strongly encouraged) some quiet evening woodworking.  Dry sanding isn’t rocket science, luckily.  Start low with orbital and finish high by hand with the grain.


There were a handful of things I was thinking of doing for the finish: amber shellac, boiled linseed oil, dye, stain, etc.  II had read a number of articles, blogs, forum posts on everyone’s opinion and came to the conclusion of dye, oil, varnish-mix.  After a coating of Behlen Solar-Lux dye, I decided I was not digging the consistently dark brown monolith look (maybe it would look awesome on some casework or shelving).  I was so un-excited by the dye that I didn’t even take a picture.

After some power sanding to remove the dye, it had the unintended (but often used on purpose by true professionals in the form of tinted grain filler) consequence of dying the grain.  This increased the contrast and drama within the wood surface in a wonderfully accidental way.  After a coat or two of boiled linseed oil, it has a great mostly unstained walnut look that I like.


All that remains of the table top is laying a topcoat.  More on that later…

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