It’s the Wood, Stupid!

Many of us who grew up in the post-depression era learned to get by with less. Times were harder back then, so for me at least, before buying something it had to pass the ‘need’ test. Even though life is less trying today, old habits are hard to break. That’s why I sometimes find it so difficult to purchase something I want – but don’t really need. A little encouragement from my wife usually gets me over the hump, but reciprocity doesn’t always come cheap.

Until a few years ago, I followed the same practice when buying wood for my projects. I questioned whether I really needed to pay a premium for quarter sawn wood when plain sawn would do? Or, can I justify the extra cost of figured wood over its less fancy relatives? Even after sitting through countless talks by renowned woodworkers who preached the gospel of using fine (i.e., expensive) wood, I still didn’t get it. Or maybe I just didn’t appreciate the subtleties of grain, texture and color. I may have saved a little, but the flaw in my logic was, of course, not all woods are created equal.

My epiphany came after completing an Arts and Crafts piece and wondering why it didn’t have the same elegance as the one in the picture. I thought the workmanship and finish were good, but somehow it just didn’t look right. The grain was kind of wild and things didn’t flow as they should. The answer was, to paraphrase a 1990s political slogan, ‘it’s the wood, stupid’! By using the more pedestrian plain sawn rather than quarter sawn white oak, my past came back to haunt me. Later, I had occasion to build exactly the same piece, this time using the right kind of wood. The result was much closer to what I originally envisioned, and something I was happy to have in my home.

This wasn’t a life changing event, but it certainly caused me the think about my wood selection practices. On a subsequent trip to the local hardwood yard, I saw this exquisite piece of curly maple. It was priced about 20% more than similar pieces and the surface was pretty chewed up from a dull planer, but I knew I had to have it. After some serious thought, I threw caution to the wind and took it home. Turns out my planer must have been sharper than theirs, and the board turned what might have been an ordinary piece into an eye pleasing delight. This realization was further reinforced when I recently viewed the Wendell Castle exhibit at the Memorial Art Gallery. Castle’s choice of wood and grain are so integrated with his design they cannot be separated. In my next life, I’ll aspire to reach those heights.

For most, I know, I’m preaching to the choir. For the rest, I hope my experiences will convince you that good craftsmanship and flawless finishing won’t make up for a poor choice of wood. Next time you find yourself in front of a pile of lumber selecting pieces for a future project, try to remember, ‘it’s the wood, stupid!’

David Sumberg