Over the Easter weekend, I ventured to Colbert, Georgia to visit my family and to find the rest of the wood that I’ll need for the high chair. My parent’s homeplace is a sanctuary for the wood-lover. A mature pine and oak forest occupies most of the property, and nested within it are barns filled woodworking equipment, chainsaws, a sawmill,and a tractor with a front-end loader. Fields on both sides of the barns accommodate meticulously-stacked lumber and logs of all types that are ready to meet the same fate. Besides my home, there is probably no place else where I feel more ‘at home’.
Lovely stacks of yellow-poplar and yellow pine.
Some friendly black racers guard the stacks against rodent invasions.
I built this little cabin on the property way back in 2006, when I was still in graduate school.
My goal on this visit was finding a nice white oak log to provide bending stock for the continuous-arm rail and the spindles. My Dad certainly has no shortage of nice white oak logs. These beauties are bound for Kentucky to become whiskey barrels:
No worries, though; there was still plenty of stock to choose from. Besides, these logs had rings that were a bit tighter than I would prefer for bending stock. It is often assumed that faster-grown trees will yield weaker wood, but as I’ve said before, most often that is not the case. With ring-porous species like oak, faster growth actually yields stronger wood, which makes for better bending stock since the wood is less likely to splinter during tight bends.
The downside of faster-grown stock is that the sapwood band will be much wider. My log had a sapwood band 2-1/2″ wide, compared to about a 1″ band in the whiskey-barrel logs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the sapwood, but it begins to decay in a matter of weeks, versus years for the heartwood. Luckily, my log is very fresh and the sapwood will be fine to use.
In addition to wide growth rings, there was one more compelling reason for choosing the log that I chose. It was already split in half! My Dad is an experienced feller, but he had a slight mishap as this tree fell. A large branch on this tree caught a neighboring tree as it was falling, causing this one to twist on the hinge and splitting it for twenty feet up the trunk.
I believe there may have been an impolite word uttered when the mishap occurred, but it was good news for me. I now had an entire log to choose my stock from, and it was already split in half! The first split is always the hardest, and it gets even harder as the log gets longer. Having a pre-split log not only reduces the work, but also allows me to place my cuts more strategically, since I can already see where the major defects are. It’s almost as good as X-ray goggles!
First things first: I needed a 40″ blank for the high chair’s arm rail. A full-size continuous-arm chair needs a 60″ blank, so I decided to go ahead and cut a 5′ section so I will have the wood I need on hand when I’m ready to build a full-size chair.
Having an ample number of wedges on hand made quick work of splitting out my arm rails.
I also had plenty of nieces around to help out.
Finally, I cut some shorter bolts for spindles. I truly don’t believe I’ve ever seen a nicer-splitting white oak log. At least in the Deep South, white oak tends to be far more difficult to split than red oak, with lots of tenacious interlocking fibers on the radial faces and infuriating runout when splitting the tangential faces. No such problems with this log. A single wedge easily split this large bolt without complaint.
In less than an hour, I had enough stock split out for at least five more chairs.
I brought my stock into the forested shade and went to work with the drawknife. I do believe I had the best seat in the house.
I spent the past week diving headlong into the confusing minutia of so-called “riftsawn” lumber. To what end? Why does it even matter? I hope to answer that question, and perhaps raise a few others, in this summary.
(If you’re just now joining, it might make sense to read through last week’s discussion before proceeding: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and Chapter 3)
Why It Matters.
Allow me to give you a brief recap of a conversation on a woodworking forum – the catalyst for this entire series, as a matter of fact. There was a discussion underway, started by a new woodworker who was attempting some cabriole legs for the first time. One of the respondents helpfully and correctly suggested using “riftsawn” lumber for the legs. This is good advice, if you accept the modern definition of riftsawn lumber. Leg stock is one of the best uses for it, since the grain, oriented at about 45º to the faces, will appear the same on all sides.
Rob Porcaro has a good blog post on this topic. In his picture, notice how the far left leg has quartersawn figure on the left side and heinously distracting flatsawn figure on the right. The two examples to the right show the matching grain lines produced by using wood with the growth rings angled from the faces.
In the aforementioned forum conversation, the helpful respondent’s helpfulness jumped the rails when he posted the graphic below, with the following advice “Note true rift will have the growth rings appear as almost flat lines across the end of the board. Very stable stuff here…If you find rift as shown in the pic, store as much as you can away.”
Now, as I showed in last article, there was indeed a time (about a century ago) when rift-sawing and quarter-sawing were considered synonymous (please note that in the graphic above, the diagram to the far right is merely a more precise variation of quartersawing), but the respondent was confusing the historical definition with the present-day definition in recommending this type of material for cabriole legs. And in doing so, he also proceeded to confuse a newcomer to the craft who may not have known any better.
So, that’s why it matters. Our words are nothing more than a convenient and efficient method of transmitting ideas from one person to another. If two people have a completely different understanding of the same word, then the idea that word represents cannot be effectively communicated from one to the other. Unfortunately, this appears to be the case with the word “riftsawn” and any variant thereof.
Of course, a bevy of experienced woodworkers chimed in to address the confusion, all of them agreeing upon the modern understanding of rift-sawn lumber – and also confirming that it is, indeed, the superior choice of material for leg stock. But it makes no difference how many experienced woodworkers agree upon the definition. If a simple Google search (and let’s not scoff and underestimate the importance of Google) would lead a newcomer to a contradictory definition, then we have a problem.
Regardless of its prevalence, the modern definition of “riftsawn” lumber is an illogical one.
rift (noun): 1. a crack, split, or break in something.
The old-timers gave riftsawn lumber its name based on its similarity to riven wood – i.e., wood that was split radially from a tree, Peter Follansbee-style, and not sawed. Peter has an excellent post (many, in fact) on the topic of riven wood over at his blog.
For the life of me, I can’t imagine why the term “riftsawn” has come to refer to wood with angled growth rings, while “quartersawn” is the term that we use for perpendicular growth rings. I’ve come up empty on sources from the mid-20th century that might help explain the peculiar transmogrification. (Language is funny like that. After all, “flammable” and “inflammable” are synonymous, while “worthless” and “priceless” are antonyms.)
So What’s the Solution?
Heck if I know. There is only one other word that is widely understood to mean “lumber with growth rings oriented between 30º and 60º to the surface”, and that word is “bastardsawn”. In addition to being inelegant (don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to inelegant words, but I use them judiciously for a specific effect, not as a part of my quotidian vocabulary), this word is similarly encumbered by a historical use that is at odds with present understanding.
Perhaps the only good solution is to coin a completely new, unambiguous term. I’ve actually given this a good deal of thought. What would be the intuitive term for wood sawn with its growth rings at a 30º-60º angle to the surface? Slant-grain? Skew-grain? Oblique-grain? Ok, the last one will never catch on, but I think slant-grain is pretty good. I definitely think it should be necessary to drop the -sawn suffix, since “slant-grain” (see, I’m already using my new term!) wood is produced as a by-product of flatsawing and quartersawing. There is no specific sawing technique of which I am aware that is uniquely devised to produce an abundance of slant-grain material.
Problematically, my readership is maybe 100 page views on a good day, so I doubt that I have the capacity to challenge such an entrenched term- however misunderstood – on a wide scale. But I can still try, right? #lifegoals
Disston’s 1921 publication of the “Disston Lumberman’s Handbook”, as well as the 1911 edition of “The Iron Age Directory” both refer to “rift saws” as a specific entity. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to dig up any images of these saws, or any information regarding their use. It may be a dead-end, but I’d be curious if anyone has additional information on what these saws are.
In fact, if any of my readers have additional sources related to the definitions of words like “riftsawn” or “bastardsawn”, particularly from the early- to mid-19th century and the mid-20th century, I’d be curious to see them. I’m presented my thoughts as I currently understand the topic, but my mind is always open to change in the presence of new information (as it should be).
As promised, today we’ll be taking a look at some historical literature regarding the definitions of growth-ring orientation in lumber. If you’re just now joining, you might want to take a look back at the first two installments in this series (Chapter 1, Chapter 2) to make sure you’re caught up.
To summarize, right now we’re investigating the confusion that exists between two different definitions of “riftsawn” lumber: Is it lumber with the growth rings oriented at an angle to the faces (Fig. 1), or is it perfectly radial lumber (Fig. 2)?
To answer that question, I dug up the oldest reference I could find on all things lumber-related: The Lumberman’s Handbook (1886) by W.B. Judson. (It’s available as an eBook for free from Google Play, so feel free to check it out for yourself.) On pages 144-145, you’ll find an article entitled “Quarter and Bastard Sawing”:
And right there, in the very first sentence, we have our answer: “Quartersawing and rift-sawing are the same.” From there, the article goes on to very accurately describe our modern understanding of quartersawing: A log is sawed into quarters, and each quarter is then sawed through such that the saw cuts “cross the concentric rings at sufficiently near right angles”. Throughout the article, the two terms are used completely synonymously.
So it would appear, from a historical perspective at least, that both modern definitions of rift-sawing are incorrect. No where does the article suggest that rift-sawn lumber is defined by growth ring oriented at an angle to the face. Neither, however, does the article suggest that logs should be sawed perfectly radially to be considered “rift-sawed” – though it does state that “Wherever the cut of the saw crosses at right angles, or nearly so, that much of the board is rift-sawed.” This is precisely the modern understanding of quartersawn wood.
After some digging, I’ve found that the synonymy of quarter- and riftsawn lumber is still in limited use in modern literature. R. Bruce Hoadley states in Understanding Wood (2000) that “These terms [quartersawn and quarter-grain] are flexible and may be applied to pieces in which the growth rings form angles of anywhere from 45 degrees to 90 degrees with the surface.” Hoadley goes on to say that “The terms comb grain and rift grain indicate surfaces intermediate between 45 degrees to 90 degrees, especially when describing oak.”
Another interesting fact that we can glean from the article is that the antiquated term for flatsawn/plainsawn lumber is actually “bastard-sawed”. This revelation should be equally confusing to modern readers: though the term is no longer in popular use, in modern parlance, bastard-sawn would refer to grain that is angled to the surface. As R. Bruce Hoadley states, “Bastard grain typically refers to growth rings oriented between 30 degrees and 60 degrees to the surface”. In Classic American Furniture (2014), Chris Schwarz agrees. With regard to reproducing a Stickley Plant Stand, he writes, “I used rift-sawn (sometimes called bastard-sawn) white oak for my legs. Technically, a board has been rift-sawn when its annular rings intersect the face of the board at an angle that’s somewhere between 30º and 60º.”
Can we just take a moment to soak in the bizarre irony that two terms which were 130 years ago considered indisputable antonyms are now synonymous with one another? I presently find myself equally annoyed and amused.
Lest you think that the terms as defined in The Lumberman’s Handbook were merely anomalies, let me assure you that these definitions persisted at least into the early 1900s. As evidence, I present to you the following excerpt from the 1905 edition of The Building Trades Pocketbook:
“The term quarter sawed signifies that the log is cut into quarters before being reduced to boards, while the term bastard sawed denotes that all the saw cuts are parallel to the squared side of the log. In genuine quartersawing (also called rift sawing) the cuts should be as nearly as possible at right angles with the circles of growth, or parallel with the medullary rays…while in bastard sawing, the cuts are nearly parallel with the circles of growth…”
Interestingly, if we zoom in on Fig. 4, you’ll see the only historical depiction that I’ve been able to turn up that depicts perfect radial sawing. Note the saw cuts depicted in the upper left quadrant:
Regarding this method, the text states, “The best results are secured by the method shown between a and c, as the saw cuts are nearly on the radial lines, and the full face of the silver grain will be exhibited.” (Note: “silver grain” is an archaic term for ray fleck). As I noted yesterday, I am doubtful about the extent to which perfect radial sawing has ever been employed. No doubt that it yields the best material in theory, but the combination of labor-intensity and waste make it difficult to justify under all but the most unusual circumstances. I believe the applicable aphorism would be, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”
I hope that you now understand my frustration with these terms. Historically, quartersawn is synonymous with riftsawn. Presently, riftsawn is synonymous with bastardsawn. Historically, bastardsawn is synonymous with flatsawn. Therefore, quartersawn = flatsawn? It’s a damned mess out there. Next time, I’ll do my best to clean it up.
In the last post, I discussed my frustration with the general confusion about terms related to growth-ring orientation in lumber. I know, I know. It’s a small nit to pick. But bear with me, if you will, because I think that it’s a topic that deserves clarification.
By my training, there are three primary ways in which the growth rings can be oriented in a piece of lumber:
Flatsawn: Growth rings are roughly parallel to the face.
Riftsawn: Growth rings are oriented at an angle (usually described as 35º-65º) to the face.
Quartersawn: Growth rings are oriented roughly perpendicular to the face.
There is a tremendous body of modern literature that supports this terminology. The people who sell wood use it. Here’s a slick diagram from the Hardwood Distributor’s Association (hardwooddistributors.org):
People who write about wood are on the same page, as demonstrated by this nifty drawing from Canadian Woodworking (canadianwoodworking.com) :
Even people who build cool things like musical instruments use this nomenclature. Here’s a page from Yasuhiko Iwanade’s book The Beauty of the Burst (1999):
Alrighty then. I’ve made an airtight case, right? No confusion here, so let’s go ahead and put this short-lived series to bed.
No so fast…
Try Googling “riftsawn” for images, and see if you notice anything amiss. Go ahead, I’ll wait. (Ok, I’ll make it easy for you: click here)
Did you spot the problem? Literally 10 of the first 16 images in my search showed a diagram for “riftsawn” that is completely at odds with the conventional definition of riftsawn lumber. To wit, the images depicted look like this:
No complaints about the diagrams for plainsawn (another term for flatsawn) and quartersawn lumber. (It would pay to note, however, that the “plainsawn” method would result in rift- and quartersawn material closer to the center of the log, while the “quartersawn” method would produce a fair amount of riftsawn material at the edges of each quarter.)
However, look over to the picture labeled “riftsawn”. Those growth rings are not oriented at a 35º-65º angle to the face but rather perfectly perpendicular. That is perfect, textbook quartersawn grain. And the sawing pattern? Holy crap, that is wasteful. No one in their right mind would saw a log like that, essentially throwing away half the log! So what misinformed neophyte is spreading this peculiar brand of bullshit? Why, it’s the aforementioned Hardwood Distributor’s Association! And on the very same page as the image with a correct diagram! What the ever-loving hell?
Pore through the Google images for “riftsawn” and you’ll notice that this sort of cognitive dissonance is pervasive. Why not visit this page, entitled “What is Rift Sawn Lumber?“, which proceeds to depicts a board with the growth rings at a 45º alongside an image of the radial sawing pattern:
Or consider this image, which combines oak boards of appropriate appearance (flatsawn = cathedral grain, quartersawn = straight grain with ray fleck, and riftsawn = straight grain without ray fleck) with the erroneous sawing pattern.
To spell it out for you: If you have perfectly radial oak, yet have no ray fleck (as this image depicts)…Well, either you don’t have oak, or it ain’t perfectly radial. Something is amiss, people! But I didn’t have to look hard to find another image with the exact same error:
Okay, I hope I’ve laid out a compelling case for the confusion that exists regarding the definition of “riftsawn” lumber. So what’s going on? How did this erroneous image that supposedly depicts “rift-sawing” become so pervasive?
First, let’s just clarify by stating the sawing pattern in question should be correctly called “radial” sawing, not rift-sawing. The face of each resultant board is parallel to the log’s radius; this term is precise and unencumbered by confusion, so it is the proper term.
Let me further emphatically state that that a radial sawing pattern, aside from some small boutique jobs, is an utterly preposterous method of converting logs into lumber. Conventional quartersawing wastes far less lumber and and will produce a fair amount of perfectly radial wood by default. Further, the wood that is slightly imperfect will be nearly its equal. The only compelling reason to process a log in this way is if you are working with a wedge and a froe, not a sawmill.
Next, I believe that an investigation of these terms’ origins is in order. Obviously there is a substantial body of people to whom the term riftsawn refers to perfectly radial wood, and another large body of people to whom it refers to wood with growth rings positioned at an angle somewhere between radial and tangential. So, what did the term originally mean?
Well, this post has already consumed too much of your my day, so the history-learnin’ portion will have to wait for the next edition of “The Name of the Grain”. I do hope you’ll join me as we try to get to the bottom of it.
Every good blogger should have their schtick – something that they do better than anyone else to differentiate themselves from the crowd. I’m not a good blogger, but in my ongoing quest to pretend to be one, I’ve decided to leverage my wood properties skills as an ongoing feature. Surely that will catapult me to the big-time, right? Everyone loves wood properties. Thus, without further ado (and with apologies to Bono) I hereby decree that Wednesdays shall henceforth be designated “Wednesday, Woody Wednesday“.
My plan is to discuss a different wood-centric topic each Wednesday. Some days we might cover a specific wood property that is relevant to woodworking. Other days we might examine a particular species of wood in scrutinous detail. In any case, I hope to keep the posts interesting, useful, and super-geeky. (Yes, I did just use all three of those words together.)
What’s Up with Maple?
In our inaugural edition, we’re going to be talking about maple. Most woodworkers – at least, American woodworkers – will recognize only two varieties of maple: hard maple and soft maple. It’s a simple classification, but I’ll argue that it is not just overly simplistic, but flat-out wrong. I believe that there is value in knowing your maple down to the species, and I’ll do my best to prove why. Now, I’m aware that it probably isn’t possible if you’re simply buying boards in the form of lumber (unless you have a good sawyer), but it would certainly be prudent for any green woodworkers out there to make sure your dendrology skills are up to snuff.
So, what exactly are hard and soft maple? Let’s refer to a publication on the maple genus from the venerable Center for Wood Anatomy Research at the U.S. Forest Service:
The Maples can be separated into two groups based on the ray widths of their microscopic anatomy, the soft maple group and the hard maple group. Species within each group look alike microscopically.
Specifically, the microscopic difference between hard and soft maples is this: If you take a clean cross-section of end grain and examine it with a microscope or a 10x loupe, the rays of a soft maple will all be narrow and of uniform widths. If you examine a sample of hard maple, the rays will be of two different widths: some will be narrow, but some will be quite wide and prominent.
So what, exactly, does ray width have to do with the relative hardness or softness of the wood? Absolutely nothing. The terms “hard maple” and “soft maple” are American construct that were simply meant as a shorthand for differentiating the most common timber-sized maple species in the Eastern U.S. Referring to the same USFS publication, we see that they only classify five species, all of them native to the eastern U.S., as hard or soft maple:
The wood of sugar maple and black maple is known as hard maple; that of silver maple, red maple, and boxelder as soft maple.
And yes, in general, sugar maple and black maple are quite a bit harder than red maple, silver maple, or boxelder. But it’s a big world out there, and those five species are hardly the only ones out there (Wikipedia says there are about 128 maple species, in fact). The waters get considerably muddier once you venture out to western North America or across the pond to Eurasia.
We’ll only discuss eight species today, but they are the most common maple species that English-speaking folk (and therefore, people who are likely to be reading this blog) will encounter in lumber-sized trees.
Three additions to the aforementioned five are: 1) Norway maple, which has a huge native range that extends from Scandinavia eastward into Russia, and as far south as northern Iran. Norway maple is a familiar (and invasive) ornamental species in the northeastern U.S. 2) Sycamore maple, more likely familiar to the Brits as simply “sycamore”, although that’s confusing to Americans, since we refer to an entirely different genus as sycamore. Sycamore maple is native throughout Europe and naturalized in Great Britain. And 3) Bigleaf maple, which grows along the Pacific coast from the southern tip of Alaska to the Sierra Nevada of California. It is the only commercially important maple of the western U.S.
Okay, then. We have a list of important maple species and their corresponding wood properties1. What should we care about? Well, since we’re talking about hard vs. soft maple, let’s start by ranking the species according to their hardness:
Well, dang. It would appear that the “hard” vs. “soft” distinction is vindicated by this graph. Sugar maple is head-and-shoulders above the pack, a full 1200 Newtons (almost 25%) harder than black maple – the other hard maple. The soft maples (red, silver, and boxelder) comprise 3 of the bottom 4. But notice the degree of separation between red maple and its fellow soft maples. The gap between red maple and boxelder is as large as the gap between red maple and black maple. Red maple, along with the European species, seems to be in more of an intermediate territory between the hardest and softest maple species.
Now, hardness is all well and good. It’s the ultimate wood property of concern, if you’re building a bowling alley or a basketball court. But how many of us are actually doing that kind of work? For most woodworkers, hardness is a mixed blessing. Sure, sugar maple is less likely to dent, but it’s also much harder on your tools. What we as furniture makers (and particularly chairmakers) tend to be more concerned with is the strength of the wood – and that gets to the heart of my complaint with the whole “hard” vs. “soft” distinction. Hardness seems to get conflated with strength, but is that really appropriate?
Well, no. It isn’t. Let’s look at how these species rank with two common measures of strength: modulus of elasticity (MOE) and modulus of rupture (MOR) [here’s a link that includes an explanation of these properties if you need it].
Intersting, no? Yes, sugar maple is still the king of MOE, but look who’s sitting at number 2: red maple. Ahead of the European maples, and even slightly ahead of black maple. And what about MOR? The king has been displaced by a European interloper. Sugar maple sits somewhere between Norway maple and sycamore maple in ultimate breaking strength, and not far behind are red and black maple. Moreover, look how poorly silver maple and boxelder perform on both of these tests. Does it make any sense at all to include red maple in a group with these impostors? I would argue that it does not.
So, to wrap up my thoughts, let me just say that, from now on, I will be silently cringing any time a woodworker or wood peddler refers to their maple as “hard” or “soft”. (If you catch me on a bad day, there may be less silent cringing and more vocal argumentation.) Yes, it’s clear to me that sugar maple is superior – with regard to strength – to red maple, but does black maple deserve it’s lofty elevation, together with sugar maple, to be collectively referred to as the “hard maples”? Nope. Black maple is the equal of red maple, and not its superior. And red maple has certainly done nothing that is worthy of condemnation as a “soft” maple, together with boxelder and silver maple (both fine woods, mind you, but not stalwarts of strength and not to be confused/used as such).
I realize that I speak from a bit of a position of privilege here. I can readily identify any maple that I’m likely to encounter, and I process almost all of my own wood from tree to finished piece. Most woodworkers aren’t afforded that advantage. BUT, if you do have that option, then I would suggest you take advantage of it. Learn how to tell black maple from sugar maple, and red maple from silver maple2. Not just by the leaves, but also by the bark. If you know what wood you’re using, you should be more confident in pushing it to its limits. And feel free to consider Norway maple or sycamore maple as a substitute for sugar maple. Those European species acquit themselves well when multiple properties are considered.
If you’re a woodworker, then you’ve probably managed to come up with some creative solutions for handling workshop waste. Grilling meat is one of my favorite uses for hardwood scraps. I don’t remember where I first heard that you could grill with wood scraps; I just remember that I thought it was a brilliant idea, and I immediately decided to give it a try. I am a natural-born cheapskate, after all, and charcoal is nearly $1/lb.
Little did I realize that there was a bit of a learning curve involved. My first attempts consumed abundant quantities of lighter fluid to get the wood started and resulted in some heavily smoked burgers. I was determined to make it work, so I persisted through trial and error until I perfected the technique. That was 5 years ago, and I’m happy to share my methods with you so that you may find the learning curve not-quite-so-steep.
First, you need some wood of appropriate species. All of the wood scraps that exit my shop are carefully sorted into grillable and non-grillable. Don’t even think about using conifers. Pine, spruce, cedar, fir, cypress – all of it goes straight to the kindling pile for starting camp fires. Hardwoods are what you want, and luckily, the vast majority of hardwoods that you’re likely to find in a woodshop are also fine for grilling. I avoid the softer hardwoods, like poplar, basswood, cottonwood, and willow. Walnut and elm have bitter-tasting smoke, so I skip those as well (the sapwood is fine, but avoid the heartwood).
Basically, anything that is good for smoking meat will be great for grilling also. Dense hardwoods, like oak, hickory, and mesquite make the longest-lasting coals. Softer hardwoods, like sassafras, cherry, and alder have coals that don’t last quite as long, but they work fine and the smoke is flavorful.
Here, I made a helpful Venn diagram:
Each time I clean up the shop, I grab all of the good grilling scraps and a hatchet and I split them into usable sections. A good size is anywhere from 3/4″ x 3/4″ to 1 1/4″ x 1 1/4″. The length can be up to a foot or so, but typically they will be shorter (these are scraps, after all). Doesn’t really matter, but it helps to have some longer pieces. I keep the scraps in a milk crate. Keep a bucketful of plane shavings around for starting the grill. It doesn’t matter what species; they’ll be long burnt off by the time the coals are ready.
Start by stacking up some of the longer scraps, log-cabin style, into a pyramid shape. Fill the center of the pyramid with shavings as you go.
Finish up by filling in around the pyramid with lots and lots of shavings. It takes a surprising amount to get the wood started. Then pile some of your shorter scraps on top of the shavings. It takes more wood than you might think to get a good bed of coals, so don’t be stingy. It does grow on trees, after all. Now, light it on fire.
After a few minutes, you should have a flaming mass of scraps and shavings.
When the fire has burnt down a bit, you’ll start to see the telltale orange glow in the center of the pile that indicates wood is turning to charcoal. The outer edges will turn white. There should be absolutely no un-charred wood left in the grill. Wood creates loads of smoke, which sounds nice, but the flavor of your meat will be way too strong. We want the heat with just a bit of smoke, which is what charcoal gives us. A long pair of tongs are helpful for moving around the scraps to ensure that it’s completely charred.
This is about what the pile should look like when it’s nearly ready.
At this point, put the lid on the grill and choke it down completely. This will smother the fire and cause a profuse amount of smoke. After about 30 seconds, open the vent and move the lid to the side a bit to expose about a 3/4″ crack (other grills may be different, but I find that my Weber doesn’t get enough ventilation from the vents alone).
When the grill stops smoking so much and settles into a steady, low-volume smoke, the coals are ready.
Here’s what they look like before the meat goes on.
The coals will last a good hour or more if you used a dense hardwood like oak, hickory, mesquite, sugar maple, or beech. I mostly used cherry and sassafras this time, which don’t last as long. Maybe 40 minutes. But that’s plenty of time for a few pork chops.
By the way, keep the lid on while grilling, with plenty of ventilation. If it starts smoking again, that’s your cue to give it some more air.
Lunch is served.
There are a few downsides to cooking with wood. For one, the ashes are more corrosive than charcoal ashes. They contain lye and other alkaline salts, so your grates will have a tendency to rust faster. Also, wood will produce more ash than charcoal, so open the lid gently unless you want to give your meat a light coating of ash. Neither of these problems are annoying enough to make me stop. I’m happy to have crossed charcoal and lighter fluid off my shopping list permanently. Never much cared for petroleum-based pork shops anyway.
Windsor chairs are not exactly the iconic furniture forms in the Deep South that they are in New England. I’ve tromped around antique stores in Maine and seen enough lovely old Windsor chairs (and woodworking tools) to be jealous of my northerly woodworking brethren. The more humble ladderback is a much more typical find in a southern antique store. They’re easier to build and require a smaller toolkit, so it’s no surprise that the ladderback was the common chair in the more rural South.
Because the American Windsor style evolved primarily in New England, they came to rely heavily on the woods that were readily available in the North. Sugar maple is hard and strong, but turns beautifully, making it perfect for the delicate baluster turnings of the legs and rungs. White pine is light and soft and carves easily, allowing the development of more shapely seat designs. Oak, ash, and hickory are strong and bendy, ideal for thin, elegant spindles and curvaceous steam-bent backs.
All of those woods are common in New England – and even as far south as the southern Appalachians – but once you set foot on the red clay of the Piedmont, white pine and hard maple are suddenly nowhere to be found. There are substitutes, of course. Tulip-poplar grows well into Florida and as far west as Louisiana. Plenty of Windsor chairs are made with yellow-poplar seats. But they tended to be less shapely than their pinaceous counterparts. Poplar is 25% denser and commensurately more difficult to carve.
Sugar maple is even tougher to substitute. You can use red maple, of course, which grows from the east Texas swamps to the coast of Newfoundland. But conventional wisdom says that soft maple is conspicuously weaker than hard maple, so you’ll have to nix the delicate turnings in favor of a bulkier design. Beech is another option here, but it must be sawed rather than split, so grain runout is a problem if you aren’t careful.
Fortunately, most of the South is replete with oak, ash, and hickory, so the upper half of the chair isn’t so much of a problem…unless you live in the Really Deep South – the longleaf sandhills, the pineywoods and pocosins, the laurel thickets and maritime forests near the coast. If you live there, you’re basically screwed. Oh sure, there’s oak to be found, but it’s scrub oak* or live oak. Scrub oak is useless except for firewood, and live oak is great for ship-building but less exciting for chairmaking. Of course, I live on a little barrier island on the northeast coast of Florida, right in the heart of the chairmaking deadzone.
Boo-hoo. Cue the sad piano music:
OK, I’m not really complaining. I love where we live. And I’m certainly not here to pass on apocryphal dogma. I’m here to question everything. I’m the recusant woodworker, after all. Folk wisdom is nice and usually contains more than a crumb of truth, but what happens when we look at things from a scientific perspective? I am a wood scientist by education (though not profession), after all.
I intend to investigate some southern woods with a fine-toothed comb to see if might be possible to beat those snooty Yanks at their own game (I kid, I kid. It would be much easier if I could source sugar maple and white oak and white pine locally!)
Here’s a taste of the research I’ve been working on:
Some of the results are surprising and encouraging. TBC…
*As a dendrology buff, I feel compelled to note that “scrub oak” is not a species, but rather a group of species, prevalent in the southern sandhills region. It includes turkey oak (Quercus laevis), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), bluejack oak (Q. incana), and sand post oak (Q. margaretta), which all share a similar, scrubby growth habit and feature poor-quality wood. Great for wildlife and firewood, though!