Wood has been with humans from the beginning. Wood is one of the most versatile materials we have. Wood has been so valuable throughout history that folks have made access to wood a necessity when choosing a place to live.
Wood has a vast range of characteristics, making it one of the most versatile materials to work with. It ranges from very soft to very hard, very light to very heavy, very dense to very open, and colors from black to white, and almost every color in between. Wood’s versatility allows us to form, bend, shape, carve, and join wood together.
People have made just about every item you can think of with wood. Wood has been used for our shelter, fire, furniture and tools. Wood has also been used for kitchenware, jewelry, containers of every type there is, and even clothing. We use wood for beautiful architecture, church alters and sanctuaries, commemorations, and even coffins. We have used wood since the earliest of times, and we are still finding new ways to use it. After processing, wood becomes, paper, fuel, bedding and all types of sheet goods. We also use wood-like materials, such as bamboo. Bamboo is a grass, but we make flooring, cutting boards, utensils, pots, clothing, and many other items from it.
We are surrounded by wood every day. Wood is everywhere, to the point that we don’t even notice it anymore. That is a shame, because wood is also very beautiful. With all types of colors, grain patterns, spalting and burls, it is a delight to your eyes. It is also warm and inviting to the touch. There is a connection with wood when you touch it that is unlike any other material. It is a natural thing, a thing that still seems to be alive. We talk about wood as if it were alive. We talk about letting wood “breathe” and “feeding” it.
Let’s take a closer look at wood.
Wood in general is classified as hardwood or softwood. This has nothing to do with the hardness of the wood. In fact, one of the softest woods you can get is balsa, which is a hardwood. Hardwoods come from trees that lose their leaves each year, while softwoods come from trees that retain their foliage. Examples of hardwoods are oak, maple, walnut, and cherry. Examples of softwoods are pine, red cedar, and fir.
Softwoods are generally sold by the board. For example, construction lumber, which is typically made from softwoods, is all sold by the piece. Hardwoods are generally sold by the board foot. The board foot is a way of measuring wood of different sizes and shapes to get a uniform measurement. A board foot is a measurement of volume. A board that is 12”X12”X1”. A board that is 12” X 12” X 2” is two board feet.
Both hardwoods and softwoods are also graded for quality. The higher the grade, the fewer defects and the costlier the wood.
All wood moves. Its dimensions will change throughout the year depending upon the moisture content of the wood. You have probably experienced this yourself with a drawer that sticks all summer but works fine all winter. In more humid climates, the wood takes on moisture and gets bigger. A table made from a solid wood top can change across its width by ¼ - ½”, depending upon what time of year it is. And there is nothing that can be done to keep this from happening. No finish or coating will seal the wood enough to keep it from gaining and losing moisture. You can slow down the process, but you cannot stop it. If you take a panel of solid wood and try to constrain it by some mechanical means, the wood will damage itself as it takes on moisture and gets larger. Woodworkers have developed special joinery techniques that take this movement into consideration so that the product will not be damaged by this movement.
Wood is a truly sustainable material. We have learned much about sustainable management of our trees and forests. There are vast tracts of fast-growing pine and fir trees from which our building materials are made. These are harvested and replanted, much in the same way that Christmas tree farms keep a supply of Christmas trees growing. We have begun implementing forest management, which allows us to selectively harvest wood without damaging the forest’s health. We have also learned how to use every part of the tree, even down to the sawdust that is created from other processes. And, we are replanting forest areas so that we will always have them with us.