The Perfect Hand-tool Wood

A couple years ago there was a kid in Iowa who was trying to learn to use hand tools. He had no teachers, just a few books and limited access to the Internet.

But he had a phone. So he’d call me and ask me questions for 30 minutes at a time. (Note to self: Get a 900-line for this. “Hey, I’m wearing a shop apron – and nothing else.”)

This kid’s first major crisis: Planing the top of a dresser. His iron was sharp. His plane was set correctly. His work was held firmly. Yet he couldn’t even get the tool to cut.

Diagnosis: Maple.

He was using rock maple as the wood for his first hand-tool project. I like maple and can get along with it fine. But it wouldn’t be my first pick for a wood to learn hand tools on.

I used to recommend walnut and poplar as good choices for beginning planers and sawyers. Both of those woods cut fairly easily with hand tools and aren’t stringy or hard or ring-porous or infused with silicates. (Ask me some time about the mouth-breather who insisted on using purpleheart on her first project, a birdhouse.)

This year, however, I have become smitten with Eastern white pine. It’s not common in the Midwest, but we came into a stash of it and I have been using it for everything possible. Unlike the yellow and white pine we get here, Eastern white cuts beautifully, planes easily and doesn’t seem as easy to mangle as the local stuff. Plus, the Eastern white moves less in service and (I think) it looks better.

On the downside, it’s quite lightweight and not nearly as strong as yellow pine or even the weirdo Swedish pine the local Borg is pushing.

But that, I figure, is just an engineering equation.

So this morning I’m building a complex frame-and-panel back for a five-drawer dresser. The back has six through-tenons, two blind ones and four floating panels.

I did a dry assembly of the stiles and rails right after lunch and everything looked nice and tight. So I took it apart to start fitting the panels when I snapped one of the tenons off like a Butterfinger bar.

I was too stunned to even curse. I don’t think I’ve ever snapped a tenon (by accident). The good news was that it was quick work to fetch a new piece and cut new tenons and mortises to replace the broken stick.

Note to self: Eastern white prefers 5/16”-thick tenons. But other than that, I think it’s the most hand-tool-friendly wood I’ve used.

— Christopher Schwarz

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11 Responses to The Perfect Hand-tool Wood

  1. Graham Hughes says:

    That almost looks like a botched kiln dry. But seeing a tenon snap would make me veery leery about using that wood in anything remotely structural.

  2. Skinner says:

    The tenon in the above photo is too thin, that’s why it has broken so easily.

  3. Christopher Schwarz says:

    Skinner,

    Normally, I might agree with you. However, I am building an exact reproduction of an early 19th-century piece from a written account using those measurements. The piece called for 1/4"-thick tenon on 1"-thick deal (in the rough). The stock has been planed down to 7/8" at this point. I have found that long, thin through-tenons in softwood were common on 19th-century work. A recent visit to Pleasant Hill confirmed this on piece after piece.

    The real problem was the tenon was fit too tight on the end of a 42"-long rail. And when I racked the joint there was a lot of leverage. Too much for Eastern white.

    In other words: Operator error.

    Chris

  4. I agree whole heartedly with you Chris. I don’t know why so many people scoff at Eastern white pine. Maybe it’s the knots? I actually love working with the stuff. Especially when you can get clear boards.

    What I’ve found here on the East coast is that the EWP in the local borgs is typically priced less than the lumber yard but you do need to pick through the pile to find the good stuff. The upside though is that you can take as long as you want, and select only the best pieces. I often find pieces, especially in the 1 x 10 and 1 x 12 size, that except for a couple of small pin knots would be considered clear. I love finding these boards. It is difficult to find flat enough boards at times since they are already planed to 3/4 and I prefer not to plane them any thinner (i.e. to remove cup) but this is what makes buying wide boards so ideal. I can very easily rip them into the thinner widths I need and end up with stock that is basically flat. I use EWP almost exclusively for shop projects. It works easily with sharp tools, is very stable and, I think, looks good. It also makes the shop smell like a shop should.

  5. David says:

    Chris – There is one wood that I can think of that’s better than EWP for hand tools, but unfortunately it isn’t available any longer – chestnut. It’s stronger than EWP, but still fairly soft – you can dent it with a fingernail. There’s good reason that a great deal of early 1800′s furniture made in the South uses chestnut as a secondary wood.

  6. Gary Roberts says:

    Chris… there is also a major difference between the old growth eastern white pine of the 18th and 19th C furniture and what we see today. The risers on the stairs in my house are some old growth white pine and it’s tough stuff. One little bed stand I rehabbed years ago was all delicate tenons and dovetails. All EWP and still springy and strong. The growth rings are closer together in the old stuff, not to mention having been air dryed.

    Perhaps if you find some EWP wide enough to get some of the core wood instead of the sap wood, you might find a better quality wood. Or locate an old house and borrow a few boards…

    Gary

  7. jacob says:

    Why the 4 shoulders, was that part of the original design? 2 would be stronger and more usual. Perhaps your tenon is not only too thin but also too narrow.

    Would the "weirdo Swedish pine" be what we know over here (UK) as European redwood or Scots pine? For us the most widely used softwood by far, usually imported from Sweden or Russia. Can be found in excellent qualities, widely used since Georgian times.

  8. Christopher Schwarz says:

    Jacob,

    Four shoulders of those dimensions were specified.

    Also interesting: I just finished reading a study by the Forest Products Laboratory that compared tenon strengths between tenon with edge shoulders and tenons without. The tenons with edge shoulders ended up being stronger. It seems counter-intuitive, I know, but it was hard to argue with the methodology.
    Chris

  9. Chris F says:

    Heh…I used hard maple (and cherry) as my first project with lots of hand-tool work–a checkerboard endgrain butcher block, with all the jointing and planing done by hand. The cherry was a lot easier to work. ;)

    I suspect that when resisting racking, an edge shoulder shifts the pivot point away from the narrow tenon edge to the wider intersection of the shoulder and the mortised stock. This could result in less bending stress on the tenon, making the joint stronger.

    It might be instructive to create mockups of various M&T joints with embedded stress/strain gauges.

  10. Tom Bier says:

    My Wrong Wood story:

    I had read a couple Krenov books, I had a couple planes, and I had a plan – Popular Woodworking’s article on a Limbert wastebasket. (Although the material list had everything dimensioned at 1 x 1 x 18" ) ;)

    I had a nice chunk of quilted maple. Can you say tearout? Sure, I knew you could.

    I learned about sanding…

    FWIW I can find clear eastern white pine in San Diego at the L borg, but not the HD borg.

    Tom

  11. Steven McDaniel says:

    Chris,
    Nice write up. Do you happen to have a link to the Forest Products Laboratory study comparing tenon strengths? That sounds like an interesting article.

    Steve

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