Whenever I’m working a booth at a woodworking show, there’s a fair chance that some power-tool-only woodworkers will come down from the mountain to give me some grief. Usually it starts with a few taunts during my handplaning demonstration (“Hey buddy where do you plug that thing in?”).
But I always relish the moments when they start to ask real questions. Here is my favorite question (slightly edited to make it saucier):
“So Mr. Handplane guy,” they’d say. “Let’s say you have a hickory board that’s 8’ long from a tree that grew on a hill. The board’s in wind, and it’s got a good crook in it as well. How would you deal with that board with your hand tools?”
“Oh that’s easy,” I’d reply. “I’d start with my broad axe.”
“Axe?” they’d say, confusion spreading across their brow.
“Yup, I’d chop the board into 12” lengths and feed them into the wood-burning stove.”
I know that all this sounds like Southern hyperbole (to which I am prone), but I am serious when I say that the best way to reduce your tear-out problems (with both hand and machine tools) is through careful stock selection.
About seven years ago I had the privilege of working with Sam Sherrill and Michael Romano on a project to encourage woodworkers to use lumber in their projects that woodworkers harvested from downed or doomed urban trees.
The two guys got the attention of The New Yankee Workshop, and Norm Abram came to town to see (and film) the projects these two University of Cincinnati professors had built using reclaimed lumber.
One of these projects I was quite familiar with. It was a large dining table that Sherrill had built for a family using a large pin oak on the family’s property. The table was fairly nice, but the story behind it was not.
The lumber for the table had come from the enormous, Jurassic-scale branches of the pin oak. The boards were wide (like those from a bole) but they were still reaction wood. Branch wood. Junk wood.
When Sherrill and Romano went to dry the wood and surface it, the wood self-destructed. It warped, split, you name it. They told these wild tales of how it would explode (yes, explode) in the planer. They lost about 90 percent of what they had cut, according to Sherrill.
That story sticks with me to this day. When I pick my boards for any project, I stay completely tuned to the grain of the boards at hand. If the grain reverses on itself through the plank a good deal, then I am going to skip the board (to the fire with you!) or saw it into short lengths, which might not give me as much trouble.
That sounds wasteful in this day and age. But the most precious commodity in woodworking is not the wood, but the time we spend working (or butchering) it. You can make your work faster and easier just by being a lot more choosy with your wood selection.
Coming next week: The second best way to reduce tear-out.
— Christopher Schwarz
4 thoughts on “The No. 1 Way to Reduce Tear-out”
I bought that book Sherrill wrote after I saw that PBS show hosted by N. However, I didn’t know the rest of the story. That’s pretty eye opening. I joked with my boss one day that my shop comes with almost every thing to make furniture except the most important thing – time. I sometimes feel my urge to buy a new tool or gadget isn’t just wish fulfillment – what I want is to buy more time in the shop.
Eric, you sawed right to the line with that comment: I know plenty of woodworkers who buy new tools specifically because it makes them feel like they’ve been in the shop.
As you say, what most of us really want is more time in the shop. For those of us working jobs unrelated to woodworking, it can be very easy to see weeks pass with no quality shop time: every family visit and museum field trip is time that could have been spent building something. But we can’t skip life either.
Attached is a site near to where I live in urban Toronto (hence the name – Urban Tree Salvage) and they cite quite a few successful projects from downed or doomed urban trees. On the home page hit the lumber link under products, and on that page there is link "to view customer projects".
Our three "r’s" of elementary school have been replaced in our children’s time with the mantra reduce, reuse and recycle. I too am choosy with the wood I select and am darn frugal to ensure I coax every bit I can with the least amount of offcuts. Even then the swirly nastiness is brilliant stuff to turn for bowls, trinkets, tool handles. As for the reversing grain, it teaches me to keep a sharp plane and a keen feel for the planes progress across the surface.
Here is a shameles plug – my table is second from left on top row. Not bad from what would otherwise be mulch.
I learned the hard way that you can’t make bad wood behave. I’ve since become very choosy. With as little time as we hobbyists have in the shop and the few number of projects we’ll make in our lifetimes, we might as well use the best wood possible and leave something worthwhile behind.
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