Knowing our Prey: A Case for ‘With the Grain’


Let’s say, for example, that you really like the taste of armadillo meat.

You love it poached, pan-fried and in a white wine sauce. Your taste buds can tell when one had nibbled on some acorns.

But let’s also say that at the zoo, you can’t distinguish a live armadillo from a peacock.

I know, that seems crazy. But when it comes to trees, most woodworkers can’t tell the difference between red oak and white, an ash from a birch, and on and on. Most woodworkers – no lie – are lucky if they can distinguish between a tree and an ornamental tree-bush thing.

Is this important? I think so.

Red oak's end grain.

Red oak’s end grain.

Trees have always been this continent’s greatest natural resource. And our close relationship with trees separate us from almost every other culture on the planet. The North American civilization was built on trees. They are the backbone of our homes. Their abundance is the reason that woodworking is so popular here. They are still one of our biggest exports and one of our greatest resources.

And that is why my kids can tell the difference between a maple and an oak and a freaky osage orange (the brain tree). If you know a little about the black cherry, the sugar pine or the hardy catalpa, then working with that species is more gratifying and awe-inspiring. You’ll know when you have a piece of wood on your bench that grew quickly, or struggled in rocky soil. You’ll be able to identify when some unscrupulous lumber merchant has sold you reaction wood from the branches of a tree. You’ll see knots and other structures in a whole new light – not as a defect necessarily, but as part of the tree that you can work with or work around.

This week, we have put the finishing touches on Christian Becksvoort’s first book with Lost Art Press titled “With the Grain: A Craftsman’s Guide to Understanding Wood.” This book is the foundation for a long relationship with our raw material.

To be sure, this book is 100-percent practical. There’s no swooning over grain patterns in its 144 pages. Instead, it is an examination of the material from a furniture-maker’s perspective. And Becksvoort has three important lessons:

1. Know the trees around you and know that they can be used to build furniture.

2. Understand how wood moves and how to use the simple formulas and charts that can tell you exactly how the stock on your bench will change with the seasons.

3. How to build your projects so they allow the wood to move without splitting the wood or destroying your joinery.

All this is told in a concise, clear and direct manner – illustrated with hundreds of photos and line drawings. If you have ever wondered about the relationship between the trees in your neighborhood and the wood you use to build furniture, I think you will appreciate this book and the way it links everything together.

“With the Grain” is available for $25 with free domestic shipping (until Feb. 20) from our store.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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17 Responses to Knowing our Prey: A Case for ‘With the Grain’

  1. Jean-François Théorêt says:

    Any chance it will be available in Canada (either through your store or through distributors)?

  2. Chris says:

    Already got my copy ordered! But tell me this… where is your project list status update you promised to have out last week?

  3. Tim Henriksen says:

    This sounds like another instant classic from LAP filling a long standing void.

  4. Tim Aldrich says:

    A long time ago in an elementary school not so far away, a nerdy sixth grader had to complete the “leaf project”. We had to collect a leaf from ten or fifteen different trees, identify them and write a little something about each tree. I learned enough at that young age to spot a few different maples, oaks, locust, catalpa (easiest one!), birch, even the gingko tree across the street from the school. I’ll definitely be purchasing this book for the LAP section of my little library.

  5. CK says:

    Chris, you have mentioned before that you are a fan of Hoadley’s “Understanding Wood”, as am I. Can you comment on how “with the grain” relates to “Understanding Wood” in terms of the material covered? I’m looking for an excuse to pick up this new title but am struggling with the fact that I have Hoadley’s books on the shelf already and they seemed to cover the same info outlined above.

    • lostartpress says:

      Hoadley’s book is seen as the gold standard in books on the material, and I agree. Becksvoort’s book is different in that it covers information that is funneled through the hands of a furniture-maker instead of wood technologist. It is in many cases a less technical book. It has a large section devoted to identifying wood in the wild. And its sections on dealing with wood movement are (in my opinion) superior to Hoadley’s treatment.

      I don’t think you’ll find much repetition between the books (aside from some all-important charts).

  6. mikeneves says:

    Persuasive post. Any chance of a sample chapter being released?

  7. t says:

    Any date for when an electronic version is available?

  8. robert says:

    Osage orange wood is very cool – fresh cut it can be a bit sudden, but once it has been exposed to UV light (sunlight) it calms down and assumes a nice caramel color.

  9. This is perfect timing. I was just talking to my daughter today about the LN handtool event and she wanted to go look at trees. I hate to admit, I could not identify a single one.

  10. Graham Burbank says:

    trees, like cows, are best when sliced into slabs and ready for use! Now pass the steak sauce and a fistful of hickory chips…

  11. Nateswoodworks says:

    Very excited to get my paws on this book, as well as so many others, will it be offered as a digital? Keep up the great work!

  12. Eric Bennett says:

    I’m building a massive work table with a hickory frame – the wood of bridges and hammer handles. Driving home from my day job, I pass a massive shagbark hickory – and salute. Peace, brother – thank you for your service. I learned much about tree identification working for landscape architects during college. There are a few that I’ve only read and wouldn’t try to pronounce aloud, so phonetic spellings would be helpful. I do like map-lay and oh-ack.

  13. The Trees in My Forest is an excellent book for anyone interested in the woods. If you have ever wandered down a wooded path and wondered about the trees that you see, this is the book that will explain their roles in the ecology of the forest. In addition, Heinrich’s experience inspires the reader; ever since I read this book, I’ve had a burning desire to grab a plot of deforested land somewhere up north and nurse it back to healh as he did.

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