While at Popular Woodworking Magazine, we were often called upon to offer praise or criticism for projects submitted by readers.
On occasion, it would be difficult to find anything nice to say about the project. The form, the joinery and the finish were all rubbish. When this happened, here’s what I told my fellow editors.
“You can either tell them the truth (‘Have you ever considered golf as a hobby?’) and come off as a pious jerk and discourage them from continuing in the craft,” I said, “or you can say, ‘Wow, that is a crazy nice piece of oak.’”
Many beginners gravitate toward using woods with crazy figure or coloring. (I admit I had a very short lacewood phase.) And the sh*t show of chatoyance can obscure awkward forms, gappy joinery, lumpy finishes and poor surface preparation.
This bird’s-eye blindness or curly maple madness usually passes as woodworkers gain skill and confidence. But with some woodworkers it becomes a chronic condition. Wild figure tends to dazzle a viewer. When a customer sees a figured piece, they immediately say, “Wow!” So every piece the woodworker subsequently makes uses fiddleback-tiger-beeswing something-or-other to elicit that response.
When I encounter a highly figured piece, I step back and squint my eyes, which turns down the volume on the figure so I can see the form. Then I get really close to the piece to see the care taken in the joinery and surfaces. Only then can I appreciate the piece as a beautiful form that was carefully made and happens to use dazzling wood.
Personally, I am far more impressed by people who take homely woods and compose them beautifully to enhance the piece’s form. Straight grain on rails and stiles. Centered cathedrals on panels. Gently curved grain on a curved toe kick. Colors that reveal the form, instead of hiding it behind a dizzying fun house of ripples and swirls.
I know, I know. I’m no fun. If you think this blog entry sounds curmudgeonly, ask me about combining different species with contrasting colors sometime.
— Christopher Schwarz
47 thoughts on “I Don’t Like Flashy Wood – Go Figure”
I hope my picture frame for the LAP chest poster is an exception.
I would respectfully disagree in terms of the usage of figured wood in general. I think that the aspect of utilizing and showcasing something beautiful about how the tree grew Is a benefit to a finished piece, but obviously poor workmanship cannot be hidden with it. Likewise a piece utilizing yellow pine with poor lines and joints will look overwhelmingly terrible to my eyes.
But using hand tools and working a difficult gauntlet of grain is rewarding (to me anyways) primarily because of how difficult I know it can be to get that accomplishment. Perhaps that makes the task more about tool proficiency- a different field of interest, I know- than about making things.
I say all of this as a hobbyist who has never really sold anything. I can see how producing to sell could sway my outlook.
As I mentioned in another reply: I had a couple sentences in my first draft that I deleted because they didn’t fit the flow of the writing. Basically, they said: I do like figured woods in small doses. Like on a saw handle or in small objects where the figure can help draw attention to the piece instead of distract.
Opinion pieces always fail.
Okay stay off my lawn you creepy little kids
As always the truth may be difficult but always is helpful ! Don’t change anything ! What about combining different species with contrasting colors ???
I could not agree more! And I would love to hear your thoughts on mixing species…😉
If you cannot have figured wood, at least have racing stripes.
I approve of racing stripes as they make projects go faster.
I dunno, Derek, I was thinking hot-rod style flame job. Perfect embellishment for shaker style furniture.
Thank you. Finally someone with real credibility has channeled my thoughts on highly figured woods. I have a phrase I use when shown something that challenges my pallet. “Wow, I respect and admire the effort it took to complete this project. Keep truckin.” Followed by Fonzie’s ayyyyyyyy.
There is also the situation of figured wood which clashes ruining a piece. A large Chippendale style chest at a show had clean lines and tight joinery.The wood was highly figued but one leg was partially made from different wood which stood out. My guess is the maker didn’t have enough of the same wood to complete the project. It was difficult to get past the contrasting leg.
Chris – Is that sentiment for all wooden things or just large objects like furniture?
I ask because I tend to make small boxes where a little bit of figure on the lid, along with nicely contrasting woods can make all the difference IMHO, of course.
I had a couple sentences in my first draft that I deleted because they didn’t fit the flow of the writing. Basically, they said: I do like figured woods in small doses. Like on a saw handle or in small objects where the figure can help draw attention to the piece instead of distract.
Anyway, stating an opinion in a short space will always truncate the real story.
Ira Glass calls this the “taste gap”. https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/29/ira-glass-success-daniel-sax/
Agree to disagree… sort of.
As attention beacons? Yeah, there’s way too much bad use of figured wood.
On the other hand, if the figure is chosen for consistency, I’ve seen a few examples where it simply adds a nice uniform texture, like a background melody, that fades into the background on its own. I actually saw a rendition once of a Greene and Greene dresser in curly maple that was stunning. The curl was uniform, color was uniform, and it allowed the form of the piece to maintain primacy.
There’s also the outlier of (good) slab tables. But I consider them to be the woodworking version of sui-seki, and they’re more for quiet meditative spaces that will allow for a quiet mind. But, again, emphasis on GOOD slab tables, not 3rd rate wood with overtly stylized butterfly joints.
Also? Garry Knox Bennet can use anything he damn well pleases. That guy is amazing, and the sheer exuberance of his designs would make even the fanciest figured woods get in line and just do their job without calling too much attention to themselves.
It took me a bit of time to appreciate “quiet” wood figures, but now I am totally in favor of those, especially when the furniture is being used/seen daily. In the long run, we probably seem to prefer smoother, soothing lines instead.
IMHO, figured wood suits well for smaller items, or for “hidden surprises” like drawer fronts inside cabinets.
I heartily agree. I could also go a long time without seeing another piece made of highly figured maple and black walnut.
I love a really well made Windsor chair. The solidity and strength that seems at odds with the physical and visual lightness never ceases to delight me.
But a really great paint job enhances all of the chair’s beauty. A “natural” stained finish just seems lacking. Paint really highlights the form, where the grain would just distract. Peter Galbert is the Michelangelo of the painted finish.
I really love figured wood in the right places. I’ve killed my share of curly maples. I laid some birdseye maple floors that are astounding. But for anyone who scoffs at painted wood, I fart in their general direction. Everything has a place.
We all have our own journey. Do not search for the truth, only cease to cherish opinions.
A Shaker side table featuring a purple heart top, highly figured maple drawer fronts, and full extension metal drawer slides can be quite striking.
If you lend me a hammer, I’d be happy to do that striking for you.
It is all in the eye… what is pleasant and what is not. And yes it changes. Taste evolves. But there is little question that a bit of bubinga or wenge on a table top enhance it’s essence. Engineering is eloquent so the joinery is part of the art. The question is whom are you pleasing?
I have become less impressed with figure as it is often not integrated into the design and simply there. It can be beautiful , would you ever consider just showing a slab of wood? Function is part of the art of woodworking and art making. The variety is great and design is personal.
The real question is would you rather work for 40 hours on joinery or produce different projects to evolve your skills or make more items? As a famous designer woodworker stated,” AIs Ik Kan”.. for me that is what I enjoy. I always ask, was a project worthwhile? That truely is the issue
I appreciate Chris for even thinking in these terms.
I’ll confess, I made a Christmas present from box elder strictly to elicit a WOW from its recipient.
It’s an interesting observation — that beginners tend to gravitate to wild figure and and colors (we were all drawn to wood in some visceral way no?) and that some don’t ever progress to a fuller understanding of of the craft or a taste for sophisticated design. Understanding the subtle balance a great piece of woodwork takes from the choices made –materials, color, texture, proportion and joinery–is a skill. Yes, it is fun to to mock bad taste! I love that scene in the movie “Big Night” where the woman puffing away on a cigarette, doesn’t appreciate the risotto presented to her, wants a side of pasta too. Chef Primo says, “maybe I should make her mashed potatoes for the other side? She’s a Philistine!” Does the distaste for figured wood extend to the work of Esherick, Nakashima and Maloof? Osgood? Not likely, and developing an appreciation for their genius shouldn’t be any less an important part of a woodworker’s education than cultivating a taste for the design choices advocated by Frank Lloyd Wright or James Krenov.
Mixed species projects are even worse than the overly figured ones. There should be a ban on purple heart with anything; or even solo, for that matter. Sorry to be harsh, but I learned this from others much more talented; and from sitting through years of “show-and-tell” at the local woodworking club meetings..
It seems most woodworkers have a similar journey, and the early steps of that journey don’t include trips to furniture stores, museums, or even design books.
Lots of early pieces look like one took their outdoor deck building or house framing skills and tried to make furniture. To big, too chunky and loose tolerances.
Then one discovers purpleheart and decides that a table top made of solid maple picture framed in purpleheart is just the thing that all the professional furniture designers and generations of craftsman somehow missed.
Then perhaps it is all figure all the time.
The magazines don’t help – they might feature the ultimate router table 3 times a year and dead-perfect dovetails 5 times a year (how did “dead” become a synonym for straight or square or flat and does perfect really need a modifier?) but simple design advice (use rift grain for legs and frames, strive for color and grain match by using a few boards as possible, etc) must be too boring to print.
FWIW Mike Pekovich does a nice job explaining his design choices, how to work from a single board, striving for “complement” rather than contrast. His articles are worth studying (even if I am not a fan of so much proud joinery).
Right now I am in a spalt phase, but I try to use it sparingly.
Matches my journey as well — for me it was padauk, partially because of reading those Krenov books. Now I’m a one-board kind of guy. There’s nothing like a consistency of color to make one focus on the form. As well as fix any mistakes you make so you preserve that color!
Stirring the pot today… 🙂 How do you pronounce curmudgeonly?
With every vowel sound as a stereotypical-pirate-style “aaar,” of course.
I wonder how much of the distaste for figured wood is due to its overuse. Woodworkers are bombarded with figured wood at just about every turn. When’s the last time you encountered a cabinet made by a famous maker (other than shaker stuff) that wasn’t highly figured? I suspect that 400 years ago there’s no way your “hobbyist” woodworker making the furniture of necessity could afford figured wood. Today, thanks to modern industry most of us can. If you’ll pardon the musical analogy, I think of it a bit like the Taco Bell Cannon. I’m a full time professional classical musician, and in my opinion the Taco Bell Cannon is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. Yet, like most of my colleagues, I at best have a love/hate (but mostly hate) relationship with it because the piece is over played (usually badly or at least with no love). Not to mention, at least 98.6% of all pop music uses the exact same chord progression (Memories by Maroon 5 is the most blatant offender). Are all these songs bad? No. Most are great songs. But once your eyes are opened, you’ll long for something…… different.
Long story longer: what starts out being unique eventually becomes the norm until everyone wants the old norm because it has become unique.
Be careful with the following video. It’s HILARIOUS!, but you may never be able to listen to the radio again.
The Taco Bell Cannon is a hoot! I knew if I read through the responses and replies, I would be rewarded. Dah dah dah dah…
Although de gustibus non est disputandum, for my part I agree with you on this one. In a different but similar vein, I have never desired a Bacon & Day Silver Bell #9 Ne Plus Ultra – the ultimate Christmas tree banjo! – either, and while I may well admire a flashy piece of furniture in its own right, I’m rarely, if ever, inclined to encourage it to follow me home.
Although it should go without saying, I will nevertheless say that I’m not making that statement from any position of particular personal skill or expertise – au contraire! – but just from how my visual taste buds, if I may call it that, happens to go about their business.
To quote Donald Duck (I am a card-carrying Donaldist): “They can have it. I’ll take vanilla!”
“Wow, that is a crazy nice piece of oak.”
In a former life I was ski instructor and we had a similar issue approach. If you ever hear a ski instructor complimenting someone’s jacket, you know the person in question was never meant to strap planks to their feet 😀
Less is more!
Always leave them wanting more instead of wishing for less.
The topic of wood grain aside, I really do wish there were more opportunities for honest critique of our work from knowledgeable competent piers. I think as a group, constructive criticism, both in giving and receiving, is a totally lost skill that I would like to get better at.
I’m a regular on Lumberjocks, which I think is the way WW websites ought to be. Someone makes a bird box, everyone tells them that they’re awesome.
The problem with critiques (and I used to peruse numerous photo websites) was that the criticism was almost always total garbage. You’ve got bad Dunning-Kruger going on all the time. Any usable info. gets lost.
If you want to get better with design, there really is no shortcut. The answer is books/catalogs with lots of pieces of furniture. For joinery, there’s so much info out there compared to when I started over 33 years ago, most of that is available.
Look up, for example, the various Winterthur collection catalogs. Tons of pictures. Pick what you like! Or even just research styles on the Internet. Type in ‘Danish Modern’ and you’ll find pages upon pages. Like this one: https://www.pamono.com/designers
I suppose this means that the “River Table” doesn’t appeal to your aesthetic sense.
On a more serious note…..there is a place for figured wood in good design. If the figure is yelling loudly it’s not good design. If the figure is harmonious with a well designed piece it is only one element of the design
I have a lot of respect for your work. I have read several of your books and built items from each. I happen to agree with what you are saying about figured wood. I disagree it is for beginners. It is personal preference. There are many things that are not my taste and styles I find unappealing. But this post is simply arrogant. I am not sure why it has to be said.
Maybe you should take your own advice “Be Kind or Be Gone…”. Or as my mother said if it isn’t going to be nice don’t say it.
“Wow, you don’t sweat much for a fat girl!”
That’s some really nice looking cherry you’ve got for those chairs.
Reads blog…quietly hides maple and purpleheart coffee table…
Tasteful accents with figured wood looks great but I agree that figured wood is often either overused and/or used in place of good design,.
In my years of working in a “studio furniture” shop, I saw a lot of highly figured wood pass over my bench. Now retired and only owning handtools and a bandsaw, I really like simple woods. I use a lot of pine—and poplar, if milk painting. There are occasions for others, like the wonderful straight grained mahogany currently in the shop for a small boat project.
Chris, you bring up some good points.
My view is that figured wood is like great strength in an athlete, or high intelligence in a pundit. If the strong athlete lacks grace, he plays awkwardly and ineffectively. The clever pundit without insight and wisdom is a bore. Strength and intelligence are only tools. What matters is how they are used.
So it is with figured wood. These gifts from nature are means to an end, which is to make beautiful functional woodwork. Figured wood can be skillfully used to enhance and elevate a piece, or it can be an awkward substitution for graceful design. Because the wood itself is so attractive, it is easy for a lazy or inept designer to fall into the trap of the latter situation.
What we are trying to make is excellent woodwork. Impressive figured wood can sometimes help us with that but only if we use it well.
I wouldn’t say curmudgeonly; it has a connotation of egotistical self-deprecation. The post is really just arrogant and condescending.
I admire the many talented craftsmen out there who share their skills generously with the rest of us and encourage us to be better. I haven’t read much of your work, but the arrogance of this post doesn’t lead me to want to read more. I’m guessing you don’t see the irony of your statement to “be kind or be gone.”
It seems to me you could encourage your readers to think about the value of “homely woods” without putting down those who prefer to feature a beautiful piece of wood over their joinery, skillful or otherwise. It doesn’t further the craft to disparage the less talented.
And I thought it was just one person’s honest opinion.
It’s a pretty lousy world when you can’t say what you think, even if it is in a slightly provocative way.
Keep it coming.
I’m with you! Keep it simple and build it well.
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