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Woodwork and its Importance in Human History

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

Woodwork and its Importance in Human History

In the United States of America, we tend to take the idea of wood as a resource for granted. We are famous for wasting a lot of our resources because we have a lot of it. We have copious amounts of land and plenty of wood sitting on top of it. Americans generally are in the mindset of having plenty when it comes to wood. But that is not the case worldwide. In places like Japan, Jerusalem, and England, land mass or a viable environment for wood growth is scarce. So in these places, both the past and present, woodwork is less like a typical job and more like one that is not unlike a jeweler or artisan. 

Woodworking, whether for practical or ornamental use, is practically a cornerstone of our civilization and tells the story of man. So, today, we are going to talk about the importance of woodwork in history. 

Prehistory 

The earliest documentable instance of wood carving date far back to the very origins of civilization. The Paleolithic era was a time when ancient ancestors began to carve sticks into sharp spears and other forms of weaponry. The spears were ideal for the purposes of hunting and gathering. 

Then, we see a shift about 10,000 years ago in the Neolithic period. Tools made of wood were beneficial to aspiring farmers who wanted a way to harvest their newly growing crops.  Also, some of these tools were useful for the purposes of animal domestication. 

Once civilization got more complex, so did the woodwork.  Trees were great for support beams when building a shelter out of clay. It was also a great medium for the earliest of artisans to depict religious deities. The oldest example of this is the Shigir Idol, an 11,000-year-old preserved sculpture found in Germany. There were intricate patterns in the surprisingly tall piece, as well as the depiction of several faces in this pseudo totem pole. 

Photo by Isabella Jusková on Unsplash

Ancient Civilizations

The use of wood and the art of woodwork got more complex, the more advanced civilizations became.  This is evident in two kingdoms that grew large enough to establish their own unique ways of life. Ancient Egypt, and China. 

China

China held wood in high regard as one of Earth’s natural elements. In fact, it was held in such high regard that it was considered a force meant to balance the very fabric of the world, along with earth, air, metal, water or fire.  

Culturally, wood was the representation of growth, strength, generosity, cooperation, and altruism. Practically, its main use was architecture. Palaces, temples, furniture, and pagodas were all made mostly with rosewood, a resource, while not rare, was still considerably precious. 

 The carpenters that carve wood for the purposes of decorative architecture were extremely precise. They were masters of their trade making complex and ornate patterns to create depictions of mythical beings, important figures, or symbolism.

Three distinct architectural techniques for furniture go as far back as 2,000 CE:

  • Platform Construction: It involves connecting pieces with woodworking joints. This technique made it easy to piece together and pull apart structures, which was great for rebuilding after natural disasters or warfare. This was mainly in use for temples, palaces, and pagodas. 
  • Yoke and Rack:  This technique involved the use of stretchers, long pieces of wood for a frame-like structure, held up a by joineries, little pieces of wood that connected one frame then another. This was less for structure and more for decorative purposes for things like doorways. It is certainly in use for the upper class, temples, and other places of significance.
  • Bamboo Construction: It is traditionally used with just bamboo, but the main goal is to make solid walls and through multiple pieces of connected bamboo that are combined with a natural plaster.  This was for lower class housing. 

Egypt

But China wasn’t the only civilization to use wood to their advantage. In fact, Ancient Egypt contributed to a lot of woodworking techniques we use today.  

They saw wood ideal enough to make furniture, but the use of wood as a resource was restricted to a small population who can afford it.  Cedar importation was necessary for Ancient Egypt after the Nile went through deforestation. 

This scarcity meant that they had to get creative with the wood enough to make it last and cover up mistakes. That lead to the invention of veneers, or flat wood paneling and varnish, a gloss made to stain the wood a certain color and to preserve it better against the elements. 

When not used for practical tools, wood furniture was mainly in use for people of status. It was also in use for the construction of sarcophagi, decorative coffins that were supposed to serve as a pseudo-body for the dead and aid their journey into the afterlife. The more ornate they were, the more likely the dead would be able to make their journey to Paradise. Inscriptions are painstakingly written on each coffin, with prayers, blessings, and reminders of their past life. There were even nesting doll coffins, where one person could have multiple ones inside one another. 

Woodworkers would definitely be experts in their craft and could make a lot of money from these coffin commissions.

Conclusion

Woodworking is not just an art. It is functional. It is something of value, no matter how old a civilization is.  It reminds us of just how far humanity has come so far, and will forever be a tool in our arsenal.

Deadlines

Man, what a busy week it’s been.  I’ve got a client that wants built-ins for their office room.  Bear and I worked all weekend getting the cabinets built, the doors built for the cabinets, and the shelves that go on top of the cabinets.  We did a partial install yesterday. I say partial because the cabinets were taking up too much space in the shop, and I needed to get them out so I can finish the rest of the project (side note, does anyone know of a space that has 3000’ sf of open area, wired for 220v, has a paint booth, a welding room, is climate controlled, and rigged up for air handling?  If so, call me!)

handcrafted furniture huntsville al
The Limiting Factor (LIMFAC)

I learn from every job.  This job taught me the capabilities and limitations of my shop.  On a job of this size (7 base cabinets, 8 shelving units, 10’ tall, two 10’ foot long countertops) I learned that my shop is the limiting factor, the LIMFAC if you will, of my production ability.  In this particular job, my shop was the constraint. That’s a hard work-around, as I’ve either got to build the aforementioned space, or buy the space.

The Stovehouse

I went and looked at some property right across from The Stovehouse on Governors Dr a few weeks ago.  It was two buildings, each with office and warehouse space. The ceilings in the warehouse were 20’ or so, and the big warehouse was 1100’.  It wasn’t climate controlled, it didn’t have good lighting, it wasn’t insulated, it didn’t have 220v. I think I’d have to drop $50k into it to make it truly shop ready.  Of course, my current shop isn’t climate controlled or plumbed for dust control or any of that either, but I sure can’t beat the commute!

handcrafted furniture huntsville al

I’m also working on my portfolio.  I’ve been taking pictures of every project I do, and it turns out that I’ve made a pretty wide variety of custom wood creations.  They generally fall into a few categories: Storage, Furniture, Organization, Lighting, or some combination of that. I’ve also done a few truly unique pieces, like a leather bag and a Christmas ornament advent calendar.

What Type of Wood is Best for Custom Made Furniture?

What Type of Wood is Best for Custom Made Furniture?

Woodworking is a type of craftsmanship that is both artistic and utilitarian. A  good piece of custom made furniture can be kept for years between multiple families. Also, it can be a statement piece of home decor. This is, of course, if the craftsman uses the right materials.

So, we are going to talk about what sort of material would be best suited for custom made furniture. After all, there are quite a lot of different types of wood out there in the world. So, let’s find out what checklist you need to run when looking for materials for custom made furniture.

Hardness

handcrafted furniture huntsville al

The first thing to realize is that you want to choose a type of wood that is resistant to dents and scratches. Hardwoods are far more likely to resist things like dents and scratches because of the direction of the grain.  The best and most common way to test different types of wood is the Janka Hardness Test.

Specialists conduct the experiment by embedding a steel ball in the surface of a sample.  The amount of force that it takes to embed the ball onto the surface is measured and applied. The US uses the Pounds per Force (lbf) scale and Europe uses the Kilograms per Force (kbf) scale.

The higher the amount of force, the harder the wood.

Hardwood is rarer in comparison to their softer counterpart. This means it usually more expensive and harder to get. However, not all hardwood is malleable enough for custom made furniture.  And, not all furniture is going to go through too much wear and tear. This is why different types of wood are used for different items.

Durability

Wood changes when exposed to external environmental factors. Good timber should be more durable. If a piece of wood is naturally resistant to climate changes, termites and fungal attacks. The scale ranges from 1-5 with 5 being the most resistant and 1 being the least. You want to at least choose 3 and above if you want your custom made furniture high quality.

On a similar note, fire resistance is also key to quality made furniture.  If the wood has more density, with its grain more compact, it will be more fire resistant as a whole.

A lot of wood is naturally porous. After all, trees are plant matter, and timber is also part of that structure. However, not all wood has the same amount of absorbency. You want to at least make sure that it has less permeability if your furniture is going to be exposed to water.

 

Aesthetic

Not all types of wood look the same. If you have a preference on the pattern of the wood grain or its natural color, take a look at your options. Do you want wood that is brown, yellow or red? Are you planning on painting it with a varnish, or are you leaving it alone? Are you concerned at all over the texture of the wood? These are things you want to keep in mind when deciding what type of wood you want for your custom made furniture.

Types of Wood for Custom Made Furniture

Mahogany – It is a reddish brown wood that leans toward the harder end of the Janka scale. It is rare so it is going to be more expensive. It is a tropical tree and darkens over time.

Black Walnut – This is one of the most popular woods for furniture in the US. It has a variety of colors that range from light pale brown to grey, to nearly white.  It is on the lower range compared to the rest of the other hardwood.

Oak – This is more on the mid-range of the hardness scale. Oak trees are native to the northern hemisphere. There are around 600 species of oak, both deciduous and evergreen. The color goes from pink to blonde.

Birch – Birch trees are widespread in the Northern Hemisphere. Though it is closely related to Oakwood, it is much harder. The color ranges from reddish-brown to nearly white. It has a density slightly above Black Walnut.

Maple –  Maple trees are native to Asia. They are sturdy, resistant to splitting and are easy to clean. This makes it ideal for kitchen furniture.

Eastern White Pine – If you want cheaper wood that is not going to be exposed to water anyway, then Eastern White Pine would be ideal. It is on the softer side of the scale and is very lightweight.

Western Hemlock – These species are native to the west coast of North America, and is easy to shape. It is soft, but it also has termite resistance. Just don’t try to use it for outdoor furniture.

Failure

There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure. Colin Powell

I messed up on a job last weekend.

My client is building a beautiful house on the top of a hill with a million dollar view.  They asked me to build them some white oak tops; one for the desk, one for the island, and one for the attached dining area.  Because of the size of the rough slabs, I had to build the tops in place.

And did I mention that the dining table top was round, except at the end where there was a square extension from the round top?

I was trimming the rough blank to size with my jigsaw…tight to the line, everything is going good.

Until I saw that the top had shifted on the pedestal base and I had sawn into the trim of the island itself.  I swore when I saw the damage I had done.

I’m going to pay for this, both out of my pocket and from future jobs that I don’t get word of mouth.  Don’t get me wrong, the pieces that I supplied are gorgeous.  Beautiful.  Beyond amazing. I’m hoping that the client will focus on that and less on the oopsie in the future

But I screwed up, and I’m going to learn from it.

-Secure workpieces before working on them.  Better yet, when on the jobsite, put the workpiece on either sawhorses or a site-built work table or a workbench.  Don’t work in/on the installed area.

-Use furniture pads.  This helps to prevent scratches, segregates the area to store tools, and generally protects everything.

-You can never have too many clamps on the job site.

 

What ‘Custom’ means to me

I’m not creating something that you can buy in a store.  I can’t compete with them in cost, and I’m not trying to anyway.

Custom means that you are getting something that is a reflection of you.  Sometimes it’s easy…a recent client wanted doors to cover the openings in their brickwork grill.  But they wanted them in cedar, and in the ‘barn door’ fashion. Good luck buying those in the right wood, in the right dimension, and then you’d probably have to take them home and install them yourself.  Ha!  I smile just thinking about the improbability of that.

Let me put this another way….If you had the skill and the tools and the machinery, what would you build?  I’d like to think that my sole purpose for my business is to give YOU access to the skill and the tools and the machinery.  I think I’ve mentioned this in an earlier blogpost, but I want you as a client to be actively involved in the design of the piece.  I can come up with ideas and suggestions and such, but I crave your feedback.  You need to provide input.  Without it, I’m just building a piece of furniture.  With it, I’m building a piece of furniture FOR YOU.

I built a sofa table for a client last fall.  She gave me the general dimensions, but she wanted it flush to the wall behind the sofa and flush to the back of the sofa.  The thing was, it was a curved back sofa.  One side of the table was straight, the other was curved to fit the curvature of the sofa.  Good luck finding that at Haverty’s or Ashley furniture.  I built her something that was custom to her needs.  I’m particularly proud of that piece, as I had to use ALGEBRA (no really, I sincerely used algebra) to determine the curvature of the sofa.  And who says that you can get through life without ever using algebra.  I laugh in the faces of all of the non-algebraic people in the world.  I know who they’ll go to when they need a custom piece of furniture!  HA!  But I digress…..

I’m soon going to finish a project that is a combination of wood, metal, and leather.  I designed it with input from the customer.  It is going to meet all of their desires and fit in with their existing taste.  I guarantee they will love it.

 

More leather!

Because seriously, who can’t use more leather in their life.  Am I right, or am I right?

 

The size of the pouch is 8×8, the fringes are 5″ long.

I see leatherwork as an extension of furniture making and upholstery.  I’m working on developing this skill to the point that I can create and upholster furniture as needed.  Not all furniture is just plain wood construction….

The first year is in the books

I got my business license one year ago yesterday.  That is the day I use to keep track of ‘business time’.  Yesterday was my first anniversary.

I’ve learned so much, both from the business side of things and also on the woodworking side of things.

Hand chopping mortises in white oak is an exercise in patience.  Also, white oak chips smell like fine whiskey.  Or is it that fine whiskey smells like white oak chips?

-I think I know how much custom is valued.  I’m going to charge accordingly in year 2.

-When I build something that goes into a customer’s home, I need to be very careful about what I call the ‘interface’.  How is this piece that I’m building going to fit onto/into/around the pre-existing structure/mount/furniture?  How my piece fits with what is already there is the hardest part of ‘custom building’.  I’ve gotten so much better at that…planning and measuring and making my piece fit with what is already there.  I learned that lesson from repeated trips back to the jobsite…

-I need to build a ‘travel box’, a toolbox that I can grab and throw in the vehicle and take to the jobsite.  I can’t tell you how many times I got to the job site and forgot the battery charger, or the right drill bit, or the left handed monkey wrench.

-I’m more than just a woodworker.  I’m getting decent as a leatherworker also.  To me, leatherworking and woodworking go hand in hand.  What use is a sofa frame if it isn’t upholstered?  Furniture making and woodworking are synonymous, and I see upholstery as an extension of woodworking.  I’m looking at a chair right now that is disassembled.  It needs a new seat.  I’ve cut out the seat blank from some plywood, and I’ve got upholstery foam.  I’m deciding if I want to use leather as the seat cover or a cheaper fabric.  If I use leather, I know that I won’t be able to sell the chair for what the leather costs.  If I use fabric, I may be able to sell the chair for the cost of the fabric and foam.  And I found the chair on the side of the road!  The cost of making the chair was free to me!

-Such is the quandary I find myself in….I’ve found that people often don’t understand what goes into making things.  I mean, everything comes from Wal-Mart, and by extension, China, right?  You go to the nearest big box, plunk down your dollars,and walk out with a chair/table/dresser drawers.  But very few people understand that there is a difference between solid wood and sawdust mixed with glue and pressed into a shape and coated with a paper that mimics grain.  Fewer still understand why solid, hand-made goods cost more than particle board crap.

-I love creating.  I love the look on the clients face when the light switch is flipped and a lighting fixture that I built and wired and mounted lights up.  Or watching the client rub her hands over the smooth oak table, relishing the texture and character of the wood.  I take immense pride, joy, and satisfaction from taking a client’s sometimes nebulous idea and turning it into reality.

I’m grateful for all of the clients that I’ve had this year.  I hope that I’ve met and exceeded expectations.  I look forward to building solid, multi-generational, functional and beautiful things for many more people in 2018.

 

Yours in custom creations,

Drake

Ruminations on being in business almost a year

-Making sawdust is easy.  Updating the blog is not.

-I struggle with determining how much ‘custom’ costs.  I’m building one of a kind creations.  What I’ve found is that people come to me to build something that they can’t buy at Wal-mart/Target, can’t find in a flea market or antique store, but there’s a picture of it on Pinterest.  So how much value does that have to the customer?  How much should I charge, given my relatively new status to the custom building market?  There’s a balance there, and I don’t think I’ve found it yet.

– I always forget to mention this, so I’m going to mention it now.  I’m a retired veteran, and I get 10% off on all purchases at the big box home improvement stores, like Lowe’s and Home Depot.  I pass those savings directly on to YOU, my friend!

-Taxes suck at any level.

-I’ve learned more about business, customer relationships, future goals, and even woodworking in the last ten months than I would have ever expected.  I’m excited to continue to expand my skill set, master new techniques, and build my gallery by putting projects into homes and businesses in the greater Huntsville area.

Chris Schwarz is a workshop hero of mine.  He makes it look so easy.

-I’ve never NOT had a project waiting for me to work on.  That is encouraging.

-I’m excited to build a ‘proper‘ workbench.

 

 

Coming Soon! A Product Line tab

I’ve always thought that I needed a product line.  Something that the customer can browse through and say, “I need that!”.

Also, it gives me something to work on when I don’t have a client.  Hopefully, I can build the product line out into a series of creations and products.  As usual, it will be along the line of A Home for Everything, and Everything in its Home.

First up in the product line:  Storage racks for the garage

I built this rack for a client back in May.  Simple 2×4 construction, lag bolted to the wall, sturdy as all get out.  This one was 6 1/2′ tall, 2′ deep, 11′ wide.  That’s 143 cubic feet of storage.  Who can’t use 143 feet of storage?

I was so impressed with myself over this simple rack that I decided to build one to store all of the lumber in the garage, I mean, woodshop.  Who uses a garage to PARK a VEHICLE, right?  Garages are for woodshops, and making sawdust, and storing both useful and un-useful items.  That’s what storage racks are for!  Here’s a picture of that one.

This is the rack I built to hold my lumber. 16′ long, 8′ high, 3′ wide. About 335′ cubic feet of storage.

Other things in the product line that I’m thinking about….really nice tool boxes.  Tool chests.  Leather work.