Why Not Equality for Wood?

Why does an obscuring mask of dirt and grime increase the value of old furniture but decrease the value of old paintings? Is it curious to anyone else that appraisers always recommend cleaning paintings and jewelry, even rugs, so that we can enjoy the detail; but want to see the same dirt, cigarette smoke, and general grudge left on beautiful wood? 

The beauty of wood furniture and gifts is a combination of several ingredients:  the overall design – combination of straight lines and curves, shapes and proportions; woodworking – joinery used, execution skill; and artistry – the wood’s color, grain pattern, character and figure created by Nature, how the grain patterns are used, how the boards are sequenced and combined, and sometimes how different woods are combined.  A mask of dirt and grime obscure both the woodworking and the artistry.

An admired painting invites closer attention to details – how the major components are spatially arranged, how each component interacts with the others, the amount of detail used for each component, how colors and brush strokes are layered, and so on.  The effect is to draw your attention to finer and finer detail, and each time you do so you are rewarded visually and emotionally.  When new, antique furniture offered the same ongoing pleasure for its owner. 

Some boards have little or no character – use them for the bottom and back.  Others have strong oval and arch grain patterns that would visually detract from interplay of components and overall design, or from the style - again, use them only in appropriate styles and then in visual balance.  When one looks below the dirt and grime on magnificient antiques, we’ll see those were the practices of the skilled craftspeople who built them.

Perhaps someday it will be possible to clean furniture, as one would clean a dirty painting, without losing most of its appraised value.


Is it Beauty or Blotch?

When a dye, pigment stain or oil is wiped onto raw hardwood, the wood can develop an uneven color.

Many people would find this picture of maple, found on the Internet, to be stunningly beautiful.  The displayed figure is known as curly, tiger or fiddleback.  (It’s not known, and really not important, if the picture shows solid wood or maple plywood.)

Like the above maple, this birch plywood shows lighter and darker areas (in addition to the band of darker heartwood in the middle of the picture).   This figure is known as blotch.  (After a water based dye was wiped on and dried, three coats of an oil-varnish blend were wiped on.)

Like many hardwoods, maple can show blotchy figure, and birch can show curly figure, both as solid wood and as the surface veneer of hardwood plywood.

In both pictures, the light and dark areas are due to the wood’s having an uneven rate of absorption – the darker areas absorb more color and/or oil.  Although they were probably different in these two pictures, it is possible that a similar sequence of color and finishing steps were applied to the maple and birch.

When the uneven rate of absorption is very regular, as in the first picture, many will say the finisher was especially skilled.  When the uneven rate of absorption is irregular, as in the second picture, some will say the finisher was unskilled.  Both pictures show the natural response of hardwood to wiped color and/or oil.


Improving Board Matches

(Part 3 of 3)  The final step in board matching is trimming edges for an even better match.

Here are four boards in selected orientation for a specialty cabinet side.  Color and grain pattern flow across the four  boards, but the overall appearance can be improved with five minutes of work.  On the right edge of the 2nd board from the right, there is a strip of sapwood that will stand out after finishing.  On the left edge of the 2nd board is a small defect on the back side.  And the grain pattern on the 3rd board from the right is diagonal to the edges, making more visible the joint with the adjoining boards.

Those trims have been made.

With the trimmings removed, the resulting matches between boards are improved.  The eye now sees the grain and fiigure of the wood without being distracted by joints.  It is hoped that with this attention to detail the piece of furniture is more likely to be used and enjoyed for many many years.

Matching Boards in Furniture

(Part 1 of 3)  It is always extremely rewarding when visitors ask how many boards are in the field on this cherry blanket chest top.  Unless creating a decorative effect such as a bookmatch, my objective is to minimize changes in color, grain pattern, grain direction and figure at joints.  Ideally, the viewer’s eye is drawn instead to highlights such as dovetailed corners and to the overall style of and proportion of the piece.  (There are two breadboard ends and four boards in the contained field.)

Good matches seldom happen by accident.  But only a few minutes are needed to evaluate alternative orientations and select the best.

These three all white hard maple boards were selected for the bottom of a sideboard.  In this orientation, rejected, the oval-and-arch patterns in the outer boards are too close to what will be the edges of the glued assembly.

By simply swapping the first and third boards, a much more balanced appearance results.





Raw Veneer versus Hardwood Plywood

Not infrequently I’m asked “why bother working with raw veneer.”  For example, commercial walnut plywood is ready to use, while raw walnut veneer leaves have to be ordered, trimmed and edges jointed, taped into sheets, the sheets glued to a substrate, and the surfaces then sanded. 

A conceptual bookcase project may help explain the difference.  The bookcase will be in the middle of a long wall.  It will have a lower section with doors, and a set-back upper section with open adjustable shelves.  The doors of both examples will have panels faced with crotch figure.  Plywood will be used for the sides and back of both the lower and upper sections, and the shelves.  Solid wood will be used for the face frames and doors.

Using commercial walnut veneer, joints in the veneer likely will not be symmetric across the backs and sides. Almost certainly the grain pattern and figure will not be consistent across the inner and outer surfaces of the sides and the visible  back of the upper section.  The crotch veneer on the door panels may be gorgeous but too visual for the veneer on the hardwood plywood.  A stain and glazing may be advised to make less noticeable the differences in grain pattern and figures on the various plywood surfaces.  The lasting visual image may be the dark finish and not the wood.  After ten to fifteen years the dark finish may be considered a dated look and plans inititated for yet another bookcase.

By starting with raw veneer, the width and length of the raw veneer are chosen for the bookcase dimensions, and the leaves trimmed so that joints between the leaves are balanced and symmetric across the sides and backs of the lower and upper sections.  Bookmatched ropey quartersliced veneer could be used for the sides and backs to produce intriguing arrow or chevron patterns for added visual interest.   Walnut burl accents could be incorporated in the corners of the lower and upper sections to further tie them together.  And the crotch veneer door panels will look more part of a whole when matched with the bookmatched ropey walnut and burl accents.  A clear finish over oil would be appropriate to highlight all the character and beauty of the walnut wood.  The lasting visual impact of this bookcase would be the combination and use of figure and the wood itself.  This bookcase would be likely to become a family treasure to be kept for decades and desired by the next generation.


One of the benefits of veneer is the seemingly endless variety of textures, grain patterns, colors, and figures.

This collection of samples includes quarter sliced and flat sliced grain patterns; a piece sliced from a wormy log; burl, crotch, waterfall and mottle figures; and a wide range of colors.

Commercially produced veneer is sliced from a solid piece of wood, conceptually like the meat slicer in a delicatessan, so there is no waste.  The bottom surface of one slice of veneer is an exact copy of the top surface of the next slice.

Some of the solid wood from which these veneers were sliced are too unstable to be used as solid wood – they would undergo too much seasonal expansion and contraction, and sometimes warping, to be incorporated in furniture.  Additionally, burls, which are roundish growths sometimes seen on the side of a tree, are very decorative but small – several consecutive slices often are brought together edge to edge to create the needed length and width.

From initial slicing to a distributor and on to the end purchaser, veneer is always kept in sequence.  This picture one end of eleven sequential sheets of quarter sliced maple veneer, each about 110″ x 5 1/2″.

In use, veneer must be glued to a backer or substrate as it is too thin to have any strength of its own.  But it offers an amazing design range for custom furniture. 

There are several commercial suppliers of veneer.  The one I’m most familiar with, www.certainlywood.com, has its complete inventory in pictures on line under their “Wood Menu” tab for anyone who would like to see more of the woods, figures and colors that are available.

Grain Patterns

Trees grow using annual growth rings, the coincentric circles seen in the end of a log or the top of a stump.  When a log is sawn into lumber, the faces and edges of a board intersect those growth rings.  The resulting patterns that appear on the faces and edges I call “grain patterns” and there are two basic types.

This provincial style table top has five boards.  The darker middle of each demonstrates “ovals and arches,” the most common type of grain pattern.  Some people prefer this grain pattern feeling it is more active and more natural.  When the grain pattern is fairly consistent across the boards, and somewhat centered in each, the result can have balance and appeal.


When the ovals and arches run off the edges of some of the boards, the result can be irritating.  This table found in a consignment shop is not very attractive.




The other basic type of grain pattern is “quartered and rift” resulting in fairly uniform parallel lines.   One of the boards in the above consignment table top shows a quartered and rift grain pattern.


This blanket chest front shows three boards, each quartered and rift.  The “quieter” grain pattern allows the eye to focus on the overall front and dovetails, rather than the individual boards making up the front of the chest.

I keep a collection of example grain patterns in my workshop to examine and discuss with interested visitors.  In addition, a more detailed description can be found on my website at www.stephanwoodworking.com/CommonBoardGrainPatterns.htm.