Friday, December 31, 2010

Seasons & Seasoning

Last time I told you about my fall harvest of sticks for rustic furniture making. The next step in the seasoning process is waiting. And waiting. It takes about a year per inch of diameter for these maple sticks to dry sufficiently for mortise and tenon joints.

For stretchers (rungs -- usually the tenon or peg part of the joint), I want very dry wood so there's no additional shrinkage after the furniture is made that could loosen a joint. Sticks that get mortises (the hole that the peg fits into) can have a higher moisture content, because when the wood shrinks around a tenon it actually makes the joint tighter. But since some designs I build can have sticks with both mortises and tenons, I generally like to make sure all my wood is good and dry.

As the sticks dry, it's normal to see some checking in the end grain. As I build furniture, these ends get cut off and go into the wood stove.

Before I start building, wood comes out of the piles in the loft and down into my shop where it's handier.

With one thing and another, some of the sticks I harvested this fall haven't made it up into the loft for seasoning yet. The rest are in a pile that was too handy for my wife. She was dyeing fabric this week and with snow too deep to get to the clothesline she grabbed sticks from that pile, shoved them into a snowbank, and draped fabric over them to drip.

I doubt you'll be seeing The Red Collection in my rustic furniture line, but you never know.

Next time I'll tell you about some of the tools I use in rustic furniture construction. In the meantime, here's another use for that pruning saw I use to harvest maple for furniture.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Gathering Sticks

Most of my furniture is made with mortise-and-tenon joinery using seasoned maple sticks. I get a permit from the National Forest to harvest maple in an area they're managing for oak. I got sticks harvested before the snow came, and thought I would show you the process.

This is what I'm looking for: maple. The sticks I use are seldom more than 4 inches in diameter and usually less. Because this is hardwood and because of the joinery techniques I use, I don't need as much diameter as with some other rustic styles.

When the weather cooperates, I'll choose to cut when there isn't much snow but it is cold -- preferably in the mid-20 degree range. That's comfortable for cutting and hauling wood, and the sticks have less moisture in them than at warmer temps. Since the wood needs to season (dry) for mortise and tenon joinery, less moisture at the start is a good thing.

I'm looking for clumps of maple to thin. This is called release cutting. It opens up the canopy and gives neighboring plants a chance to thrive.

All I use for cutting is a folding pruning saw. With the small diameter of the sticks I'm choosing, that's all it takes to get the job done. A pruning saw is also less likely to scar neighboring trees than a chain saw, and it fits in my pocket, leaving my hands free for carrying out sticks.

Before carrying anything out, though, I trim off the branchy parts that are too small in diameter for me to use (although I try to use as much as I can) and scatter that stuff in the woods.

Then I rough-cut sticks into lengths that will fit in the back of my truck.

Anything I want to keep longer than will fit in the bed I tie on the racks. But most sticks are rough cut.

Back at home, the rough-cut sticks are hoisted up into the unheated loft above my shop. This is where they will season until I'm ready to build with them.

I stack the sticks in layers at right angles to each other to promote good air flow during the seasoning process. It takes about a year per inch of diameter for a stick to season, and the longer a stick is the longer it takes. My rough cuts are longer than the length I think I'll need to allow for checking, the cracks in the cut ends that are a normal part of the seasoning process. Those checks will be trimmed away in the construction process.

I'll tell you more about that process another day. In the meantime, Happy Holidays from Wisconsin's Northwoods.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Field Tests

Year One

Eight years into a severe drought, we're finally getting some significant rain. We may have to mow the lawn more than five times this year. We may even have to run the string trimmer soon, which will mean moving some pieces of furniture.

It sort of looks like a rustic furniture moving company had a yard sale here and didn't put things away. That's because when Bill tests furniture finishes, he wants to expose them to the worst conditions possible. What looks good Year One has to stand up to sun, rain, snow, more sun, and expansion and contraction caused by heat and cold.

The milk paint field tests are in a handy spot for the watering can by the vegetable containers. Other tests get pulled into use to hold down tarps and landscape fabric, as the need arises. Some samples are screwed to the wall of an outbuilding. And some we use on the porch. Even if it's too cold to sit out there, it's handy to have a place to put groceries while opening doors.

The pebble-topped table on the porch may be moving to the yard after this summer. It's been on the porch seven years. The table is still solid and the finish is fine, but the bark is finally breaking away from the split-branch edging on the table top.

Bill's field test on this piece tells him that split-branch edgings are OK for inside but not for outdoor furniture. For me, the message is that there's a charm that comes with showing some age and imperfection. I think it's still beautiful.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Family Business

When it comes to gathering and using sticks, I have a new role model. You've heard the phrase, "busy as a beaver." This should give you a better idea what that means.

A Canadian cartographer has located the longest beaver dam ever found in Northern Alberta. Using a systematic search of Google Earth coupled with knowledge of beaver habitat, he found a dam that measures 2,790 feet long. The dam has been at this location for at least 15 years, and he believes it must be the work of at least two beaver families.

When I cut sticks for rustic furniture, I may or may not go to the woods alone. But I definitely get help from my wife to move all those sticks up the ladder to the loft in our metal pole barn. Then I stack the sticks so they get good air circulation while they season. Seasoning, or drying, takes about a year per inch of diameter.

Seasoning before construction avoids problems with shrinkage in the joints after construction. That's important in the kind of mortise-and-tenon joinery I use in my rustic furniture.

I was feeling pretty good about my inventory of seasoned sticks. You can't see it from a satellite, though, so I guess it's time for me to get busy.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Tools And Teamwork

In my rustic furniture shop you'll find all kinds of tools, more clamps than most woodworkers acquire in a lifetime, and lots of jigs. Some of those jigs are brilliant. Some make me wonder what the heck I was thinking. But I learn something from everything I make -- even the jigs that don't work out the way I thought they would.

This blog is a new kind of tool for me. In a rural area like ours, high-speed internet options are limited. I'd never even seen a blog until a few months ago. But now that we can view things in less time than it takes to make a meal, I've revised my opinion that computers are a fad. And I have to admit I'm kind of excited about having this new way to share ideas with other people who appreciate the materials and methods used in making rustic furniture.

What's not new is the teamwork part of it. My wife, Donna, and I have been working together for more than 20 years. She's going to help out with the blog while I learn the ropes. She'll probably tell a few stories here on her own, too. The one about pants-dialing from the woods -- all true.

I hope you'll add your own stories, too. There's a comment button at the bottom of each post. Got a question or a tale to tell? That's what it's for. I look forward to hearing from you.