The (poisonous?) elephant in the room

Last time, when we started working on putting up a clothesline, there was a great disturbance in the force.  Possibly up to a dozen people recoiled with a gasp of horror at the idea that I was using pressure-treated lumber.  The very idea that I would be using such stuff got my name on the protest banners with Deepwater Horizon, nuclear weapons, and…apparently I use it to club baby seals?  What’s the big deal?  Well, this is an issue that has been cropping up since pressure-treated lumber started becoming widely available.  I figured it might be prudent to address it here.

In the beginning there was wood.  And it was good.  But behold the fungus and termite doth corrupt it, and it was not good.  And the habitations of men were thus vexed.  But man reasoned within himself and did force noxious chemicals into wood, and the fungus and termite were repulsed, and the habitations of men were spared.  And the peasants rejoiced.

The problem was with those noxious chemicals.  We’ve been slathering stuff on wood to keep out the rot and bugs since roughly the Neolithic.  Thus did we paint houses and coat utility poles in creosote.  But this was something different.  Instead of a thick, gloppy coating, we instead figured out that we could inject chemicals under high pressure into timbers and infuse them with hints of acai and lavender anti-fungal chemicals.  The chemical blend that ended up being chosen was CCA, or Chromated Copper Arsenate.

Yup, you read that last word right.  Basically, treated lumber was impregnated with arsenic.  So there were a lot of problems that emerged like the fact that contractors started getting sick from inhaling the sawdust and absorbing through the skin while working with it.  The arsenic would also leach out into the soil and water (mostly a problem for docks and such).  Admittedly, it wasn’t a lot, but it was some.  And this worried people, particularly those who had made garden beds using this CCA-treated lumber.

Well, that’s the old news.  In 2004, CCA got the kibosh from the EPA.  But by now treated lumber was pretty well established in the building trades.  For instance, if you have a deck, it’s because of treated lumber.  Before then, it was a patio or nothing.  The bridges on the bikeways here are mostly made from treated lumber.  The idea wouldn’t have existed without treated lumber.

Enter ACQ, which is the treatment that gets used now, by and large.  That stands for Alkaline Copper Quaternary.  It’s still got copper in it (thus the greenish tinge), but uses an ammonium compound instead of arsenic.  It’s pretty benign, as the literature has pointed out.  If anything, it will help alleviate copper deficiencies in the soil, and so far as I’ve found, it isn’t mobile like nitrogen, so it doesn’t end up dumping out into the Gulf or Lake Erie.

So here are your options if you want to build outdoors, as of right now:

  • Build it from regular old white pine and paint it a lot (and don’t put it on/in the soil)
  • Use one of the tannin-rich native hardwoods like black locust or osage orange
  • Use a tropical hardwood (teak, jatoba, ipe, etc.)
  • Use a redwood, cypress, or cedar
  • Use pressure-treated pine

I suppose you could add “pour concrete ad nauseam”, but it seems a bit superfluous.  Regular pine just won’t cut it for this.  If you can find black locust, good on you.  That would be my preference, if I could afford it.  In that same vein, tropical hardwoods and redwood are right out, though I hear that it’s quite the selling point for people with more money than they know what to do with.  If you have this problem, send me some of that money because I’m sure I can find a use for it.

So we’re left with PT timber.  Since the change to the ACQ method, I don’t really worry too much about it.  It’s not like I make heaps of dust from the stuff, so exposure isn’t a problem.  I do pick up my waste and bin it rather than compost it, but that’s not really a bit deal, and done more out of an abundance of caution than anything.  Will I use it in the garden?  Yup, sure will.  The possibility of it being noticeable (let alone harmful to plants, let alone harmful to me) are down there with “lightning striking during shark attack” and “Chixclub crater”.  Instead I’ll worry about much more likely things, like ending up as the hood ornament on a Kia.  Or bird flu.  Or the Yellowstone supercaldera opening up…

So go ahead and use PT timber.  It’s not evil or anything.  If you can afford something different, then by all means do so, but do it because you want something more beautiful.  Don’t think you have to buy special cedar boards because PT timber will turn your backyard into a Superfund site, because they won’t.

A floating forest

I was at the lumberyard a couple of weeks ago, and I was looking at all of the tree trunks piled up in a Brobdingnagian game up pick-up-sticks, stripped of branches and waiting for the saw’s attentions.  I had a current of thought that carried me to and fro, and I thought I might share here.  As I sat, I wondered just how much timber we would need to rebuild all of the vast constructions of mankind.  How many trees are in my house?  How many go into a barn, or a barracks, or a church?  What vast forests we would need to fell to even make a dent!

And then I considered a need for trees that might not occur to a lot of people here in the Midwest.  How many trees have gone into the ocean as ships?  How many acres of forest sit at the bottom of the sea, enshrouded in the cold tomb of the deep?  Perhaps I think about it more because of where I’ve been.

That ship I took a picture of a decade ago (that long?!?) was not a particularly large vessel.  But it would have dwarfed anything that came along before steel.  My ship was an old amphibious warfare ship.  It was not large, especially after a month at sea!  But it was more than twice as large as one of the largest wooden warships ever floated, the 104-gun first rate HMS Victory.  And yet the Victory required the use of 6,000 trees.  For one ship.  And that was in the navy.  There are far more vessels that are cargo ships than there are warships.  And on top of that, there’s fishing boats and barges and…

It’s a lot of boats, okay?

So let’s say that we needed to build a big ship.  Not only does this take up acres and acres of mature oaks, but a ship requires three masts.  Anything less is a brig or a snow or such like (Today, ships are big enough to hold boats, but the origin refers to the rigging).  In addition to the masts, you’ll also need a variety of spars and booms.

This is where Thoreau came in.

See, by this time (the 1840’s), New England had been the target of timber cruisers for a century and change.  The mast of a large ship like the Victory was best constructed from a single white pine, more than two feet in diameter at the base and a couple hundred feet high.  A strong mast such as this was not only necessary to the ship, but was seen as a vital strategic military resource.  Any tree over 24 inches in diameter at the base belonged to the crown for just such reasons.  The change in management that happened at the end of the eighteenth century didn’t change the need for masts, and the centuries-old white pines were fed into the maw of an insatiable shipping industry.  The waterfronts of cities like New York or Philadelphia were thick with the cable-stayed carcasses of white pine, swaying over the chandlers and taverns.  By the time Thoreau was talking about how pines would really rather not be boards, even the near-trackless wilderness of inner Maine had been stripped of its white pines.  I refer you to the excellent book American Canopy for more on that.

But here is something a little humbling that I considered, there at the sawmill.  All those thousands and thousands of trees that have been turned into planking, or the ribs of a great ship’s belly, or the spars that held those acres of sail, were worked by craftsmen.  How many millions of man-hours and millions of years of accumulated rings of time have been shot to pieces in the name of a king, or lost to a storm, or were just finally wrested to firewood in the breaker’s yard?  It’s a thing so vast as to be almost incomprehensible.  What a depth of tradition undergirds our craft!

A revolutionary tradition

Woodworking is a craft that has been around as long as there’s been people.  There is no other natural material with the strength, workability, and ubiquity of wood.

I read a lot.  That pile of woodworking books is but the tip of the iceberg, since that’s only what I could afford.  I have those books because the local metro library system didn’t have them (I’ve read most of what they own too).  Add to that all the material out here in cyber-land, and all the video, and there’s a Augean mass of material on the craft.

If an academic has an idea or a hypothesis, it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction to check “the literature”.  There exists a body of knowledge, and it’s wise to plumb those depths before setting off on a quest of one’s own.  Woodworking is no different in that there exists a body of knowledge.  But many times it seems that someone is puzzling over something that has been explained in our own literature.  This craft has existed as long as there’s been people.  And people have been writing about it almost as long.  If you look for the old paths, you’ll probably find it unnecessary to reinvent things.  Most of what we do has roots in antiquity.  From the tools to the procedures, joiners have had a remarkably stable craft.

This idea of looking at the old paths can help you as a craftsman because you don’t have several centuries to experiment on ways to do things.  But you have available the collected works of dozens of master craftsmen, working across the entire globe, over hundreds of years.  And who knows what you might find.  A lot of the innovations that have surfaced (like a Moxon vise), are because of researching old texts.  Seek the old paths.

At the same time, be willing to improvise and adapt.  When I carried a rifle for a living, we used to ruefully say that our motto was “Semper Gumby”: always flexible.  Sometimes, in the absence of any other available experience, you have to experiment.  And maybe you might believe that everyone else is deluded and this new way is better.  Try it!

Who would have believed, at the turn of the 19th century, that commercial whaling had less than a hundred years left on the clock?  No one would have!  It was the dominant force in the lighting industry.  If you had tied your entire fortune and livelihood to the business of whaling, you would have done pretty well at first, then everything would have evaporated with blinding speed under the assaults of kerosene lamps, gaslight, and finally electrics.

On the other hand, had you been prepared to adapt to new trends, perhaps you might have bought into Titusville, just to see how this new “rock oil” worked.  Perhaps, instead of spending more resources on a declining market share, you would take some of your ships and convert them over to carry cargo instead of render whales down.  And so on.

With woodworking, we can get trapped into doing things a certain way “because we’ve always done it this way”.  And tradition is important to us.  But on the other hand, not too many people are riving out oak to make pegged chests ca. 1620.  Somebody had to start muddling over this whole sawn boards idea.  And dovetailed casework.  And so on.  Things change over time, and failing to allow for that change can lead to extinction.

And so there is a constant tension between the weight of tradition and the impetuous pull of innovation.  From this conflict comes technical competence, grounded in the old masters and able to rise with the tides of change.  This is the dualist tao of woodworking.

Making peace with failure

Yes, that’s me jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft.

No, it’s not scary (to me).  At least this time I had a parachute.

But what is a little scary sometimes is trying out something different.  A new design or a new joint can be a little nerve-wracking to figure out.  This is compounded because invariably, this situation comes around on a client’s piece.  They say they want a particular design and there will be something that I’ve never done before in it.  And of course that new bit is always front and center.  This is usually compounded by the fact that there usually isn’t a spare bit of timber to use if the first one fails.  No, I have one shot to make it right.

No pressure.

There’s a few ways to deal with this.  The first is that you take the Farragut approach: “D*** the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!  This way is faster, but it entails a lot of risk of a mis-cut joint.  You can sort of make it a little less obtrusive (usually) with a little tinted epoxy, but it’s not ideal by any measure.

Next is that you cut some practise joints.  Take some scraps and join them.  Make one or two (or a dozen!), and get familiar with how the joint goes together.  That way, when you do it “for real”, it won’t be foreign to you, and you have a better chance of cutting it precisely.  You spend a lot of time working on what turns out to be firewood, but it is more prudent with regard to the primary workpiece.

Third is that you can do a few projects beforehand that include the joint you’re using.  If you’ve made a half-dozen boxes, you’ve probably figured out dovetails by now so that joining the carcase of a blanket chest isn’t such a big deal.  This takes up more time than the “practise joint” option because you’ve got several whole projects to finish before you get to the primary workpiece, but you end up with something more usable than firewood.

I am partial to the third option, but it does come with a price.  When you later see the projects you’ve completed as a learning avenue, it can be a little horrifying.  “I built that?  How could I think this was satisfactory?”  It can be enough to throw you off the whole idea of woodworking if you’re like me.

See, I work on evolutionary designs in work I do for myself.  As an example, I worked out the design for a jar box (we’ll do it one of these days) over several weeks.  Every so often I’d build a box with the same exterior dimensions, but with different characteristics.  The bottom went from a nailed on piece of plywood to being captured in a groove.  The handles changed shape and dimension.  The sides went from nailed butt joints to several different flavours of dovetails (including mitred through dovetails).  Even the most basic thing, the thickness of the sides, went through at least four iterations.  All of those variants work, and are piled in a back room holding jars.  But they’re pretty ugly, as I look at them now.

I see things like gappy dovetails, and carcases that aren’t quite square, and patches of pretty bad tearout, and plane tracks, and…

The point is that these boxes are a temporal continuum.  You can see the work getting more and more refined over time.  But if all you see is what would now be considered failure, it can be hard to live with as a craftsman.  Every day you look at something you built, and all you can see is how horrible it is, despite what other people say.

It’s tough.  But, for an analogy, I would point out the work of the great artists.  Curators and such can point out how a painting is an “early piece” because of the minor flaws on a canvas.  Maybe the colours were mixed wrong, or the brush strokes were crude or whatever.  But said artist kept improving until they attained their “mature style” which can be pretty amazing.

How to reconcile that both of those pieces came from the same person?  How to accept work that you look at and say “This could be better”?

The key to this is you.  The rest of this bit is predicated upon you trying to produce perfection, not just slapping something together.  If you’re taking shortcuts and making mistakes that you justify as “no one will notice”, I would suggest that you start there.  But what if you’re really trying?  What if you’re doing your best?

Ah, there is the key.  If you are doing your best, you have nothing to be ashamed of.  Life is change, on every scale from the microscopic to the geologic.  Just because something may now seem second-rate doesn’t mean that it was so when it was built.  It may be a little embarrassing that your skills were so rudimentary at one point (sort of like those blackmail pictures your mom keeps), but shame doesn’t factor into it.

When you are surrounded by work you did to get better, and you see all the flaws, remember how much has gone on since then.  Give every piece the benefit of your best work (at the time), and you can rest more easily.  You are not accepting failure.  You are accepting that everyone learns, and that no one becomes a master overnight.  When you do your best work, and then later (with more experience) see the flaws in it, just remember that it was an “early piece”, and keep working!

As complex as it needs to be

I’ll get into the joint for the rest of the shelves tomorrow.  But here is an interesting divide between an artisan and a hobbyist.  From the outside, it appears that people who make things for a living (especially if they’re self-employed) are really just playing around at stuff, then getting paid for it.  How many times in the various professions I’ve had that people would get a wistful look and say “I wish I could do this all day…”

It ain’t so.

In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to keep all the balls in the air.  Sometimes, you loathe the craft you work at because of the constraints of actually having to make a living at it.  And the margins are slim at best.  No one who works at craft for a living is in it for the money.

So when faced with design criteria, many times an artisan will have a different view than a hobbyist.  A hobbyist will turn the idea around and around trying to be “cool”.  Some crazy wackadoodle scheme inevitably results, requiring lots and lots of painstaking attention.  If you hear someone talking about how a piece took them umpteen hours of work, you’re probably talking to a hobbyist.

An artisan, on the other hand, has no truck with this.  Those hours of fiddling with things are like Scrooge’s coal: temporary and costly.  Instead, the artisan gravitates to the tried and true.  Why do a quad tenon when a single tenon performs perfectly well?  For a showpiece it might be warranted, but not on a working model.  For an artisan the key points are accuracy and efficiency instead of novelty.

Every piece that goes out the door is a reflection on the craftsman.  Shoddy, hastily executed work is self-defeating.  But at the same time, that work must be done as expediently as possible.  Only by combining accuracy with efficiency can the demise of the Arts and Crafts movement be avoided.

The Arts and Crafts movement was based upon the idea that well-made craft should be available to the “common man” by stripping away excess.  It was a reaction to the overblown decadence of the Victorian era.  Instead of veneer and extensive carvings, the main hallmarks became plain expanses of solid wood (to the point of crudeness on occasion), and exposed joinery.  This is where the Stickley brothers were working, as well as others such as Limbert and the Greenes.

But the theory fell by the wayside in the quest for refinement and class.  By the time the classic forms of Craftsman furniture (Sears, Roebuck had nothing to do with that, by the way) evolved, the pieces were priced way outside the realm of consideration by any but the well-off.  The complexity of most of the pieces demanded a lot of detailed work to construct and caused the price to rise.  Simpler furniture was largely left by the wayside, though vernacular forms persisted and the idea of quality furniture for the masses would occasionally surface in forms like the “utility furniture” of wartime Britain.

So for the craftsman, there is always a conscious struggle to design as complexly as necessary, but no more.  There are competing demands at work.  Do you want something unique?  Well-made?  From beautiful materials?  So far all of these are possible, but then comes the demand for economy and the whole enterprise collapses.  It’s a tough nut to crack.  How to design something agreeable, capable, and affordable?  All of these are considerations.  Balancing them depends on the client (you pick two!).

In the case of this shelf, I needed strong shelves.  The choice of material had been decided already.  I could have simply butt jointed the shelves on to the sides, or used a simple dado.  But having seen failures of those joints, I decided to use a joint that is more complex, but vastly stronger.  This is not because it was a way to show off, but rather because the demands of the design dictated it.  It is as complex as it needs to be, and no more.


All made of ticky-tacky

I know what you’re thinking.

Did he fire six shots, or only five?

No, wrong movie.  But I can feel the massive cosmic “huh?” from here.  Why is a woodworker talking about plastic?

The reason I was thinking about it, and thus writing about it, is three-fold.  For one, workshops are apparently passé.  Everything is “makerspace” now.  The second thing was the arrival of consumer-grade 3D printers at the  big box stores.  ONLY $999!  Finally, I’ve noticed many one-use plastic items (like pop bottles) with labels that say something like “This widget made from plants!”

So this distilled into a thought: why bother with woodworking?  If you can make plastic from plants and run it through a 3D printer, why put up with the splinters?  Doesn’t the arrival of bioplastic and easy access to printers mean that cutting trees down is obsolete and that now all trees can be protected as a natural resource or some such?


The best I can come up with is “maybe, but not really”.

Bioplastics are an interesting idea.  Instead of using oil for the organic carbon chains (is it odd to think of plastic as organic?), you use various forms of plant starch.  The first successful plastic, celluloid, was actually made from cellulose, so I guess you could call it “traditional” plastic.  Now the strange part about this is that while some bioplastics are plant-based, they don’t decompose.  Seems odd, but there you go.

All plastic biodegrades.  It sounds counterintuitive, but let me expand.  The living world has a way to break down everything, even the One Ring.  Just as water, UV, and thermal cycling will reduce a mountain to gravel, so also will those same processes reduce a bleach bottle to dust.  The trick is that while all plastics biodegrade, almost none of them decompose.  Two different things.

The Pacific Garbage Patch is pretty well-known among the various eco-whatsits.  It’s supposed to be the swirling vortex of Western detritus.  And it does exist.  But instead of a maelstrom of cigarette butts and tampon applicators (the typical scum at the top of our local water purification plant), it’s pretty empty out there.  But if you start running a net, the water is more like soup from all the plastic particles that have been broken down again and again.  It turns into an aqueous solution of plastic, essentially, because while it biodegrades, it doesn’t decompose.

So on to bioplastics.  They are, in many cases, more expensive than oil based plastics.  And the ones that decompose readily are even more expensive.  Add to that the fact that to make a plastic decompose easily essentially means making it weak on purpose, and there’s not a lot of good in it.  So that’s why it’s used for all the cheap, throwaway stuff.  Wood, on the other hand, will be strong enough to hold up houses and bridges, yet will decompose readily if you want it to.  Simply expose it to the weather and nature does the rest.

Now let’s turn to the feedstocks.  Most of your bioplastics are using corn or soy, or some other cultivated crop.  That’s not a good thing.  For one, it means that the ever scarcer arable land in the world is growing plastic, not food.  The same problem exists with ethanol.  We don’t see it much here in America, but overseas it can jack up food prices for those who can least afford it.  And that’s just with fuel.  If now a limited amount of acres has to provide food, fuel, and feedstocks for your plastic industry, your food costs increase again.

One benefit of trees is that, like grazing animals, you don’t need to cultivate the ground.  Historically, grazers proliferate in mountainous terrain.  Ploughing such terrain is not only dangerous, but futile because it bares the earth on your hillsides and all the soil erodes away.  You can run cattle over the same ground (in a mob grazing paradigm) and it will be fine.  Trees also don’t need cultivated.  They grow just fine in places no tractor can get to.  Felling trees selectively keeps the soil in place, and allows you to still have productive use of marginal (for cultivation) areas.  Add to that the various other benefits (clean water, clean air, shade, etc.) that trees provide, and it’s hard to beat trees.

When it comes to 3D printers, I have a mixed opinion.  They are pretty neat, and they have a lot of interesting potential uses.  But setting aside the problems with getting your bioplastic to feed these printers, they seem to me to be a bit of a crutch, almost a jerry-rigged solution.

Instead of tapping away on a keyboard to be a “maker”, why not wield tools and be a craftsman?  Once you know how to cut a mortice or weld or whatever, you can use that in almost any situation that presents itself.  You aren’t limited by the size of your printer.  And what happens when you need to make a part for your electricity supply?  Oops!  The computer doesn’t run anymore!  Or what about longevity?  How many different devices or software have you had to learn how to run in the last ten years?  When’s the last time you bought a computer that had a disk drive in it?  How about trying to repair an old computer?  Or let’s go waaaaay back in prehistoric times (like when my dad started programming) and use punch cards!  What if your printing software only ran on an actual “floppy” disk?  That stuff is so obsolete it is forgotten.  But that’s only fifty years of evolution.  The capabilities are extensive, but brittle.  Contrast that with my tools that are on their second century of use.  They still work the same way.  And if I need parts for some reason that aren’t available, I can make them with the same skills.  The biggest advantage to 3D printing is that it takes time to develop those skills, and with a couple of generations now of kids who know only computers, you can make things without having to work at it.  That, I believe, is the root of why 3D printing has taken off: it allows production without work.

Bioplastics are coming into their own.  We still need and want plastics and oil is getting expensive to produce and hard to justify in this climate change era.  But bioplastics take up arable land and require an industrial setting to produce.  Trees can be grown on marginal ground, improving the environment, then selectively felled.  The tools and skills to turn that tree into useful things, from a spatula to a house, are readily available, even at an individual level.  All it takes is time and a little willingness to work at it.  So rather than try to ride the wave of the future, maybe the road to progress is really the old paths.


Timber doesn’t grow on trees…

So I absconded with the metaphor.  Wanna make sumthin’ of it?

In this day and age, we’re mostly divorced from our natural resources.  We buy our food from grocery stores.  Water comes out of a tap.  Our light springs into being with the flip of a switch.  It’s hard to believe that at some point, all of that had to be harvested, or pumped, or mined.

Where this intersects with us as woodworkers is in how we buy timber, usually.  Most of us are not cutting down trees, milling the trunks into boards, and then drying those boards for years before we use them.  Instead, we go down to the big box hardware store and pick up some surfaced 2 x 4s.  If we’re slumming it, we go to the sawmill and buy kiln dried roughsawn boards.

But this leaves us with a warped view of how our timber comes about.  An analogy is meat.  No one says they’re having dead cow for dinner.  Instead: “BEEF!  It’s what’s for dinner!”  We don’t have oak tree carcasses, we have boards.  Or the generic “lumber”.  Or if it’s pine we’re talking about, it’s not even lumber but simply a 2 x 12.

With this jaundiced eye, you quit seeing trees.  Instead you see boards on the hoof, as it were.  Yes, I know that’s stretching it.  But when you look at an oak tree and think “Boy, that is a nice straight sawlog, and it’s big enough to get some good-sized quartersawn boards out of.”, you know the feeling is gone.

How about a little appreciation.  After all, trees are awesome.  I mean that in the original sense of inspiring awe.  That completely pedestrian oak tree is only just getting into the prime of life after we’re dead of old age.  It withstands hurricane winds, sub-zero winters, drought, and rowdy kids.  It stands higher than a ten-story building, and weighs more than your car.  It eats sunlight.  And it is no machine; it’s a living, breathing, alive organism.  All we have to do is leave it alone.

And that’s a backyard oak tree.  Ask about the biggest living individuals on the planet, and most of your kindergarten class is either going to say whales, elephants, or maybe the smug one in the back is going to say dinosaurs.  But trees outdo all of those.  Redwood trees are the single largest being on the planet.  It’s longer than three blue whales.  They’re big enough you can drive a car through them (seen it!).  They are so large that they themselves become an ecosystem.  When the loggers came through northern California, they had to cut the middling size redwoods because the big ones were too big to move (in pieces!) with a train.  That’s pretty darn big.

Are you experienced?  Hendrix aside, we find it amazing when somebody hit the century mark, even in this age of improved health.  Those redwood trees are into their second (maybe third!) millennium.  And those aren’t the oldest trees.  Back when I carried a rifle for a living, an expression for “a long time ago” somehow was constructed as “when Christ was a corporal”.  But if you look at the bristlecone pine, some of them came into being when Abraham was a corporal.

The druids worshipped oak trees.  Buddhists move seedlings of the Bodhi tree all over the world.  Maybe that’s not so strange when you consider our stature next to them.  Keep the tree in mind when you use lumber.  Design your work to last at least as long as it took the tree to grow the wood you’re using.  Work in a way that minimises waste.  That tree was alive, once.  Use its bounty wisely, and don’t let yourself fall into the mindset of not seeing the tree for the lumber.