Category Archives: Wood

Go with the grain

Nope. There’s nothing quite like grain. Sometimes, I like it fermented into a lovely carbonated adult beverage to be enjoyed on a hot Florida day after mowing the lawn. Other times, I like it distilled into a warming spirit, fun to sip on a cold winter’s night.


Wait, wrong blog.

What I meant to say is that wood has a grain, and grain is good. Sometimes, it’s not very pronounced, giving a subtle look to a project. Maples, alders and some other species have this look. Other times, well, gosh, the grain is the board. Southern yellow pines, oaks, walnut – they are all about the grain.

Pronounced grain of red oak

Wood grain is fun to work with, but as with anything in woodworking, it has to be selected with care. Let’s face it, there are plenty of times when grain selection can make or break a project.

Think for a minute about gluing up a few boards to make a panel. Sure, you can grab any two boards you want to, true up the edges and make them foursquare and glue them together. And, I’m willing to bet you will end up with a board that’s plenty strong and durable for your project. If you plan on painting the project and you do that, heck, you have saved yourself a metric buttload of time. Go inside and have one of those aforementioned adult beverages and call it a day.

However, if you want to finish those boards in something other than an opaque finish, selecting the right boards to make the piece look aesthetically pleasing will be a completely different matter. You see, the grain from different boards can look wildly different. One board may have a wild, wavy grain pattern while the other is straight and true. Put those together, and, well, yuck.

A great example of grain decision from Kreg Tools
A great example of grain decision from Kreg Tools

The same goes for places where boards may come together at right angles – say the joints in a framed cabinet door. Finding a harmonious blend of where the grains meet can pose a challenge, especially when you have to put a pair of doors next to each other on a cabinet.

The first woodworker I ever saw agonize about grain selection was Gail O’Rourke. She jointed and planed stacks of boards, sorting and shifting them on the workbench as she laid out the pieces for a project she was building. At first, with unfinished boards, I could barely tell what the heck she was doing. But, as I watched her work, and eventually when she finished her projects, the careful attention to grain orientation and appearance came through loud and clear.

Gail O'Rourke

How do you work with wood grain? Well, I still make mistakes on projects, but the best way to do things for me is to carefully mark boards I am working with, especially if I am ripping wide boards down to narrower ones. This way, I can use boards with similar appearances to make things look good. Plus, think about what the show face of your project is going to be. If it will be the doors on a large cupboards, that’s probably where you will want to take your time to choose boards that look the best.

Also, a quick swipe with some mineral spirits will definitely make the grain pattern pop on the boards, giving you time to evaluate your choices before it evaporates without raising the grain like water does.

Once you can get this one down, grain will become your new best friend.

Species Spotlight: Butternut

Cousins are great. They are often our first friends, share the kid’s table during big family events and stand by you when times get tough. I was blessed to have a large number of cousins growing up in our large Italian-American family, and my two sons have a blast whenever they are around their cousins.

The boys and their cousins
The boys and their cousins – a long time ago!

Come to think of it, I have a lot of fun around them too. What a good looking group of rascals.

A close look at butternut

So, when it comes time to throw a few bouquets to the cousin of a famous hardwood, you bet I’m gonna take the opportunity. And, that cousin is Butternut.

Also known as white walnut, Butternut grows primarily in the northeastern quarter of the United States, from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic, from Tennessee and North Carolina up to southern Canada.

The trees don’t grow that large – to about 60 feet tall, with trunks of two to two and a half feet in diameter. They can be found on well-drained sites and stream banks.

A gorgeous butternut cabinet by Michael Moran
A gorgeous butternut cabinet by Michael Moran

The wood closely resembles the grain and texture of walnut, but is considerably lighter. While not white, the wood features tans with a slightly reddish tint. It’s also much softer, with a Janka rating of 490. While that makes the wood more prone to dents, it also makes this wood ideal for carving and shaping, and a dream to work with hand tools.

Like its cousin walnut, butternut also finishes to a gorgeous sheen – and it takes that finish beautifully. That’s what makes butternut furniture positively glow under oils, varnishes, shellac and lacquer.

A massive salvaged butternut table by Na Coille studio
A massive salvaged butternut table by Na Coille Studio

While butternut is easily accessible and relatively inexpensive in its growth range, many trees are endangered by the butternut canker, a fungal disease that kills the trees off rapidly. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian authorities are expressing concern about the future of butternut trees, and universities are working on a prevention or cure for the illness to protect these important trees.

So, if you love working with walnut, but want to try something new, why not give butternut a try? You might find it to be a friendly wood to work with.

Species Spotlight: Red Zebrawood

In my day job as a public information officer, I work closely with our local media outlets – TV, radio and print. And, over the years, I have heard a lot of jokes about our friends who work in the media and the media industry in general.

But, my all time favorite is one that I heard back in second grade:  What’s black and white and read all over? A newspaper!  Of course, when you see the joke in print, it loses some of its punch, with read and red being homophones and all…

Black and white and read all over

Recently, though, my friend Eric Poirier at Bell Forest Products told me about a wood that’s black and red all over… and it’s a relative newcomer to the lumber scene.

Known as red zebrawood or ebiara, it’s a handsome wood that comes from western Africa where the trees grow up to 90 feet tall, with a fairly narrow trunk. These trees can often be found shading coffee plantations. Think about that before you suck back your next cuppa joe…

Red Zebrawood

The wood has a coarse texture, and, for the most part, has a straight grain habit. There are areas of the board, however, where that grain is interlocked, so some care should be exercised when hand planing.

A turned box by Al Fox
A turned box by Al Fox

As with zebrawood, it features bold, dark striping on a lighter background. As you might guess, the lighter background wood is more red tinged than that of zebrawood, leading to its naming.

Unlike many other tropical woods from the area, red zebrawood is not known to cause allergic reaction, and isn’t oily, meaning that standard gluing and finishing procedures can be used.

A beautiful box made by John Collicott
A beautiful box made by John Collicott

What can red zebrawood be used for? Just about anything, really. Cabinetry, marquetry, veneers, furniture, instruments … the stuff is even used to build boats and to make railroad sleepers back in Africa. It turns beautifully and takes a beautiful polish, making for some stunning pieces.

Sure, red zebrawood may be relatively new to the woodworking community, but one look at it, and you’ll want to share the news about it as well!

Pine is fine

When I started woodworking, most of my projects were built out of white pine found in the local home improvement center. Why not? It was cheap, plentiful and easy to work.

But, after a while, I was told by other woodworkers that I should never – and I mean NEVER – use p-p-p-p- domestic conifers. After all, woodworking is all supposed to be about the hardwoods, right?

we see lots of this in Florida

Well, not so fast. While it’s maybe not appropriate for every project, there are plenty of times when pine is perfectly fine to work with

First, let’s talk about pines. There are lots of species of pines out there. Loblolly pine, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, longleaf pine, eastern white pine… the works. When it comes to pines, though, most fall into one of two categories – white or yellow.

White pines typically grown in the more northern climates, while yellow pines tend to grow farther to the south. Driving through the highways of Florida, you can see vast stands of yellow pines as far as the eye can see. In fact, the name of the county I live in – Pinellas – comes from the Spanish word for Point of Pines.

A southern yellow pine table by Michael Hurwitz Furniture
A southern yellow pine table by Michael Hurwitz Furniture

While I use white pine from time to time (and love it), my favorite pines are of  the southern yellow variety. They have a very pronounced grain pattern, and I know that turns some folks off. But, for me, I don’t mind it at all.

A pine chest I built

I have used it for furniture, such as this raised panel blanket chest I built for my bedroom. The piece is as solid as the day I built it, and even with a full load of stuff in it, it can carry a bunch of weight with no issues. The details on the raised panels came out crisply, and with a coat of amber shellac and some Danish oil on it, I think it has that classic southern furniture look.

My workbench was built using southern yellow pine as well. I know that when most folks build their benches, they source some gorgeous hardwoods so the bench will stand the test of time. But, as Chris Schwarz pointed out in his workbench book, southern yellow pine is plenty strong for the purpose. And, as Mike Siemsen of the Mike Siemsen School of woodworking pointed out about his bench – if you accidentally drop the project you are working on, would you rather have the workbench  or your project get dinged up?

My Dutch Tool Chest is another example of pine’s versatility. Chris Schwarz pointed out that pine’s characteristics – strength and light weight – make it ideal for tool box building. I cut dovetails into the base, and that sucker is holding together nicely, no matter how many times I haul it out to places.

Now, where do I get my southern yellow pine for building? Would you believe me if I told you in the construction lumber area of my local home improvement center?

Yes, the blanket chest I had built was made of resawn 2 x 8s. I cut them, then stickered them for a week to let them acclimate to my shop. In the ten plus years since I built the piece, I haven’t noticed any warping, cupping or twisting.

So, if you have turned your nose up at pine in the past, maybe it’s time to take another look at it for your projects. You might just be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Floor to the fore

So, this past weekend, I told myself, “Tom, this weekend, you have GOT to finish that front entertainment center.” Not that there is much left to do. I just had to put a top on the three separate units, reattach all the wires and I can finally put a fork in this project.

So, I went to my local hardwood supplier and found out that – wow – they are no longer at the location they had been at since they opened! What the heck was I going to do?

One thing I was NOT about to do was go to the local home improvement center and drop the equivalent of $6 a board foot for red oak. No way, no how. But, I did go to the home improvement center and I did pick up something I had considered for the top of this unit for a while…

A carton of floor about to be elevatedA carton of prefinished engineered hardwood floor. Yeah, it was an interesting choice, but I knew that it would be available in oak in a shade that would be close to the laminate floor, and it would be prefinished with a very durable surface, eliminating the need to put on a finish after the fact.

I unpacked the box and discovered that – much to my happiness – the boards were individual pieces of random lengths. That wasn’t going to give me that laminate plank look. I spread them out on my bench, and knew I was going to need all of the 20 square feet that came in the case.

Random lenghtsWith the planks having all tongue and groove joinery, they snapped together easily. I assembled each row, glued them down to the tops of the cabinets and then tacked them through the tongues to hold them in place while the glue cured. Next row, same process. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Everything in its placeBefore long, I had the three cabinet tops done. Now, since the edges of the flooring are pretty much the edges of plywood, I know I have to put some edging on to the cabinets to hide the look. But, before I did that, I know I had to put the lamps, speakers, stereo, TV and other entertainment components back into place so the family could enjoy them. I will probably handle the trim work over the next few nights and eventually call this one done.

All the scrapsIn the meantime, there was a fairly small stack of scraps on the workbench. I had indeed needed every single plank in that case, and I just knew that I had to be VERY careful as I came to the end of the project, just to ensure I didn’t have to buy a whole new case for just a few pieces.

I’m not sure I will use flooring again on any of my pieces, but this certainly was a interesting experience.


Species Spotlight: Cocobolo

Theobroma Cacao. Food of the gods.

ChocolateYes, that’s what the scientific name for cocoa is – and it couldn’t be a more appropriate name. Native to Central America, the Aztecs fell in love with cocoa at first taste. The conquistadors who went on to discover the new world – and lay waste to the native cultures – were just as intrigued, and brought cocoa back to Europe where it eventually was processed and made into chocolate.

cocobolo - up closeToday’s species spotlight isn’t on this plant, but instead it is on a dark reddish brown Central American wood that looks just about as delicious as chocolate.

Cocobolo grows primarily along the Pacific coast of Central America, from Panama to southwestern Mexico. The trees can grow from 50 to 60 feet tall with a diameter of about 24 inches.

The heartwood is a gorgeous, dark brown red with an irregular grain, which can sometimes be interlocked. Cocobolo is also a very stable wood which rarely checks or moves while drying. It works very well, taking crisp details and finishing to a high polish. The wood is also very hard and dense, which makes it an excellent tonewood for musical instruments.

cocobolo guitar backCocobolo also shines as an accent wood for high end projects, such as knife scales, furniture inlays, pool cues and the like. When paired with a contrasting wood, it can really make a striking appearance.

As with many tropical woods, cocobolo is an oily wood, which can create issues while gluing. Wiping the mating surfaces with acetone before applying glue can help improve your success.

Cocobolo chess piecesThe oil can also make for trouble when it comes to applying finishes. So, you can go one of two routes. You can burnish the final project by sanding down to a very high grit. The finer the grit, the more lustrous the finish will be. Another option would be to use a sealcoat of shellac, which will isolate the oils from the finish layers you want to lay down.

Also, that oil can cause rashes or other allergic reactions, so be sure to use good dust collection, a particle mask and preferably long sleeves while working with it.

A cocobolo handled knifeAs you might imagine, with its limited growing area and striking beauty, cocobolo has been overharvested in the past, leaving the species as threatened. That’s why it is important to check with your supplier to ensure the trees come from managed areas and responsibly harvested.

So, the next time you want to put some tasty details on your woodworking projects, you just might to check out cocobolo, which could easily be named the wood of the gods…


Species Spotlight: Spanish Cedar

Across Tampa Bay from where I live is the city of Tampa. And, inside the city’s borders, there’s an old part of town called Ybor City, where the Cuban cigar rollers plied their trade, making Tampa America’s cigar city.

On the main drag of that city the Columbia Restaurant. Established in 1905, they serve some of the most delicious Spanish and Cuban food you can find anywhere. The atmosphere is absolutely lush, with fountains, intricately painted tile and the scent of hand-rolled cigars being smoked over at the bar.

The Columbia's famous interior courtyard

The restaurant also features flamenco dancers from time to time. This exuberant – and loud – dance style features elegantly-dressed ladies, handsome gentlemen and the staccato sounds of a flamenco guitar played by an experienced musician.  Many of these guitars have a neck made of Spanish Cedar, today’s spotlighted species.

Spanish cedar is a native tree to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. The trees can grow up to 100 feet in height, and thrive in well-drained soils.The wood has a fair resistance to rot and insects, which makes it very desirable in the tropics, where these are a very big concern.

Spanish Cedar

The wood can range in color from light brown to a pinkish-red brown. It is very soft and easy to work with. It has a tendency to splinter, so the key are sharp tools.  It does have the occasional pitch pocket, which continually ooze resin, so if you don’t plan on sealing the wood, it’s a good idea to try to avoid those areas when selecting your pieces.

Spanish Cedar cigar trays

While it may be called Spanish cedar, it’s not a true cedar – closer, instead, to mahoganies. What’s really wild, however, is that it does have the smell of cedars, making it an excellent choice for chests and to line storage boxes for another big product of Ybor City, cigars. In fact, while many humidors may be built on the outside with a variety of different woods, most of them are lined with Spanish cedar to enhance the flavor of the cigars stored within.

Spanish Cedar guitar neck

While it’s obviously not finished when inside of a humidor, Spanish Cedar does take a great finish. The perfect way to view this is to check out the necks of most classical or flamenco guitars. They are traditionally made of Spanish cedar, and can take a mirror finish.

Reading these descriptions may make you think that Spanish Cedar is only good for small projects. It does well as larger furniture also, making beautiful benches, tables and other projects.

A beautiful Spanish Cedar bench by the Museum and Library Furniture company

So, they next time you smell a fine cigar being smoked or hear the energetic sounds of a flamenco guitar, be sure to applaud the work that Spanish Cedar does in bringing that to you.