The trouble with wood is its shifty character. Unlike man-made boards and plywood, it is not of consistent character. This is both the source of natural wood’s charm and its flaw. Seemingly perfect pieces of wood will twist, cup and warp without warning; once distorted, the offending piece will never straighten and like most twisted characters will continue to defy orderliness until forcibly restrained, pared to size or drastically reduced, often to dimensions that render it useless. Yet there is nothing to beat the beauty, the form and feel of natural wood. All fine carpentry therefore must ultimately come face to face with the uncertainties of wood.
Natural wood, as many an expert has pointed out, is a bundle of straw-like fibres of different densities, strength, colour and so on. Like straws they are open on ends that have been cut perpendicular to the length of the wood. These end sections called end grain, are prone to absorbing and releasing moisture depending on ambient humidity.
The trouble is that wood, like most humans, is inconsistent in its form and character; life’s vicissitudes, trauma, external events, weather, disease and stretches of good health determines its ultimate form, which results in wide variations in its growth during life and which is preserved in that state in death.
When wood is harvested and sliced into sections, its life history is exposed in the form of growth rings and grain; somewhere the grain is darker and denser, somewhere lighter and more fragile. All types of wood have grain of one sort or another; woods like Teak and Sheesham have dramatic grain while others have more subtle, often unnoticeable ones. But grain is present in all wood and an expert can identify wood by its grain and colour.
In India, most stretches of forest have long been cut down – the greatest damage being done by the growth of the railways in the second half of the Nineteenth century when vast swathes of woodland were mowed down to provide wood for railway sleepers, carriages and so on. Then came hordes of private loggers to satisfy the demand for Indian Teak, Mahogany and so on. Today, many parts of India stand out red, scarred and treeless. I have seen the tragic retreat of virgin forests in the North Eastern parts of India during the Eighties and Nineties. Today, very little is left.
Not surprisingly, the Indian government has enacted some pretty stringent laws to control and diminish logging. It tries as much as possible to regulate logging of old trees and does much of it by itself through state controlled forestry departments. Despite some amount of corruption, this system has largely halted the rapacious destruction of forests.
Indian forests yield a wide variety of wood but by far the most popular species is the famous CP (Central Province) Teak, which even today is sourced from the central parts of the country, mainly Madhya Pradesh. This Teak is also sometimes called Nagpur Teak. Its scientific name is Tectona grandis and all Teak around the world is of the same species even though the kind of wood pattern obtaining in different Teaks may differ. This is undoubtedly the king of Indian timber and justifiably so. But very little of it is available and prices are often prohibitive.
Most wood used in India today is imported, mainly from various African countries. There is a great demand for wood in the Indian home construction industry where door and window frames as well as doors and shutters are usually made from wood and that too from Teak because of its hardiness and termite resistance. CP Teak is highly termite resistant and the choice of the rich; most others have to fall back on African Teak, of which there are various varieties.
Having suffered recently in my purchases of African Teak, I have become extremely circumspect in selecting wood for fine furniture projects. In the course of my investigations I have discovered that a lot of misinformation is dispensed, much of its deliberate, in Indian timber markets and the unwary buyer needs to be aware of the pitfalls.
Initially, a lot of Teak was imported from Ghana and Ivory Coast but today a lot is imported from Latin America and other African countries such as Nigeria. Ghana Teak was good with close grains and so was Ivory Coast Teak with its restrained, even grain which was good for staircase railings, door-window frames and so on. Today, a lot of Teak sold as Ivory Coast Teak is not really so.
|African teak Plantation, courtesy UNEP|
Virtually all of the imported Teak varieties are plantation grown. Originally Teak was native to South and South East Asia but as the British promoted the spread of Teak cultivation it spread to many Tropical lands around the world. The British favoured Teak as it was excellent material for their ships, both military and mercantile, because of its natural resistance to rot and marine organisms. Oak forests in England had dwindled because of the great surge in ship building in the 17th and 18th centuries and shipbuilders looked for alternative wood varieties. Teak quickly became the favourite – until of course the coming of steam.
In India, on the other hand, Teak continues to be logged from forests. In India, the method of choice is individual logging: old trees are identified, cut and stacked in the open for gradual drying. The result is that Indian Teak, especially CP Teak, is usually old wood that has already dried sufficiently. Small lots of these dried logs are auctioned from time to time and eventually these make their way to the wood hungry markets in Indian cities.
CP Teak is much drier and denser than imported Teaks; it may have prominent grain patterns such as the one in photo 1 below or close, denser patterns as in photo 2. The best buy is old CP Teak pieces that have already been cut and sized. All wood undergoes a second drying process after individual planks and batons are cut. These exposed pieces loose moisture and stabilise only after drying. This is when individual pieces can warp and bend. But older and properly dried CP Teak has a lesser tendency to misbehave.
|CP Teak with Difficult Grain Pattern|
|CP Teak with Denser but Regular Grain|
My experience with buying Teak in Delhi’s Kotla Mubarakpur timber market has made me a cautious man. A few months ago, during the peak of summer, I was pottering around looking for Teak to make an enclosed bookcase. I came to a shop which had massive blocks of Teak wood; they said it was mostly from Ivory Coast. I bought a four and a half feet long by six inch by five inch block of wood, paid about Rs 2600 for it and had it sawn into 1 ¼ inch thick planks. The grains were prominent and lovely but the wood had a rough, oily texture. I took them back home, re-cut some of them and glued them into 10 inch wide boards.There were a lot of wormholes but I could fix those.
After a couple of weeks I discovered that they had bowed and twisted to some degree; the bowing was acceptable but the twist had to be planed out. This involved more elbow grease than I was prepared for and in all spent several hours spread over several days to straighten them somewhat. Then I surface planed and sanded them; yet I could not get them to become really smooth. The surface also felt a little wet and oily. It was disappointing.
|Latin American Teak?|
The problem I later learnt was with the wood. What is sold as Ivory Coast Teak is often not so – a lot of Teak is apparently being imported from Latin American plantations in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru as well as younger plantations in Nigeria, Sudan and a few other African countries. These plantation trees are harvested early, cut into logs and shipped without any kind of drying. Much of the wood destined for North Indian markets is offloaded at Kandla port and makes its way to timber depots as in Delhi’s Nangloi area where it is immediately cut into square sections and shipped to dealers. These logs ought to be kiln dried but almost always are not. The timber sent out is wet and will take months to dry; the insides take even longer to loose moisture and after been sawn undergo another round of drying and possible warping.
Kiln dried lumber is usually only made available to furniture and woodworking factories in bulk. The small retailers almost never stock this. Thus the DIY woodworker has to be extremely careful in buying wood, especially expensive Teak. The best choice as mentioned earlier is to go for old, re-sawn pieces of CP Teak even though this could be expensive: between Rs 2400 and 3,000 a cubic foot. Whereas, Ivory Coast Teak would not be more than 1,800 a cubic foot and other imported Teak as little as Rs 1,100 to 1,200 a cubic foot.
Burma Teak is even more expensive and could cost upwrads of Rs 3,000 a cubic foot. I recently purchased some of it for making the frames for cabinet doors. The grain is less prominent, at least before sanding and staining, while the wood is distinctly heavier and seems much more stable.
I have discovered that buying cut pieces from smaller shops tucked into the bylanes of Kotla is a much better option than buying large pieces and then getting them sawn to size. These pieces are remarkably stable and therefore more economical for hobby woodworkers and fine furniture makers. But selecting individual pieces and checking them is a time consuming affair. Nevertheless, I would opine that scrutiny of wood is as important as the selection of human companions; a bad choice can be the cause of everlasting regret.
27 July 2012
27 July 2012