|No Wood is hard to work if your tools are sharp|
When I first started woodworking, I read up a bit on different kinds of woods, their properties and so on. Yet, when I actually got to working with wood, I realised how little I knew the material. Over time, as I worked on a few different kinds of wood I learnt that each variety has its peculiarities, pros and cons, and so on.
I haven’t worked with a lot of varieties but there are a few things I look for in wood: first, is it easy to work with? Second, will it endure, or will it crack, split or twist over time? In other words, how stable is it? Third, can the wood withstand load, or will it sag and bend with age? Fourth, will it take stain and polish well? Last but certainly not the least, how beautiful is the wood texture?
Every person will have his or her likes and dislikes and I cannot comment on that. However, some wood varieties are inherently beautiful, like Teak, Padauk, and Oak while others are simply plain like Mango, Chaamp (Arau Wood), Meranti or even Saal.
For the beginner
For someone starting off in woodworking the first wood I would recommend is finger jointed rubber wood. A number of companies in Kerala manufacture rubber wood boards and sell them all over the country. Rubber wood (Hevea Brasiliensis ) is classified as a light hardwood and its colour is whitish with dashes of pale browns. It is easy to work, takes stain well and is pretty hard.
|Pieces of Rubber Wood board|
The good thing about rubber wood board is that pieces can be cut out to size and do not need any planing or surfacing. Milling wood for the beginner is a daunting task and can take the fun out of the learning process. With Rubber wood none of this is required; the boards are ready for use.
Rubber wood boards come in 4 by 8 feet sheets and in approximately three thicknesses: half inch, three quarter inch and one inch. To make batons for legs and frames, two or more pieces of rubber wood board cut to the requisite size could be laminated with glue. Making 4x4s this way is easy and produces very strong pieces.
A hobbyist woodworker could make a large number of very useful projects from bookshelves to boxes with rubber wood board. It is a great material to start off with and only marginally more expensive than good quality plywood.
However, I must warn that of late some Kerala rubber wood producers are skimping on quality and shipping rather poor quality boards. In these boards, the pieces finger jointed together are not necessarily of similar quality, or the jointing is not done properly. As a result, there is great and abrupt variation of grain in these boards. This can cause bowing and twisting of the boards. Worse, finishing such poor quality boards can be a nightmare as they will blotch and take stain unevenly.
A lot of beginners tend to use plywood and board simply because it appears easier to work with. Plywood can be cut and put together with screws and glue to quickly make a variety of projects. The great advantage of plywood is its stability and the availability of all kinds of veneer to cover it. However, plywood is not suitable for all projects. It is also difficult to cut without splintering the surface and finishing it can be a problem without adding a layer of veneer – a process that is time consuming and adds to the costs.
Teak is another very readily available wood all over India and it is indeed a great choice for making furniture. However, there are many varieties of Teak out there and one needs to recognise the varieties and their deficiencies.
|Reclaimed Burma Teak|
CP Teak is considered the best and is the most expensive. However, it is harder than the African and South American Teak varieties and can be difficult to work. A properly constructed CP Teak piece of furniture can not only be beautiful but if made properly could last for more than a century.
For beginners however, I would recommend first using the cheaper African Teak varieties. They tend to be softer and easier to work with and are half the price of CP Teak. But be aware that some Teak varieties tend to be very oily and do not dry well; avoid these if possible.
As for CP Teak I learnt that buying really good pieces can be a tricky business. Initially, I used to pick up pre-cut pieces bundled in lots of four because they were the cheapest and I thought they were a bargain. However, over time I have found that the cut pieces are usually the rejects and should be scrupulously avoided as they contain pieces with excessive knots, streaks and so on. Good CP Teak is best purchased as one large thick piece of timber (called fantas in north India), which can later be cut to size or sliced into planks.
There are a couple of varieties of wood the beginner could try out without thinking too much about it. These are Pine and Spruce, both classified as softwoods from temperate zone countries like Canada and New Zealand. Spruce tends to be a little stringy but is cheap, easily worked and great for stuff like shelves, boxes and so on. Pine is harder and comes in several varieties of which the most common is Pinus ponderos. Pine is harder than spruce but equally easy to work. Both varieties do not stain well and some skill is required to finish them. But these are extremely useful varieties as they can be used in a variety of situations.
Explore other varieties by all means but be aware that many of them have shortcomings that one needs to be aware of. Saal, for instance, is a hard but easy to work wood; its great disadvantage is that it can split and is best used as big thick pieces such as in door and window framing. Mango wood is soft and does not stain well. Other varieties cannot take load too well and will sag distressingly over time.
Yet each variety has its uses and is suitable in different contexts. But it takes time to figure all that out and I haven’t reached there as yet. I therefore tend to be a little conservative while choosing wood for my projects. That does not mean of course that I do not experiment with new wood varieties – I do but am circumspect.
9 July 2013
9 July 2013