The Beauty of Natural Wood
“Wow,” I heard him mutter, “it’s beautiful.” Turning around, I found my husband, crouched down among the dusty bins, ignoring the cobwebs as they clung to his shirt. His hand passed over the old patina of an antique cupboard, wiping away the dust. “Look… Look at this Ray Fleck!”
Woodworking makes my husband come alive. Nothing can make my burly man happier than disappearing for hours into his woodshop, emerging with a big grin to show me long curls shaved from sweet smelling wood or the dovetails that he had matched for a perfect fit. And, to be honest, before we were married, I had never heard of dovetails. Or end grain. I didn’t know how wood fibers reacted when they got wet or how to tell the history of a tree by studying its patterns. And I had certainly never heard of Ray Fleck. But sharing life with someone soon has you peering at the world through their eyes and it didn’t take long before I started falling in love with the beauty of raw wood.
Reading Wood – How to Identify End Grain & the History of Your Blocks
“There it is,” he said, pointing. Stooping over, I could see patterns in the wood that looked like silver rivers against the darker grain. They twisted and turned, channels of starch and sugar stored by living trees. Every tree has a story and you can find it in its wood.
Hold one of your BridgeWood blocks in your hand. As you turn it over, pay close attention to the subtle, unique patterns in the block. Those simple cubes hide something extraordinarily complex; every single one tells a different story about the tree it came from revealing clues about its environment. Plastic toys, although deceptively similar to wooden toys, are hopelessly robotic, lacking the personality that comes from life itself.
Identifying the End Grain
“There are six sides to your block. Can you tell which of the four sides grew ‘up’ on the tree?”
Back at the home woodshop, Aaron takes the cube from my hands, rolling it around in his big palm. “Here”, he said, “look at these two sides. See how the grain looks arched and curved, almost as if it has been cut out of the heart of a wooden rainbow?”
Taking the block, he sets it amongst the others. “And here,” he said, “look at the blocks while they are next to each other.” Glancing at them, I can see that some of the sides gleam almost white, while others are faintly purple. Looking closer, I realize that all of the light purple sides also have the curved arch of the grain.
“The light purple side with the arch is the end grain. The color is different because of how the wood is cut and the way the light catches the open texture of the surface. “Aaron explained. “And this,” his finger moved lightly along the gleaming, straight grain on the other four sides, “is the long grain. This is the direction that the tree grew ‘up’.”
“You can imagine that the block is made out of a group tightly bound together straws. The top and the bottom, that look arched and purple, are the tops and bottoms of the straws. They are ‘open’ and, if you paint or stain them, they are going to slurp in the liquid, drawing it deep into the wood. This also makes these sides harder to sand smooth the long grain, which are like the long sides of the straws. Paint or stain doesn’t penetrate the surface as deeply and they are much easier to sand.”
“This is why,” he smiled, “some folks might want to identify the end grain and paint a solid color over it. This will give them the most consistent look, as the remaining four sides will show off the beauty of the creamy long grain.” He winked at me. “I know that’s what my wife prefers.”
“But,” he continued, “for folks who like a little more personality in their blocks, keeping the end grain raw shows off the arch and that darker tone. That might be exactly the look some folks want.” He thumbed himself in the chest and grinned, “You already know that’s my personal preference.”
“And,” I added. “Some folks won’t care.”
He laughed. “True! True! No shame in that.”
Reading The Story In the Wood
“Want to learn how to read the story of these trees?” He tossed me a couple of blocks. “Check this out.”
“See how the rings are different colors? In the spring, the trees grow quickly as they liven up from the winter and start pulling in all of the nutrients that the spring rains bring. The cells are fat and plump, making those rings light colored. But you can see how the growth slows down, tightening up during the summer and fall.”
“The size of the rings can also tell you what was happening to the tree. Wide, evenly spaced rings indicate that the tree was healthy, growing straight and that there was lots of water and little competition for sunlight. But if the rings are crooked or narrow, it might mean that there was a drought or that neighboring trees were competing for sunlight. It could also mean that the tree was leaning to one side, crunching the rings and forcing them smaller. If they are narrow but suddenly expand to wider rings, you can assume that the drought lifted or the neighboring trees were cut down, giving our tree room to grow and thrive.”
He dug around in the box of blocks, picking out a few here and there. He tossed me one, with a long, dark streak up the side.
“That’s a forest fire scar. The forest burned around the tree when it was younger but the tree survived, building up wood around it.”
He tossed another. This one looked like it had cute, little freckles. “Those are tiny, intergrown knots. Small branches started growing and were broken off, maybe by an over exuberant squirrel or a strong storm. The tree started growing wood up and around it, trapping the branch and causing those angel kissed marks. A lot of folks want knots in their wood, seeing them as beauty marks that make the wood more interesting.”
I loved the next one he tossed me, wavy lines crisscrossing across its surface, creating fascinating patterns. “Whoever gets that one is a lucky duck! That’s spalting and we don’t see it very often. It’s made when a log has been cut and is laying out, inviting a special type of fungi to populate the tiny cracks in the wood, creating those fascinating patterns.” He noticed my concerned glance, and smiling, waved it away, “Don’t worry. The drying process kills the fungi, leaving only its beauty behind.”
Making the Tree's Story Part of OUR Story
He brushed the sawdust off and came to wrap me up in his big arms.
“One of the reasons that I love working with wood is that you have to honor the material. It isn’t fake. It isn’t engineered. It’s a piece of our environment, grown in the wild beauty of nature. You can’t tame nature. You have to WORK with nature. And, to do that well, you have to respect how it works and honor it.”
“And, the more you work with it, the more you love its quirks. Knots are no longer imperfections. If you want something perfect, go buy something plastic. It will be smooth, almost weightless, and you can manipulate it to fit whatever vision you desire. Those aren’t bad traits but, heck. It’s not what I want.”
“I want to wrestle with those imperfections and to find the beauty in them. I want to read how this piece of wood was once a tree, with the strength to survive fires and storms, how its open branches nestled rambunctious squirrels, and how it drank in the spring rains. I want to know that this piece of wood purified our air and, when it’s time came to pass on, that the ground it was in was prepared and ready for another young tree, one that would grow and someday pass on its own history.”
“Wood always tells a story. And, when I work with the wood and honor its story, it becomes a part of MY story. Or, when I am making something for you,” he ruffled my hair, looking at me fondly…