Natural woods, their individuality and friendliness*


Tom pets his pine

Tom pets his pine

There exists in wood a quality so satisfying that the proper use of it in the structural features of a house produces an effect of completeness which does away with the need of elaborate furnishings or decoration.

– Gustav Stickley, The Craftsman, July 1905

Every now and then, I encounter a windbag who wants to tell me how I can no longer find the wood needed to properly restore 18th-century buildings.  And he’s partly right, as windbags unfortunately are. Wainscot found in the Demeritt-O’Kane house was composed of a single clear panel 26″ wide and 17′ long. It is difficult, and not even always ethical, to obtain boards of that quality, and that is just one reason we preserve and repair original material whenever feasible. But sourcing wide, clear, heartwood pine (as well as large timbers) is challenging, not impossible. If one sources further afield than the local lumberyard and invests in good relationships with a variety of sawyers, it is possible to obtain wood qualified to our task.

Shawn Perry is one such partner with which PTF is fortunate to work.  Most clients know him as the stout and skilled joiner found on jobs that range from a cylindrical water tower in Boxford, MA to a steeple in Castine, ME.  With his wife Rebecca, Shawn manages their homestead in Lebanon, NH and often supplies PTF with black locust pulled from his woodlot by Judy and Aurora, their draft horses. Shawn, neighbor Steve Collins, of Belgian Meadows Farm and Les Burden, of Burden Tree Farm in Farmington, are three off-the-beaten path suppliers who help us source the wood required for especially discriminating jobs. Through these relationships, Shawn was able to procure pine logs 27-30 inches in diameter, knowing immediately their value if not their ultimate destination.  He milled the logs to 1″ boards and stickered and seasoned them, slowly, over years. The resulting boards were almost entirely heartwood, very nearly clear, and 16-22″ wide.

Fireplace wall, evened to the eye

Fireplace wall, evened to the eye

The boards were destined for the interior of the c.1790 farmhouse at iFarm. The client and architect specified a simple fireplace surround appropriate to the date and station of the original house.  It consists of a beaded panel wall with a beaded, horizontal lintel. The tongue and groove boards serve both as wall paneling and as trim at the door openings (rather than an applied door casing). The lines are clean, and, for all their traditional authenticity, modern-looking. Fine carpenters will recognize that this austerity of line leads to the most demanding construction. From our perspective, the real purpose of casings and moldings is not to add ornament, but to hide the joints at borders; without it, every cut must be perfect.

Flush door "casing"

Flush door “casing”

Dan, Dave and Tom milled the boards at the shop and finished preparing the surface with careful hand-planing. They used a very sharp and very shallow blade, in order to prevent tear-out. Progressing slowly and incrementally, they were able to identify a change of grain before the plane dug in, and would duly switch direction. Many people recognize the fine scallops associated with a traditionally hand-planed surface, but don’t know that a sharp hand-plane also leaves pine with an iridescent sheen. Side-by-side, the crisply cut fibers of a hand-planed surface is an obvious improvement over the hazy, abraded surface left by fine sandpaper (even without the scallops, which should be shallow, and whisper rather than shout).

Tom cut the beaded edge with a tablesaw cutter with a 1/4″ round bead and a quirk that comes to a point. Usually, he’d cut the bead with his selection of molding planes but their flat-bottomed quirks did not match the original profile found at iFarm.

Back on the iFarm, the fireplace wall in the living room was slightly curved and well out of plumb. Before fitting the paneling, Tom strung a series of mason lines along its length and furred out the wall to within 1/2″ of flat.  If he had attempted to make the wall perfectly plumb and true, the wall would have appeared drastically uneven at the corners, at the door openings and worst, in the middle of the room, where the wall intersects the masonry of the fireplace.

Wall paneling scribed to original joists and second story floorboards

Wall paneling scribed to original joists and second story floorboards

A final challenge awaited Tom at installation.  The wide pine paneling runs full length, from floor to ceiling. Each board needed to be scribed to both the new floor and to the original second story floorboards that create the ceiling. The undersides of the second floor boards were rough and uneven, and not one of the original oak joists was square. When necessary, Tom first cut a pattern out of 1/4″ luan, and fit that before using the pattern to cut the pine.

Tom and the wall, if only the photographer had been as careful with her focus as tom was with his carpentry

Tom and the wall – if only the photographer was as careful with her focus as Tom is with his carpentry.

The results are impressive.  Even as construction continues, the room is very pleasant to be in. The raw pine is warm, and even though the design is very simple, the fine craftsmanship is evident. As I was admiring his work, I asked Tom if, after all that effort, this wood was perfect, and he said, “No.”  Which is true, and evidence of his standards as much as his loquacity. I was reminded of Robert Adam, our teacher at North Bennet, who taught us to choose sticks of Eastern White Pine that are devoid of sapwood and tightly vertical grained, even if they contain pin knots. These are highly preferable to the clear flat-grained stock often found in “Select” piles.  The rot-repellent extractives that give Eastern White Pine heartwood its pinkish hue are why we still find 200-year old trim on New England’s capes – trim which is often “marred” by tiny pin knots. In a 1909 article in the Craftsman, Gustav Stickley addresses the selection for perfection in wood. He wrote:

…We are too apt, when we are choosing wood for the interior of our houses or for the making of our furniture, to put a money value on it rather than to allow ourselves to appreciate its natural beauty. For it is a fact that the greatest beauty often lies in wood that is faulty and comparatively valueless from a commercial point of view, and that by throwing this aside we sacrifice the most interesting characteristic of the woodwork.  When we do strive for the effects produced by crooked growth and irregular grain, we go to the other extreme and instead of studying each particular piece of wood and using it exactly where it belongs with relation to the rest, we hunt out deliberately the most gnarled and knotted pieces, so that the result instead of being interesting a natural and inevitable way, is eccentric and artificial.

This is the greater pity because, after all, it requires only a little interest, care and discrimination to give to the woodwork of a room just the kind of interest and beauty that belong to it. Instead of that we are apt either to imitate the wealthy man who built a cottage in the Adirondacks and paneled it throughout with spruce so carefully selected that not a single knot appeared throughout the entire house, or else we go to the opposite extreme and deliberately select the wood of irregular and faulty grain for the entire house, instead of letting it appear here and there as natural

– Gustav Stickley, The Craftsman, May 1909

For more photos of iFarm, please visit our Flickr album.

*The title for this post was taken from an article by Gustav Stickley, in his journal The Craftsman: “Home training in cabinet work: the texture and quality of natural woods, their individuality and friendliness.”

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