John T. Kramer
Traditional Wood Conservator
copyright 1989 - 2006

First Published in:
International Woodworking magazine


Until this century wood was the single greatest material aid and comfort in every century of our ancestors lives. Depending on who starts counting where, the experts all disagree, the art and technique of working wood into countless forms of tools, heat, shelter, furniture, transportation, decoration, kitchen utensils, any and every other thing imaginable; and some not. The first everything; including the first submarine and airplane; were first made of wood.

From the most ancient of our ancestors that first only burned wood to ward the chill and fear of night. First they learned how to carry it with them, to keep an ember burning; no matter the weather or rivers to cross. Later someone learned and taught another how to spin a stick against a small split of wood, to create an ash and ember which could be coaxed into flame on a bed of dry tinder; now we could always start a fire, not easily. Later someone learned that a string could be mounted on another bent stick, twisted around the fire stick and spun with much greater ease and efficiency.

Somewhere along the way somebody picked up a rock and started rubbing it against a stick they learned that they could reshape the stick to suit their needs and so began working wood. They learned to shape bone into needles and fish hooks, but primarily they learned to shape wood.

Then a great wonder our grandfathers learned to shape rocks. At first by abrasion against other rocks to give a crude edge to an axe; that one day someone took it from his hand and decided he could hit harder with if he mounted it on the end of a stick. They even learned to make drill bits of rocks and mount them on the ends of their fire drills, and also discovered the pump drill, they could now make uniform holes in wood and also in other rocks.

This begins the history of the stuff that holds the world together; glue. The first glue was simple strips of rawhide or plant fibers, applied wet to shrink tight, it works pretty well. The sinews, hoofs, and hides of a wide variety of animals and fish parts; comprised the basic stocks of glues for our ancestors which were slowly boiled over a long fire of winter. Then packaged and carried for ready use. For several thousand years the technique of process and manufacture of tested best quality glue was a high art form. Up until this century, natural glues after centuries of testing and proving have been suddenly dropped.

A little at a time over a very long time each generation added new knowledge to the art of shaping rocks into tools to either be used with wood or used on wood. They learned to burn wood more efficiently and to build shelters suitable to every climate on the planet for basic comfort in every season. The Eskimos of the Arctic made do with mostly bone, but, they made good use of what little wood they got, and they were real handy with rocks.

Mature Stone Age Culture enjoyed a high level of technical expertise. From wood and rocks very precise saws, knives, axes, spears, drill bits, adzes, scrapers, and small tools of all description could be made and used to reshape wood into still further comforts and tools to provide more comforts. People began specializing at this point because to become truly proficient you had to do it quite a lot to stay in practice. One would make drills and other fine points another heavier tools. Someone else would take to making those things he felt most suited and they all traded with the hunters and gathers (truly the worlds oldest profession). Then somebody learned to dig in the ground with a pointed stick, they later learned to harden in a fire, then we had farmers introduced into the community of trade and co-operation.

Wood was being shaped into homes: windbreaks were erected before the entrances of caves, interwoven wood and thatching or large sheets of bark striped from trees, or the hides of great shaggy beasts sewn and draped over stout straight sticks. Cooking and eating utensils were fashioned, reclining seating on frameworks of thin sticks intersewn and hung from a support. Many comforts were made and the items became very important to life, they required many hours of labor to make or of your labor to earn. So began commerce and then unfortunately somebody wanted to be in charge; he should have been shouted down.

A need was early felt that one should preserve the investment made in labor; and so began the history of finishes and preservatives. They first used that most available, animal fat. It helped some. By the first time of contact with metals our grandfathers enjoyed well regulated lives with only the aid of fire, rocks and wood, to shape and work the materials that sheltered, fed, and warmed the body. Their possessions were highly decorated with fine finishes on well crafted tools of stone and wood. They could extract a great many mineral, plant and animal materials from the bounty of earth.

The tools man learned to hunt with first a rock or club, then a sharp rock as a spear, the spear became lighter and then fletched with feathers to be thrown with a handpiece as an atl-atl. Then came the development and high art form the wood bow. Now man could extend his power in rapid succession many paces from his body. Then some damn fool decided to use these things for war, probably the ancestor of the guy who wanted to be in charge. He was prolific.

All through the early metal ages and the periodic destruction of all knowledge by ever improving weapons of war; our grandfathers and grandmothers lives were ever improved by increasing the skill ability and ingenious purposes wood now combined with a growing number of ever harder and more efficient metals; which provided even more powerful tools than before. The investments of labor in ever more complex creations of wood were accompanied by experiments in how to preserve and protect the investment. Great wooden wheels were set to turning, transferring power to a growing list of more and more highly specialized tools, all primarily made of wood. Not until the nineteenth century did all metal tools begin to supersede those primarily made of wood, and after 1950 that wood became rare and endangered.

By the mid-nineteenth century, when we first began to really enter the industrial revolution, life had risen to a stable fluid society of culture and refinement, enjoying a wide range of luxuries; for those who could afford the labor. Several other trades and crafts enjoyed a growth and refinement and all, without exception utilized wood in some (or many) ways.

The quality of joinery was sacrificed to accommodate the machines of mass manufacture, but, if one could afford it the quality of a fine cabinetmaker was readily available. As the revolution progressed more accommodations to quality were made so more could be automated and done by machines.

The most telling accommodation to machines is that now a wood is chosen for its machine ability more than suitability to a particular task.

We join the twentieth century and war is still a popular hobby of kings and potentates and other folks that refuse to get along, they all want to be in charge, damn that guy anyway.

Mass manufacture has provided complete sets of furniture to a growing number of people who live in solid permanent shelters and whose lives are highly specialized and routine. Save those adventurers who wandered off. Fine craftsmanship is still recognized but, some new chemicals and processes of manufacture are beginning to effect a real change on the world. More things are being pre-packaged in mysterious combinations and the arts of scratch preparation of materials and supplies begin to be lost to most practitioners of various crafts; for the different crafts have begun to splinter into broader and more specific fields; the manufacture of paint has become a major business separate from that of the painters, who now only use paints and varnishes.

Then the petro-chemical industry began to grow and it tried to replace everything in our lives with the products of fossil fuel; and has nearly succeeded.

Just because it was newer and improved it always seemed that the experts would know better; and it was this wonderful new technology which made it cheaper.

The importance of wood in the lives of our ancestors is out weighed by no other single material. What we have left is all there will ever be, once its gone its gone forever. It is the result of thousands of years of human knowledge combined to best purpose. Our ancestors were unbelievably clever or we wouldn't be here, they knew well the material they were working.

In scarcely two generations we've nearly wiped out that entire body of knowledge. They did know what they were doing and knew better than we how to preserve the investment of labor their work represented. When we can see the damage modern products are doing, we have no choice but, to return to the better ways of protecting things before those ways are lost forever.

I talked to a man the other day who may be the youngest living varnish cooker in the country, and he's moving along. The skills were passed down from cooker to apprentice. The secrets of the trade were always closely guarded and very little has been written down. Someday we will find it necessary to return to the use of the varnishes, at least in small measure to preserve the past. It will be a shame if the knowledge is forever lost.

Our present use of wood is restricted to fast growth softwoods and a few hardwoods for trim and decoration. The cost of wood is steadily rising, and supplies are growing smaller. Fine veneers are skyrocketing in cost. In the equatorial areas which now contain most of the worlds resource of first growth hardwood trees; the forests are disappearing at the rate of thousands of hectares every day. The rest of the trees are being filled full of bullets which are real hard on veneer and lumber saws which cost hundreds of dollars to sharpen and thousands to replace; the mills refuse to cut the lumber from war regions.

If we survive the lack of air a lack of trees will provide; there will still be no wood for new work; the age of wood will have finally passed from the epoch of civilization. What little then remains will be the very last.

It is our responsibility to preserve work and knowledge of how work was done better than is now generally done; to insure the rich lessons in heritage for our decedents, grandchildren and posterity. If we refuse them this grace now? Do we also damn them?

One of the easiest ways to see what I'm talking about is the evidence left by old tools. Wood body planes in particular. Fine craftsmen preserved their investment in quality tools by treating them with a variety of preservative preparations. Others who just used-tools-up left theirs to suffer the elements. When we examine the remaining specimens we see some tools in superb condition, ready to use after enjoying the years of beneficial treatments, last renewed long ago. Other tools are dry, the bodies and soles cracked and twisted; these were the tools of the others, they will never be useful again.

If we do not provide proper preservatives to our small remaining body of fine woodwork it will suffer a fate like the cracked bodies and soles of the planes. Sooner better than latter we should begin the preservation of the remaining tangible historic record. If we do not the children will suffer for it.

Wood is the most important material contact we have with the entire body of our ancestry. It has been paramount in aiding, comforting and paving the road to civilization.

One of the first things we must remember is to use each wood to its best purpose. A custom maker who advertises windsor chairs made of a single hardwood (usually maple) is doing a disservice to the past being represented. Windsor chairs were made of as many as nine different woods each chosen to a specific purpose. The seats would be scorped of something soft to the seat and tool, large straight turnings of stout oak, thin spindles of strong straight grain maple, bent work of hickory or ash.