1989 - 2006
First Published in:
IMPORTANCE OF WOOD
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
most telling accommodation to machines is that now a wood is chosen
for its machine ability more than suitability to a particular task.
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.
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.
the petro-chemical industry began to grow and it tried to replace
everything in our lives with the products of fossil fuel; and has
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.