2.02.2012

The Improbable Woodworker

I was recently reading an article in the February issue of Scientific American about the impracticality of a cheeseburger.  The article's author, Mr. David Wogan, sites a blog entry by Mr. Waldo Jaquith in which he attempted to make a cheeseburger from scratch.  Apparently, what he found was that not only were the ingredients harvested or slaughtered at different times of the year, but that it was extremely expensive to produce each ingredient from raw materials (including growing the delicious veggie toppings).  This got me thinking about the "ingredients" or materials we as woodworkers often use in our projects.

I love the look of Brazilian Cherry or Jatoba, and African Padauk in finished pieces.  The colors they produce initially are beautiful, and over time as the wood oxidizes they become even more rich and bold.  Try as I might though, I'm pretty sure I cant grow either of those trees in my back yard.  I do have a couple of maple trees and a tiny "mighty oak" sapling in my yard which I could use in a pinch.  If you have followed some of the blog stories you have seen the black walnut I harvested from a local source (more to come on that little guy soon).  I imagine if I really had my ducks in a row, I could plant a sapling of a specific species and harvest it in thirty, forty or fifty years...assuming I live that long and that I remember where it was planted.  Bamboo grows much more rapidly but I'd still have to let it grow large and long enough to have it become a usable board length.  So wood from a local source is possible and in fact something I prefer to do, wood from a sapling is somewhat improbable and exotic lumber is straight out (as is implied by its name).

Finishes are another story all together.  Shellac is a substance secreted from the female lac bug which grows in Thailand and India, another item I just can't produce not matter how much Thai food I eat.  Beeswax might be a winner, assuming I could successfully raise bees, collect the wax, filter the wax, eat the honey, apply mud to my stings, mix it with other ingredients if needed and apply it to my finished product.  I won't even attempt recreating the process required for paint.  Other thinners, degreasers, alcohols, and volatile fluids aren't really practical to make.  Then there is glue.

Hide glue I could probably source locally, being close to Pennsylvania and some local traditional producers.  I could hang around the Preakness Horse Track and hope for a looser, but then I'd have to process an entire horse in my workshop...not happening.  There are options like fish glue and rabbit glue that might be possible in my kitchen, and if my wife took a long vacation, I could attempt cat glue.  Additionally, there are glues like birch bark tar, milk glue, tree pitch and some other naturally occurring adhesives that one could render or harvest without too much additional trouble.  The strength of these glues (other than hide) is rather questionable though.  Other, more modern, adhesives and glues aren't really practical to make from scratch as they come from specific formulations of chemicals that I couldn't likely produce without some pretty heavy duty lab equipment.

Nails might be something I could attempt.  I don't think I would use raw ore to produce them but I could probably smith some in my shop.  In fact, this year I plan to do some casting and iron work for the tool making portion of this blog.  Small cut nails would then be a possibility.  Screws, hmmmmm a challenge?  In fact many of the metal objects like handles, hinges, and pins that are used in woodworking projects are probably a reasonable attempt away from being produced in a home shop.

Many of the projects we attempt as woodworkers are indeed rather impractical or improbable without relying on modern methods of material processing and production.  If you are looking for a woodworking project from scratch, I'll have some popping up here on the blog, but a better source is probably Mr. Peter Follansbee's new book 'Make a Joint Stool from a Tree.'

So, as I sit here enjoying this delicious double-decker sandwich of freshly charred bovine flesh, melty stilton cheese, juicy tomato, crunchy lettuce and a strong onion, my thoughts drift to projects that would never have been if it weren't for the modern shipping and chemical industries.  I think technological advancement is a good thing.  These advancements lead to productivity, new inventions, new designs and creations, and products that we would have never imagined before we could buy Amboyna Burl and Renaissance Furniture Polish with overnight shipping and a return policy. Technology also makes it possible to develop better methods of replenishing and conserving our supply of these materials and products (we just have to apply them). In short, thank you technology for making it possible for me to walk into a store and buy glue, nails, paint, lumber and a hot dog all in the same place.

Also, here is the link to Mr. Jaquith's original blog post about the cheeseburger: 'On the impracticality of a cheeseburger.'

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