By Adam Cherubini
Though sawn lumber was available to 17th- and 18th-century European woodworkers in Colonial America, many American craftsmen split wood to produce stock for furniture. Rive or split marks are typical of 17th-century furniture and not at all uncommon on the finest pieces of “high style” late 18th-century American furniture.
For early craftsmen, splitting logs into lumber offered several advantages. Splitting could be done where the log was felled, saving the cost of hauling logs to saw yards. Because careful splits follow the grain of the wood, the resulting boards typically dry straighter. Perfectly quartered boards are both more dimensionally stable and easier to plane than modern quartersawn stock. For chairmakers, riven stock allowed them to bend wood more successfully and produce thin, high-strength spindles.
As we often learn in this column, not much has changed in the last 200 years. Logs can still be split efficiently with just a few simple tools. Moving logs or bringing in sawyers with specialized equipment is still expensive, and riven stock still behaves the same as ever.
The key to splitting logs like these is to set reasonable expectations for their use; it’s not wise to try to compete with the local mill. I use logs to produce lumber that I can’t buy anywhere else.
You can easily split a 4″- or 6″-thick slab for a workbench top. Philadelphia cabinetmakers split white cedar for perfectly quartered drawer parts, so even short sections of pine or other softwoods can be valuable. There are tons of tool parts better split than sawn. Tool handles, jaws for vises and clamps, plane blanks, saw handles and even simple items such as sawhorses are all best made from riven lumber. And if you have a lathe, you can add a pile of projects that are best turned from wood split from logs.
But there is no such thing as free wood. We purchase lumber with either money or sweat.
The first step in the process is selecting the log. Different species split differently and have different uses. Experience and your particular needs will dictate when you should pass on a log. Where a tree is located, how it stood and how it grew will give you clues about the lumber inside.
From the August 2013 issue #205
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