Growing up in Arkansas, it seemed we had two kinds of wood: yellow pine and pine that was yellow.
I didn’t really start to understand the crazy diversity of lumber available until my grandfather let me play with his collection of veneer samples from Constantine & Son. The store, founded in 1812, used to sell samples of 50 different woods. Each was 1/28″ thick, 4″ wide and 6″ long.
That’s where I saw prima vera for the first time, plus limba, benge and locust. It’s where I fell in love with English oak and pearwood. For me, these wood samples were as good as staring at an atlas of the world (one of my other hobbies as solitary kid). The woods were from all over the world, and I’d wonder about the places they came from.
I still have that set from Constantine; it’s on my desk this afternoon.
Now furniture maker Gerald Curry offers a set of 46 American woods that is even more useful and interesting. The Wood Smart kit comes with 46 blocks measuring 1/2″ x 3″ x 6″ in a well-fitted cardboard box.
I like these samples because you can actually see the end grain of the wood and have a chance to see how the wood looks when it is both quartered and rift-sawn.
Also cool: Each sample includes information you should know before building with that species, including its specific gravity (which is its weight compared to water), plus how much radial and tangential shrinkage you can expect from the species.
The lid of the box explains how to calculate all of these things for areas of the country that are dry and those that are humid.
Of course, the coolest thing is browsing through the species and looking at ones you aren’t familiar with. I had the Wood Smart box open in the office during the last couple days and it’s almost irresistible.
I’d never seen slippery elm, catalpa or sweetgum before. And I know that I’ll never want to work with coffeetree (which looks like rotary-cut oak plywood). I was surprised by how different black ash is from white ash. And how green that red mulberry is.
The Wood Smart box points out that our domestic American woods are every bit as exotic as the woods across the sea. And as someone who prefers to use domestic woods whenever possible (not for political reasons; it’s just my preference), the Wood Smart kit is eye-opening.
You can purchase the Wood Smart box from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks for $130. (Yes, that’s about $43/bf, but good luck collecting all these species from your lumberyard.)
– Christopher Schwarz
Shown above are my veneer samples con Constantine & Son.
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