Why I Waste Wood - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Why I Waste Wood

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In the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania several years ago (hence the short hair and shave).

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from Issue 8 of Woodworking Magazine, our sister publication to Popular Woodworking. The latest issue of this advertising-free magazine is now available. You can buy a printed copy or download a digital version directly from us. If you like Popular Woodworking, I think you’ll also enjoy Woodworking Magazine, which takes conventional woodworking wisdom to task. You can learn more about how this magazine is different on its web site.

No one told my elder daughter that it would be difficult to make clothing by hand and by eye , without a pattern, a machine or even a lesson.

And perhaps because no one told Maddy that it would be hard, it wasn’t. During the last three years she has made more than a hundred garments for her stuffed animals, from jogging suits to sequined disco pants to chain mail. She works entirely by instinct. Never measuring. Just cutting, stitching and improving.

Now, every parent will tell you that their child is remarkable, but I don’t think that’s the case here. I don’t think Maddy is a stitching savant. I think that she simply is acting on an impulse and without fear of failure.

It would be easy (read: lazy) for me to now end this column with that same advice about woodworking: Don’t be afraid; just get to it. But I know that the fear of failure can be crippling.

For example, last week I taught Maddy how to pump gasoline. Learning that common task was so stressful that by the end of the lesson, her hands were trembling a bit as she yanked the receipt from the pump. At first I was bemused by her trepidation. But then I realized the difference between pumping gas and pushing a sewing needle. It was the raw material.

Maddy has a lifetime supply of cloth in our basement, thanks to the women in my life who buy it for her. And when she needs more sequined fabric to make a disco jacket and floppy hat to match the pants, it will cost her a dollar or two for a supply that will last many years.

Now consider gasoline: It’s precious, poisonous and explosive. So here’s my real point: I think that wood is a lot more like cloth than it is like gasoline.

This statement might be hard for some of us to swallow at first. It was for me. I’m a conservationist at heart, and saving the trees always seemed like a good idea when I was growing up.

But home woodworkers aren’t really the source of the problem when you talk about deforestation, which I know is a critical problem in some places on the globe. Several years ago I toured the hardwood forests of Pennsylvania with a group of journalists and watched loggers cut down enough cherry trees in an hour to last me more than 100 lifetimes of building furniture.

It was that trip that changed my view of the raw material we work with. Before that moment, I would squeeze every single part of a project out of the fewest number of rough boards, even if that meant compromising the design or aesthetics. I would allow myself to use a board with a less-than-ideal grain pattern in a face frame or door stile or stretcher. This, I argued to myself, was being a good steward of the forest.

Now I see things differently. I get only one chance to make each project. And the fate of that project , kicked to the curb or cherished by my grandchildren , depends on the choices I make today with regard to its design, grain, joints and finish.

I don’t throw away tons of wood, but I’m not afraid to plow through lots of it to find the right board. I’m not afraid to make a lot of test cuts to get a tight joint. And I’m not afraid to make a lot of sample boards to get the right finish. My leftover pieces end up as interior parts for a future project, as kindling or as compost at the dump. So here’s my confession: I now throw away more wood than I ever did before.

But here’s how I rationalize that choice: The more wood I go through, the better my end result is. And wood is a renewable resource. We can get it almost anywhere, even rescuing it from the city dump if we so desire. Furthermore, wood is inexpensive when compared to the hours of labor invested in any piece of fine workmanship.

All this makes me bristle when I see companies hawking virgin plastic products under the guise of “saving a tree.” Where do they think plastic comes from? It comes from petroleum.

So consider this: We can (and should) always plant more trees (or make more sequined cloth). Compressing dinosaur poop for a million years, however, is another matter.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 5 comments
  • Chris Schwarz

    Because you asked….

    In re hat and jacket: The hat was required on the logging site (and returned). The jacket was donated to St. Vincent DePaul charity in Cincinnati.


  • Orion

    Great post, well said.

  • aaimlove

    Nice hat……..I gather it was free when you got the jacket……….

  • Justin Tyson

    You make an excellent point. I, too, have tried to conserve as much of my wood as possible to the detriment of my projects. However, as a forester, my reasoning was not behind saving forests. I have long understood that the responsible forest stewardship being practiced by millions of landowners in the US will always provide us with an abundance of wood. What I was worried about was the abundance of my own personal supply of wood. All of my projects come from trees that I have milled into lumber myself with a Wood-Mizer sawmill. I worried that if I didn’t save every last bit of my lumber, I would eventually run out. However, as more people became aware that I could turn their fallen yard trees into furniture, I ended up with a supply of wood that could fill several houses with furniture (and the logs keep coming). I look back at the small knots and poorly matched grain that could have been avoided and I wonder what could have been. I now build my furniture with the satisfaction of knowing that the trees from which they come will live longer in this life than they did in the previous one.

  • Henk Marais

    Your view is so true. I have made the most beutifull side tables for my wife a couple of months back, I could never undestand why she always insist that they are placed in a certain manner. When I questioned her on this she said she is hiding the one leg because she does not like the mark on it. The tables are made from African Imbuya (Dark Brown) and the one leg was cut from a piece with a white flame in it. At the time I did not like it but thought it would be good enough because I did not wanted to use another full rough board.

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