In Chris Schwarz Blog, Raw Materials

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“There is something about the outside of a horse…that is good for the inside of a man.”
, Attributed to Winston Churchill

Whenever I start on a project, the most curious part is sorting out my pile of rough lumber into piles of finished parts. Selecting for grain, figure and color is as important to me (maybe more) than tight-fitting joints.

So today as I launched into the cover project for the Winter 2008 issue I was amused to find that I stayed in a deep rut that I’ve been in since I started in the craft. Whenever I select my boards for color and figure, I almost always choose the heart side of a board to face out instead of the bark side.

Even in the legs for this project, which are predominantly bastard grain, have the heartwood facing out in three of the four. I know that I read somewhere that there are other woodworkers who do this, too. But I am at a loss for a good explanation, as is my wood bible: “Understanding Wood” by Bruce Hoadley.

The consistency should come as no surprise. Heart-side wood and bark-side wood can reflect light in different ways. So if you obeyed you shop teacher and glued up a panel using boards that had alternating growth rings (heart-side to bark-side to heart-side etc.) you could end up with a top that has a striped look, especially once the finish is on it.

But that doesn’t explain why I always choose the heart side. If anyone has a good explanation, I’d like to hear it in the comments below.

The project itself is a Gustav Stickley plant stand with a tile top. The project doesn’t appear in any of the catalogs that I own, but I’ve stumbled over a few signed examples since I started collecting in 1990.

I enjoy projects like this because they don’t use a lot of wood, but they contain lots of fun challenges. For starters: tusk tenons, weirdo offset and intersecting mortises, and incorporating a standard floor tile into the design. And there are some nice gentle curves.

And so I’ll end with another horse-related quote that applies to woodworking and the challenges ahead in this small plant stand.

“It is not enough for a man to know how to ride; he must know how to fall.”
, Mexican Proverb

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 10 comments
  • Karl

    When I took a woodworking fundamentals class, I was told to have the heart side out. I spent some time puzzling over why that would be recommended.

    Am I right in thinking that plank-sawn wood tends to cup toward the outside of the tree? If so, I think case work would be more stable with the heart side out, because a mechanical joint will be more able to control the cupping toward the piece than away from it.

    Can anyone break me out of this delusion? Or confirm that it reflects reality?

  • Adrian

    Andy Rae in his cabinet making book also says to use the inside as the show side. I think he says the grain has a better look — maybe something about sheen — but I don’t remember.

  • David

    "Oh I cannot afford Stickley anymore."

    I sympathize greatly. The over-heated art and collector market has put just about everything except 1950’s "modern" furniture out of reach of us ordinary mortals.

    I’m in worse shape – I aspire to 18th century Americana, and aside from one genuine Sheraton drop-leaf that I lucked into at an estate sale, reproductions that I make myself is all I’ll ever own. The furniture appraiser at that estate sale, btw, didn’t know what they were doing – the took the Victorian stuff and left the early American things)

  • Gye Greene

    Inside vs. outside: Depends on what you’re looking for, aesthetically. Because the face of a board is the ”chord” (geometry!) of a bunch of concentric circles, with a flatsawn board you’ll get more ”figure” from the ”outside” view — whereas the ”inside” [of the tree] view is more quartersawn-looking.

    Personally, I tend to put the outside facing out if I want an interesting figure; if I want uniformity, I use something quartersawn (which isn’t really ”inside” OR ”outside)…

    FWIW — I think it was George Nakashima, in THE SOUL OF A TREE, who said that traditional Japanese woodworking always has the outside of the tree, out. (Either that, or it was from the Jp. workbenches chapter of Scott Landis’ Workbenches book.) But, I could be mis-remembering: it might have been ”the top end of the tree pointing up.”


  • Christopher Schwarz

    Oh I cannot afford Stickley anymore. That one reason I build repros now. Back in the day you could find it a flea markets and even a writer could afford it.


  • David

    Hmm – Maybe I’m not the only one that picked up on this, but if you’re collecting authentic Stickley pieces, methinks the magazine editing job pays a bit more than you’re letting on!

  • Cory

    Last year our local woodworking clubs brought in Frank Klausz for an evening lecture. He specifically said "The inside of the tree is the face of your work". I’d never heard this stated as such a hard rule, so I started paying more attention to it after that. I still go by "do what looks best" and a majority of the time the inside just looks better.

    He mentioned sheen from "Understanding Wood" as to why he did this. I can’t argue with the results, and given the high gloss I see on his work, keeping a consistent sheen might be more critical to his work than it is to mine.

    So what you do in the selection process, others have a rule about doing all of the time. I wouldn’t consider repeatedly doing this a "rut" because the decision is based off whats best to do, not based on what you did last time.

  • Norman

    It could be that the difference between heartwood and sapwood is pronounced on many woods such as cherry and walnut, therefore the policy of having the darker, consistently colored heartwood facing out is due to this reasoning. Also if the legs are going to be tapered, they need to be heartwood throughout to maintain the darker color and not have any sapwood coming through the tapered part. The safe way is to have heartwood facing out.


  • Swanz

    Flaming enthusiasm, backed up by horse sense and persistence, is the quality that most frequently makes for success.
    –Dale Carnegie

  • Mark Mazzo

    Hey Chris,

    It’s interesting that you mention this as I do it as well. My simple reasoning is pretty pragmatic…usually the heart side has the richest color and therefore looks the nicest. Simple as that!



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