Seasoned, well-dried wood is good, but not for all things.
For the last two years I’ve been editing a book called “Woodworking in Estonia,” which is about the pre-industrial woodworking cultural heritage of a small Northern European nation.
The book is not a review of the historical literature sprinkled with speculation about how people worked. Instead, the author spent his entire life interviewing people who still worked in traditional ways, and then he dug up archaeological and ethnographic evidence to back up their methods.
What is most remarkable is that Estonians used wood in all its states, from completely green to pieces at perfect equilibrium moisture content with their environment (though those are not the words they would use to describe things).
Earlier woodworkers knew the material in a way that we do not.
I got a small taste of this several years ago when building a bunch of workbenches using 18th-century oak that had been felled for more than a decade. At the time, we assumed it was pretty dry. We were wrong. The wood maxed out our moisture meters at 60 percent, so it was probably much wetter than that.
At the time I can remember freaking out a bit. Surely these benches would splinter to bits. Or distort in ways that would make them unusable. Or at least make the glue joints fail.
None of those things happened. I built a workbench using that wet, wet wood and it is sitting in my shop right now, an un-moveable monolith that didn’t distort at all. It shrank and then stayed that way, with every joint tighter than when I made them. The components are so thick that they hardly move during the year – there isn’t enough time for the interior to react to the changes in humidity.
Emboldened by “Woodworking in Estonia” and my own experiences during the last decade, I’ve resolved to build a French-style workbench from red oak that is freshly sawn from the forest. This week I traveled to North Carolina and picked out stock for the top, legs and stretchers and brought it over the mountains to my shop in Covington, Ky.
It is incredibly wet and heavy. The 9’-long top (6” thick and 19” wide) weighed so much that five average-size people could barely manage it out of the van and into the shop. It is so wet that the ends feel perpetually cool, and they stink up the shop like a horse just peed in there.
We’re going to build a proper joiners’ bench with this wood, record the experience and report how the bench does in the coming years. My guess is that the bench will end up working out just fine. And my hope is that a lot of woodworkers can get away with using wet wood for their benches, saving money and time.
But I am completely open to the possibility that the bench will fail. Either way, I’ll report the results here. And either way, I win. If the bench fails, I’ll still have my existing workbench and a lot of oak firewood.
— Christopher Schwarz