Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Bob is right

On a recent podcast, Bob Rozaieski talked about efficiency with hand tools and one of the subjects he covered was choice of wood species.  He advises staying away from white oak and hard maple.  I know he's right.  It was brought home to me recently as I was doing some learning exercises so I could cut better half-blind dovetails.  I used scraps, sapele for the fronts and douglas-fir for the sides and back.  I have been working with white oak a lot recently and this was so much easier and more pleasurable I could hardly believe it.  The fact is that woods like mahogany, cherry, walnut, pine, poplar and even soft maple are much easier to work with hand tools.

The problem is that there are sometimes good reasons to work with white oak.  I really like arts and crafts furniture, much of which is best in white oak.  In addition, white oak has properties that make it very desirable, like for the outside table I made recently.  It rains a great deal here in the northwest and white oak's rot resistance is important.  I like the way white oak looks too; it seemed just right for the kitchen work table I made recently.

I did ask Bob about it and he responded at some length on a subsequent podcast (beginning at about 10:30) with a number of good ideas that are worth your while.  Nevertheless, there is just no getting around the fact that white oak is difficult to work with hand tools.

I have been thinking about how to reconcile the difficulty of working white oak with the fact that it is very desirable for some projects.  For starters, there are projects I have used white oak for that would be as good in a species easier to work.  My days of making small oak boxes are mostly over.

I am going to increase my use hybrid techniques for some operations when I am working white oak.  I will still use hand tools for many operations.  Sawing, making mortise and tenon joints, jointing are examples of things that hand tools work just fine for, though I do drill out the waste in my mortises.  The things that I have found most difficult when working white oak are making grooves, dadoes and rabbets.  It would be one thing if I had pairs of plow and rabbet planes so I could always work with the grain, but that's not going to happen.  Working against the grain in white oak with these planes is sometimes too difficult and/or time consuming and it's not very enjoyable.  It can be done, I've done it, but it's laborious.

This is only speculation, but I wonder if this last issue is one reason arts and crafts furniture is traditionally made with quartersawn white oak.  My experience is that it is a lot easier to work with than flatsawn material.

I like Greene and Greene style box joints a lot and that keeps you from using secondary woods for drawer sides.  Recently, I used vertical grain douglas-fir for half-blind dovetails, which I like a lot, but it splits very easily.  I dislike poplar because of the greenish cast in what I see at my supplier.  Alder is plentiful and inexpensive here and I think that will become my secondary wood.  It's hardness is comparable to poplar.

One of the things that puzzles me is why white oak was preferred in the arts and crafts era.  Was it because power tools were becoming more available?  Was it because it was affordable?  Was it an aesthetic choice?  Bob points out that most of the mortises in arts and crafts furniture were made with machines.


  1. Th arts and crafts movement as envisioned by Ruskin and Morris used white oak in imitation of the medieval esthetic, as Ruskin put it, “Oak tables and rush chairs”.

    Morris wasn’t opposed to machine work. He had a big Factory in Merton. Lots of machines and such.

    What he was opposed to was division of labor where each worker only saw a small piece of the work, so his workers saw a job through to completion. That’s where the craft part came in for him. The unplugged shop is the current aesthetic. It wasnt Morris’. By not using machines, you add a complication that wasn’t originally there. In this country, the Stickley Factory was pretty mechanized,

    So working white oak by hand wasn’t an issue. I’m guessing white oak was used to match those tables that started the movement, and because the wild rays were the opposite of all the bland mahogany in vogue. It wasn’t just the Arts and crafts movement, either. I have Victorian and Edwardian pieces that also used quartersawn oak.

    But 40 years later, the Greene brothers used Teak, cedar, cherry, mahogany, fir, and maybe another 10 species in the Gamble house. You have perfectly valid excuses to use other species.

  2. Andy,

    Like you I like White Oak for some projects. It can be a bear to plane but M/T's aren't too bad with a good pig sticker. MsBubba's kitchen cart has White Oak legs with three mortises per leg, I thought about putting a taper on the legs for about two seconds and quickly came to my senses, What can I say other than it is what it is.....But pretty when finished.


  3. Recently learned this lesson when I took a freshly sharpened Diston D8 to try to re-saw some Curly Hard Maple. It's been a bear to work with. Resawing two feet of board took me over an hour and managed to raise a blister on my palm as reward.

  4. Don’t let yourself be unduly influenced by the annointed woodworking Pharisees who attempt to place yokes upon the craftsman with their anti-machine virtue signaling. One of them recently admitted that he did use a bandsaw, but felt guilty and kept it in the corner ..and he then blathered-on about the moral superiority of wood bodied planes over metal planes. See…using hand tools is not enough. They need to be *pre-industrial* hand tools. I keep waiting for a call to abandon that icon of Victorian industrialism…the egg beater drill… in favor of the more “ethical” bow drill. And lo and behold….these same hand tool elites are now preaching that we need to abandon methods and styles of furniture that are inherently tied to the age of the machine and instead to adopt and embrace vernacular peasant furniture. Quit worrying about surface finish, whether parts are square, gaps in joinery, etc. Just chop it out with an axe, nail it together, and slather on some milk paint, all by candle-light mind you.

    I am not an ardent fan of the Krenov style, and I do not care for the Studio Furniture “arteest” mentality, but he did more for the idea of the “integrity of craft”, and influenced more woodworkers to pursue craftsmanship than all of the handtool-only woodworking re-enactors combined. This is because he understood that the real question is not hand tools vs. machines but Workmanship of Risk vs. Workmanship of Certainty and how to balance these.

    So take pleasure in using woods and machines and hand tools in whatever combination allows you to achieve what you want to achieve.