Wide Lumber

Yes, you can work with wide lumber

Not only is it possible, using wide boards can add value to your pieces.

By Louis Irion
It was well into my woodworking career before I even heard the myth that you couldn't use wide boards in furniture and millwork because they were absolutely prone to misbehavior. I do remember my woodworking professor at industrial arts school showing us that we had to reverse the growth rings when gluing narrow boards together, and in the diagrams the growth rings looked like concentric half circles that could only have been cut from an 8" diameter log, so that made sense. But he never said you had to glue up wider boards from narrower strips or risk eternal damnation.

I learned the profession from my father and we always used wide boards whenever possible, without actually making a huge effort to seek out such lumber. While restoring antiques early on in my own business it was obvious that part of their attraction was the beautiful wide boards used throughout a lot of their construction. It was apparent that the wood was as important to the success of the piece as the design and the craftsmanship. I also couldn't help but notice that most of the furniture was holding up just fine after 150 to 300 years, despite periods when it was out of fashion and treated accordingly.
Although my training and interest was in making and restoring period furniture, it was the exposure to the work of people like Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima and James Krenov that helped me to realize how important it was to take advantage of the inherent beauty of the material and make the lumber the focal point of my work. The contrast between the period furniture and the same style manufactured furniture available at the local stores was more than even I could miss, and although there were also major quality issues, the most glaring difference was in the wood and the heavy staining used to hide its deficiencies.

Fighting Perceptions

When I started making furniture in the mid '70s, finding wide boards was very difficult, so I started buying logs and working with sawmills to cut lumber the way we wanted to use it. This helped me eventually evolve from owning a shop to starting a lumber business, where 25 years later I learned from too many customers that even though we had lots of wide matching sets, and had been using this type of wood in all the pieces we constructed, they weren't interested because they thought the boards would warp. It was difficult to convince them otherwise.

Now you may want to glue up your stock, or you may not have a choice, but please don't tell me that you have to.

I am here to testify, backed by decades of personal experience, that you can use single boards of wide lumber. It may require minor modifications to your shop routine, but the benefits are well worth the effort and the risks are minimal. It will enhance the beauty and attractiveness of your work, which will increase its appeal. Plus, by separating yourself from your peers you also increase your business.

Let the wood become a focal point of the project, rather than simply a structural component. Let it be featured rather than disguised. When you glue up a lot of narrow boards there is bound to be variation in color and grain patterns, resulting in either a lot of conflict within the panels or surfaces, or the need to homogenize the wood with heavy stains to the point of obscurity. Stains often fail over time, and more quickly in strong sunlight, revealing the inferior quality of the material and damaging your reputation.

Better than Veneer

Wider lumber comes from further into the log so the edges are typically rift to quarter-sawn and the center section is plain-sawn. This results in a cathedral grain pattern in the center of the stock and straighter grain on the edges, which is not only attractive but also helpful if two boards have to be joined.
The straighter grain on the edge helps to hide the seam. If you are fortunate enough to have a set of matching boards from the same log, then the grain and color repeat themselves across the piece or the room, which gives a sense of consistency and continuity throughout the project.

One can argue that the same effect can be accomplished with matching veneers mounted on substrates. While this is certainly possible, I have never been comfortable with it. One of the selling points of a quality job is that it should be made well enough and have the appeal to last for generations, therefore amortizing the expense over a longer time period.

The veneer industry is justifiably proud of the fact that they have the technical ability to slice their product to a 1/32" thickness, but anyone who has worked with this material realizes that it is so thin that it is practically translucent and non-existent. This means that, after a sizable investment, the customer isn't getting much for the money spent. The greater concern is that damage to such pieces is almost impossible to repair, so that the only solution is to replace the veneered piece, in the process losing the grain match.

I have seen tabletops rendered useless as the result of a water spill or minor physical damage, with total replacement as the only solution. The repair can cost more than the original price. We made a good part of our living repairing the old English furniture that was almost always veneered, while its American counterparts constructed of solid wood held up so much better over time.
I have never seen a wide board that was allowed to move fail over time, but I have seen many glue joints open up, necessitating a major overhaul of the piece. It's hard to improve on the natural properties of solid wood, and if damage does occur, it is much easier to repair.

Preparing the stock Enough of the virtues; what is the downside? For starters, the wood is more expensive and more difficult to find although there are more and more vendors who are responding to the demand for this type of product.
There is also more work involved in preparing the stock, as a few additional precautions need to be taken. The first step is to make sure the lumber is properly dried. It is always a great benefit for any job to get your lumber into the shop and let it acclimate for a short time. Then cut the panels or lumber to the rough length and width, and let them set around for a few more days. I like to stand the wood on end, usually leaning against a wall with a little space between the boards. If the floor is concrete, put a piece of wood down first so the lumber won't wick up moisture through the end grain. But I actually want the wood to assume its natural position without constraints.

Once the lumber has had a chance to set, it can be jointed and milled flat. As an added precaution, I like to wait to mill until I can install the panels in their frames or fasten the material to the rest of the piece, which will help minimize any tendency to move. Proper preparation of rails and stiles in doors is also important.

Many times it is not the panel that is warping, but the rails and stiles that are acting out. Rough out all of the frame material, stand it up and let nature take its course. You really change the dynamic of the lumber when you rip and cut a board into smaller pieces. It needs a little time to reestablish its new equilibrium. After it has set for a few days, and it quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns, edge and face joint each piece and mill it to finished dimensions.

This may seem like a lot of extra work, but any stock that is too wracked to be milled to imension will cause major problems in the finished piece, so you have just dodged another bullet. I also try to beef up my rails and stiles, going to at least 7/8" and a full inch on larger pieces with bigger doors, which is a consideration with whatever type of panel you want to use. When you rough-cut your stock to length and width before milling, it is possible to get 7/8" from 4/4 lumber, especially if the lumber is pretty flat and a little plump.

Finishing is simpler There are some definite upsides as well. You do not have to spend a lot of time gluing up stock, but of much greater importance is the fact that it makes finishing much simpler and less labor intensive and finishing is the bane of every woodworker.

Most people choose natural wood because of the inherent beauty of the material, and when you have good wood you can use a natural finish, or a light aniline wash if they want more color, enhancing rather than obscuring the beauty of the material. A natural or lightly stained finish is much simpler to do and much easier to repair if there are problems or damage occurs. And you don't have the worry of rubbing through a heavy stain, which usually results in starting the whole process over again.

Jeff Knudsen, owner of Knudsen Woodworking in Kirkwood, Pa., has built his shop's identity on using wide and matched lumber. He said that the customer doesn't always come in the door knowing much about wood, but when shown the difference, most become instant converts. If his price is in the ballpark, he usually gets the job, even at the higher price that he can command with better wood.

Customers want a "home run," and are willing to pay a bit more if they can justify the expense, and if the quality is obvious in the finished product or piece. They also know they are getting something special, and everyone likes that.

Louis Irion is owner of Irion Lumber Co. in Wellsboro, Pa.

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