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Primary Materials

by Ridg Gilmer (Woodoworkers Club of Houston)

A short article in the November 2003 Reader’s Digest has inspired me to pay more attention to primary materials. We woodworkers may become so enthused about tools and technology that we shortchange the contributions made by the materials we use.

The article describes an amateur violinmaker who devoted his retirement years to building and repairing violins and cellos. An old friend, who had fought in Italy during WW II, had saved a piece of spruce that he had collected from below the monastery at Monte Cassino, first constructed in 529 AD. The violin made from this ancient wood had a sound that compared favorably with those of a Stradivarius. The amateur turned professional violinmaker discounted his own craftsmanship and the formula of his varnish finish, saying that modern technology could easily reproduce those aspects of a Stradivarius. He attributed the remarkable sound to the wood itself.

We need not minimize the hard work we put in to achieve whatever skill level we attain as woodworkers and neither should we ignore the high tech help we get from today’s fine tools. Both are essential to our hobby or profession at whatever stage we are – beginner or experienced perfectionist. But do we give sufficient time and thought to the materials we use? As I learned recently, this may well begin with choosing hardwood over plywood, despite the ease of construction offered by the latter. This may lead to niceties of construction, like mortise and tenon as opposed to biscuit joinery. We glue and screw, rather than hammer and nail. We distinguish cabinetry from carpentry.

Most good lumberyards afford the opportunity to pick and choose the individual piece of wood we need for our next project. This may entail crawling up a crude ladder and handling large pieces of rough-cut lumber, choosing pieces with nice grain and color and the fewest defects. Or it may mean going out to our friends at Third Coast Hardwoods and sorting through hunks of trees with the bark still on. Whatever the task, we may need to spend more time planning and visualizing our finished product and selecting materials to affect the outcome.

When we think about it, the concept of primary materials is almost universal. My spouse is a true gourmet chef, but no matter how well prepared, if her ingredients are not fresh and of first quality, she is not satisfied with the resulting dish. One only needs to taste truly fresh swordfish once, to forever distinguish it from the frozen cardboard served in most restaurants.

The wine industry, both French and American (even Texan) knows the value of the land or terroir and of the weather for a given year. Fine white Burgundies often reflect the mineral content of the sandy loam in which Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes grow. The big red wines are more complex and last longer when a dry season prevails and concentrates the sugar content of the Cabernet, Pinot Noir or Petit Sirah grapes they use. Certainly, both the long revered art, as well as the modern vintner’s technology are essential to making excellent wine, but it all begins with the vine. Old rootstocks may sample layers of earth and minerals 20-25’ below the surface. The same is true of old growth trees.

It becomes self-evident that the person involved is the most essential primary ingredient for success in any endeavor and woodworking is no exception. Only the dedicated, and talented or gifted individual can combine the best materials, tools, skills and good taste to complete an outstanding project. I have had the pleasure of knowing one such master craftsman through our woodworking club, but I know there are others who have the same desire as well as competence to achieve similar results. One key to success may be to emphasize our choice of materials to the same extent that we evaluate our tools and practice excellent construction techniques.

ADDENDUM: After composing the above, I opened my copy of the December 2003 issue of Wood magazine. Therein are excellent articles on wood and selection choices.

Addendum:  Shortly after submitting this piece, the Houston Chronicle of 12/08/03 ran an interesting article.  A tree-ring dating expert at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, offers substantive theory to the violin maker's insight.  The investigators proposed that the Stradivarius instruments developed their special acoustic properties as the trees were growing in an extended period of long winters and cool summers.  Other experts have documented a 500-year chronology from 1500 to the present and discovered "an unprecedented period of slow growth from 1625-1720 characterized by compact, narrow tree rings."  Stradivarius' "golden period" is considered to run from 1700-1720, just after the lowest temperatures recorded during a period known as the "Little Ice Age". 
I find this fascinating and continue to bemoan the wanton destruction of old growth trees, even as we speak and right here in Houston's "developing suburbs".