Shellac as a sealer?


You’ll hear shellac tossed around a lot as the “best” sealer, mostly in woodworking magazines targeting amateurs. I’ve come across many professional finishers, however, who believe they should be using shellac rather than the finish itself, a sanding sealer, vinyl sealer or a catalyzed sealer for a first coat.

With only a few exceptions, there’s no reason for anyone to use shellac under another finish. Shellac has been totally overhyped as a sealer. Here’s the story.


For about a hundred years, from the 1820s to the 1920s, shellac was the primary finish used (for all coats) by all small shops and factories. In the 1920s shellac was replaced in factories by lacquer for two primary reasons: shellac resin (from bug secretions) is a commodity product that was going up in price as demand increased, while lacquer was going down in price; and lacquer thinner (a blend of solvents) makes lacquer much more versatile in different weather conditions.

Shellac continued to be used by painters and floor finishers working inside buildings and by amateurs until the 1960s. Then three things happened that almost totally ended shellac being thought of as a complete finish:

  • Oil-based polyurethane became available. It was originally marketed as a “no-wax” floor finish, meaning that it was durable enough to resist scratches without being waxed (as was necessary with shellac). Through the years, polyurethane became the most popular wiped and brushed finish for everything.
  • Homer Formby began marketing wiping varnish (varnish thinned about half with mineral spirits) as “tung oil” through TV infomercials and shopping-mall and antique-club appearances. He did a masterful job, creating a large market for his finish and for other brands as well.
  • Woodworking magazines began promoting Danish oil (a blend of linseed oil and varnish) as an easy-to-use finish that protected the wood “from the inside.” The finish became very popular with amateur — and some professional — woodworkers.

Shellac is much more difficult to use (see below) than these three finishes, so it almost disappeared as a finish except in a few niche markets such as French polishing and handmade reproductions of antique furniture.

Companies supplying ready-to-use shellac disappeared one after another until only Zinsser remained. Seeing its market disappearing, Zinsser (Bulls Eye), with the help of some woodworking writers, turned shellac into a sealer, even introducing a dewaxed variety (SealCoat) that was marketed for use under polyurethane.

But here we return to the central question: Why not use polyurethane itself as the sealer? It “seals” the wood perfectly well. Why use shellac under several coats of polyurethane — or under any other finish? The answer is to solve a problem.

Shellac has wonderful blocking properties, better than any other finish. It blocks silicone contamination, which causes fish eye, odors (for example, from smoke or animal urine), and residual wax extremely well.

Shellac also blocks the resin from pine knots and very oily exotic woods, which can slow the drying of lacquer and varnish significantly.

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But notice that the first three situations are all refinishing problems, not new-wood problems, and the last is rare for professional finishers.

So for almost all new-wood situations, we come back to asking why use shellac at all?

Types of shellac

Not only is there no benefit to using shellac as a sealer in most situations, there are good reasons not to use it. Shellac is a difficult finish (or sealer) to use.

The first reason is the confused naming. Before you even get started, you have to learn the different types of shellac.

In liquid form there are clear (actually pale yellow) and amber shellacs. Until about 20 years ago, when Zinsser changed the names for marketing purposes, these were labeled “white” and “orange.” “Who wants orange furniture?” the Zinsser rep explained to me to justify the name change.

There’s also dewaxed shellac, which is more expensive. Should you be using that? Or will the shellac with its natural wax still included work just as well?

In flake form, which you dissolve yourself in denatured alcohol, there are many more varieties: blonde, superblonde, lemon-yellow, orange, garnet, button, ruby, extra dark and more. These names all refer to the color, ranging from pale yellow to very dark orange.

A second issue is the way solids content is measured. It’s not the standard percentage method used for all other finishes. It’s “pound cut” — the number of pounds of shellac resin dissolved in one gallon of alcohol.

Clear and amber liquid shellacs are three-pound cut. Dewaxed SealCoat is two-pound cut, which is no longer listed on the label. Though conversion to percent solids is possible (so you can predict the total build of your finish), this is another difficulty you have to overcome.

A third issue is shelf life. Once shellac is dissolved in alcohol, it begins deteriorating (more rapidly in hot temperatures). It takes longer to dry and it doesn’t dry as hard. After the shellac has deteriorated a few years in the can, the finish you apply over it may wrinkle.

Shelf life is not a problem if you dissolve your own from flakes (an extra step) because you know when you did this. But it is a problem if you buy already-dissolved shellac. Zinsser has stopped putting the date of manufacture on its cans. So you can’t know how well the shellac you’re using will perform without calling and finding someone who can translate the stamped lot number. You don’t know how long the shellac has been sitting on a store shelf or in a warehouse.

A fourth issue is blushing. You can control blushing with products that thin with lacquer thinner. Just add some retarder. It’s not so easy with shellac because there aren’t retarders available.

A fifth issue is ridging. Unless you thin shellac a good deal, it has a tendency to ridge at the edge of brush strokes and orange peel when sprayed.

If all this isn’t enough to make you question the wisdom of using shellac as a sealer when you don’t have one of the problems mentioned, consider that shellac is a relatively difficult finish to sand. It gums up sandpaper unless applied very thin.

Bottom line

You might conclude from this discussion that I don’t like shellac. This would be wrong. I like shellac a lot.

But my background is refinishing. Shellac is a wonderful tool for solving refinishing problems. It’s also great as a finish when you want to replace an original 19th century finish with the same thing.

But there’s rarely a reason to use shellac in a factory or cabinet shop making cabinets and other objects out of new wood.

Bob Flexner is author of “Understanding Wood Finishing” and “Flexner on Finishing.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.

100 year old Process for the Ebonising of Wood

By H. C. Standage

Boil 1 pound of logwood chips 1 hour in 2 quarts of water. Brush the hot liquor over the work and lay it aside to dry. When dry, give another coat, still using hot. When the second coat is dry, brush the following liquor over the work: 1 oz. of green copperas to 1 quart of water, to be used when the copperas is all dissolved. For staining, the work must not be dried before the fire, but in the sunshine. If in a warm room then away from the fire.

Polishing the Work

To polish this work, first give a coating of very fine glue size, and when dry smooth off very lightly with No. 180 paper, only just enough to render smooth, but not to remove the black stain. Then make a rubber of wadding about the size of a walnut, moisten the rubber with French polish, cover the whole tightly with a linen rag, put one drop of oil on the surface and rub the work with a circular motion. When the work has received one coat, set it aside to dry for about an hour. After the first coat is laid on and thoroughly dry, it should be partly papered off with No. 180 paper. This brings the surface even and at the same time fills up the grain. Now give a second coat as before. Allow 24 hours to elapse, again smooth off and give a final coat as before. Now comes spiriting off; great care must be used here, or the work will be dull instead of bright. A clean rubber must be made as previously described, but instead of being moistened with polish, must be wetted with 90 per cent alcohol, placed in a linen rag screwed into a tight even-surface ball, just touched on the face with a drop of oil, and then rubbed lightly and quickly in circular sweeps all over the work, from top to bottom. For the fine ebony black stain, apple, pear and hazel woods are the best wood: to use. When stained black they are the most complete imitations of the natural ebony. For the stain take gall-apple 14 oz., rasped logwood 3 1/2 oz., vitriol 3 1/4 oz. For the second coating a mixture of iron filings 3 oz. dissolved in strong wine vinegar 1 1/2 pints is warmed, and when cool, the wood already blackened, is coated with it 2 or 3 times, allowing it to dry after each coating. A strong lye is now put into a suitable pot to which is added coarsely bruised gall-apples and blue Brazil shavings, and exposed for the same as the former to the gentle heat of an oven which will yield a good liquid.

Staining the Woods

The woods are now laid in the first named stain, boiled for a few hours, and left in it for 3 days. They are then placed in the second stain and treated as in the first. If the articles are not thoroughly saturated, they must be once more placed in the first bath and then in the second. The polish used for wood: that is stained black should be white (colourless), to which a little finely ground Prussian blue should be added.

The Mortise and Tenon Joint in Woodworking

Of the various joints used by woodworkers in the several branches of the craft, none is more important than the mortise and tenon. Indeed, it may be classed as fundamental, for it enters into every sort of wooden construction from a Howe

truss or a trestle bridge to a Chippendale chair or a fancy cabinet.

A Universal Joint

Properly proportioned, it forms one of the strongest methods, and certainly the most all round effective one, for joining framing of almost every description. Some

Suggestions for the design and application of a universal joint familiar to all workers in wood

consideration of the various forms of this universal joint and of the rules for its design under varying conditions are therefore here presented, chiefly for the benefit of the beginner readers of this magazine.

Simple Forms

The simplest form of mortise and tenon joint is to be found in the case of rough constructive framing where two pieces of timber are to be joined at right angles, uncomplicated by panels or other considerations which affect the form of the joint in almost all the finer work of joinery or cabinetmaking. In such a case, the rule is to make the tenon one-third of the thickness of the material as shown in Fig. 1

Perfect Proportions

 In passing it should be noted that this proportion ought never to be exceeded, for while the tenon is often made less than one-third the thickness of the material without detriment, a tenon greater than one third the thickness of the material leaves the “cheeks” of the mortise weak in proportion to the strength of the tenon.

Fig. 2 is one of the first modifications of the simple mortise and tenon joint found necessary in framing and is used where the mortise is at the end of a piece. Such a tenon is said to be “haunched” or “relished,” the idea being to leave a solid portion at the end of the mortised piece. It will be noted that a small piece of that part of the tenon which is cut away to form the “haunch” or “relish” is left on and fitted into a corresponding groove in the mortised piece. This small part is not always left parallel but is often cut back to nothing at the outer end, as shown in the case of the table leg and rail in Fig. 3.

Width of Tenons The width of tenons in joinery and cabinetmaking is another factor which must receive consideration, for it is bad construction to make a tenon too wide in proportion to its thickness. The effect on such a tenon when its wedges are driven in is shown in Fig. 4,

where the tenon is buckled by the pressure of the wedges and the cheeks of the mortise forced out. The rule for the width of a tenon is that it should not exceed five or six times its thickness. A familiar application of this rule is in the case of wide rails of framing where the tenons are formed at each edge of the rail, leaving a relished portion in the centre, as in Fig. 5.

For the bottom rail of an ordinary panel door a combination of Figs. 2 and 5 is necessary and is shown at Fig.6

Warning as to Wedges

To save complications in the drawings, no wedges, or provision for them, have been shown, but in joinery work at all events most mortise and tenon joints are well wedged. In this connection a word of warning as to the form of wedges may not be out of place, for it is a common fault with beginners to make their wedges of too great an angle. To be most effective a wedge should have an angle of not more than 5 or 6 degrees, as is shown in Fig. 7.

Fig. 2 was spoken of as the joint for the angle or end of a piece of framing but where the framing is oblique a special “open,” “slip” or “slot” mortise and tenon joint is used. This is shown in Fig. 8 and is used by joiners in framing the triangular panelling in the spandrel or “drag” often placed underneath a flight of stairs to form a closet or enclose a lower flight.

Through Tenons

In cabinetmaking the through tenon is seldom used because of the unsightly appearance of its end grain on the edge of the framing. Given that the tenon fits properly so as to fill the mortise completely, there is no doubt that the short tenon is perfectly satisfactory for indoor work. If, however, the door or framing is to be exposed to the weather, the old-fashioned method of concealed wedging, known as “blind” or “fox” wedging, is to be recommended.

Fig. 9 is a sectional view of a fox- wedged tenon and shows several slim wedges inserted in saw kerfs in the end of the tenon, ready to be driven home as the tenon enters the mortise. The mortise is of course made slightly larger on the inside to allow of the consequent spreading of the end of the tenon, the whole arrangement forming a very effective joint.

Double Tenons of Doors A common requirement in architects’ specifications for first-class doors is that the lock or middle rail shall be double tenoned on the outer stile. Such an arrangement is

shown in Fig. 10, the idea being to allow of the insertion of a mortise lock without destroying the tenon, which would occur if the usual single tenons in the centre were provided. A very effective form of mortise and tenon formerly common in constructive work is

shown in section in Fig. 11 where one side of the mortise is formed to fit the dovetail shape of the edge of the tenon. Its chief use was in attaching to the backs of solid door frames the blocks which are built into the walls by the masons to hold the frame in its position.

Another joint familiar to everyone before the days of wire nails and “balloon” framing was the “stub” mortise and tenon used at the junction of the corner post with the sills of a building and shown in Fig. 12.

Tusk Tenons

No account of the various mortise and tenon joints would be complete without a description of that much beloved one of the old carpenters, the tusk tenon joint. In fact, wherever floor timbers are properly framed today the joint is still used and is a most effective one.

Fig. 13 shows the joint and it will be seen that it is quite scientific, inasmuch as the wood in the mortised or bearing piece is cut away chiefly on the neutral axis, that is, in the centre of its depth where its fibres are theoretically neither in compression nor tension when the beam or joist is loaded.

Two or three methods of laying out the joint are used, probably the best being that shown in Fig. 13a.

The depth of the timber is divided into six equal parts and the tenon made equal to one of them and laid out in centre. The notch or step below is made a half of the remaining depth and the upper shoulder is sloped off from a point immediately above the line of the notch. The complications of the simple mortise and tenon joint arising out of the use of mouldings, panels, rebates, etc., are very numerous, but speaking broadly, the main things to be observed in designing this joint are the proper proportions of the thickness and width referred to in the early part of this article.

Grinder Wheel Alignment

I recently bought a slow speed grinder as I’ve grown beyond weary sharpening A2 steel entirely by hand. If my plane irons were thin Stanley O1 blades, then I would never need a grinder even if the blade was nicked. However, it is what it is and life goes on.

With every new grinder or with every new wheel replacement, you will need to balance or align the wheels. You also may have to periodically balance the wheels throughout the life of the wheel due to dressing, wear and profiling. The balancing of grinding wheels is essential despite dressing them! Skipping this step may cause chatter marks, excessive wheel wear and spindle head wear to name but a few.

When you start the grinder, you may notice that the wheel has a slight wobble. This can be due to the large flange washers not running true. Fixing this isn’t as difficult or time consuming as you may think.

First turn the machine on and look at the wheel to see if there is a wobble. The chances are high that there will be. If there is, turn the machine off, unplug it from the wall, wait for the wheels to stop turning and take the covers off.

Make a reference mark on each flange washer and the wheel to record their original location.

Next, loosen the shaft nut and rotate the flange washer clockwise and the other wheel counter clockwise by ½”.

Tip: If the wheel is new, you may notice the flange washer won’t rotate due to it being stuck to the paper. I used the tip of a flat blade screwdriver to strike the flange washer, a light tap is all that is needed to unstick it from the paper.

Tighten the shaft nut by hand and rotate the wheel by hand. If you don’t feel confident that you will observe any change, then tighten the shaft nut and turn the machine on. If there is still wobble in the wheel, turn it another ½”. Keep doing this until you’re satisfied. You could spend an eternity finding that sweet spot, but at some point you will have to stop and say it’s good enough for my purpose. A small amount of wobble is fine.

The final step is to dress the wheel. The centre bushings “roughly” centre the wheel on the shaft. Inaccuracies in the manufacturing process may cause fluctuation in the wheel and to address this, a wheel dresser can be used to make the wheel run true.

Place the wheel dresser on the tool rest angled upwards with the edge of the wheel dresser facing the wheel. Slowly bring the wheel dresser to the stone until you hear the untrue side touch the dresser. As you apply light pressure, the face of the stone becomes true.

Some things to be aware of:

The left side shaft nut has left-handed threads and so the nut is tightened counter clockwise. The right-side shaft nut has right-handed threads and is tightened by rotating it clockwise.

Do not over tighten the shaft nuts. Doing so can cause damage to the wheel and the flange washers. A light touch is all that is needed. The direction of travel will keep the nuts tight.

When buying a new wheel make sure the R.P.M. rating is greater than the grinder’s motor. The outer diameter of the wheel must be according to the size specification of your grinder. The bore diameter of the wheel must be the same as the original wheel.

Do not remove the labels on the sides of the wheels. They help to spread the holding pressure of the tightened nuts on the grinding wheel flanges.

Applying the entire face of the wheel dresser to the stone without the support of a tool rest may introduce deeper grooves and further untrue the stone.

Troubleshooting as is in the manual

If the adjustment of the flange washers does not make the wheel run without side to side oscillation, then remove the wheel and flange washers and check the shoulder on the motor shaft at the point where the flange washer seats against it. A slight burr on the edge of the shoulder can stop the flange washer from seating properly. The burr can be removed using a file to smooth the edge of the shoulder. Look for any roughness on the surfaces of the flange washers and smooth these spots on sandpaper placed on a flat surface. Then replace the wheel, re-adjust the flange washers, and dress the wheel.

With wheels properly aligned,this is a wonderful machine that serves its purpose in eliminating the drudgery of sharpening A2 plane blades. With the further aid of an after-market tool rest, you’ll have one powerful addition to your sharpening tool kit.

Dominos Case

I loved playing dominos with my dad when I was young and I still love playing dominos with my dad and now my son. I introduced him to the game not long ago, and he loves it. The box that the dominos came in was getting a bit tattered, so I decided to make for my old man a nice new one. I guess the original is a vintage box now and probably worth something so if anyone wants it before it goes in the bin let me know. I’m taking all the measurements off the original box and will provide them for you here.  My choice of timbers is NGR (New Guinean rosewood) for the sides and American black walnut for the ends, top and bottom.

Sides 8” x 2 1/4” x ¼” (make 2)

Ends 2 3/4” x 2 1/4” x ¼ (make 2)

Bottom 8 x 2 3/4” x 1/8” (make 1)

Lid undetermined yet – we’ll get to that part later (make 1).

Start by preparing the parts.  Rip the sides and ends over-sized.  Flatten one side and plane one edge and end square.  From the reference edge, mark 2 1/4” and rip and plane to the line.  From the reference end, mark the overall length, square a line around the piece and crosscut to the line.  Finally, mark and plane to final thickness.

In the photo below, you’ll see the two ends have been prepared as a single piece, to be cut apart and cut to length later.

Plough a ¼” wide, 1/8” deep groove that is 1/8” from the upper edge on the inside of the side pieces.  The lid will slide in these grooves. It’s imperative that the two side pieces are of equal width. If one of those pieces were wider than the other, the grooves could be out of alignment with each other.

When adjusting the plough plane, it can be helpful first to scribe a gauge line on the workpiece 1/8” from the upper edge.  Rather than setting the plane’s fence with a ruler, line up the left edge of the blade to the gauge line.

Using a rule, set the depth stop 1/8” from to the tip of the blade and lock it in place.  Verify the distance one more time for good measure.

If the wood has reversing grain, set the iron to take a very light cut. You’re only ploughing to 1/8” depth so it won’t take long.
Using a sticking board with an adjustable fence can help in ploughing the grooves. If you’re interested in making your own sticking board, plans are available in Issue IV, which can be purchased from my store. With an adjustable fence, making the piece flush against the edge of the sticking board is easy and this gives a much better surface for the plough plane’s fence to ride along.

Following these tips should result in clean, accurate results every time.

The box will have single dovetails at each corner.

Make the tails protrude by about 1/32” by setting a marking gauge to slightly more than the thickness of the pin board, as in the above picture.  Use that setting to mark the baselines on the tail board.

One end of the box will be higher than the other so that the lid can slide in and stop.  For this reason, the dovetails will be offset from centre.

On the end grain of a side piece, measure in ¼” from the lower edge and 5/8” from the grooved edge.  At these locations, mark lines straight across the end, then extend lines down the faces to the baselines using the dovetail angle you prefer.

Cut away the waste and pare to the lines to complete the dovetail.

To transfer the tails to the pin board, use a trick from Mike Pekovic of Fine Woodworking Magazine. He uses painter’s masking tape on the edge of the pin board (as shown above).  Knifing the outlines of the dovetail onto the pin board and removing the tape in the waste area reveals very clean, visible lines.

This is especially useful on dark timbers like this walnut.  Saw and chisel out the waste and fit the tail board to the pin board.

To allow the lid to slide in and out, one of the ends will be reduced in height.

Choose an end to be the front and knife a mark from the lower wall of the groove onto the end piece. Extend the mark across the end piece and rip and plane to the line.

Reassemble the box and verify that the top edge of the end piece is flush with the bottom of the grooves.  When satisfied, glue the box together, clamp it up and check for square.

When the glue has set, pare the protruding ends. Plane as close as possible to the surface and finish it off by paring with a chisel.

Flatten the bottom using a plane or by rubbing on sandpaper adhered to a flat surface.

Just a few strokes is all that is needed.

Prepare the bottom piece, planing to about 1/8” thick, but keeping the length and width oversized.  Glue the box to it and when the glue has dried, plane the ends and sides flush with the box.

The box can be clamped in a vice to give good even clamping pressure all around.

All that’s left now is the lid.

For the lid, prepare ¼” thick stock.  Then plane the edges to fit into the grooves.

A shooting board saves a lot of time and minimizes potential errors in making the edges parallel.

The fit shouldn’t be too sloppy or too tight. There should be just enough slack so the lid can slide in and out freely but not so free that if tipped on its end it will slide out.

With the lid slid all the way to the back of the box, place a mark on the lid at the end of a groove.  Square the mark across the lid and crosscut to length.  The lid will have a lip added to it that will hide the two grooves on the ends and will also act as a pull to open the box.

Rip a small piece whose width is equal to the difference between the height of the front end and the height of the sides.  This measurement can be obtained as shown in the picture above.  The length of the piece should be slightly greater than the width of the box.

Glue the lip onto the end grain of the lid, ensuring the bottoms of the lip and lid are flush with each other.  Gluing end grain to long grain may not be as strong as gluing long grain to long grain, but if the end grain is coated with glue and allowed to dry, the lip can be glued as normal and the bond will be strong. This applies to all types of glue.  When attaching the lip, ensure that the ends on both sides are slightly proud of the box sides. Trim them flush to the sides after the glue has dried.

That’s all there is to it. The box is now ready for light sanding and finish. I used three coats of shellac, followed by a coat of paste wax.

While computer games become out dated almost as quickly as they are released, dominos has continued to be played by friends and families since the Song Dynasty in China (1232-1298). 

The pictures below show the original box and the new box.  What a difference!

Issue 10 OUT NOW and it’s FREE

I’m proud to say that Issue 10 is released, and it’s FREE. It’s our way of saying thanks for the support over the three years running that “The Lost Scrolls of handwork” has been serving you. It started off free and ran for many issues being free, and it finished for free.

The idea started back in 2017 for a community-based magazine that would have been run by the community for the betterment of our vast worldwide woodworking community, hobbyists and professionals alike where everybody would have had an input. This meant people would have had to donate their time to contribute towards this great idea, and in this age of information technology this knowledge would have reached every corner of the globe.

In the 18th century you would have been killed if they shared knowledge about the craft with anyone outside, they’re locality for fear of competition. However, in this day and age of mass-manufactured machine goods very few things are done by hand and this knowledge if not preserved and passed onto others would be lost forever. Are we still not scratching our heads about how the pyramids were built? Do we need to do the same for furniture, tool making, metal working etc.? Francis Young was of the same opinion which is why he started “HANDWORK” Jacque Roubo probably felt the same as he was the first chap to write an extensive book on woodworking which we still rely on today.

The need is there, but the desire to equal that need isn’t, so unfortunately for everyone this magazine has run its course and must come to an end.  

I want to thank my friend and editor from the United States Matt McGrane for being the first to stick up his hand to volunteer as an editor for the magazine. Without him, this magazine would have ended long ago. He was the pillar that kept the roof from collapsing. I’m the first to admit that I’m no writer. Matt would pick my articles apart until I thought blood would start coming out of my eyes. I remember sitting up till late hours into the night rewriting almost everything from scratch and then get up four hours later to go to work. He is a very patient man whom I admire very much as an editor, craftsman and friend. Matt, thank you on behalf of our readers and myself for your service to the woodworking community worldwide. Please check out his blog:

I also want to say thank you to the authors who donated their articles to us. We have greatly appreciated your contributions. These are:

I hope I haven’t missed anyone.

Finally, thank you to our readers for without you none of this would have been possible.

Please enjoy your free issue of the final issue of “The Lost Scrolls of handwork.”


Accuracy in the Identification of Wood


Did you ever think how hard it is to describe a variety or kind of wood without comparison, so that anyone reasonably familiar with the different woods would be able to recognize the kind you had in mind? While it is a fact that some different kinds of wood are so nearly alike as to be substituted successfully, still they have characteristic differences which make them easily distinguishable when the experienced sight, smell or taste put them to the test. But are they differences which can be described verbally?

Yellow Pine and Cypress

For instance, some certain pieces of yellow pine are so much like other certain pieces of cypress in appearance that but few men are expert enough to be guided by sight alone. Now these woods are not at all alike and, generally speaking, they do not look alike any more than it is a feature common to the two woods to show alternating hard and soft grain. In some soft specimens of cypress, this feature is almost entirely lacking, but in these there would be no room for doubt. In the matter of colouring there is always a characteristic difference between the pine and cypress although it may be very obscure. It consists of a peculiar blending of pink, grey and brown which does not occur in the hard pine. The odour of cypress is marked, especially when burning, while the hard pine does not smell so very much different from any other wood.

Besides cypress, the common woods which have the most pungent odours are black walnut, cedar, Douglas fir, and some of the lesser smellers are cotton wood, basswood, oak, ash, elm, and even hickory. These may all be determined by the odour, but this odour cannot be described by words so that it may become a determining feature of the kind of wood.

With the possible exception of bird’s eye maple, and quartered oak, there does not occur to me any common wood the description of which would not fit some other as well. I have before me a panel, the two face sides of which are made up respectively of rotary-cut white oak and white ash. There are barely two differing characteristics observable by one not versed in the cellular structure of the wood itself, and one of these regarding colour might easily be exchanged in another panel.

The main organic difference is in the fact of the oak having the hard streaks or medullary rays which show up in the quartered product, and in the rotary-cut show the narrow lines representing the

Difficulty in accurately describing varieties of wood structures, the peculiarities of surface, matter of odour, and other distinguishing qualities that count.

edges of the thin slices of harder wood. These do not show very plainly, but nevertheless can be readily seen when looked for. However, there are many other woods besides oak which show these rays, such as the maples, poplars, sycamores (these last being very beautiful in the quartered) and even that beautiful yellow wood commonly called hedge or Osage orange has the flakes in its quarter although they are even smaller than in maple.

To depend upon the colour of wood as its distinguishing mark is to invite error, unless a fresh cut is made deep enough to get under the effect of the persistent action of the sun’s rays. It is not necessary for a piece of lumber to lie directly in the sunshine the indirect rays will change its colour in time. The change in some woods is very slight, and amounts to little more than weathering, but in others the process is comparatively rapid and the results rather unexpected.

Take a piece of bright yellow poplar of a greenish tinge with an edge of white sap and lay it with surface exposed for three months or more. It will turn as brown as a cypress board and the white sap will be as brown as the darker heart. Mahogany will darken up wonderfully with exposure, while walnut will take on a decided brown.

Red Gum and Yellow Poplar

Red gum loses that lavender tinge which makes it so beautiful when first worked, and takes on a lustreless brown with time. This is the principal reason that it will never become popular as a cabinet wood in this country only as it is doctored up with some stain. So, it will appear that if a description of red gum should be given and the chief characteristics named as a mild purple, pink and brown, with modified streaks of black running through it in fantastic figure, one might say that it was figured red gum. But the same thing is met with in yellow poplar although much more rarely. However, he would be a novice indeed who would mistake a board of figured gum for one of poplar when looking at it. It is a fact, though, that one can find gum boards which have no figure but which are coloured very much the same as poplar which has been exposed to the light for a short time.

To attempt to tell the difference between tupelo gum, cottonwood, and basswood by verbal description would be hard enough, but to be able to write a description of any one of the three so that it might not be mistaken for either of the others is an accomplishment which seems hardly possible. A man who was given charge of quite a range of woodwork, once asked the writer how he could tell the difference between red and white oak. Of course, the only way was to procure some pieces and point out the characteristic differences, and even then, he was not made able to distinguish between the two varieties when the red was rather white and the white rather red. The texture and appearance of the grain, the open pores and the look of the end of the pieces often have more to do with determining the class than the colour alone.

Small Pieces Are Puzzles

One of the very difficult puzzles in wood craft is to classify very small pieces of wood, say pieces about 3 1/2-inch-thick, 1/4-inch-wide and 1 inch long. I remember having once cut a small piece from the red heart of a white pine knot and I had the wood- workers guessing what it might be. Everything they could think of from applewood to cherry, by way of cypress, birch and peach, was guessed, while the real thing was passed up on account of its colour and texture, but mostly on account of its colour. A little nibble would have told that it was a pine. It is altogether likely that a sharp nose would have done the same.

Take a small piece of the hard flake of oak and separate it from the more porous parts and many men of experience will not be able to identify it even though they cut into it; still, it may be readily placed by chewing it up into a tasty pulp, or by wetting it for a short time and then smelling of it. It is well and commonly known that oak has a very characteristic odour when it is wet or green, but has very little when well-seasoned. This accounts for some of the mistakes made by woodworkers taking oak out of the dry-kiln and testing its condition by the odour, thinking it is dry enough to work, when in reality there is but a portion of the outside parts dry, but which prevents the sap on the inside from reaching the nose of the workman. The only safe test for the centre of the piece is to cut into the board and smell of the middle of it.

It is evident to the experienced man that a correspondence course in wood craft must necessarily be of an abridged character; the latter-day idea is running largely to effects of natural beauty and much less to designs in the patterns of details. What wood can 1 use to best express the scheme of architecture I wish to employ? How match, blend, diversify, contrast or colour it so as to procure the greatest beauty and harmony? One may tell me to use quartered white oak, but if he is writing his advice from a distance he has told me in so many words all that he will be able to convey to my inexperienced mind and the next question as to its cost will receive an answer which the veriest ignoramus cannot fail to comprehend.

If he tells me to use that most beautiful wood known as cypress burl, his powers of description may well quail before the task of telling what may be brought out from under the rough sur- face of this lumber. Who can faithfully describe the golden mountain chains in miniature which thread through the boards at the middle of the crotch, which, when polished to the limit of 0000 sandpaper, seem to have the sun hiding behind them ready to burst forth into a blaze?

In these crotches, the grain of the tree sweeps up from each side in a stately parabolic curve meeting in the irregular row of hard growth patches. For a distance of 6 inches to a foot on each side of the middle, the beauty of the grain diminishes about as the square of the distance. But the plainer edges only serve to emphasize the exquisite figure colour and texture of the parts nearer the crotch.

Nature has been very lavish with her brush in some of these cypress burls, and mingled with the browns, yellows and greys will occur a delightful surprise of crimson. This is not like an applied stain but splashes and mingles with the other colours and the wood itself, sometimes predominating in minor streaks and sometimes showing but a rosy hint of red, but never dimming or diminishing the lustre of the yellows or the burnished gold of the high lights. Like all other rare things, the beauty of cypress burl comes out with excessive toil. The wood is naturally quite soft, so that while it levels down with comparative ease it is quite difficult to bring it to a high state of polish. Without this polish there can be nothing obtained to awake the enthusiasm of the connoisseur.

 So might one go on and on attempting to picture to the absent eyes of others the beauties of many rare woods, and after all what a pitiful attempt it is when we place ourselves in the position of the reader and try to follow our own words to the logical comprehension of what we know is meant by the descriptions.

No pen can describe, no brush nor pencil can picture, a true likeness of a beautiful’ wood, polished, lustrous, with the detail of grain and colour developed by the careful application of a trans- parent size of copal or shellac. It is true that individual taste has much to do with the admiration which any specimen is able to command, but it is also true that the most rarely beautiful woods are universally admired. As in the extreme case of the cypress burl the exquisite skill of the Master Painter has left nothing to do but to discover and uncover, unless the workman would spoil.




Issue 9 is available for purchase for a low price of US$5.00 from my store at Etsy. The charge is to help cover the cost of materials which is blowing out exponentially in this country.

The Nicholson workbench was the biggest project I have endeavoured to build for the magazine to date. The new 8ft workbench has replace my 5ft bench and I love it in every sense of the word. Unless your solely making boxes this is the bench to be working on.  I don’t know how I ever managed to live with the frustration working on such a small 5ft workbench for all those years. The workbench as all my projects was entirely done by hand with no corners cut. It’s a big project that’s labour intensive but well worth the effort.

With the help from my editor Matt McGrane  the project is easy to follow. Upon purchase of the magazine you will receive several high quality PDF plans that are clear and easy to understand.  Everything has been served to you on a silver platter, all you need to now is reach out a take it.