Finishing Makes the Difference

How do people engage with your furniture? They look at the form first of course. If they like the shape of a piece, then they approach it. They eye it to see the wood and the sheen of it. The very next thing they do is touch the piece. Everyone loves to put their hands on wood because it’s warm, it’s inviting. And if there’s a finish on the wood, then what folks will be touching is that finish. You have to pay attention first to how that finish looks and next how it feels in order to win over a client, a buyer, or an admirer.

The problem is that finishing is part chemistry and part alchemy. It is neither simple nor intuitive. Most furniture makers, when they finally complete their piece that was supposed to take a weekend but instead took three months, all they want to do is put a finish on it and walk away from it. But what they usually do is put on the wrong finish in the wrong way and don’t like how it looks or feels. So what they do next,instead of backing up, instead of admitting they goofed, they press on! Brave stalwarts, they put something else over the first bad stain or topcoat and now they have a bastard child by two discordant parents/ finishes. Do they admit defeat now? Start over? Never. They continue the charge and apply another finish over the first two until such time as they finally can say, Enough. It is enough and the finish sucks so I’m done with it.

Another triumph.

Join us Wednesday Feb. 29 from 5 to 8pm for a lecture entitled 3 Simple Finishes. Learn how to demystify all the information swirling about on finishes. You’ll hear about simple surface prep techniques, how to protect your work with finish and to make it beautiful. These are hand applied finishes that provide luster from low to high sheen, protection for your wood, and finishes that are easy to repair as well as beautiful. There is a ton of information to share with you so come and learn how to put on a great finish for your masterpiece.

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Published in: on December 25, 2009 at 2:23 pm  Leave a Comment  


July 18, 2009
Beauty will inspire beauty.

This note was from a former Mastery student of mine. I wanted to share.

“My wife came home with a woodworking job for me – build calligraphy easels for ladies in a local art group. I’m thinking cherry or walnut and something pretty nice but they said sturdy and cheap. After that let down and a sketch and prototype they want something different. I wish Gary would have devoted one of our sessions to managing customer expectations and in knowing when to walk away!”

This, my response to his lament.

Ah Dennis, if I knew when to walk away, I might have walked away long ago.

Part of the artist’s job is convincing the unworthy public, the geometrically disinclined, the visually bereft that what you will make for them will be so far superior to “sturdy and cheap” that their calligraphy will soar. Remember that Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs, a fellow Reedie, credited the design of his fonts, the importance of his fonts, to his calligraphy classes at Reed. The importance of surrounding ourselves with beauty in order to create beauty cannot be overstated.

But overstate it you must to the unadoring public. If art will soar and serifs flourish, then artists must needs have good tools surrounding them. Sturdy and cheap will be thrown away in a few years time along with the calligraphy pens. Your work will inspire them to continue on, to perservere, to make great art. Be the inspiration they seem to so truly need! Carry on.
Yours in hip boots,

From the former disconsolate:
“What a great response!
The beauty to inspire beauty view speaks volumes that you just don’t get with a utilitarian view such as the ladies have for that easel. To them it is nothing more than a prop. Well, there’s a piece of walnut in the shop to be shaped for someone who is inspired by and appreciates it grain, color and fine fit😉

Thank goodness for Jobs and his caligraphy class experience – look what he has done with Mac’s, iPods and the such…useful, creative and artistic devices.”

So to us all, let me add that in this culture, in this world, where the loud and the profane, the quick and the showy get far more air time than the quiet and serene, the slow and the deep, in this time, let me urge us to keep swimming upstream. Keep doing the work. You’ll know, even if your closest relations sadly don’t, how much effort can go into something simple. And that it’s worth it. It’s okay. In the end someone will notice. They just won’t usually be heard above the din. Thanks Dennis for letting yourself be heard.

Gary Rogowski is the Director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio. Visit us at

Published in: on July 18, 2009 at 6:00 pm  Comments (1)  

Innocence and Consequence

May 27, 2009
Innocence. Isn’t it lovely to behold? So unburdened, so light, so free. In the beholding of it are we not reminded of those days when we were once young, once innocent? Fresh. Free from knowledge, the forbidden fruit. Innocence.

I think of young woodworkers, new woodworkers, like I once used to be. New to the tools and machines and how they worked. Those large and frightful machines, how powerful they were. But how did you use them without being impaled or not lose digits to them? And those quiet and small hand tools, those dull companions to the noise and speed of my power tools, what were they all about? They looked like fun, but what did some of them even do? In those days, I could master none of these tools.

Innocence comes to mind when I think of new students in the Studio as well. How they’ll be in the shop and wonder at all the stuff there is inside: the machines, the jigs, the tools, the clamps and forms and holders and helpers. And how it must seem to these newcomers that everything should just work here. Pull a switch and the work will be done. It will somehow magically appear. Jigs will always work properly, machines will never need setting up, and tuning, well you tune an instrument, not a tool. It will all work just so.

Innocence. So lovely and so unburdened with knowledge.

Consequence. Consequence is the teacher of course in the shop. It is the cure for innocence. For everything you do in the shop will have consequence for you. Yes things are supposed to work right but things change you know. Jigs can stop working. Set-ups can move. You can push so hard on a template that you can deflect its shape. If you mill up the wood badly, then it will be harder for you to cut your joints accurately. If the joints aren’t accurate, they will look wrong or the piece will go together crooked. Consequence. If the jig stops working then your cuts will come out wrong, if you push too hard on a set-up, it may move on you and ruin a board. Lumber may warp as you cut it, or it may be cut too short, several times. These days are frustrations and mysterious to the newcomer. Shouldn’t everything be immutable in the shop. Unchangeable, constant, fixed?

Ah innocence. It’s so lovely to behold.

And let me say that it’s not just newbies who suffer from this affliction of boundless belief. This faith that everything will stay right because then it will be good and aren’t we here to be doing good and so shouldn’t the tools treat us well and do good work for us and stay good? Don’t we grizzled crusty veterans feel the same way? Shouldn’t that tool continue to work as always? Shouldn’t the stop have remained where it was and not moved and ruined my work? Shouldn’t the clamp not have fallen right onto the piece but onto the dullard’s foot who placed the clamp? Isn’t the universe, now that I am in the shop, on my side you wail?


People act in the shop as if they’re is no consequence to their actions. that if they continue to overtighten a screw thread it will never strip. Or if they drill on the drill press with vigor, with extra vigor, with supreme vigor and then don’t tighten the table down or don’t watch it as they work, that the table won’t move. No. It will move. It will break, it will do these things unless we pay attention to the consequences of our actions.

This is of course the curse and the attraction of woodworking. The consequence of one’s actions. You can see what you do. You can see the triumphs; you can see the mistakes. A pile of one or the other after a day’s work. What you’ve done right or what you’ve done wrong. Consequence. It follows all of our actions. Pay attention to your work and the consequences will keep you out of the unpainted corner and near the doorway. Ignore the consequences of your work and find yourself counting steps to the nearest exit. Me, I’ll just clean up my footprints on the way out.

Gary Rogowski is the Director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio. Visit us at

Published in: on May 28, 2009 at 8:20 am  Leave a Comment  

Writer’s Block

April 23, 2009

Design is a curious animal. It is part ape and part peacock. Made up of disparate elements like the griffin or the minotaur. A dash of beast, a dash of human. Part inspiration, part intellect. It looks for the muse and yet feeds off history. It requires fresh thinking and needs the compost of experience to thrive.

So much of what we do as designers revolves around this paradox. I think perhaps the paradox is the cause of the writers block or the blank canvas. How in the world do I create something new when all I can think of is all I’ve seen or heard or read before? I am the culmination of my experiences and therefore must by definition spit out something old, something borrowed. And how can I do this and put my name upon it and call it my own? I think the block comes from a sense of shame that not an original thought has ever emerged from one’s head. It silences one.

This blockage comes as well from a sense that A) Sister Mary Aloysius was the seed of all my thoughts about literature or was it B) James Joyce and his buddies thus making it doubly difficult to say to the world: look at what I have wrought. It is almost impossible to do this without at least a smirk of recognition or a sigh of resign. And yet, and yet it’s the best of the artists among us who do this with no sense of impropriety but with the bravado of the narcissist. They truly believe they are original and act without a sense of self-consciousness. This is freedom.

This notion of freedom then is one that we think is so important for creation. A creative mind needs freedom to express itself. Freedom to do whatever it wants and call it one’s own creation. But consider a contrary notion: that creation actually thrives better under constraints. That a fecund mind works better when given limits, boundaries, difficulties, obstacles to overcome, than when given unlimited freedom.

For with freedom comes a certain terror. It is the mockery of the sketch book, limitless with its whiteness. The steppes at least have oceans to bound them. A blank page, the white canvas, is a rebuke, a taunt, a gauntlet thrown down before an unworthy adversary. How do you fill up something this potent with your meager thoughts?

I know I have trembled before the thought: do whatever you like. Don’t say this! Don’t give me freedom! Point me somewhere, tell me not to step off the ledge, give me some purpose to this meandering. Set me straight, tell me to fix on that tree in the distance, keep the river on your left, or make it fit that space but give me three drawers.

Creation needs boundaries sometimes, restraint. Only in this way does it find its pace, its willingness to play. Coltrane needed The Sound of Music to riff off. A bass line to lay down a pattern to stand on and a melody to take off from. “Play anything” and you push from shore and you drift. Oh you may make something that has merit to it, but often it’s aimless, it’s formless.

Give the designer limits and now these boundaries free up the mind. In discussion with one of my Mastery students, I posited that in designing a piece of furniture you had more of a sense of freedom if you were given some restrictions. Some limits to the canvas rather than saying: do whatever you want. Evocative prohibitions is how a writer I know put it. Try a design with nine legs this time or a pedestal base. Does it work better? Does it make you work harder? This is good. Does it perhaps give you other ideas? This is it then. This is the purpose of constraint. It forces us into a canyon. It pushes us, volume and pressure working together, it pushes us one way and while we’re doing that, we see the other side of the wall. Somehow we can imagine the greener grass better by virtue of the fence. It pushes us in strange ways, these restrictions. They push us to work in one manner, one fashion and by doing so, allow us the freedom to imagine what if.

Gary Rogowski is the Director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio. Visit us at

Published in: on April 23, 2009 at 12:48 pm  Comments (3)  

The Studio’s Bail-out

April 1, 2009

I am sorry. Sorry for fooling you in the past. Sorry for taking up your valuable time and eyeball energy. It was selfish of me and I now apologize. For your time is quite valuable. There are only moments before you will grow old and here I have helped you waste your time reading trivialities. No more. This I promise you. No more. From here on I will waste no one’s time reading trivialities on a screen. You have better things to do than that. Surely.

No, my time won’t be spent in trickery any longer. No you won’t be fooled again as that famous philosopher, now philanderer, once put it. You have been played for a fool and you won’t be fooled. I am the fool to think so. And so there is no fooling you this year. I fool myself if I believe I could fool you and so I must tell you that I could not fool with you. It is not the time for foolery. We are embarked on a rare journey and nothing short of cold hard honest facts will do. No trickery, no chicanery. No, no, no. Just the facts ma’am. No foolin’.

As we, the royal Studio and its inhabitants, enters its 13th year of existence, first we must stop to gasp at the thought. It is frightening yes? So much time, so quickly passed. Didn’t this just begin? But it’s been a good run filled with hours of delight as we watch students put clamps back in odd positions. As we see them putting blades on backwards on the table saw. [The billowing smoke during a cut is always a sure give away.] As we spy knowledge growing, we reflect that it’s been a good run.

It gives us time to reflect, time to pause, time to count our many splinters, our blessings and again our splinters, because we spend so much time reflecting on our woes and not our happy ways. Our way is clear today, to make way for the new. So it is time to introduce our new efforts, our new direction. When the going gets tough, the tough generally head to Congress for help. But not the Studio. Oh no. We are made of far sterner stuff.

Now these are difficult times. We all know this. We all know too that only the largest companies will be bailed out. Only the greatest fools will get help from our elected fools. The small concerns will remain just that. Concerned as to how to pay the rent and how to keep the machines running and how to keep people working and how to stay in business. But we ask for no hand-outs here. We will take no hand-outs. We will certainly be given no hand-outs.

I have instead devised a plan. When the students dry up, when education becomes a footnote, when all else fails, I have a plan. New work! A line of furniture certain to please, certain to sell, and certainly noteworthy. Take note.

A reader once wrote in and asked me about a bed design I had made some years previous. He wrote: “Your Arts and Crafts bed uses 1″ slats, and if I recall properly they were poplar. Have they held up over the years? Any bowing? Would you just flip them over periodically?”

“I’m making beds for the boys and they don’t have box springs, just mattresses. Now you would think that two well-behaved boys such as these would rest gently in their beds. You would be wrong. Thoughts?”

I did give this considerable thought before replying. But in the reply I realized that I had stumbled across something far bigger than a mere reply. I had come up with my own bail-out plan. The plan to bail out the Studio! It was fool proof and so appropriate for me. Children’s furniture has always been a market to investigate. In my unwitting answer, I had found the wit to help save the Studio. Here it twas: Steel Rebar!

I replied thus: “In my opinion, concrete unless properly reinforced with 1″ rebar is just sufficiently stiff enough to handle two growing boys. Oftentimes we suggest, live bamboo shoots growing up through a mattress as they provide the boys with that element of danger so important for a quiet night. But in the end only the parents can determine how many forests of poplar they are willing to destroy in order to keep their boys off the floor. For my own use, I have found 1″ poplar a sufficiency, but 1″ rebar is a far better solution particularly where young and growing boys are involved. If you want true strength, then you, my friend, want rebar!”

I had hit upon it, furniture for youth! Perhaps even the young at heart or the acrobatically inclined in the night. Unbreakable furniture! Indestructible! Of course my epoxy bill would go sky high, but what matter? I would be making furniture that would last three lifetimes. In the year 2250, they would be admiring my work still, the rebar unbent by use. Hidden inside pillars of wood, these stalwart rods would support my work, thwart heedless furniture restorers, and give work to thousands of steel workers around the world. We would make all our furniture with steel rebar and quality would be our backbone. We could hide the rebar deep in the legs and aprons of tables, hide the rebar in the backs and sides of cabinets, stealth the rebar in the bottoms of drawers and in the arms of chairs. Our rockers would rock on steel rebar bent laminated with walnut.

Now, I know this may sound a bit strange coming from a woodworker and all. But in truth it is merely an evolution. A recognition of value, of strength, and of limits. What bed could withstand two bouncing boys except one built with rebar? Wood alone is not sufficient. Double half gainers with a shove by a brother require more than wood. They require Rebar! Therefore our class offerings will reflect this new approach and I believe soon to be national trend. Do I see a magazine in the offing, in the distance?

Classes will be offered in identifying and drying rebar, carrying steel rebar, where to place your feet when dumping a load of rebar on the floor, tying off rebar, and rebar lore and history. These are fascinating and useful skills. And I see new areas, new pathways open up to the Studio like never before. We could be working with imported rebar and locally made or reclaimed rebar! Green rebar, sustainable rebar! Rebar knickknacks and carvings reinforced with rebar! It is truly a new era. A new dawn. How to hide your rebar so it looks feathery light. Where to place rebar for the best effect. Chamfering rebar, bending rebar [oh this one will fly], creating rebar structures to be covered by fabric or! Rice paper. These are ideas that will help the Studio and build furniture for the ages. A new way! One filled with steel rebar but shining brightly. I hope you’ll join us in this new endeavor as we build for the future and beyond.

To think. All this from a simple letter. And yet inspiration can strike whenever you’re bending over and not looking.

Signed, Your April Fool

Gary Rogowski is the Director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio. Visit us at

Published in: on April 1, 2009 at 4:17 am  Comments (4)  

Reality Check Please

March 2, 2009

I do not know of a woodworker who doesn’t fool himself most times right out of the gate. Loves to fool himself or herself. Loves to look at a project and shrink it down to toy size and say to themselves, oh, I can get that done in a weekend. Or, yeah this will be fun, let’s dive in right now. Put everything else aside and dive into a new project with gusto, with fervor, with delight, and the promise of spring in the air because, because! This time will be different. This time I will finish the project quickly with no problems at all.

Why do we do this? Haven’t we learned? You know how it works. You get started and the design isn’t quite right. The plans show this thing but I want that thing. Or my design works but I don’t have enough material so now I have to go to the lumber yard. Once I get to the lumber yard and pick through the dreck they call wood and I finally find something close to what I wanted and bring it home and cut it up then it’s wet. So I have to let it sit. Or maybe I go to place the dry lumber on the rack and the rack is a mess. Who works in here anyways? So now I have to clean up the mess left by that woodworker who ravages my shop every now and then and leaves things everywhere. And so I clean up his mess and get on with it, but the wood moves a bunch when I mill it so I better let it sit for a week. I’ll just rough it out and sticker it and set it on the bench.

And then something happens. Weeks go by. Full weeks of time and you look over now at that pile of sticks on the bench, a layer of guilty dust settled on everything, and now what was that stuff for again? I remember I had this quick little project planned and then I got busy doing something else. It’s too easy to let time slip away. You start off like a ball of fire and then you hit an impediment or roadblock and you let go of that momentum. You start the project and something happens, the belt on the saw breaks or you cut one board too short. Twice! You set the project down because it’s just deflated you and you let it go and it drifts away.

Those of you who know sports know the fickle nature of momentum. Ask any Cubs fan about Steve Bartman and tell me that momentum doesn’t shift. Why that… oh letting my stripes show here. The point is that momentum is critical to completing a project. If you can keep your momentum, you have a chance. Lose it and you’re sunk.

This is what I think we need to remember better. A woodworking project is a not like a sprint. It’s like a marathon. It’s a long run that will be filled with setbacks where we will stop and hold our knees while we gasp for air and long stretches where everything you touch seems to work. It will take longer than we imagined and it will be difficult. But it will be time well spent in the shop. If we keep this in mind, if we remember that it will not be done this weekend or even next. And that tools will break or will need sharpening and that wood will do funny things and move on us and we will make mistakes. If we anticipate this, instead of imagining the quick dash to the finish line with no mishaps, if we can anticipate the long run, if we get the reality check before we begin, then I think the whole experience will be better enjoyed. It’s about the run anyway, not the finish line. Check please.

Gary Rogowski is the Director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio. Visit us at

Published in: on March 2, 2009 at 7:02 pm  Comments (3)  

Design Beginnings

February 8, 2009

A student wrote about his discouragement in trying to design. Ideas were not coming to him easily. “I’m so mechanical,” he lamented. My response to him went like this:

I think your problem is universal. No one knows how to design. Just like no one knows how to throw a baseball. Try throwing leftie if you a right hander and tell me how natural that feels.

I can tell you however that after years of throwing a baseball, playing catch with my brother, throwing from the outfield, throwing from third base, throwing across my body, throwing over my shoulder, throwing a softball, throwing a mush ball, throwing a wiffle ball, throwing the rock with high hard heat, after all this time if I went out and tried to throw a ball, it would feel like my arm was going to come off. My aim would probably be a little off, my velocity way down. Why? Because I haven’t been throwing. Just like you haven’t been designing.

Any activity takes practice if you want to be good at it. Nothing good comes quickly either. And if you stop practicing it, this skill will atrophy just like my throwing arm. So do not despair. Get looking at designs around you, in books, in magazines, on line. Try to ask yourself what about each design do you like or do you not like. What elements of a design could you see yourself using. Then keep sketching. Draw furniture, draw objects, draw people if you can, but keep drawing. I think this really opens up a pathway for the brain that computer drawing never will.

You must remember that the creative side of your brain is all the way over on the other side of that cranium from the engineering side. We use both sides. We need both sides to build furniture. But to access the design side you have to practice just like you practiced and worked out the engineering side.

Next you need to try designing in the styles you really like. For instance, what are the elements of the Federal style that you might like? Inlay, leg stringing, tapered legs, the austerity perhaps of the designs. Take those features and try to use them in work of your own. Work towards developing a vocabulary of design. Items of design, like words, can become favorites to use such as dagnabit and hornswaggle are for me dadgumit.

But I also like to pin my joints, mix contrasting textures, and use odd numbers in pieces so that I have a center to my design and a more balanced composition. I find that legs that grow wider as they meet the floor give a table a much more solid feel which I like. Some folks think it’s ponderous. They prefer a slimming leg as it goes to the floor. I’ve done both depending on the piece. Sometimes I put feet on my legs, sometimes I put a detail on the leg bottoms. Sometimes the detailing is everything, sometimes it’s very subtle. What kind of feeling am I after when I design work? Is it restrained and serene like Japanese interior design from some centuries ago or do I want more wallop when you walk through the door? Will I use textured aluminum this time or quartersawn ash? Or mix the two together? What’s my intent? What’s my intention with the piece?

Is it just a box? Well fine. Let it be just a box, but let’s put some care into the lay-out of the dovetails. Since they’re hand cut, let’s space them a bit differently as they move up the corner. Let’s let them protrude a bit and have a little rounding to them. Don’t just let the box sit there, put it up on a plinth or on some simple legs. Something that says: Here I am. A presentation.

Maybe a small chamfer on the bottom edge giving a shadow line there is enough. Maybe I’d prefer a dentil molding along the bottom edge like a row of teeth. Is my paneled lid plain and flat, raised and outrageous, painted and carved, veneered and polished to within an inch of its life? All these things inform the piece and how you want your audience to approach it.

Is there a handle on the lid that sticks up or sticks out? Are there two handles curving towards one another like a stylized pair of dolphins or are they a set of eyes? Where do you want people to put their hands when they go to touch this box? You’re in charge now, you’re the designer. Make people look at what you want them to look at.

It starts with the form. What are the proportions of this box? Make it square, a 1:1 ratio and it looks one way, but make it a 1:4 ratio and it changes completely. What kind of wood will work best for your design and for your joinery? Some woods will complement the piece, others will take it over. The joinery is important of course, but so is the texture. Is it all smooth or is there a small tapering chamfer on the top edge. Where will people idly run their hand on this piece wondering about the designer and how marvelous his life must have been?

It is up to you. Do not be afraid of design. You are designing when you throw designs out because they stink. This means you are developing criteria. This is good. It’s good to have standards. Keep making yours higher and higher. Try new designs, quick designs, designs that are silly and stupid and unbuildable just to see what they look like on paper. Leonardo DaVinci could not have designed his version of a helicopter if he wasn’t completely willing to try out the most outrageous ideas. Imagine imagining a helicopter at his time in the world! Astonishing. But he had no limits to his imagination. Quit holding onto yours and start to play. This is where ideas begin: in playing around, doodling. Don’t worry, we’ll pull you back to the earth soon enough when we have to figure out how to build your idea. But start with playing and tell your inner critic to just shut up for awhile so you can see what’s floating around inside. Let your mind wander and your pencil follow. You will be surprised by what you draw, guaranteed.

Have fun with it.

Gary Rogowski is the Director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio. Visit us at

Published in: on February 8, 2009 at 6:29 pm  Comments (2)  


January 7, 2009

What’s the worry? We go out to learn something new and it’s so frustrating for us because we don’t get it right off. As if everything we take on should come easy. It’s easier to forget just how long it took to master our own special skills. We get so caught up in being so good at something that sometimes we just forget to enjoy ourselves. I speak for myself alone of course.

I took a class once from Curtis Buchanan. You know those “working” vacations where you’re out there herding sheep or branding cattle or some such thing. Well they got nothing on butt kicking when it comes to a working vacation building a Windsor chair at Curtis’. I worked hard for five and a half days to make my chair with him. I had to get up at 5AM that last morning so I could finish on time. Well during the week sometime, I was forlorn. I must have been out searching for sympathy because his wife said to me that evening, “You know, when Curtis started, he really wasn’t that very good on the lathe.” What joy radiated from heaven! Light streamed down, trumpets played. Yes! I am just being slow, I am not stupid!

And that’s the key of course. To allow ourselves the time it takes to learn. Learning comes slowly. Why not? Anything good takes effort. Anything worth having shouldn’t come easy to us. I met this woman once who proclaimed to me that she was a Reike Master. I was impressed. “How long did it take you to become a Master?” I asked. “Two years,” she said. I stopped being impressed. Two years is about long enough to learn that you really don’t know that much and maybe it’s time to buckle down and actually start learning.

But can we learn at this advanced age? Can we teach old dogs new tricks? And is it worth the effort? The answer can only be yes and yes again, to paraphrase Molly Bloom, yes again.

But what needs remembering is that along the painful way, that way filled with mistake after mistake, one fabulous screw-up after another, along this way, you have to remember to enjoy yourself. Back off on the learning throttle just ever so little. You are not going to be great in one week or ten or even a year. Virtuosity is its own reward but it comes slow like aging. You don’t really notice it happening. Then one day when you look back, you can say, hmm, it was like no time had passed at all.

Gary Rogowski is the Director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio. Visit us at

Published in: on January 7, 2009 at 8:24 pm  Comments (2)  

Nothing is Forever

December 29, 2008

Wood is so wonderful, isn’t it? So varied and changeable. So pregnant with possibility. Take wood movement for instance. Don’t tell me that wood is not alive. Some woods you can watch move as you cut them. Some woods seem to be on a timer for movement. And they’ll do things that make you just wonder, why me? I watched a cabinet door this summer, a not very hot summer, warp in on the cabinet about 1/16″. Just enough to bother me. Just enough to wink at me every time I walk by that thing. That’s wood for you. You think it’s finally stabilized. No such thing. It seems to be in a constant state of recycling itself.

I remember a table top I had made once. It was very thin, very precise. Pretty. I had made it out of hard maple, and since it was a table top, I decided to raise the grain on the top. Just a damp cloth to raise up the fuzzies and then sand them off. Done it a hundred times. What could go wrong?

Well, what went wrong is that the top curled like a french fry, cupping away from the top because of the extra moisture there I had put into it. I did not panic. I did not holler. I stayed calm and wet down the underside of the top, quickly. This did two things. It flattened the top and brought my heart rate down. Both very desirable results in my mind. But what a couple of heart pounding moments.

This is just so like wood too. You have spent countless hours polishing, sanding, and babying it and then wham, it’ll cup on you or develop a crack after your first coat of finish.

This can work to your advantage sometimes. Some years ago I built a quick little end table to sit outside on my porch. Something short I could put my feet up on or perhaps a glass of something malted and frothy. Nothing pretty like your table. My table sits outside all year round on the porch. I made the base out of cedar and the top was rough sawn pallet wood. I screwed each piece of pallet wood down to the base but with just one screw right in the center.

Well seasons come and seasons go and my unfinished top cups like someone has lit it on fire. It must have had a good 1/4″ of cupping across 4″ wide boards and it has cupped up. That is the top of the top is concave. This has to be from sitting out on the porch in the hot weather and baking just one side of the wood. The top dries out and it cups. I could pour my frothy malted beverage into this much cup.

So it snows this year. I mean it snows like crazy. We rarely see snow at our elevation here in the Pacific Northwest but this year a foot and a half came down. It was great. And I saw that the snow had piled up on my little table. Well I had kicked the snow off of my Adirondack chair there on the porch, but I looked at the table and said, hmm. Let’s just leave that snow in place and see if it doesn’t wet the wood down enough to flatten out that nasty cupping.

Well sure enough, a couple of days go by and after another two inches of snow I happen to look at my table. It had flattened out! It worked! Flat as a pancake. Now I’m not recommending that you take your warped boards out and put them in the snow to straighten them out. Too much of this kind of movement will cause new problems for your boards. But there is a moral here. The moral is that nothing is forever. Not flatness nor wood. Not when it comes to moisture. So be careful, treat both sides the same and maybe your wood will stay flat, maybe for awhile.

Gary Rogowski is the Director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio. Visit us at

Published in: on December 29, 2008 at 7:33 pm  Comments (1)