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)  

December 15, 2008

A Season of Giving
I am known as warm and cuddly around the Studio. Huggable. A warm soft quiet teddy bear. A giver. Perhaps not so much. Better ask the beagle.

In this spirit of the season, and feeling so warm and gosh and golly it’s Xmas time again, I felt I needed to follow up on my last blog on the subject of value. How we who spend our time working at the bench perceive it so differently from the rest of the world. For us a retreat into the basement or out to the garage, a drive to the shop, is worth all the rest of the world’s riches combined. It is our place to hide from the nonsense of the world, to make some peace within ourselves so we can continue to function in this maelstrom of lunacy. This has value for us. It is not the Zen approach, the Pirsig approach I fear, although it’s been some 30 years since I read him. No it is our woodworker’s approach. For better and worse. Attaching value to some things around us, to some work that we do, to the time that we spend in our quietude.

So in this holiday season I think it appropriate to point out the need for us to share our gifts. To let people share our passion and our joy. It is called teaching.

Imagine when we lost the library at Alexandria, how much gathered knowledge we lost? We as woodworkers gather knowledge. Hoarding it, hiding it is as much a mistake as losing a library. There are days when I’m discovering something about wood or about metal, tools or techniques, and I think to myself, Wow this is so cool. But I am one damn fool if I think I am discovering something new. New to me, yes. New to my students, perhaps. Stunning, usually, in its simplicity.

These skills which we keep alive, these traditions we practice, these discoveries we make are so new to us, so filled with aha moments. These are things we must keep alive in our bumbling stumbling way. Things we must pass on to the collected knowledge of the world. And not in a file, not in a folder, not in an html file. Not in a download or a podcast. But in actual sitting with someone else and saying, look here. Look at this. This is something I learned. I want to show it to you. For if we don’t, if we let this stuff pass on, then it will be lost.

Many years ago, a brilliant woodworker name of Steve Voorheis, the late Steve Voorheis sadly, was in Portland to show his work and take part in a meeting of woodworkers at the time. I remember talking to him about his school in Missoula, Montana and the value of teaching these skills. He told me and I remember it so clearly, he told me it’s up the amateur to keep these skills alive. The professional woodworker can’t afford to do so. But the amateur, the putterer, the dedicated eye-poppingly skilled woodworker in the basement needs to keep practicing these dying arts. For few can afford to do things the old ways, not in the market of the 1980’s, not today.

This is the season of sharing then. When we can share our knowledge, our discoveries with others, and I want this to include the young eyes, the young ones, who will never in their schools put hands on real tools. They will touch mice, joysticks, and the Wii surrogates for actual activity. But never will they touch actual tools in their schools. I hope it is with these little folk that we can show them something and say: See the world is much bigger than you imagined. It is much bigger than I imagined. And the joy of living is to keep discovering. Learning is the happiest of activities. Share this joy of learning that you have with others and we will try however vainly to keep the fire going in the night. When the beasts howl, when the electricity dies out, when there’s nothing to do. It’s then we can show someone something dazzling. Share your value.

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

Published in: on December 15, 2008 at 5:15 pm  Comments (2)