A primer on wood for furniture

Charlie Moore custom designs furniture, starting with a scaled drawings and models.

My kids' bedrooms are disasters.

The piles of clothing appear to be living, and finding the floors would take an expedition. But the nut doesn't fall far from the tree because the bedroom of my childhood was worse. However, I've come to appreciate organization.

Recently, I visited Charlie Moore of Old Growth Fine Furniture and Design (www.oldgrowthfinefurniture.com). His shop is surprisingly small and his organization is a work of art. I tend to make a mess during projects, dropping tools when I'm done. That's why I make a better tree grower than a wood craftsman.

I don't think about what trees looks like on the inside. That's Charlie's business.

Sapwood is the actively growing element of trees, which is located just under the bark. This is where all the plumbing is located. The xylem "pipes" transport water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves. The phloem "pipes" carry food, or sugar, down to the roots.

Girdling a tree is stripping the bark around the trunk. This interrupts the xylem/phloem transport. Grapes are often carefully girdled to stop phloem transport without disrupting xylem activity. This keeps sugars above ground and improves grape quality.

Unintentional girdling, however, can result in death. Young trees are particularly susceptible to lawnmowers and weed eaters. Mulching the base of a tree is a good preventive.

Heartwood is the older, inactive interior portion of the trunk. It provides structural support, but because these cells are not functioning, trees will divert preservatives to reduce decomposition. Heartwood is often darker than sapwood and more preferable for furniture.

Charlie is fond of the light-colored sapwood, but says he's in the minority. Most clients prefer heartwood.

Charlie works primarily with cherry, walnut and mahogany due to quality and color. Some of his walnut stock is as dark as chocolate. Popular is an inexpensive choice but requires more finishing. Birdseye maple is also something he uses, although this is where our expertise differs.

Birdseye is actually a sugar maple (Acer saccharum), but refers to the mottled finish, not the species. Ipe (EE-pay) is a tropical wood for decks but not practical for furniture. It's extremely dense and heavy.

Irregularities and defects are a major consideration. Gum pockets would not affect outdoor construction but they can leave inconsistent spots in furniture.

He doesn't work with a lot of oak because it "moves." This refers to the expansion and contraction of the open cell structure.

The finish is often dimply and requires more effort. He showed me curly red oak with an unusual mottled finish.

Treatment can affect the color and quality. Green wood refers to lumber than contains greater than 19 percent moisture. It's reserved for some outdoor construction but it's susceptible to warping.

Most construction requires kiln-dried wood to prevent subsequent movement.

I asked if he ever received requests for using lumber from a special tree, such as one growing on family property.

He said it would be possible, but it would require about a year and a half for the wood to properly cure. Dead air drying can require two years. The slower that the wood dries, the less it warps.

Some of the English walnut he had in stock had been sealed with a thin layer of wax to slow the drying process.

Steaming is another treatment that uniformly draws out the color of heartwood.

Grain is the orientation of growth rings. In outdoor construction, grain can affect cupping of deck boards. Knots can weaken the structural element. In furniture, grain is an important visual element. Charlie keeps thick stock lumber so he can custom-cut his pieces. Quartersawn wood will restrict movement. Rift sawn wood creates straight grain that's good for table legs or door frames.

I've found a new appreciation for trees. And the next time my tools are in disarray, I'll ask a simple question: What would Charlie do?

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, e-mail him at tony. bertauski@tridenttech.edu.