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What's waiting in the wood

Oct 21, 2012 - By Randy Tucker

Every once in awhile I reconnect with my stockpile of old-growth Douglas fir planks.

The fifth-grade social studies textbook would be very dated today, but it was avant garde when my class worked through it back in 1968.

The only chapters that survived the ensuing chasm of memory were two short sections on how the use of tools separated us from the other animals on the planet.

In a much-too-common quirk found throughout the educational fads of the tuned-in decade, the very next chapter showed clear color photos of a chimpanzee stacking boxes and tying a couple of yardsticks together to reach a bunch of bananas suspended just out of his reach. Our teacher never responded to questions from the class on which chapter was true.

Tools are the essence of mankind. With them we recreate the world around us in form that nature would never consider. Without them we are just chaff in the wind of chance.

Archaeologists indicate that man's first tools were made of wood. We often read about the Stone Age, but stones were just points to the spear of progress.

To many people, wood is just something they encounter each day. No different than cloth, plastic or metal, just a material they use and forget. To others, wood is a medium, an art form waiting to be released from its natural state.

Michelangelo, arguably the greatest sculptor of all time, said, "Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it."

The same is true of the artisan who works in the world of oak, fir, pine, cedar and walnut.

I've had a lifelong fascination with building things out of wood. Yes, I can weld and have restored a few Chevrolets over the last two decades, but I always find myself back at the saw or drill, or sanding away on a piece of rough stock.

Mr. Beauchamp was shop teacher at Mitchell Junior High School in Rancho Cordova, Calif., during my seventh- and eighth-grade years. His intro to wordworking class was my favorite.

We learned to work with hand tools before he allowed us near any of the power equipment. Our first project was a napkin holder made with two pieces of wood and a pair of wood dowels.It was far from cutting-edge joinery, but it was a start.

Gradually a few of us were allowed to progress to the band saw, the lathe and finally the radial arm and table saw.

I was hooked.

At the time it didn't seem strange at all but Mr. Beauchamp had Sierra Club posters displayed throughout his classroom. A card-carrying Sierra Club member and a wood shop teacher -- the paradox is a fascinating one today.

I recall him talking frequently about John Muir and the redwoods while we worked happily away on a piece of pine. In the fractionalization that has become America today he wouldn't be allowed to walk in both worlds without constant harassment.

In the four decades since junior high school my world has never been too far removed from the wood shop or the job site. A bit of free time invariably finds my small array of power tools purring away on a new idea.

Not everyone views the value of a straight piece of lumber as a connoisseur does.

A few years ago at one of the school districts I worked at, a construction crew removed a full set of bleachers from a wall as an old gymnasium was remodeled. A message went out offering the old seats to anyone who wanted to pick them up.

I hooked a trailer to my truck the next morning and went to harvest the free material.

What awaited me was a wooden treasure. The material was laminated, old-growth Douglas fir. "Doug fir," as it is often referred to is the strongest of the softwoods with amazing shear strength.

This fir was some of the last of the old-growth wood once common in America. Straight, knot-free, tight-grained wood slightly over an inch deep, 12 inches wide and 16 feet long. I wanted it all.

But others worked in the district as well, and they had different designs on the material. My heart sank when a couple of the guys came up with chain saws and started to cut their portion into firewood.

It was akin to using the Mona Lisa to wrap fish.

I kept loading the long planks on the trailer until the body language of the other guys planning to up the planks indicated my share was just about at its limit.

In the years since, that straight-grained, perfectly milled fir has evolved into gun cabinets, chests, tables, desks and into supporting structures for projects made out of other species. About 10 pieces remain in storage, quietly waiting for the furniture within to be released.

The other planks that supported spectators for nearly 70 years went up the stack of someone's fireplace many years ago, never reaching the wood's potential.

Old-growth wood is rare. It was the material that built America in its boisterous youth. A small percentage of it remains in old bridge timbers and pylons, in aging barns and outbuildings.

Second- and third-generation wood is an artificial product, grown and managed as a renewable crop.

It is good to have, but it pales in comparison to its original, wild ancestors.

There is no limit to the creative potential of a fine piece of wood unleashed by an innovative mind connected to a set of skilled hands using the right tool. After all, what else separates us from our four-legged brethren?

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