Which Wood to Turn: Green or Dry?
Most of the pieces that I turn are created in wood which has been dried to a moisture content below 8 percent. Using such dried wood considerably minimizes the risk of warping, distorting and splitting, after the piece has been completed. That said, I would add that wood constantly reminds us that it is a living, energetic form and, in certain ways, never does seem to be completely dead. It seems there will always be some movement. One can appreciate that thought when you think of the kiln-dried woods used in home construction; a door, for example, becomes struck because it has shrunk or expanded. The problem holds true for the woods we use in our turned vessels and bowls. This presents no problem as long as we are aware of wood's inherent energy and utilize it in the creation of a piece of art.
Click here to read a commentary by the artist on "Seeing the piece".
Drying wood properly takes effort and patience: in a word, be aware that it is a lengthy process and one that cannot be rushed. Here in recipe style are the steps that I take for drying my turning blanks. If my method works for you, great. But, if by experimenting, you find a system that works better for you, that is equally great. The important thing is that it does the job for you.
My friend Pete Dooley pretty much knows my preferences in wood and when he does come across wood he feels I can use, he brings it by the studio. Here he unloads a section of tree trunk from a large sycamore downed by a heavy storm, in Riverhead, NY.
Preparing wood for turning is an important part of the woodturning experience. Here is how I go about it:
- A log arrives at my studio. As soon as possible, I chainsaw it into desirable lengths and seal all end grains using AnchorSeal, a wax emulsion end sealer (this slows down the rate at which moisture leaves the log). The cut-and-sealed pieces are then stored out of direct sunlight.
- Next, I remove the pith from each log by ripping the log using two cuts, an inch or so apart, with pith between the two cuts. Note: When the pith is left intact, you are almost certain to get radiating cracks emanating from it.
- Next you must make a decisions as to how the log will be utilized; will it be bowl, hollow form, vessel, etc? Once you make this decision you can cut the half-log to create the needed blank: cube for a vessel, a round form for a bowl.
- Once my blank is cut, I seal the end grain as soon as possible.
- I put the blank into a large brown-paper bag and with a permanent marker, write the wood species and date on the paper bag. Most of the bagged blanks are stored on shelves out in the barn but, I do keep some of these bags stored high on a shelf in the studio.
- And there the bags will sit—until I can get to the rough-turning stage.
- I try (but don't always get to do it), to rough-turn blanks within a month. Bowls are rough-turned to a wall thickness about 1/10th the bowl's dia. thus, a 10" bowl will have a rough-turned wall about 1" thick. The end grain---inside and out---is then sealed using AnchorSeal. The bowl is returned to its bag which is re-marked with the new data and parked on a shelf. And here it will reside anywhere from six months to three years.
- After six months the bag is opened so wood can breathe and, six months after that the wood is let out of the bag. At this point you now understand why, earlier in this tale, I put an emphasis on 'patience'. For example, just this past week, Jan.22, 2008 to be exact, I put on the lathe and completed a bowl which I had rough-turned and sealed some 3-1/2 years earlier---on August 4, 2004.
Green Wood---the other choice.
Certain pieces must be turned from dried wood, the turner has no choice. This is especially true for utilitarian pieces (who would want a warped cake pedestal?). But, more and more lately I find myself using green wood for both artforms and my sculptured work. By turning 'wet' or 'green' wood, one can intentionally make use of the distortion which will occur as the wood dries. Thus, the challenge when working with green wood is to make such distortion work in your design.
In my experience over the years as both a woodturner and cabinet maker, I have been affected, one way or another, by the moisture in the wood I was working with; this is true whether moisture content increased or decreased. But, what this did do was give me the opportunity to observe and sturdy how wood moves as it dries. Many factors are involved, of course from wood thickness and variation of same to grain configuration, atmosphere in studio or shop and so on.
The joy is that being able to predict fairly accurately how the wood will 'travel' as it dries can actually be utilized by the artist as a design element. I always take this into consideration when designing and finishing a piece in green wood.
Many woodturners, including this one, feel that the wood plays a prominent role in choosing just what will be turned from it. This is true with dry wood but, even more so with green wood. It is the latter, which often exerts a dynamic design-impacting force. You may not always be pleased with the finished product but you will have learned that the green wood is, indeed, your co-designer.---HW
To read the second installment about how to turn wood, please click here.
LEARN TO TURN----Classes for beginners and intermediates