Sometimes the Wood Does What it Wants

One of the things I dabble in—mostly for therapeutic reasons—is woodworking.  I’m far from being a master craftsman, and calling me an artist would be beyond generous.  But I’ve made enough things out of chunks of trees to have detected some patterns–and anti-patterns–in the character of wood.  Because of the Interrelatedness of Things, these patterns seem to be well-suited to portraying truths or perhaps more accurately, discovering truths about the rest of the world.  At first glance, it might seem that I am simply be analogizing—using something as a symbolic representation for a larger truth.  But for me, it’s more of an extrapolation—seeing a truth and applying it to a broader scale.  For me, it’s been a discovery.

Wood is a highly desirable artistic medium for several reasons.  First, wood is soft enough to be cut by metal tools, which makes it relatively easy to get started as a woodworker and means that there are a multitude of ways you can shape it.  Second, it can be stained and colored, which makes wood art appealing to a variety of applications and tastes.  Third, it can be burned—not burned for fuel but selectively burned, the selective application of heat bringing out some very unique characteristics.  There’s probably a profound life lesson in that trait alone, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Without question, the trait of wood that makes it most valuable as a medium for art is its grain.  Wood grain is the organic pattern developed largely by the vascular bundles—the veins of the tree—and the other cellular structures that the tree produces.

Wood Planks

Every piece of wood has a wonderfully unique grain structure.

Wood grain varies not only by species but by individual tree.  So not only will the grain structure of a red oak board look very different from that of a white pine board, but white pine boards will very greatly from each other in texture and grain pattern.  There are a surprising number of things that contribute to the grain structure of a tree.  The big categories are the tree’s DNA, the environment, and the climate, with a host of contributing factors that fall under each category.

Tree Burl

Tree burl.  Photo credit:  Bob

Some of the most beautiful woodgrain is found in “burls.”  Burls are like tumors or scars that grow on trees.  They may be caused by disease or by insect damage.  Again, there’s the potential for another profound life lesson that I’m going to skip over.

What I really want discuss here is the infinite variety of wood grain that makes not just each tree, but each board surprisingly unique.  A woodworker will generally begin a project with a vision of what he wants to create.  Perhaps it is a piece of furniture, a cabinet door, or a work of art.  He will carefully select the lumber based on its general characteristics.  Hardwood or soft wood?  Open or closed grain?  Hidden grain such as from basswood or a highly visible grain such as from rosewood?  What color is most suited to the project? Pale ash?  Reddish oak?  Dark walnut?  Are we making furniture that needs a wood with a strong structure or a musical instrument that requires wood with better resonance?

Maple Burl

Maple burl wood stock.  Photo credit:  mopeds and banjos

As you can see, there are many factors to consider when choosing the wood—and we haven’t even started working yet.  Once you’ve got your vision of the end state of the project, and once you’ve chosen your wood, now you can begin working on the project—the cutting, the shaping, the sanding, the burning, the staining, the finishing.  But throughout the process, a curious thing happens.  The wood doesn’t always behave as expected.  I’m personifying wood here, because I don’t know a better way to describe this phenomena.  I obviously don’t think that a piece of wood has a mind or a will, but sometimes, the wood just does what it wants.  You can make a dozen items that by design, are the same.  You can use the same pattern and the same type of wood.  But every item will turn out different.  Not slightly different, but majorly different.  And this uniqueness is what makes good wood art valuable.

The woodworker may have an idea of what the finished project will look like.  But the wood seems to have a vote in the process.  Sure, you can cut the wood.  You can burn it; you can stain it.  You can varnish it.  But the uniqueness of each board will cut differently.  Each board will burn differently.  Each will take stain differently.  Some boards are quite evidently unsuitable for the project.  Some get scrapped halfway through because of their “refusal” to be part of the project.  But part of the challenge and mystery and wonder of woodworking is being able to adapt to the individual differences in each piece of wood and—this is the crux of the matter—not trying to force the wood to be something that it can’t be, but adapting to it and working with its unique characteristics to integrate it into the project and using its uniqueness to make the project far more beautiful than would have resulted had the wood just done what you wanted.

Wood Grain

The uniqueness (both strengths and flaws) of a piece of wood result in an organic beauty that is beyond our ability to engineer.

It should be obvious that, in my mind, I’m applying this lesson to people.  I’m thinking of my children, who, because of their unique personalities, desires, talents, ambitions, quirks—even limitations, are growing into something that is different from my vision—and better and more incredible and wonderful because of it.  It should be noted, that parents should still have a vision for their children and work to shape them into something that is useful and beautiful.  But they must also recognize that their vision has limits and should be adapted and tailored to the individual child, realizing that you can work with the grain and use it to bring out its beauty, or you can work against it and either ruin it or carelessly shape it in such a way that the beauty of the piece is hidden.

You could also apply this lesson to others you encounter, recognizing that their individuality contributes to a more complete, more beautiful whole than would have resulted if they just were the way you want them to be.  Rather than trying to force people to conform with our vision, we must adapt our vision to their uniqueness.

The applications of this discovery seem to be many and beyond my ability to articulate.  So, recognizing that sometimes, the wood just does what it wants, I’ll leave this discussion right here, offering it up to the individual reader to further extrapolate and develop.  Consider this feeble offering my shaping effort in support of my vision which is to become better today than I was yesterday and to offer my perspective to others in the event someone might find it useful in their own quest to become better.  I suspect the Master Artist understands and appreciates our human uniqueness, and I trust that He is shaping us individually to become part of a beautiful project that for now, we can only just glimpse.  And I hope that one day, I’ll be able to see the incredible whole when the project is finished.

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