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©2004 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas, USA

Carvings and decorations

Some furniture styles have complex carvings, decorations, mouldings, and shapes.

I am not an expert woodcarver that can create custom decorations. Some of the carved or special parts can be purchased and incorporated into your piece (I would be delighted to do it - For example, see the web site for Decorator's Supply). But if you want a highly ornate design, it may be better to buy a complete factory built piece, or use a different furniture maker that specializes in these styles.

Wood cuts

End grain of boards

This board is considered flat-sawn, because of the "cathedral" grain in the center. However, since it is much of the width of the tree, notice the narrow grain at the sides - more like quarter-sawn wood. If I were making a cabinet door, I would use the edges with the closer grain for the rails and stiles, and feature the cathedrals in the floating panel in the center.

Most boards are "flat sawed", with the flat side of the board roughly tangent to the growth rings. The flat sides of the boards show "cathedral" grain - the widely spaced grain lines that sometimes form points like a cathedral. The edges have fairly close parallel grain lines, spaced as the growth rings. The easiest way to identify flat sawn wood is to look at the end of the board, like the picture at the right. And looking at the end grain will show arcs pointing to the outside of the tree. Flat sawn boards are quickly cut in the lumber mill with minimal waste. The veneer for most plywood is "peeled" off the tree, like unrolling paper towels, giving very wide cathedral grain patterns as it follows the growth rings around the tree.

Quarter sawn wood is cut the other way - with the flat sides of the boards roughly radial in the tree, perpendicular to the growth rings. This provides the closest grain on the large flat side of the board, but leaves the "cathedrals" on the edges. Since the primary display area is the flat side of the board, this cut presents the finest grain. Looking at the end grain, the growth rings go across the board, perpendicular to the flat side. There are more narrow boards, which have less value, so this cut could be considered less efficient. Any wood can be quarter sawn, but little of it is available, and it is more expensive. For example my lumber supplier only routinely carries quarter sawn white oak.

Rift cut wood follows a more complex cutting pattern. The end grain is diagonal, so all sides of the board are similar. Ideally rift cut wood would be used for table legs where all four sides should appear similar. Unfortunately few lumber yards carry rift cut wood.

The picture of the tree, and where the boards are taken, is courtesy of Andy London of Nova Scotia, Canada. Andy is well known and respected by woodworkers on the Internet.

As noted, ordinary plywood is made from veneers that are simply peeled off the log, almost following the growth rings, leaving a very wide grain pattern (boring). But fine veneers of exotic woods are shaved off the log, or off boards from the log, to provide the best appearance. Quarter sawn or rift cut veneers come in narrow pieces (more work) just as the boards area narrower.

If you have a special desire for a particular grain pattern in a particular type of wood, I will be glad to work with you, ordering the wood or veneer as required.

Wood movement

Solid wood can be beautiful. But it also expands and contracts with changes in temperature and humidity, especially across the grain (far more than along the length of the grain). The shrinkage in typical wood between the green tree and a baked dry piece of wood is typically 6-12% across the grain, and basically no shrinkage in the length of the board. Seasonal changes are normally far less than "green wood" to "baked dry" but they cannot be ignored. The movement cannot be controlled by stronger glues or structures, nor by moisture-proof finishes, so special techniques are required to allow the wood to move without breaking the joints or splitting the wood.

For example, a solid wood table top or top of a cabinet must be allowed to expand across the grain, but the apron that supports the table top runs lengthwise. The top expands and shrinks, but the length of the apron doesn't change. If the top is attached to the apron too firmly, the top will eventually split, so it must be attached in a way that allows it to move. Attaching the top to the base is a challenge involving sliding brackets or screw-holes shaped into a slot. if a shelf or a top is "covered" by a decorative or supporting piece of wood in the other direction, the ends are cut into a tenon that is put into a groove that is longer than the tenon is wide, and is only glued in one section so the rest can move. This is called a "breadboard" edge.

Likewise, if the sides of a chest of drawers are solid wood, the inside must be able to expand front-to-back. The back of the supports are attached to the rear edge of the cabinet sides. The front of the supports are attached to the front edge of the cabinet sides. But the boards that run from front to back - such as the drawer glides - float loose in mortise and tenon joints so the cabinet can expand from front to back. One rule of thumb requires a minimum of 1/8 inch expansion for every foot of distance across the grain.

Larger doors are traditionally built with a separate "raised panel" in the center. That center panel floats within grooves in the rails and stiles of the door frame, isolated from the frame by rubber "space balls" so that the panel can expand and contract, and keep the panel from rattling within the narrow door frame.

With proper construction techniques, such as these, you can enjoy the beauty of solid wood.

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©2004 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.