Helping God Show Off
“Honey Come to Dinner!”
“I can’t I’m helping God show off…”
Otherwise known as finishing wood. It’s not like I am changing what is there, as much as just appreciating it. A smart person gives wood a minimal finish and foregoes the urge to stain to different shades and colours. Wood is the colour it should be. If you want brown furniture, use brown wood. A finish is merely to protect, beautify, and show off to best advantage what is already there.
The number one pleasure of woodworking, is the joy of natural materials. It is a different kind of palette. Wood is nice, and doesn’t need much help. You begin with a stash of really nice wood, and let it show off a bit. Wood is random and as such does some interesting things that no other materials can mimic. There is that ongoing dance with wood grain, for example.
There is no wood species like another, and no two boards in a pile quite the same. There are oddities and individualities that shine out and make you choose certain boards front and centre because they add visual interest.
George Nakashima made this approach famous. He used to find very interesting pieces of wood and leave them largely as-is, while adding minimally what would make them serviceable as a table, or a chair. If there was a large burl or knot, or a split in the wood, he would just leave it there, proclaiming its own wood-ness.
There are also interesting subtleties that come with the species. Oak is one that quarter-sawn, shows off subtle ray flecks in the grain. There is also curly wood, one of natures strange step-children. No one really knows what makes some trees curly, but their grain is particularly prized. Then there are burls, big growths on trees that are kind of like a hunch-back in the middle of everything. Cross cut that mass and you have burled walnut. Cut maple in a certain way perpendicular to the grain and you get bird’s eye maple. Then there is spalted maple, wood that has gone half-rotten and shows the patterns of bacteria eating the wood. Bacteria is not the only thing. In sweet woods like maple, bugs enjoy eating it. Soft maple is particularly prone to this. A piece that has been ravaged by bugs while growing up shows the scars where the tree filled in the tunnels left behind. They come up as brown streaks. Wormy maple is interesting to look at and just another variation.
Then there is the most subtle of all, patina. Patina is where the lustre of a piece of wood grows over time. You get a darkening like occurs with cherry under natural light, and pine, which looks blonde and boring in the beginning but begins to take on the tawny layers of age over time. It is very hard to replicate patina in wood, it only shows the depth of its lustre as it ages. You’re not getting old, you’re getting better.
I have a chest I just finished. It was at some time, a pile of wood in a box store. I noticed it because it was old-growth cedar, flitch cut and sneaked into the pile. It had the tight grains of a very old tree and I nabbed what was in the pile that must have come from the same batch. The wood was beautiful on its own. After thinking what ‘design’ must accompany the word ‘chest’, I decided minimal as possible. The wood itself was just too nice to be buried in a busy design. I left a few knot holes up front. It is God saying “Hello”. The wood has a look that is beautiful enough that it just needs a clear finish to show it to best advantage. Even better is the bonus of smell. The cedar is left raw inside so the the beautiful smell just keeps on reminding us, this was a tree.
The neat thing about wood finishing, is that there are many roads to the same end. Wood that is hard sometimes needs very little finish. Oil and wax will do. Surfaces which will not take much wear, shellac. Others, a clear polyurethane or lacquer finish. Less is more in that department.
We flatter ourselves as artists thinking we are discovering something. What we are really discovering, is God. Maybe sometimes we should not be so self-satisfied. Sometimes we should just sit back and applaud a beautiful sunset or the view from a mountain top. The natural world, wild as it is, is also beautiful. It is just God showing off. It’s what he does.
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