It’s called the “woodworking bug.”
Ever since I started trying to build a DIY bathroom vanity, I’ve been enthralled with wanting to learn more about WOOD.
I started out years ago as simply a furniture painter–finding stuff at the thrift store and wanting to get rid of “that ugly wood” without really understanding what wood is, what makes it unique or beautiful, and how you really should be refinishing it.
A couple coats of paint later, I would be happy with what I had completed and would just move on to the next project.
But after attempting to build this vanity from scratch, using upcycled oak legs, a lightbulb went off inside my head:
How in the world could I build things from scratch without knowing diddly squat about wood??
How could I get good results if I had no idea fundamental understanding of the nature of wood??
How could I do projects and expect to teach you guys what I’ve learned and achieved if I am doing it all wrong??
The biggest lesson I learned while building this vanity is that you must understand wood before you try to build with it or refinish it!
Otherwise, you get crappy results, waste your time, and waste your money due to screw-ups.
Once you understand the basics of wood, then you’re more likely to do successful projects, because you’ll be able to anticipate the challenges and come up with solutions!
Skip Around This Post
No time to read the whole post? Just click to skip around to each section!
Must-Know #1: Wood Is Constantly Moving
Must-Know #2: You MUST Consider the End Grain of the Wood!
Must-Know #3: Barometric WHAT??!
Must-Know #4: Know Thy Wood
Must-Know #5: Don’t Build Something In One Place and Then Move It To Another
Must-Know #6: Check the Moisture Level
Must-Know #7: You Should Use a Pre-Conditioner
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Understanding Wood: 7 Things You MUST Know About Wood BEFORE You Refinish or Build Your Next Project!
Yesterday I went to an awesome woodworking show in Baltimore, Maryland and walked away with seven “aha” moments and lessons learned about wood and refinishing.
A friend from high school, with whom I’ve been chatting about woodworking stuff, told me about the show a couple of weeks ago.
I was so excited to attend!
There was one paid seminar I decided to attend called Understanding Wood with Ron Herman.
It was pretty funny because I was the “atypical” student in a room full of men that looked like this (yes, faces blurred as to not to offend my fellow woodworkers. LOL):
But I was just as excited to be there and ready to learn!
Must-Know #1 – Wood is Constantly Moving
I’m really quite a dummy when it comes to understanding that wood is constantly moving due to changes in moisture.
I’ve always known that you should let wood flooring acclimate to your room by leaving it there for a few days before installing it, but I have never really understood why.
And when it comes to building things, I didn’t put two and two together to realize that if you’re building something, the wood should also have time to acclimate to the room in which you’ll be using it before you start cutting and screwing it together.
As I learned in the seminar yesterday, sometimes people will move from one part of the country to another and suddenly the veneer on their furniture starts falling off or cracking, and they can’t understand why.
Or maybe they built a project in their basement, where it’s moister, and when the project is done, they bring it upstairs to a warm and dry part of their house where it’s sitting in direct sunlight. Suddenly, the boards start cracking and shrinking.
The reason why is because one part of the country may be relatively more humid than the other part of the country.
Or because the basement’s environment is totally different than the environment where the furniture will actually be kept.
I’ve never really thought of how wood changes due to the expanding and shrinking of its fibers due to moisture. But if you’re going to be building furniture or upcycling something where you’ll be adding wood to it, you’ve got to understand this fact so that you know how to account for this movement in your projects!
Wood doesn’t change much in it’s LENGTH.
However, it’s WIDTH is where the changes can happen. And some wood change more than others.
This is something I plan to spend some time researching more this year!
Must-Know #2 – You MUST Consider the End Grain of the Wood!
The only thing I’ve ever known to do when picking out wood for projects is to make sure they’re straight.
You know– lay it down all over the aisle of The Home Depot, blocking customers’ paths. 😉
But I had no idea that I should be checking the end grain of the board!
I honestly thought that all wood was…..well…..equal. I feel so stupid for admitting that. LOL
I never thought much about the big tree from which it was cut.
But it does matter.
First of all, look at these boards that the instructor from the seminar yesterday passed out to us.
Notice how the one on the left has rings on its end that looks like a rainbow or a smiley face? Well, that kind of board is called plain sawn (also known as flat sawn). This type of board shrinks more than the other types of boards, which could be a big “uh oh!” for your project.
The middle one looks like a rainbow that was sliced in half, with 45-degree lines. I learned that’s called rift sawn. This board is pretty stable and won’t shrink as much. I believe this is the preferred board that people want to build with.
And the one on the right is more straight up and down. That’s called quarter sawn. Those can also be pretty stable.
So what does this even mean??
Well, it means that when the wood was cut, it was cut from the tree one of three ways.
And depending on how a board is cut, the board will shrink and move in a certain way.
(UPDATE: And be sure to read the comments section, too, because one reader pointed out that wood LOOKS differently depending on how it’s cut. Often times you can look at a board’s face and be able to tell if it’s plain sawn, rift sawn, or quarter sawn.
You must know which kind of board you’re using or else you can screw up a project that you spent so much time on.
I know, I’m just as shocked as you. LOL. I had no idea!
The basics are this:
- Plain sawn (also known as flat sawn) boards are known to shrink more and bow unevenly, plus you can see more of the rings of the wood.
- Quarter sawn boards shrink only half as much as plain sawn boards, and will not bow and cup since it shrinks evenly. You also see straighter grain, and you may see something called ray lines that look like stretch marks.
So imagine deciding you’re going to make a cute little table, and after some time, you notice the boards on top bowing. Wouldn’t that suck?!
Instead, you may want to use rift sawn boards or quarter sawn boards, depending on the project.
Again, this is something I’ll spend more time learning about and will update this post with more pictures and videos, to be a good resource.
The more you learn about these three types of boards, the more you realize that each one of them are good for certain types of uses, depending on how it reacts to the environment.
Isn’t this fascinating??
I had no idea it mattered how the boards were cut!!
I found this YouTube video that describes wood shrinkage very well!
Must-Know #3 – Barometric WHAT???
On the back of paint cans and polyurethanes, it always tells you to only use these products when the temperature is X number of degrees, right?
But have you ever heard anything about knowing the barometric pressure before you refinish furniture???? Or before you cut and glue wood??
I’ll admit–I have not.
During the seminar, Ron pointed out that everyone should have a weather station like this in their workspace.
He said that you have to mind the barometric pressure and that you should NOT be cutting, gluing, or adding varnishes to projects on days when the barometric pressure is changing too much.
When the barometric pressure is HIGH we have nice cloudless days. When the pressure is low, we get clouds and rain.
Sudden changes in the barometric pressure affect the amount of moisture in the air, which means that if you try to add varnish on a day when suddenly you’ve got low pressure with clouds and rain, you could get a cloudy varnish because water is trapped in your finish.
Or if you’re cutting boards with low pressure and moisture in the air, then suddenly the pressure is high and sunny and dryer air, suddenly your boards may be too short because they’ve shrunk!
Are you seriously freaking out by this info??
I know that I am!
I’ve tried to Google “barometric pressure and woodworking and refinishing” but I’m not finding any resources.
So the only thing I can tell you is what Ron suggested: get one of these weather stations (I find them at the thrift store often and love them) and when you’re working on projects, keep an eye on barometric pressure changes.
Must-Know #4 – Know Thy Wood
In addition to knowing whether a board is plain sawn, rift sawn, or quarter sawn, you must know the characteristics of the species of wood you’re using.
For example, when I decided that I was going to build a DIY bathroom vanity, I knew I wanted oak because I wanted to highlight the grain with liming wax (also called cerused oak).
Home Depot doesn’t have a ton of options, so I went with…..well…..red oak!
Little did I know that red oak is soooooo porous, you can literally blow through it like a straw!!! I’m not kidding. You literally can.
At the woodworking seminar yesterday, Ron, the instructor, passed out pieces of red oak and white oak.
You might not be able to see, but red oak is very porous, whereas white oak has a closed grain and is more waterproof. Red oak also has more shrinkage than white oak.
But did I know this before starting to build my DIY bathroom vanity out of red oak??
I sure didn’t! LOL
Which means I have to be pretty careful about sealing the entire vanity to help keep water damage from ruining it. And even then, there’s no guarantee that my vanity will hold up over time.
It’s said that “ignorance is expensive.” Indeed it is.
And if I had known that white oak was used more for furniture, I would have known that I’d have to get materials from a lumber yard instead.
It doesn’t matter if you’re buying it new or if you’re upcycling it from something else.
The point is to know your wood.
With all the info that’s available online, you can find out anything and everything about wood before you decide to use it! Don’t be ignorant like me and not research the wood you’re using for projects!
Must-Know #5 – Don’t Build Something in One Place and Then Move It To Another
In the seminar yesterday, Ron made a good point.
Often times people will complete a project in one part of their house, say, a basement, where there is more moisture. So the wood acclimates to that environment.
Then they’ll move it to another part of the house when they’ve completed it.
Only to realize that the environments are totally different.
Which means the wood will act differently, too.
It’s best to let the wood acclimate to the room in which you plan to use it so that you don’t get any sudden changes to the wood which can affect how your project turns out.
Must-Know #6 – You’ve Got to Check the Moisture Level of Wood
This is something I forgot to do before getting starting with my DIY bathroom vanity.
I didn’t know enough about wood to check the moisture level of my wood.
Why is that important?
Well, if you try to build with wood that is too wet, it’s going to shrink, depending on how much that wood usually shrinks.
Imagine building something that depends on it being 18″ wide (wood doesn’t shrink much in length). Anyhow, you’ve got it to 18″ but because the wood is too wet, maybe it dries to 17.75″. What does that do to your project? Probably ruins it. Probably means you’ve got to start over or go buy another piece of expensive wood.
Get a moisture meter and monitor the wood you plan to build with. Make sure the moisture content is stable before using it.
It’s an area that I am still trying to understand myself.
Here’s a great video to describe moisture and wood movement and moisture levels.
RYOBI makes a moisture meter as part of their Phone Works system that runs via an app on your phone.
But if you want a pinless one, this one seems affordable, too, from Amazon.
Must-Know #7 – You Should Use a Pre-Conditioner
I’ll admit this is something else that I was doing wrong.
I wasn’t using a wood conditioner before staining wood.
Once, I used it and had crappy results, but I think it was due to my poor sanding and not necessarily the pre-conditioner.
The way that Ron explained it at the woodworking seminar is that pre-conditioner seals up your wood to help ensure an even, less-blotchy finish. The reason why blotchiness happens is because some woods have areas that more readily accept stain than others (like pine).
With pre-conditioner, it should provide a nice even base upon which to apply your stain, for less blotchiness.
I spent all of the day at the woodworking show, and found some tools and supplies that I can’t wait to use!
Learning about wood, and then finding the right tools for working with it, was an exciting day!
I ended up buying a Dovetail jig system, which will allow me to create boxes that look like this:
I’m sure you’ve seen dovetails on furniture and boxes, right?
Now, I’ll be able to easily make them without a lot of effort.
I also saw some beautiful woods with gorgeous design at the woodworking show, like this wood called Cocobolo. I had never heard of that, but isn’t it pretty??
Overall, it was a great show!
Did you know any of these things about wood??
Which tip did you find most valuable?
Leave a comment below and let me know!