Identifying old wood (iii) a case study on chestnut

Pulling apart the mantle in the living room to replace it with one made of cherry, I thought, hey, why not check to see if it is chestnut. The first sign that the wood seemed different was that it felt light weight. So chestnut is most similar to oak. One of the biggest differences is weight – chestnut is about 60% the weight of white oak. So I thought I would take an initial check and calculate the weight of a piece of it. The weights were in the table I made in the previous post. By first measuring the volume, and weight of the piece of the wood: 9.9in³ and 0.1742 lbs, it is then possible to calculate the relative weight in lbs/ft³. This turned out to be 30.39 lbs/ft³, which equates well with the weight of chestnut.


Now to confirm this involves looking at some of the macro features of the piece of wood. The first thing to notice is that there are no visible rays, which implies that it is not of the oak family. Here’s a photo showing the growth rings in the block of wood. There is an abrupt change from earlywood to latewood, and the pores become extremely small.

A close-up view confirms the lack of rays, or rather the rays are not visible (usually one cell wide). The pores are also oval in shape, and has visible tyloses, which is consistent with what should exist in a piece of chestnut.

What to do with the chestnut once I have salvaged it? Likely I will use the wood in a small chest of some sort.




Identifying old wood (ii) a case study on chestnut

When we first moved into our house, it was suggested that the trim was chestnut. The American Chestnut is an incredibly versatile wood. Before the blight destroyed the majority of American Chestnut trees in the early 1900s, these trees could grow in excess of 100ft tall, with diameters of 5-7 feet. Accidentally introduced into the US in 1904 on Asiatic chestnut trees, the blight Cryphonectria parasitica ravaged the chestnut forests over the next 30 years, killing billions of trees. Before the 1940s, chestnut was widely used because it was abundant, and had good woodworking properties. In Toronto it must have been extensively used for trim purposes from 1900 to the late 1930s. My house was built in 1926, by which time this lumber had been drying for a number of years before being processed.

The problem with chestnut is that it looks quite similar to oak. So how does one tell them apart? By looking a little closer. Here is a sample of what is supposedly chestnut.

Both chestnut and oak are ring-porous – chestnut has bands of large earlywood pores (which appear more oval than round), and some tyloses (as does white oak). Chestnut can be easily distinguished from that of the oaks by looking for the rays. Rays are groups of cells that extend from the pith to the bark. All species of trees have rays but they vary in size. In chestnut, the rays are small and cannot be seen with the naked eye. In the oaks, the rays are very wide and thus are readily visible to the naked eye.

The presence of the rays, says the piece of wood is not chestnut, and the existence of the tyloses, implies that the wood is most likely white oak. Below is a table of common differences between wood characteristics of white oak, red oak, and chestnut.

The basics of identifying wood (ii): rings and pores

As mentioned in a  previous post, the rings form the most visible structure in a transverse surface, or cross-section through a tree, or branch. Can it be used to identify a piece of wood? Only vaguely in so much as some trees have very distinct rings, for example oak, ash, douglas fir, maple. Others have more obscure rings, e.g. birch, beech, ebony, purpleheart, poplar. This is very evident in tropical hardwoods where growth can occur all year round.

More important are pores.  Pores, or vessels, are the small circular holes visible on a cross-section of wood, and do not appear in softwoods. These vessels serve as the tree’s plumbing, transporting sap throughout the tree. The size and distribution of these pores helps determine the type of wood. So ask the question – does a cross-section of the wood show pores? YES – then it’s a hardwood, NO, then its a softwood. Some pores have contents, sometimes a result of transforming from sapwood to heartwood. One of these fillers are tyloses- which grow in open pores and can completely fill them. A good example is the difference between red and white oak. White oak contains tyloses, and does not absorb water the way red oak does, making it better for shipbuilding (check out this video to see why).

Hardwoods have three different types of pore arrangement:

  • ring-porous: pores occur mainly in the earlywood, causing an abrupt transition to latewood which is very distinct. Latewood pores are more difficult to see. (oak, ash)
  • semi-ring-porous: The pore transition from large to small diameter within a growth ring is gradual. (black walnut, hickory)
  • diffuse-porous: The pores are uniform in size across the entire growth ring. (poplar, maple), often with no clear earlywood/latewood pore arrangement.

Here are some examples:

Three types of pore: ring-porous (oak), semi-ring porous (walnut), and diffuse-porous (hard maple)

And a close-up of what the pores would look like:



The aesthetic appeal of tool trademarks

All companies have trademarks, things they brand their tools with. Does their aesthetic appeal really matter? Consider the trademark and typeface used by the German tool manufacturer Ulmia:

From the perspective of colour, I’m not a big fan. Although yellow can imply innovation, and green implies natural, so innovative tools from a renewable source?  Part of the issue is that they are close together on the colour wheel (analogous colours). Check out this great post on the Power of Colors – colour truly does make a difference. They show a McDonalds logo in a green-yellow combination, and it’s not exactly appealing. These colours work for BP, and John Deere, but not for Ulmia. The problem? From afar, the thin line work on the trademark in the image above just blends into the background.

Now consider an older version of the trademark and typeface:

Firstly, I have to say that I like the typeface… something very art-deco about it. But the white letters on a red background make a statement of strength, and contrast nicely. The trademark is blue and white, which means it contrasts nicely as well. Why does any of this matter? Because even though it may seem like a superficial thing, a good trademark says a lot about how much a company cares about what they produce. Obviously change is inevitable – trademarks should change with changing times, unless what you make is classic. On a side note, this change in typefaces and trademarks does help identify a tool. For example, the frame saw from which the above label is from the period 1927-1952 (ref). I have to say, the choice of green is pleasant as well, and contrasts nicely with the red.

Ultimately there has to be some contrast between fine details and their background, as in the vintage trademark above. There is a certain attraction to a tool with a well designed trademark. Here is one I really like, mostly because of the colour contrasts, but also because they have turned the “L” into a plane. Circular trademarks also have the advantage of being able to fit on any shaped  tool.

The bigger question is why modern companies don’t put more effort into designing aesthetically pleasing trademarks… although some don’t even bother with a trademark at all (apart from their name).

A new ECE vs a vintage Ulmia frame saw

Just before last Christmas, I bought an ECE frame saw, or Spannsägen, from Dieter Schmid tools in Germany. There are no retailers of ECE saws in Canada (since Adria Saws stopped carrying them), although Highland Woodworking does carry it as well. If you are looking for an Ulmia frame saw, then Peck Tool carries them. I ended up buying the 700mm rip cut saw with an extra crosscut blade. Dieter Schmid did a great job in shipping the saw, and I didn’t quite understand how big the saw was until it arrived (and it was only €37,82.

At Tools of the Trades I also managed to snap up a vintage Ulmia 700mm frame saw for $50. So I thought it might be interesting to review some of the differences in new vs. vintage frame saws. Now these are saws that have not seen a great deal of change over the years.

The first thing that is apparent is that the Ulmia frame saw is taller than it’s contemporary – 15-3/8 vs. 13½ (the new Ulmia 700mm frame saws are circa 14″ tall). The cutting depth is also deeper on the Ulmia is 195mm vs only 150mm for the ECE. The blade mechanisms on both saws are constructed in a similar fashion, with the major difference being the tension mechanism. The Ulmia uses a traditional twisted wire attached to a threaded eye bolt (as do new Ulmia saws), whereas the ECE uses the more contemporary steel rod tensioner. Both saws use wing-nuts to adjust the tension.

The handle on the ECE is slightly larger, and the lower part of the frame, which offers an alternate positioning for the hand is octagonal in shape, which makes for a better hold. The handle on the Ulmia is more contoured.

The screw tang used for holding the blade in the saw has not changed, albeit the both the washer and machine screw seem more substantial on the Ulmia saw.

The final thing that I find interesting is the labelling on the saws. Both have a traditional buttons with the respective manufacturers on them, both in green. The ECE saw also has a label on the stretcher, but it seems somewhat lackluster. I realize that manufacturers put less effort into things like this these days, but it does detract from the styling of the saw.



Flat-pack furniture design in the 1950s

There is a lot of good things to be said about furniture design in the 1950s, mostly because so many of the designs were innovative, and clean, thanks in part to the mid-century aesthetic. A case in point are Timber-Packs, which were Ikea-like flat pack furniture system designed by Australian designer Frederick Ward in the 1950s. They were available via mail order from Australian Home Beautiful magazine. These kits included pre-cut wood pieces, ready to glue and assemble together.