Why MDF is just horrible

I never really liked the idea of making anything with chip-board (particle-board), although having said that it does exist in my home in the guise of kitchen cabinet carcasses, and IKEA closets. I also have some vintage mid-century modern furniture where uses it as a base for veneer. I mean from a sustainability point of view it’s not a bad way to made flat sheet material from leftovers of the lumber industry. The wood-based product I dislike the most though is MDF, or Medium-Density Fiberboard.

Of course it is beloved by the likes of interior designers and some furniture makers. Maybe because it is cheap, and straight? But it is more sinister than chipboard, deeming some to term it the “asbestos of the 90’s“. Sure it can be manufactured to just about any thickness, it’s easy to cut into just about any shape, easily moulded, veneered and painted. I mean I even have a piece on the top of by Festool MFT. it is just a compound of wood dust and scrap bonded together by a resin containing formaldehyde. And here in lies the problem – when it is cut it releases a cloud of wood dust coated with formaldehyde. I mean that just isn’t good for you. The worst thing though, is when I see people not using proper respiratory protection when cutting it (construction people, DIY, and novice woodworkers alike). People should be using a respirator with cartridges approved for dust and formaldehyde.

Like asbestos, MDF has been touted as a wonder product, but like asbestos it may be as equally as deadly, at least in the production phases. So much so, that I won’t really think it should be used by DIY enthusiasts. Woodworkers should stick to plywood. I get that it good for woodworking jigs etc because it is so flat, but we should try and avoid it where possible – Baltic birch may be a better choice. Seemingly it’s not very green either. While chip-board is typically made from recycled lumber or wood waste, MDF can be made from virgin wood, typically from plantations. There are greener alternatives on the market now, like rice-stalk MDF.

P.S. The benefit of buying vintage furniture (1950s-1970s) is that if it does contain chip-board made with formaldehyde, it most likely off-gassed years ago.

A (late) 19th century French bench

The following picture is from L’enseignement professionnel du menuisier (Education of a Professional Joiner), by Léon Jamin, and published in 1894-1896 (catalog link) – there are two volumes each with an accompanying atlas. The picture is on page 36 of of Volume 1 (atlas). There are four volumes, two of which are descriptions, and two of accompanying illustrations. This picture provides a nice perspective drawing of a French joiners bench, circa end of the 19th century. The accompanying text found in Volume 1 really only describes the art of perspective drawing rather than the intricacies of the bench itself.

Fig.1: The perspective of the French bench

The text suggests that the bench be made of beech, with a “fine and tight grain”. There are no measurements, but the drawing and scale provided allows for their calculation.

Fig.2: A close up of the bench

The bench uses a leg vise with a wooden screw. What is interesting is the parallel device. The leg has a wooden crossbeam at its base, which runs through the front leg, and inside, parallel to the lower side stretcher. Attached with screws to the crossbeam is a small cast iron rack, which receives in its notches, a small lever held by a rivet at one of its ends in a fixed part also made of cast iron. This lever assembly is attached to the left side of the bench leg. Fig.3 below shows close-ups of the various aspects of the leg vise assembly.

Fig.3: The leg vise mechanism

The work of Jamin includes four volumes containing numerous drawings of wood joints, architectural staircases, roof domes etc. These volumes are worth viewing, for the sketches alone.

Source of images: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Norwegian wood culture (iii) – farms

From the end of the Viking period to the first half of the 18th C. Norwegians built farms that suited their own particular needs. The Norwegian homestead, or tun, was usually located on a ridge, or shelf in the hillside. The valley floor was both susceptible to frost, and prime agricultural land.

The Scandinavian countries were traditionally more agrarian than the other countries of northern Europe. The daily life of Norwegians was carried out on farmsteads, that were essentially isolated groups of log buildings. The old farms in Norway represent the relationship a Norwegian had with their environment. Norwegians did not build villages, but instead the landscape was divided into rural districts comprised of scattered farms and bordered by natural barriers. Mølster Farm, (16th C) in Voss represents the design of historic farms very aptly. It is really a series of buildings centred around a tun, or outdoor “room”. These farms resembled small villages containing “inhouses” such as the family dwelling and cookhouse, and “outhouses” which served the running of the farm. Each region of Norway had its own characteristic farm shapes, from clustered, to row, to closed-square. The Mølster Farm, as well as the nearby Nesheim Farm are examples of cluster type.

The two core buildings found on a farm were the loft and stue. The loft was a two-storey structure that functioned as a storage building, its companion, the stue was a traditional dwelling. The stue, was often composed of log walls, and the traditional storage building, while the loft, was crafted from a combination of stave and log work.

The Stue

A house unveils a lot about a culture, and the Norwegian stue reflects life on the farm – the word stue meaning “living room”. The nature of wood provided a basis for houses that were perfect for the Nordic climate, a warm environment for the cold winters, and a dark environment for protection from the summer sun. The earliest stue’s were single storey, a single room with a central hearth. This main room served as kitchen, dining room, work room, bedroom and reception room. The open hearth or åre was the focal point of the room, providing warmth, light, and a cooking space. The smoke seeped through the vent, the rooms only source of daylight. The single room later evolved into multi-room houses. Below is an example of an open-health stue.

The addition of fireplaces with chimney’s only really appeared in the 17th century, and with the fireplace moved to the corner, and the smoke vents no longer needed, windows were added to the main room. Eventually a second storey was added in many regions, the lower floor having a multi-room plan, with the upper storey was often used as storage or for guests. What stands out is that there is no one atypical stue in Norway, although there were consistencies within a particular region. The hearth was sculpted from soapstone, while the furniture was often carved and ornately painted.

A view from inside a farmhouse from Grøsli in Flesberg (1650).

The Loft

The Norwegian loft was a building form that was known throughout Northern Europe, and thought to be of Germanic origin. The loft represents some of the finest examples of Norwegian wooden architecture emanating from the Middle Ages. The loft was a term used to describe a two-storey structure whose main function was completely utilitarian – a storehouse. The term loft also describes the upper storey, with the lower room called a bur (also the name of a single-storey storehouse). The loft was used to store clothes, and in summer it was sometimes used as sleeping quarters for guests. The lower room was used for storing food.

Many lofts are built using log construction on the lower floor, and stave construction on the upper floor, a refined system which became known as reisverk. This loft construction method didn’t change much from the middle ages to the 19th century. During the Middle Ages, the lofts stood on the ground, but by 17th century they had been raised on a framework of stumps to prevent moisture and mice entering. Lofts are often the most important building on a farm, signified by the quality and ornate nature of the woodworking.

A 17th century French bench

One of the earliest French sources relating to workbenches is Principes de l’architecture, de la sculpture, de la peintureet des autres arts qui en dépendent, by André Félibien (1619–1695), first published in 1676. The bench can be found on Plate XXX on page 181 (1676), or page 135 in the 1699 edition. The bench shows the basic characteristics of a bench of the period – solid bench-top, square legs and stretchers, and a series of holes for holdfasts. The bench device that is missing of course is the vise – there is a planing stop, and a holdfast, but no vise. These benches had simple devices to hold wood. In the background there are some large clamps, or rather “Moxon” type vises. Considering their size, I would imagine they were used atop the bench rather than attached to the front.

KEY:

A Etablie – workbench
B Crochets – planing stop
C Valet – holdfast
D Petit Maillet – wooden mallet
E Crochet ou Sergent – clamp
F Estraignoirs – double screw vise
G Presses de bois – wood press, Moxon vise

The beauty of Douglas fir

Is Douglas fir the most beautiful of all the softwoods? I love it most because of its clear, straight grain. It’s mostly used for building, and not that often for furniture, but it is very recognizable. It is a beautiful pinkish-red colour when new, interspersed with darker stripes, and ages to a reddish-brown. It may be most beautiful when quarter-sawn, so the growth rings are relatively perpendicular to board faces. Douglas fir, or Pseudotsuga menziesii if you want to go all botanical, comes from the Pacific Northwest, and BC, where trees can be 200ft tall and up to 6ft in diameter. The last of the towering behemoths that once blanketed the region.

Tight surface grain, lightly sanded.

Problem is, that it’s not exactly a “fine” wood. The stripes that make it beautiful to look at also are hard on hand-tools – largely because of the difference in hardness between the earlywood and latewood. It also has a tendency to splinter, which isn’t great when trying to build furniture. It does machine well, but also dulls cutters, a bit of a double edged sword.

That being said, it has fewer resins than other softwoods, so doesn’t seem to have a problem with paint or even clear finishes. Staining works too, but the light-to-dark variation in growth rings may lead to some discolouration. To my liking the most beautiful grain is the quarter sawn.

The end grain showing the tightness of the growth rings.

Norwegian wood culture (ii) – construction

Traditional buildings in most parts of the world reflect an intimate knowledge of a climate, a building material, and activities typical of a culture. The Norwegian landscape is rugged and mountainous, comprised of deep crags, vast fjords, and thick forests. Some would say it is harsh, even in contrast to Sweden with its more gentle valleys, and archipelago. Dwellings for both humans, animals, and storage had to be built to deal with the cold, snowy long winters. 

The wood building cultures of Europe can be loosely tied to the kinds of forests found in the differing regions. Some places, like the Germanic regions, France, and England were ideally suited for growing open, deciduous forests such as oak. This lead to a dominance of post-and-beam construction. In the more northern regions including Scandinavia, and Russia, coniferous forests dominated, and log buildings became the most dominate form of construction. Eventually these building techniques intermixed forming a vast repository of building styles. This occurred in Scandinavia during the most significant period of its early history, the age of the Vikings (790-1100AD). The ship faring culture which evolved lead to social, economic, and architectural changes in the Scandinavian way of life. Ships provided a means of experiencing other cultures, and provided access to wood technology evolving elsewhere in Europe. 

Storehouse from Søndre Tveito (ca.1300) constructed using logs.

While many other cultures in Europe used wood in some way in their crafts and buildings, in Norway wood was used for the majority of buildings up until the 19th century. Norway’s agrarian economy had two effects on the wood culture. On one side, it limited opportunities for importing building materials. On the other hand, although wood was plentiful, labour was not. Despite these shortcomings, Norwegians built a large repertoire of knowledge related to woodworking. The core woodworking tool for hundreds of years was the axe. It was used to fell trees, hew logs, and shape notches. This is likely the reason why the axe became such a symbol of Scandinavian woodcraft. Drawknives were used to smooth the surface of the logs. Apart from those, chisels, planes, and auger were used. Saws were known, but not very common, most likely because an axe could be used with more precision.

Storehouse (loft) from Søre Rauland, Nore and Uvdal. The ground floor, or bur, was built around 1209, and constructed of logs. The upper loft (1509) is stave built. The building originally stood on a low foundation, and was lifted in the 1700s.

Wood is in many respects the ideal building material. It is easily carved and moulded to particular shapes, but also has incredible structural qualities. Wood has great strength with respect to its weight, with the bonus of elasticity. The principal structural member is the tree trunk itself, which can be used as either a horizontal or vertical supporting, load-bearing member. The trees used by the Norwegians were likely well seasoned before being used. Seasoning was often a long process which occurred well before the trees were felled. This was achieved using two techniques: ringbarking and “Blæking”. In ringbarking, the two outmost layers of the tree near its base are removed around the entire circumference. This kills the tree in a very slow fashion, removing the sugars, and drying the tree before it is felled. In Blæking, or tree injuring (spot barking), bark is chopped off at random over the entire trunk. As the tree heals, the sugars are pushed out and replaced with resins (this makes them more rot resistant). Structural components were often hewn from Scotch pine, curved pieces from birch, and connectors from Juniper. 

A log constructed farmhouse set atop a stone base with a traditional sod roof (from Bjørnebergstølen in Hemseda, ca. 1790)

There are two main types of historic wood construction in Norway: stave and log. These have been used effectively for constructing many different forms of buildings thoughout the ages. From the Middle Ages to the 1900s, many wood buildings were made using notched log construction, or lafting, a method that came to Norway during the Viking age from the east, e.g. Finland. Lafting made use of timbers that were notched at the corners and horizontally stacked upon one another. The Scandinavians perfected lafting, both from a technical and aesthetic perspective.  An older form, stave construction is a method of building with posts, staves, as the load-bearing elements, with the use of vertical planks to form walls. It was often used for constructing outbuildings like barns, and sheds. Forerunners of Norwegian stave buildings likely had posts which were dug into the ground, which made them susceptible to rotting. From about 1100, posts were set on beams laid on stone foundations. The lower rectangular frame is constructed of sill beams, set atop stone foundations. The beams are joined into the corner staves in some manner, e.g., dovetailed into grooves and secured with wooden pegs. Vertical plank walls were inserted into a groove in the sill beam. In some cases the narrow spaces between planks were closed with a tongue-and-groove joint. Although the corner posts are staves, the vertical wall planking is reminiscent of the staves of a barrel. The most prominent buildings of this form which still exist are the pre-reformation Stave churches. 

Some thoughts on Roubo’s bench

Roubo’s “L’Art du Menuisier” (The Art of the Carpenter), was published between 1769-1775, and shows a somewhat different bench to that of Diderot’s. The differences lie in the M&T joint used to attach the legs to the bench top, the fact that the edge of the top is now flush with the legs, and there is a drawer under the right end of the bench-top overhang. Roubo’s bench was a monster in terms of the size of its structural components. The bench top was 5-6 inches thick, is 20-22 inches in width and varies in length from 6-12 feet (“but 9 feet is normal”), and constructed of elm or beech. Plate 11 (Volume 1) shows the bench, together with a depiction of the various components of the bench, and what Roubo terms a “press“, effectively a leg-vice, 4-5 inches wide, and 2 inches thick. It had a large wooden screw through the middle, used to apply pressure, and secure a workpiece.

Fig.1: Roubo’s workbench from Vol.1, Plate 11, showing details of leg construction, and bench devices, including the “press”, quasi leg-vice.

The bench-top is supported by four legs, made of oak, which are joined 4-5” from the bottom with stretchers, 4”+ in depth, and 2” in thickness. The height of the bench is 2.5 feet. The front legs have three holes for hold-fasts. Now consider the upper portion of Plate 11, depicting the “Interior view of a carpenter’s shop“.

Fig.2: Interior view of a carpenter’s shop

Look closely and it is evident that the exact bench as depicted in Fig.1 does not actually appear in the carpenter’s shop. The benches in the picture are obviously larger (roughly 8 feet in length), which is not unusual based on the size of the doors etc. being constructed. While the front edges of the bench do appear to be flush with the legs of the bench, the legs are not attached using a through mortise (some may argue this has been left out because it is too detailed, but the picture itself is very detailed). There is also no drawer on the right end. Scan the room, and there is also no evidence of the leg vise in use, or even in view. Most work is still being done using a holdfast, or planing stop.

Roubo also discusses a cabinetmakers bench, in Volume 3. It is shown on Plate 279, with a description on pages 803-806. Roubo suggests it is of German origin, possibly derived from the numerous German cabinetmakers in Paris. This bench has both a tail-vice, and two leg vices, one fixed, and one sliding. The leg vices are slightly different to that of the one shown in Plate 11, as they seem slightly more curved at the ends, and incorporate a parallel guide at the base.

Fig.3: The German workbench from Vol.3, Plate 279.

On Plate 14 (Volume 1), there is a figure of a joiner planing a board on a bench (Fig.19), again without the legs mortised through the bench top, and no sign of the leg vice. Was the drawing of the leg vice on Plate 11, a mere afterthought, something added after viewing the leg vice of the German workbench?

Fig.4: Plate 14.

Note, when looking at the dimensions described by Roubo, one has to take into account that the measurements were based on medieval royal units. An inch was therefore equivalent to 1.066 imperial inches (27.07mm), and a foot was 12.792 imperial inches (32.48cm).

An 18th century French bench

In Denis Diderot’s 18th century multi-volume epitome, “Encyclopédie” (1751-1777) there are a bunch of differing woodworking benches. Below is Plate II from Plate Volume VII (Planches tome VII) (1769) Menuisier en Batimens (building joiner) showing a carpentry workshop with various activities underway.

Extract from Plate II

A sample picture of a bench can be found on Plate VIII, where the bench is known as a table. The description of this bench can be found in Volume X [MAM-MY, pp.346a–357a], under the heading “Menuiserie“, on page 356. It introduces the bench as “a necessary item, upon which the joiner does their work“. What is interesting is that the only tool provided to the workers by the master carpenter was the valet (A), or holdfast, all other tools they had to provide themselves. This means that the holdfast was likely one of the main means of holding the work to the bench. These benches have a number of holes for holdfasts, but no clear indication of any vises being used.

The bench is described as having a large top (B) which was 5-6 inches thick (which gives you an idea of there size of the holdfast), 2½ feet wide, and 10-15 feet in length (now imagine constructing this bench!). The bench was assembled using (through) mortise and tenon joints, with four legs (C), and spacers (stretchers, D). The underside of the stretchers were covered with planks nailed against each other, providing a place for tool storage. On the top left of the bench top is a tool holder (E) where tools like scissors, chisels (F) etc. can be stored. In the left-forward portion of the bench is a square hole (G) into which fits a piece of wood (H) which holds a cast iron planing stop (I). The device is moved up and down using a mallet. Just in front of this on the side of the workbench is a wooden crochet (K) for holding large items.

1000 year old Viking wood carvings

Whereas woodworking in general has evolved into the use of precise machinery to make perfect furniture, wood carving hasn’t changed that much from 1000 years ago. Wood carving is more of an art than a craft per se. Whereas one builds a piece of utilitarian furniture, a carving is often for the sake of decoration. Not withstanding that a chest or chair can be embellished with carvings, elevating it to more of an artistic form. Of course we often don’t know much about ancient wooden carvings because they don’t stand the test of time very well. Some of the most interesting are the artifacts from the Oseberg find in Norway from circa AD 834. (If you are interested in Viking ships, check out my post on the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo).

Carving was an important part of Viking society, and many different surfaces were carved, including most prominently the prow of Viking longboats. Carvings existed in form of relief carving, incised carvings and openwork. Wood carving was important in part due to the availability of materials, but also because other forms of visual arts required materials such as paper and stone which were not readily available. The all-pervasive nature of this art form lead to all manner of household wooden artifacts being carved, from spoons to chests. In the Oseberg artifacts, both the cart, and the sleighs are covered in ornate carvings.

Carving on the Oseberg cart

The most interesting carvings in the Oseberg artifacts are those of the animal head posts. There were five of them in the Oseberg burial mound, yet one is in such poor condition that it is not exhibited. The remaining four offer an exquisite view in the world of the Viking wood carver, sometime around 800 AD. There has never been any certainty as to the exact use for the posts. Four are 50cm in length, with the remaining one attached to a wooden shaft about a metre in length. It is possible the animal head posts were carried in some fashion, maybe for religious processions, or as walking sticks? It is unlikely they had a practical use.

The Academic close up.

The heads are part of a common motive for many of the carvings of the Viking period – animal figures. The style shown in these figures is part of the animal ornamentation, which had arisen long before the “Oseberg” period, and continued long the Viking age (e.g. carvings on Stave churches). It says a lot about a culture that produces such artifacts. The heads could be representations of everyday animals, or mythological beasts of some sort. The four heads are named as follows: The Academic, The Lions Head, The Baroque, and The Carolingian.

The four animal heads: Academic, Lions Head, Baroque, and Carolingian

The intricacy of the work is phenomenal, and must have required highly experienced wood carvers. Two are even decorated with small silver nails. The heads are made of maple, which is odd considering it is a hard, dense wood, likely not easy to carve. It is possible that maple held some significance. Other woods that were available during the period, namely walnut and oak. But the grain of oak can sometimes be difficult to carve, and may not have held the fine details the same as maple. Maybe maple was chosen for the lightness of the wood, or the fidelity of the fine detailed work?

The woodworking tools from the Mästermyr Find (adapted from Birkebæk, F., Vikingetiden, 1983)

The question of course is what sort of tools did these carvers use? Obviously the quintessential axe was used in preparing an appropriately sourced piece of wood, usually to the rough shape required. Wood shaves and drawknives were probably used to prepare the surface of the wood, with possibly spoon augers used to make any large hollow openings. There is no doubt most of the shaping could be achieved using simple carving knives, files and rasps. Although chisels have been found in various archeological sites, few if any are small enough to perform the sort of detailed work seen on these animal heads. The most conclusive evidence of the type of tools used by Vikings hails from the Mästermyr chest, found in Gotland. It contains tools for smithing, carpentry, joining, and woodcarving.

Norwegian wood culture (i)

Medieval craftspeople were often guided by the presence of building materials within the natural environment. In the forested regions of northern Europe trees provided the raw materials for many of lifes conveniences. Wood fueled fires used for cooking, warmth, and for producing iron, salt, charcoal, and tar. Most notably wood provided a material which could be used to build boats, furniture, and houses to shelter from the elements during the long, cold, dark winters. By Medieval times the southern regions of Europe were devoid of forests, and stone had become a much more common building material. In contrast, the northern reaches of Europe had a more rugged terrain, covered with vast expanses of forest. This set the scene for a unique wood-building culture throughout Scandinavia, but particularly in Norway. From the builders of Viking ships, to the stave churches, and farmsteads, nearly over 800 years of construction focused on a single material – wood.

There were many reasons for this lengthy dependence on wood as a building material. Firstly, it was abundant. Secondly working wood required only simple tools, in many cases an axe would suffice. Wood was also cheaper, and easier to build with than construction materials such as stone. Trees exist in a form that is readily adaptable to many types of structure. Stone on the other hand first has to be quarried, transported, and shaped – tasks that require specialist tools, and trades. Wood could be manipulated by artisans who were familiar with it as a building material, e.g. a shipbuilder could easily transfer their skills to building a house. 

A storehouse from Søre Rauland, More and Uvdal (left), and stable from Grønneflåta in Nore and Uvdal (1750-1800). The lower floor of the storehouse (the bur) was built in 1209.

Norwegian wood culture survived for such a long period because very little changed in society that would have resulted in grand architectural changes. This design consistency may have been strengthened by Norway’s natural environment and agrarian way of life. A good majority of the population lived in rural, isolated areas. There may have been little contact with the outside world that would have facilitated changes in building techniques. Nor was there a need, as the buildings were well suited to the tasks they were designed for. What it did do was allow the craft of woodworking to mature past the utilitarian through the use of ornamentation. Many of the simplest buildings used to store food and everyday goods are adorned with the most intricate carvings. 

Carved decorative panels and door from a stave church at Årdal i Sogn, circa 1200. They came to the University Museum of Bergen in 1867 after the medieval building was demolished. 

The traditional architecture of of Norway can be symbolized by two types of wooden buildings – farms and stave churches. Scandinavia was on the whole a much more agriculturally-oriented society than the rest of Europe. In Norway, daily life occurred on farmsteads that were often in isolated communities. These farms were self-contained settlements, containing an assortment of differing forms of wooden building. As Norway was a sparsely populated country, there were never many “public” buildings in the landscape. The exception was the stave church, which was often situated amongst a group of farmsteads. These two structures represented opposing sides of Norwegian life: the farm represented the private and secular, the church the sacred and public.

This ensuing posts look at various aspects of Norwegian wood culture. There is in reality much to learn about Norwegian wood building techniques, and if you are interested in learning more, I would suggest two things. The first is visit Norway. You will see wood construction techniques that equal those found in Japan. You will see traditional gutters made of wood, and wooden slat roofs – even on newer buildings. Secondly, obtain a copy of Norwegian Wood: A Tradition of Building, by Jerri Holan. It was written in 1990, and it’s likely one of the few comprehensive books on the subject written in English. It covers just about every aspect of wood construction, as well as in-depth analysis of farms, stave churches, including drawings, methods of construction, and a multitude of photographs, including many of innate carving work. If you like architecture, take a walk into the wild side of what once was, and possibly could be again.