The use of wood in New France

Modern woodworkers work with a wide variety of different woods. We are somewhat spoiled really.    Settlers in New France were surrounded by a multitude of species, but worked predominantly with softer woods. Why? At the time, in the mid-1600’s the aesthetic appeal of wood was not that important, it was surpassed by functionality, sturdiness, and ease of woodworking. Pine and basswood were often used because of their softness and resilience. Basswood, although being a hardwood has low density, and is relatively soft. Pine was used extensively because it does not crack, is light, strong, and easy to work. Native to Quebec, the Eastern White pine (Pinus strobus)  is the tallest conifer in eastern Canada. It is valued for its fine grain and workability. Another wood often used was butternut, which was as easy to work as pine. Woods like ash were not widely used until the mid to late 19th century (often being substituted for oak). Maple, which was obviously abundant, was considered far too hard to work, and only used as firewood, or handles for tools.

Softer woods were also used because settlers did not have the tools needed to work hardwood. Many settlers had only the tools brought with them from France. For example they would likely have brought the metal tool blades, and constructed the wooden components, e.g. plane bodies when they arrived. Until 1800, the only ironworks in Canada were the St. Maurice Ironworks, or Forges du Saint-Maurice, near Trois-Rivières, Quebec, established in 1730 (and forging from 1738). Use of tools on harder woods would have required more frequent sharpening, and a shorter tool life span. This could have been a similar case with the saws used in the sawmills (New France had two sawmills by 1666).

 

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