Modern furniture is very nice - clean, square, uniform pieces of homogenous wood joined together seamlessly with fancy hidden fixings. The thing is that wood comes from a source that is not clean, uniform, square or homogenous. It started its journey to become furniture as a tree, and to become a nice dining table all the bits of tree that aren't ideal are removed or processed to leave you with perfect wood. It's a bit like visiting a supermarket vegetable aisle and noticing that all the peppers are the same size, and have unblemished skin. But they also don't taste as good as a nice small knobbly pepper you might grow yourself in your own garden.
The nice perfect wood I might buy from a timber merchant is great to work with, and it's easy to turn into nice square boards to work with to create any furniture I could think of. It's easy to process - the right size to throw into a thicknessing machine to get everything the right dimension and shape to make perfect things. But it can look boring. All the imperfections in the wood from the tree have been taken out. It looses its character. Easy to work with, but something is lost. It has no soul.
This week I have been making some chest benches for our kitchen. They will go around our kitchen table next to the walls and be used by family, kids and visitors to sit on many times a day. They will be used to store table linen inside. They should be functional and comfortable. And I want them to loved. After all, it takes a lot of time to make furniture from scratch by hand, so I want the benches to feel unique and to have soul.
In the timber store I have a load of sycamore that nobody wants. It was left too long before we milled it, so the wood has spalted and stained. The boards from the outside of the tree have bark inclusions, knots, splits and holes in. The boards are very wide, and some have cupped and twisted pretty badly. The rough sawn boards are covered in black mildew and, basically, I'd write them off as a bad job. But, they are dry and ready to use, so I thought I'd clean a board up to see if I could salvage anything.
The boards are too big to put through a thicknessing machine to clean up, but why would I want to do that? Half an hour with a scrub plane, and the boards were clean with their shimmering grain shining at me, as I mopped my sweaty forehead. Hand preparing boards is hard, physical work, and it leaves the woods surface full of undulations where my plane blade has passed across. But it immediately feels amazing - the imperfect surface feels tactile and inviting. I'm supposed to work over it again with a smoothing plane and then a scraper to get the surface perfectly smooth, but I know that I'm going to leave this as it is. It feels right.
The big cupped boards - a foot and a half wide - have a natural curve to them that fits in with the shape of your body when you sit on them. Why should I make them flat when their natural curve makes them more comfortable. I leave them cupped and tweak the sides of the chest to make them fit.
When the first bench is finished, I can't decide how to finish the wood until I happen upon a bottle of walnut oil in the kitchen. Perfect. A quick coat darkens the woods imperfections and highlights them even further. The patterns of the spalting in the top are beautiful.
It's not perfect, but it fits perfectly in the place it was designed for.