Have a Seat (part 3)

December 15, 2009

(read parts one & two first, or this might not make sense.)

Foyer Bench on Workbench

So… the couple who commissioned me to build this entry hall bench had approved the design, and the deposit was in my bank account. Now I just had to block out the time to make it, and gather the materials.

The plan called for the entire piece, except for the back, to be made of cherry. I didn’t want anything curly or figured for this, just plain cherry. Too much figure would draw your eye to the wood, instead of to the lines of the piece. I had quite a bit of good cherry “in stock” at my shop, so I was all set there.

As for the back, that is a completely different story, it is meant to stand out, in its shape and as a graphic element. They really go hand-in-hand. You can’t have that exuberant, jagged top edge without also having wild figure and “character” in the wood itself. That live edge on the top of the back was going to be one of the defining elements of this bench, so finding the right piece of wood for the back was going to be the first challenge.

If you are not familiar with a “live edge” board, it’s one which still has the irregular natural edge, just as it was cut from the log. That is not the usual way that wood is cut. Almost all lumber gets those edges trimmed off at the sawmill to make straight, easily stacked boards. Only logs with something special get set aside for the more labor-intensive processing needed for pristine live-edge boards, and they must be handled carefully so as not to damage their outer surface. Typically these logs are sawn “through and through”, that is sliced in parallel slabs right through the log. The boards are then stacked back together, with spacers called “stickers”, to dry. The Europeans call this re-assembled log a “boule”.

boule-sawn logs

There are are a lot of places I can buy good wood, but there are only two suppliers of live-edge specialty lumber near me. Tradewinds is about forty-five minutes away, and is my first choice. Berkshire Products is about three hours away. Only if I can’t get what I need at Tradewinds do I commit to the nearly full-day buying trip needed to go there.

I needed a single board for the back of this bench, 11 inches wide and 5 feet long. I drove to Tradewinds and told Dave, the owner, what I was looking for. I described the size, thickness, shape, color, and working characteristics that I needed. After a couple of false starts we ended up in one of his lumber sheds climbing fifteen foot tall stacks of irregular and oddly-shaped wood. Getting the best footing we could, we started shuffling through layers of boards. It took several climbs up and down before we found the right thing. European beech from Bulgaria. A whole “boule” of wild, gnarly, burly, amazing wood which Dave had imported several years ago.

The board I picked out, the one that had a section with all the right characteristics, was 21 inches wide and 10 feet long. I had to buy four times as much wood as I wanted to in order to get the piece that I needed. That one board cost $262.50.

To be continued