Wood Part 2: Green Wood and The Great Microwave Experiment

Green Wood: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Let’s talk about green and wet wood. There are a lot of woodturners out there who love to work with green wood, and there are some advantages to doing so. It cuts very easily, produces less dust and allows you to work far more quickly than if the wood was dry. But that’s where the advantages end because once you’ve turned that bowl or other object you are still left to deal with the fact that you’ve got a wet piece of wood that is going to distort, warp, split and crack as it dries unless you do something about it.

This is generally what I end up with when I’ve tried most of the “advice” given by the people who claim you won’t have any problems at all working with wet wood if you follow their instructions and/or use the products they’re trying to sell.

These experts claim this isn’t a problem and that if you do things right everything will work out just fine and dandy. (Personally I think some of these guys have been breathing lacquer fumes too long.) Their solutions to this problem range from painting it with various substances, cutting it in specific ways on the lathe, burying it in buckets full of strange pellets and I don’t know what all else. I’m fortunate enough that I have the time and resources to be able to experiment with a lot of things and I’ve tried most of these techniques and I can tell you from personal experience that none of them actually work very well. At worst they don’t work at all and what you’ll end up with is a cracked and distorted mess. At best your project won’t crack or split, but it will still distort and the resulting object won’t be the same shape it was when it came off the lathe.

Now if you’re making simple bowls some distortion isn’t going to be a problem so you might be able to deal with it. But I like to make boxes or canisters or whatever you want to call them with fitted lids like the one over there on the right. For something like that any significant change in shape is going to result in a lid that doesn’t fit properly. That means I need to work with wood that is dry and stable to begin with.

But the wood I sometimes get is about as far from “dry and stable” as it can get. Yes, I buy kiln dried wood from commercial sources. But I also like to work with a lot of woods that I can’t get that way. Either the commercial sources sell it only as “processed green” and sealed in wax or anchorseal, or it’s wood I just picked up somewhere from someone trimming trees, or that I found at the town compost site. When I get something like that I have to figure out some way of drying it down to the point where it will be relatively stable. Just putting it on a shelf and letting it dry naturally will work. If I don’t mind waiting, oh, months, maybe years. Wood can take a long, long time to dry, especially something like a 5 inch thick slab.

I could build my own kiln or drying system. They aren’t that expensive or complicated to build and there are plans available all over the internet. Some of them look like they might work reasonably well. But I don’t really have room for something like that. Possibly I will build one in the future, but for the time being that is something I would like to avoid.

So now we come to the microwave. There are a lot of people out there on the internet that claim this works pretty slick if you do it right. But there are also almost as many people who claim that microwaving wood is a very bad idea and it can result in a complete disaster, including starting things like the wood, your microwave, and possibly your house, on fire. So I wanted to find out if microwaving wood really works as a way to reliably dry wood.

Microwave ovens are basically radio transmitters, with consumer microwaves operating at a frequency of around 2.45 GHz (gigaHertz). They work because the radio waves bombarding the object they are directed at cause the molecules of the object to rotate or vibrate, which generates heat. That is a very simplistic explanation but pretty close enough for this. But not all materials absorb this energy to the same degree. Water is very good at absorbing this energy, meaning it will generally heat up faster than other materials in the object in a process known as dielectric heating.

So I know that, theoretically at least, microwaving wood to help to dry it should work. In theory the water molecules in the wood will become warmer than the surrounding wood, causing it to force its way out of the wood fibers. Maybe. Emphasis on that last word: “Maybe”.

The problem with most of the videos and other sources you find on the internet is that they rarely provide you with any real quantitative data. With a lot of these guys they’re like “chuck it into the microwave and nuke it for X seconds (or minutes), then wait a while and do it again. If it starts on fire stop.” This doesn’t exactly give me enough information to get decent results. I decided to go about this in a more thoughtful way, measuring moisture content, weight, temperatures and other factors along the way so if I did get interesting results I could repeat the experiment, altering the parameters to try to get better results.

The Equipment

First I needed a microwave. I suspected MrsGF would not appreciate me using the one in the kitchen, so I went out and bought the cheapest decent microwave oven I could find. That cost me $70 including shipping. And to be honest, well, damn, this thing was nice. Nice fit and finish, stainless steel trim, stainless steel interior, lots and lots of options and one of those rotating turntable thingies inside, which I wanted because I figured rotating the wood while it was being nuked would help to prevent hotspots from developing in the wood. (How can they make an oven this nice, ship it all the way from China, sell it for $70 and still make money off it?) I almost felt guilty about using it for this. Almost.

Next is a wood moisture meter. These things used to be ridiculously expensive but prices have come down to where you can get a pin type moisture meter for around $25 – $35. I’m not going to go into the differences between pin and pinless models or how they work and all that. You can find that info yourself if you’re really curious. The one thing I do want to emphasize is that you shouldn’t trust these things too much. They tell you only what’s going on at or near the surface of the wood. The outside of the wood could indicate it has, oh, 5% moisture level, but just a short distance farther into that hunk of wood the moisture level could be significantly higher.

The best way to measure how much moisture a piece of wood has given up is with a scale. That’s how I keep track of wood I have drying naturally on the shelf. I periodically weigh it, the write down the weight and date. When it stops losing weight that means it has probably dried down to a point where I can consider actually using it. A decent scale isn’t that expensive. This one cost me $27 from Amazon. And it is surprisingly accurate. I used to repair and certify scales for commercial use and I still have my test weights, and this thing was accurate down to something like 0.001 of a gram. It can handle weights up to about 22 pounds according to the manual.

The next piece of equipment is a contactless thermometer because I want to measure how hot that piece of wood gets during this process, and, hopefully, keeping it from getting too hot and starting on fire. Mine is a Fluke but you can get brands that are a lot cheaper than that which will still work reasonably well, especially for something like this.

I want this for three reasons. First I’m going to be handling the wood that I put in that oven so I can weigh it and I want to measure the temperature before I grab the thing so I don’t end up in the ER with burned fingers. Second, I want to do everything I can to make sure that nothing starts on fire. I want to stop this immediately if the temperatures of the wood get too high. And third I want to measure the temperature of the wood at various stages of this process to see how much it heats up after specific periods of time being zapped in the oven.

The final piece of essential equipment is that fire extinguisher up there. Seriously. I’m about to chuck a piece of wood into a microwave oven. I don’t think it will start on fire, not if I am reasonably cautious. But it is far better to be prepared and have it ready to go rather than try to run and grab it after things start smoking.

Sidenote: You should have one, probably several, in any case. If you are a woodworker, you’re working with power tools with motors that can overheat, even produce sparks. You’re sharpening tools which can also produce sparks. So you have a variety of potential ignition sources scattered through your entire wood shop, which is also filled with wood, wood dust and wood shavings. So yes, you need a fire extinguisher. They aren’t that expensive. Buying a few extinguishers and having them located in convenient locations in your shop, garage and house is a hell of a lot cheaper than losing your shop, your garage or your house to a fire that you might have been able to prevent. End of rant.

The Test Subject

The final element in all of this is the wood. I want a chunk of wood that is typically sized. Most commercially available bowl blanks are about 6 inches square and 2 – 3 inches thick, so I needed one about that size. I also wanted a piece of wood I didn’t like very much. So I ended up with a block of cherry because it was the right size, was wet, and I don’t like cherry very much to begin with so if things went horribly, horribly wrong, which was a distinct possibility, I wouldn’t care too much. In hindsight cherry was probably not a good choice for this experiment. But I’ll get to that later. If I remember. (I probably won’t.)

The piece of wood I’m working with here is in the photo up above sitting on the scale. It’s approximately 6″ square and 3″ thick. It’s been sitting on the shelf for several months now and it’s pretty wet. You’ll note that it is coated in what looks like wax. If you buy wet/green wood from commercial vendors this is how it will come, coated in wax or Anchorseal to prevent it from drying too quickly and cracking. You’ll note that at the start of this it weighs 1,411 grams. That starting weight is important because how much weight it loses during this process will tell me how much moisture it has given off during this process.

Gads that was a mess.

I didn’t think that chucking a hunk of wood coated with wax into a microwave was a good idea so first I had to get that wax off. I did that with a hand plane. It was really messy and I had to stop to clean my plane several times but it wasn’t hard to do and only took a few minutes.

Once I did that I proceeded to microwave it, checking the temperature and weighing it after each step to see what happened.

I have to admit that this was a very tedious process. At first I only cooked it for 30 seconds at a time, but it quickly became apparent that wasn’t doing much. Eventually I started increasing the times up to 3-4 minutes. That length of time brought the temperature of the wood up to approximately 180 degrees. At that temperature the wood was uncomfortably warm to the touch, and it was obviously giving off moisture. Parts of the wood became visibly wet, indicating moisture was migrating from the inside of the wood to the outside surface. I kept going, keeping extensive notes about times, temperatures, weights and the visual appearance of the wood during the process. I won’t bore you with all of that data.

There was no doubt that the process was forcing the wood to give up significant amounts of moisture. The exterior of the wood became visibly wet at some points during the process.

Now in hindsight I probably should have done this with more patience but dear lord this got boring fast. I didn’t want to take the wood up to a temperature higher than 180 because I could only measure the surface temperature of the wood and it was possible the interior was much hotter. So I let it cool down to about 80 – 90 degrees before repeating the process. This was possibly also a mistake in hindsight and I’ll tell you why at the end of this. After fiddling with this for a couple of hours I went and did something else until, well, until the next day when I realized I really needed to get back to work on this.

It gave off significant amounts of moisture. It was losing weight with almost every cycle in the oven. And finally it reached the point where it was no longer going down in weight when I put it on the scale. In total it lost almost 500 grams in weight, and the moisture meter registered 2% when I tested it.

Slight end grain cracking but nothing serious.

So, the results. Did it actually work? Well, yes. Sort of. Microwaving it did indeed dry it down. It was by no means a fast process, but I was making tests and notes and doing other things in between and certainly could have wrapped this up a lot sooner if I hadn’t gotten bored and wandered off.

But there were issues. First there was cracking in the endgrain. That had started before I was even halfway through the process. I rather expected that, however. And the cracks seemed shallow and superficial. Once I started cutting the wood on the lathe I found that was indeed true, the endgrain cracks did not extend more than 1/2 inch into the wood. Endgrain is always a problem when it comes to wood. Even if you let the wood dry naturally there is going to be some cracking of the endgrain unless you resort to sealing the ends with Anchorseal or paint.

There was also considerable discoloration on the surface of the wood. But this was cherry. One of the reasons I don’t like cherry is that it often does get blotchy looking, so I had rather expected this to happen. And some of that discoloration was due to the fact some of the wax it had been sealed in had remained in the pores of the wood near the surface.

Also the block of wood was now distorted in shape as you can see in that photo up there. Still that isn’t going to be a real problem either because this is going to get turned into a bowl anyway.

The only way to see what’s going on inside of the wood is to put it on the lathe and start turning it. So here’s what I ended up with in the photo below

The wood was indeed dry and stable. But as you can see there was a problem. There three significant cracks in the wood running diagonally across the grain.

Does this mean the experiment was a failure? No. Not at all. In fact I’d consider this experiment successful. Or at least successful enough that I’m going to try it again in the future.

The wood did indeed get dried down to the point where it was stable. The sample bowl did have those three cracks, yes, but the resulting bowl has been sitting on the shelf now for three weeks now and shows no signs of warping, twisting or otherwise distorting. No new cracks have appeared, only those three. So the process did indeed take a wet piece of wood and dry it down in a relatively short period of time.

As for those three cracks, to be honest I’m not all that concerned about those. The wood could have had internal flaws to begin with. Or, more likely, I overheated the wood. When going back over my notes I see that twice the external temperature of the wood reached 190+ degrees during this. That means it is entirely likely that internally the temperature could have been well over the boiling point of water which means that pockets of steam were being produced inside of the wood which could have caused enough stress to crack the wood. I was also allowing the wood to cool down during the process. That heating and cooling cycle almost certainly was introducing stresses into the wood that could have caused problems.

I’m actually pleased and encouraged by the results of this. There are still a lot of variables to take into consideration. What would happen if I used the “defrost” cycle on the oven for an extended period of time rather than just nuking it at full power? Would that result in a more gentle process that wouldn’t put as much stress on the wood?

What if I tried to maintain a stable temperature, say 150 degrees, rather than letting it cool down between cycles? That also would result in less stress on the wood and might have prevented those three cracks from developing.

Overall I’m very encouraged by the results and I’m probably going to try this again. But I need to make better notes, have more patience and do it in a more methodical fashion to make it easier to get easily reproducible results. If I do it again I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, if you want to try this yourself, do I need to tell you to be very, very careful? From some of the things I’ve seen on the internet it appears to be very easy for this kind of thing to go bad very quickly.

Sharpening Carbide Lathe Tools

With carbide cutters you can rotate the cutter to use a fresh surface, but eventually you run out of fresh surfaces, so it’s time to sharpen.

I use a variety of tools with the lathe, from traditional steel skews and gouges to carbide tools. Carbide tools come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and they can be extremely useful. I do most of my work with traditional bowl gouges, but I use my carbide tools often enough that they’re right there in the rack with my gouges.

Carbide cutters last a long time but eventually they do get dull, and then you either have to spend a significant amount of money to replace them or you have to sharpen them. Some people think you need special equipment, special jigs, and special sharpening equipment to do it. You don’t. If you have standard carbide cutters like these up above, all you need to sharpen them is a diamond hone.

These things aren’t all that expensive. The one in the photo up there cost me $45 and will probably last for many years. We have one in the kitchen we use to sharpen knives and we’ve had that one for over 20 years and it’s still working well. This one is 325 grit on one side and 1200 grit on the other. The 1200 grit side is the only one we’re going to use.

Note that this will only work on standard type cutters like the ones in the photo. If your cutters have a negative rake or any of that other fancy stuff, all bets are off.

Take the cutter off your tool. Put the diamond hone down on a flat surface. You may want to put a piece of plastic under it because things are going to get wet. You need to use something as a lubricant when you do this. There are fancy honing oils and other stuff out there. I use (drum roll please) glass cleaner. Yeah, seriously. Hey, what can I say? It works for me.

Thoroughly wet the surface of the hone with the stuff. Put your cutter face down on the hone. Then put your finger on top of the cutter and start moving it round in circles using light pressure. Do this for a minute or so, moving all over the surface of the hone so you don’t just wear out one spot.

Add more liquid as needed to keep it wet. After doing this for a while you’ll see the liquid starting to get dirty looking. This is the surface of the cutter wearing off as it is moved against the hone. This means it’s working.

It doesn’t take long to do, maybe a minute or two is probably all it will take.

This square cutter is approaching the end of its useful life. If you look close you can see the corner up by the 2 is slightly rounded and there’s a chip down by the 4 corner. But since I use this cutter mostly for roughing, a small chip isn’t going to hurt.

When you’re done the surface of the cutter won’t be shiny any more, but that doesn’t matter. You don’t cut with the surface, you cut with the edge, and that edge is going to be sharp.

Is it as sharp as a brand new cutter? Possibly not. But it’s certainly going to be sharp enough to let you keep working with that tool, and save yourself some money in the process.

Note that this isn’t going to remove chips. You’re honing, not grinding, so you aren’t removing anywhere near enough material to get a chip out.

Let’s Talk Wood Part I: Species

(Someone told me I should mention the email address here for people who have questions or comments and don’t want to leave them in the public comment section. It is old.grouchyfarmer.@gmail.com, or, of course you can use the comments section. I only check that account once a week or two so it may be a while before you get a response that way.)

I’ve been getting some questions about wood and woodturning, specifically about what types or species of wood work best, give the best results, what different species are like to work with, how to get wood, how to deal with wet or green wood and other things, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about wood itself. I’m going to write a couple of pieces about wood, starting with what it’s like to work with different species of wood. I’m going to stick with commercially available wood bowl blanks for this bit because if you’re new to this, that is probably what you’ll be working with, bowl blanks you pick up off Amazon or directly from a wood vendor.

Now I come from a furniture making background. When making a piece of furniture I am making an object that not only needs to look good, it needs to have considerable structural integrity. The wood needs to be strong enough to be able to deal with the stresses of being a functional chair or table or bookcase or whatever item I’m making. This limits the kind of woods I am able to use in a project.

But structural integrity isn’t an issue with wood turning. I’m concerned almost entirely with appearance on that situation. The projects I crank out don’t require structural strength. Even a plain, utilitarian bowl doesn’t need a lot of strength, it just needs to hold together and look good. So when selecting wood for a bowl, especially one that is intended to be primarily decorative, the things I’d worry about when selecting wood for furniture don’t really matter to me. All I really care about is appearance. And with turned objects, things that would be considered defects in furniture grade wood can actually make interesting decorative features in a turned object. A lot of woods that would be horrible for furniture work very well for wood turning and can result in some beautiful artistic pieces.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work with a wide variety of different woods ranging from the common to the exotic, so here, in no particular order here are the woods I typically work with and why I like or dislike them, along with some samples of a finished projects with that wood to show you what it looks like. If you’re new to this you’re probably going to be buying pre-made bowl blanks online from Amazon or some other retailer, so I’ll include info on what this stuff can cost if you buy it commercially. Some of these photos have appeared before, some are new.

Walnut can have a wide range of color variations in the same piece of wood, like this one, ranging from a golden brown at the top, to darker chocolate colors.
Walnut and padauk with epoxy inlay

Black Walnut – I’m going to start with my absolute favorite wood to work with, walnut. I love working with walnut. Generally it cuts easily on the lathe with either traditional steel or carbide tools. It is easy to shape, easy to sand. I think the color and grain is beautiful. It can range from a deep, rich chocolate brown to a beautiful, almost iridescent brownish gold depending on how it is cut and finished. It will handle just about any kind of finish you want to use on it, from a low gloss satin to an ultra high polish. Either will work well with this wood. I’ve used waxes, spray lacquers, OB shine juice, bees wax and even just plain shellac and have had good results with all of them. If it gets dull looking all it takes is a quick buffing or polish to bring back the luster.

It is commonly available either kiln dried or green. Cost isn’t too bad either. Prices on wood vary all the time depending on market conditions, of course. A decent sized bowl blank about 6″ square and 2″ thick is going for about $7 – $12 each right now if you shop around. Thicker pieces… Well, prices go up rather quickly as the wood gets thicker. All things considered walnut a darn nice wood to work with and prices are generally reasonable.

Side note: A lot of places are selling green wood, not dried. I’ll talk about that later in more detail. But here’s a hint – if you’re new at this, avoid green/wet wood. Stick with kiln dried at first. Learn the basic skills first, then worry about how to deal with green wood. Some people like to work with green wood, I don’t. It requires lengthy drying times, is subject to warping and cracking and has other problems. I’ll deal with green/wet wood in a later post.

Beautiful wood but pricey.

Padauk – Since that piece up there includes padauk, let’s go with that one next. It’s imported from Africa. It is a very striking wood, especially when freshly cut. Color ranges from red to brilliant orange, with the grain showing up as darker, brownish and in some cases almost black stripes. The first time I saw a piece of this I couldn’t believe it was real. As it ages the brilliant color begins to fade. It will eventually fade into a somewhat duller, reddish brown, even chocolate hue, sometimes even fading into gray. It will still be a beautiful piece of wood, it’s just that the colors change over time. How quickly do they fade? It depends. A good finish seems to help slow down the color changes, but nothing will really stop it.

As for working with it, it’s great stuff to work with. It machines about the same as walnut. It cuts easily, although you may need to sharpen your tools a bit more often than with some woods. It sands easily, but use a dust extraction system. The dust will get everywhere if you don’t, leaving a fine, red film over everything. For finishes, all I’ve used with it so far is a thin seal coat of shellac followed by buffing carnauba wax onto it to get a high gloss. It’s imported from Africa and is available kiln dried only. (Generally speaking wood imported into this country must be kiln dried to prevent pests and diseases from getting into the U.S.)

It isn’t cheap though, typically going for 2 – 3 times the cost of walnut. A 6″ square by 2″ thick piece of padauk is currently going for around $30.

White oak can be very bland looking unless you stain it to bring out the grain. This was my first experiment with white oak scraps glued up into a bowl blank. Far from the prettiest thing I’ve ever done, but that’s why I experiment, to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

White Oak – You wouldn’t normally think of white oak as being all that suitable for wood turning. But in a lot of cases you use what you got, and I have a lot of white oak cut offs from larger boards that were used in furniture projects. The stuff was too nice to just throw out or burn, but what can you do with 1″ thick boards of random short lengths and widths?

Glue it up into bowl blanks, of course. So I glued a few 1″ thick board scraps together into a 4 inch thick bowl blank and gave it a try and, well, damn… The results weren’t utterly horrible? I stained it to bring out the grain, finished it with a sealer and top coat of wax and it turned out as a decent little bowl. I made an even bigger one, almost 11 inches across and about 4 inches tall which was an absolute beast to work with on my midi sized lathe, but that worked out reasonably well too and I ended up with a pretty nice fruit bowl with rather striking grain patterns brought out by the stain.

White oak fruit bowl, about 11 inches across, 3 1/2 inches tall. Made from about 5, 3/4″ thick boards about a foot or so square that were cutoffs from furniture projects, and glued up with standard wood glue. You can end up with some pretty interesting and useful projects by just using up scrap wood.

It was not easy to work with, though. White oak is very hard, dulls tools quickly, and can be prone to chipping, especially if it is really, really dry, as this stuff is. White oak is one of the few woods where I used carbide tools almost exclusively because my steel gouges were dulled within just a couple of minutes and I was getting tired of running over to the grinder every little while. Once I switched to carbide it went better, but it was still a relatively slow process. Sanding wasn’t a lot of fun either.

(Which is possibly why it seems nearly impossible to find white oak bowl blanks on the commercial market? At least I haven’t seen any. )

Ash – Go read the comments about oak again but replace “oak” with “ash” and that pretty much describes it. Ash seems to be just a wee bit more forgiving than oak. I can generally work it without having to resort to using carbide tools. Certainly it has a nicer color, or at least I think so. But like oak it can be pretty bland looking, so you might want to experiment with stains. And wood suppliers who carry bowl blanks seem to frequently have it in stock at fairly reasonable prices. Mostly I’ve seen blanks offered as green wood, but I do see kiln dried stuff available from time to time. Alas, while I’ve made some projects with ash I don’t have photos of any.

(Sidenote: In some areas there is a glut of ash on the market because of infestations of the emerald ash borer, which is decimating the ash tree population all over the country. In a lot of places it is illegal to transport ash wood into or out of certain areas to try to restrict the spread of the beetle and the disease it carries. These restrictions generally don’t apply to kiln dried ash because the kiln generates enough heat to kill the borers. I’ve seen a few vendors offering “green” ash wood. This is possibly illegal in some jurisdictions.)

This cedar worked so nicely that I knocked out this whole bowl from a 5″ square block of cedar in less than an hour, including the time it took to sand and put on a finish.

Red Cedar – I really, really like working with cedar. It’s a soft wood, cuts beautifully on the lathe, and wow, does it smell amazing! It sands easily to a smooth surface, is easy to finish to a brilliant shine. I used OB shine juice on this one. Personally I think the grain and colors are absolutely beautiful but some people don’t like it for some reason. Colors can vary wildly, even in the same piece of wood, as you can see, ranging from a deep chocolate brown, to rich purplish reds, to golden yellows. It’s widely available, and if you live in the right part of the country you might be able to source it locally and save yourself a considerable amount of money.

Cedar does have some issues. It can often have “defects”, knots, inclusions, wild grain, but personally I think that adds to the beauty, like that unexpected knot I discovered in this piece as I was hollowing it out. To me that knot and the wild grain surrounding it makes the piece far more interesting than if had been just plain wood. But because it’s a soft wood, it’s easy to damage a finished piece.

Prices on cedar are pretty reasonable if you can find it. Not every wood seller seems to carry it. My main source for pre cut cedar bowl blanks is Green Valley Wood Products in Indiana and they’re running 6″ square 3″ thick cedar blanks at about 4 for $39.95, or about $10 each. They are green, not dried, but when it comes to cedar I’ve never really had problems with working with green cedar.

small lidded box, mahogany with walnut top.

Mahogany – Mahogany is, well, complicated. Some mahogany is mahogany, some mahogany isn’t… Heck, I don’t know. I do like the stuff, though. Maybe. Sort of. Kinda. Certainly it can be a very pretty wood that can take on a brilliant iridescence when the light hits it just right. It can glimmer and shimmer. But in order to get that shimmer and iridescence you have to have exactly the right piece of wood and have to do exactly the right things to it.

I honestly have sort of a love/hate relationship with mahogany. I’ve built furniture out of the stuff and frankly I didn’t like it that much. I didn’t think it looked all that good and it can be surprisingly soft and easy to damage when used in furniture. It isn’t difficult to work with, but it seems to produce a very fine dust that clings to anything and everything. It seems to dull my tools quickly. For whatever reason carbide tools don’t seem to work very well at all with this stuff. When I try using carbide I get lots of catches, gouges and tearout. So I stick with traditional bowl gouges, scrapers and skews when I’m working with it. And I sharpen them a lot. And while they claim it’s a hardwood, it sure doesn’t behave like one. It’s relatively soft, it is easy to get dings and dents in finished pieces. I ended up somehow with a 15″ square, 5″ thick hunk of the stuff that I into a fruit bowl that looked nice for, oh, about 10 minutes. Oh, it’s a perfectly good utility bowl, and that’s what we use it for, but it sure didn’t stay looking good for very long. But every once in a while a piece like this below comes off the lathe, and and I start to want to work with it again.

This is a mahogany and walnut canister or box or jar or whatever you want to call it. About 5″ wide and 10″ or so tall, and it turned out way better than it had any right to. (The crappy camera in my iPhone doesn’t do this justice. I don’t care what the reviewers claim about the iPhone camera, it’s garbage, especially when it comes to rendering color.)

Back to mahogany, though. It’s decent wood, it can be very pretty. It isn’t all that difficult to work with, but it does have some issues. Prices for dried, pre-cut bowl blanks are generally a bit higher than walnut, depending on where it is sourced from. Right now it’s going for about $11 – $13 for a typically sized 6″ square 2″ thick precut bowl blank. It should be provided kiln dried, not green, because all of it is imported.

Hickory/Chestnut – Okay, I’m going to make a confession here. I’m not sure if that bowl over there on the right is hickory, or the one on the bottom is hickory. I’m not even sure if that is what they actually were, to be honest because I’d never worked with either before I got my hands on these two pieces of wood. That’s what they were labeled when I pulled them off the shelf, though, so we’ll go with that. My experience with these two is extremely limited. Still the results for both were good and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it again if I could get my hands on the stuff. Both were hard, about the same working characteristics as ash, but with a much more striking grain. And the one above had some beautiful coloring and inclusions. Once I saw how nice the grain was, I kept the shapes simple and tried to cut them to show off the wood.

I wish I could remember where I got these two pieces of wood and what they cost so I could give you more info because the wood was really nice.

Note the defect just to the right of center that looks like a scratch. It’s actually a crack that developed after the bowl was finished. All three of the pieces I’ve worked with developed those.
The lid is osage orange and I’m still not sure if I like that color combination or not

Rosewood – Rosewood is amazingly beautiful. It has a rich, lush, chocolate color with a lighter colored, reddish brown streaks, and can include wider bands of lighter reds.

I see the stuff for sale all the time, but only in small pieces suitable for ornaments and pens. I’d never seen the stuff in larger pieces suitable for making bowls or larger decorative objects like I’m interested in making until I ran across these three pieces. One was about 4″ square by 3″ thick and the other two were about 6″ or 7″ square by 3″ thick. I’d never seen it in pieces that large before. The reason why is simple. Holy cow the stuff is expensive! I probably shouldn’t have blown that much money on these three pieces of wood because as it turned out I had serious problems with all three, but I’ll come to that in a minute.

I don’t like that lid, by the way. It’s way too tall and gaudy and distracts from what I want people to look at which is the rosewood vessel. It is no longer with the bowl, I made a different one, but don’t have a current photo so I’m stuck with this one

The stuff works pretty nicely. It cuts well, sands well, looks especially good with a high gloss finish. I think the coloration and grain is absolutely beautiful. It doesn’t show up well in the photo but that larger piece has a beautiful band of a lighter, red tint running through it horizontally that really adds interest to the piece. I can see why penmakers like it so much, the stuff is beautiful.

Drawbacks? You bet. Some serious.

First, it stinks. It literally stinks. To me it smells like sewage. Seriously. The aroma isn’t overpowering but it is definitely there and it is unpleasant. Once it has a finish on it it’s barely perceptible. MrsGF can’t smell it at all, thankfully. I’ve worked with three pieces of this stuff and all three smelled really bad. It is also oily. It left an oily, dark brown residue on my tools and lathe while I was working with it. Nothing serious, but I couldn’t just vacuum it up, I had to wipe everything down when I was done.

The real deal killer, though, is that all three of the pieces I made have developed what I call micro-cracks, very thin, hairline cracks that aren’t noticeable at first and may have developed days or even weeks after I’d finished the bowls. If you look closely at the bowl in the top photo you’ll see what look like scratches. They aren’t, they’re micro-cracks that developed after they’d been finished. The wood should have been stable, they were kiln dried and the moisture content was low, the bowls haven’t warped or distorted to indicate there is some issue with stress going on. But it’s obvious that something is going on with that wood.

So, to sum up rosewood: The wood may be absolutely beautiful. It may cut and finish nicely. But based on my experience with these three pieces I can’t recommend it. It’s expensive. Really expensive. Those three little blocks of wood I used were well over $50 each. I’m going to do some experimenting to see if I can make the cracks less visible, but I’m still disappointed. If I were doing this commercially I would consider all three of the rosewood projects to be unsellable because of the cracking.


Ambrosia maple piece being finished up on the lathe.

There are a whole cluster of woods that can be classified as ‘maple’, ranging from very hard versions suitable for flooring, other types suitable for furniture, and even very soft types that aren’t useful for much of anything except maybe firewood. I’m going to stick with the one that most woodturners are probably interested in, so-called ambrosia maple. Ambrosia maple isn’t a separate type of maple, it’s standard maple that has been infected with a fungus carried by the ambrosia beetle. The beetles bore into the wood, carrying the fungus into the wood. The fungus causes spectacular staining and discoloration similar to spalted maple. The discoloration is generally centered around the path the beetle bores through the wood. You’ll almost always find holes in ambrosia maple that were made by the beetles.

(Spalted maple and other spalted woods also exhibit similar colorations which is also caused by a fungus, but in the case of spalted woods the fungus is part of the decaying process and you can also find parts of wood that are literally rotting away inside of a piece of spalted lumber.)

Ambrosia maple is generally very easy to work with. It is usually relatively soft, cuts easily, and the end result can be spectacular. Prices are a bit steep, about the same as padauk. If you shop around you can sometimes find some real deals on the stuff if you’re willing to deal with green wood. A single 6″ square by 3″ thick bowl blank will set you back about $20 – $25, green. Larger size blanks get expensive real fast. If you remember the cake platter I made for MrsGF that top piece which started out at about 13″ square and 2″ thick cost me about $75.

Potential problems? It’s generally soft and easy to damage. You can sometimes find “punky” (i.e. rotting) areas buried in pieces. And you have to remember that the discoloration is caused by a fungus, so chances are good there are fungal spores lurking in that wood. Now I’ve never heard of anyone getting actually ill or getting a fungal infection from working with this stuff, but I would always wear a respirator when cutting or sanding it, along with a dust extraction system and air filtration system.

I don’t have a finished sapele project to show you because I never actually finished one because the wood was, well, to put it bluntly, it was bloody awful to work with.

Sapele – I’ve only worked with this stuff once and it was such a disaster that I gave up and chucked it into the burn pile.

Catches, gouges, tear outs, chipping, kick backs… It was horrible to work with. It didn’t matter what tools I used, what techniques I used, how sharp the tools were, whether I used carbide or steel – nothing worked right with this stuff. I don’t know what the heck was going on with that piece of wood but it became obvious real fast that it wasn’t just bad, it was downright dangerous. It is entirely possible that it was just some quirk with that piece of wood I had. Don’t care. My experience with it was so bad that I’m never going to work with it again. There are more than enough other species of wood that are actually pleasant to work with, so I’m not going to risk it again.

If you want to try it, fine. Maybe you’ll have better luck than I did. The stuff is going for about $15 for a kiln dried 6″ square, 2″ thick blank.

Cotton wood – I’ve only worked with this stuff once, and the piece I had was really large and very, very wet. I mean seriously wet. Since I didn’t want to wait for, oh, three or four years for it to dry out, I went ahead and roughed out a bowl shape and stuck it on the shelf for a few weeks to dry. Frankly I fully expected it to crack and warp horribly, but surprisingly it didn’t and the end result was pretty darn nice. Fairly nice grain and the color isn’t bad either.

But stink? Holy cow this thing smelled bad when I was working with it. It was worse than the rosewood. It had a sort of pungent vinegary, swampy, rotten kind of smell to it that even came through the respirator. Fortunately once it dried the smell went away but wow, it almost made my eyes water while I was working on it.

I rather liked working with it. Surprisingly it didn’t warp or crack while the roughed out bowl dried down, and when I finished it up after it had dried down to a reasonable point I ended up with a fairly nice bowl. It cut well, sanded well. I finished it off with a seal coat of shellac topped off with homemade “ob shine juice” and it turned out a pretty decent looking utility bowl.

Cotton wood is fairly cheap. I see Green Valley is selling it for under $10 for a 6″ square, 3″ thick bowl blank, green. It can often be found at reasonable prices for much larger pieces suitable for larger bowls like salad or fruit bowls. The drawback is that it is almost always sold green, so you’re going to have to deal with trying to dry it down yourself.

Pear – The only pear wood I’ve worked with comes from the wood I saved when we took down the pear tree here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it for sale commercially. But if you know someone who is taking down a pear tree it’s worth looking into getting your hands on some of it.

It cuts well, sands well, and was very easy to work with all the way around. The little bud vase over there on the right was sanded up to about 320 grit, then sealed with shellac, buffed out with OOOO steel wool, then finished with carnauba wax.

Personally I think it’s a bit on the bland side and I’m not sure if I really like the color. MrsGF likes it a lot though. Anyway, if you can get your hands on some, give it a try. It’s worth looking at, especially if you can get it for free from a neighbor taking down a tree.

When I work with cherry the terms that run through my head are words like “dull”, “insipid”, and “boring”.

Cherry – You’ll find a lot of cherry bowl blanks for sale commercially. It seems popular with woodturners and I’m not sure why. I’ve worked with it and I don’t like it all that much. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with it. It is easy to work with. It cuts and sands well, easy to shape into just about anything you like, and it isn’t all that expensive, about the same as walnut.

So why don’t I like it? Dear lord, it’s boring! If I’m going to go to the trouble of making something on the lathe I want the end result to be eye catching. I want prominent grain patterns and interesting colors. And cherry is, well, it’s just dull to my eye. The color is blah, the grain is blah. Insipid, that’s the term I’m looking for. Perhaps it’s just the pieces I had. Every piece of wood is different, after all. Maybe I’ll try it again. I have a half dozen blanks sitting on the shelf still, but I’m going to have to be awfully bored before I resort to using it again.

Cost is about the same as walnut, around $10 – $13 for a standard 6″ square 2″ thick blank. It’s not a bad wood. It’s not real expensive. As I said it is very nice to work with. It’s just, well, dull.

Elm. Maybe.

Elm – I’m going to be completely honest and admit I have no idea what elm wood looks like so I can’t be sure if this is elm or not. It came with a shipment of “miscellaneous bowl blanks”, a sort of grab bag kind of deal. It was labeled elm so I’m going to go with that. Elm was almost completely wiped out in North America because of dutch elm disease, but there are still some out there and occasionally it shows up.

I worked this blank while it was wet, which is normally something I don’t do, and there was some issues while drying the bowl down but nothing too serious. It was easy to work with. It seemed a bit on the abrasive side and I had to sharpen my gouge more often than normal, but nothing serious. It has a very striking grain, with dark brown and black streaks running along with the normal grain making me think this tree had some kind of fungal infection. Personally I don’t like how it looks, but MrsGF likes it. As for cost, I don’t really know. It was in a grab bag deal with a bunch of other chunks of wood.

Holy cow, this got long, so let’s wrap up this part up. There are more types of wood I could have looked at but I wanted to stick with the types that are generally available commercially.

Eventually I’m going to get around to talking about the difference between kiln dried, air dried and wet/green wood, and how to deal with it, why some woodturners really like wet wood (I suspect they’ve been inhaling lacquer fumes), how to dry wood, including the “great microwave experiment”. Well, if I don’t start something on fire or blow something up. I’m stocking up on fire extinguishers for that one. Also how one man’s defect is another man’s “decorative feature”, working with epoxy as a decorative element, playing with india ink and whatever else I can come up with.

… wait a minute, how did a blog about gardening, farming, photographing flowers, travel and ham radio turn into a tutorial on wood turning?

On the pandemic front, MrsGF got her first vaccination last week and I’m getting my first one this week! Wow, maybe we’ll actually be able to hug our kids by summer?

Farm Catch Up: RIP Ethanol

Photo by Alejandro Barru00f3n on Pexels.com

It’s been a while since I did one of these. It isn’t that I’ve lost interest in what’s going on in the ag industry, it’s just that since I’m not personally involved any more it just hasn’t had the same importance for me. But a lot is going on out there in the farming business, and one thing I want to focus on is ethanol today.

2020 was a bad year for the ethanol industry. This was due to the pandemic, of course, but only partly. A lot of production facilities had to cut back, even temporarily close. Some shut down completely and will probably never be brought back online. Adding to the problems the industry is facing is the fact that they primarily use corn as the base material to make ethanol from, and corn prices have jumped up to $5.50 a bushel and show no signs of going down any time soon. (It’s a bit ironic that an industry that was created, at least partly, as a government mandated program to push up corn prices is now threatened by high corn prices.)

But the real problem with the ethanol industry isn’t the pandemic or corn prices, it’s the fact that the entire ethanol fuel industry is dead and the promoters of this stuff simply refuse to admit it. Like it or not, it seems that the future of transportation is not the internal combustion engine, it is going to be electric motors.

Electric vehicles are no longer a novelty item, they’ve gone mainstream, and consumers are buying them in droves. And it’s easy to see why. There is little to no maintenance. No more oil changes, no more cooling systems to flush and fill with antifreeze, no more transmission fluid to check and change and flush, no more exhaust systems rusting off that need to be replaced regularly. They’re quiet, efficient, with ranges of up to 300 miles depending on the model. Fast charging systems that can recharge a vehicle in a half hour or less are finally starting to turn up in a lot of cities, and will quickly become more common. It seems virtually certain at this point that the vehicle you buy in the near future is almost certainly going to be electric.

It isn’t just me who’s saying this. Several countries have already declared that they will ban sales of cars and light trucks with internal combustion engines within the next 15 to 20 years. California will ban the sale of new gasoline powered cars in 2035, as will the Canadian province of Quebec. Britain will ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel powered cars in 2030. Norway is doing it in 2025. China, of all places, is considering doing something similar.

And now GM, General Motors, has announced that it will only produce zero emissions vehicles by 2035 or 2040. And they aren’t the only car maker considering it. Heck, even the railroad and tractor manufacturers are getting into it. One company already has small utility tractors in the 30 – 40 horsepower range suitable for orchards, landscapers, organic farms and the like, in the $25,000 range. Run times are up to 4+ hours, and if you can’t wait to recharge, you can get a second battery pack and swap the uncharged one out, put the charged on in and keep working while the other battery charges.

The future is clear. The entire ethanol fuel industry is as good as dead.

It isn’t going to go down without a fight. It is spending millions of dollars lobbying politicians to try to keep itself on life support. It is about to embark on a massive lobbying campaign against electric vehicles, claiming they are actually more polluting than internal combustion engines, demanding ever increasing percentages in blending with gasoline, pushing for even more government subsidies and tax breaks… The industry will bluster and threaten and lie and bribe and do everything it can to try to hang on. It isn’t going to work. It’s time to nail the lid on the coffin of ethanol and bury it once and for all.

Instead of trying to continue to prop up a dying industry with ever more government bailouts and mandates, we should be preparing to deal with the repercussions of the industry shrinking and eventually going away entirely. This will cause problems that will ripple through the entire ag industry. Corn prices could potentially plummet. Livestock and dairy will have problems because they have come to depend on brewers grain, what’s left after the ethanol is made, as a relatively low cost protein supplement for cattle. All of this, and more, will happen. And it looks like no one is going to try to deal with this before it turns into a crisis.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Taking Procrastination To A Whole New Level?

I’m interested in a lot of different things, as you already know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while. I’ve dabbled with amateur radio, electronics, farming, gardening, photography, astronomy, wood working, etc. I can’t help it. That’s just the way I am. I’m enormously curious about just about everything, especially if it’s something I can play with personally. And once upon a time I did needlework like crewel, needlepoint, etc.

Stuff like this:

This dopey cat and kittens needlework project took 41 years to complete. Seriously. Let me explain.

It was 1980. MrsGF and I were just married, had moved into a tiny one bedroom apartment, and we were looking for things to do to wind down once we got home from work. Something that didn’t take up any space because we basically didn’t have any space in the cramped apartment we were living in. Oh, and something that didn’t cost any money because we had even less money than space.

So for some strange reason I started to fiddle around with needlework. That’s when this project started, 1980. And I rather enjoyed doing it. I got the cats more than half done and then stopped. Why? It got lost when we moved. We moved a lot the first couple of years we were married. The cats, all the yarn and thread, the hoops, needles, everything, got stuffed into a box and it was forgotten about.

Until late in 2020 when MrsGF found the thing in the attic when she was looking for something else. It was badly stained but MrsGF said why don’t you finish it anyway, and I said I just don’t have the time and told her she should just do it if she wants to. So she went to work trying to get the stains out, and did a darn good job of it. The thing was really dirty. And she finished up the needlework and we stuck it in a frame. I did maybe 60% of it or so before we lost it back in 1980, and she did all the rest, and now it’s hanging on the wall, our 41 year long project.

Sometimes Things Just Go Wrong

I’ve made a lot of mistakes learning how to do this, but sometimes the wood itself is just – just weird and things go wrong no matter what I do, and that’s what happened here. There was no sign of cracking or anything at all odd about this block of wood when I started turning it, but for some reason it ended up with cracks all over. It was reasonably dry, well under 15% moisture. The wood itself seemed reasonably stable, with nice grain. But by the time I got it turned into a rough shape it started cracking. I took it off the lathe and let it sit for a few days and this is what it looks like now.

I seem to collect wood like some people collect baseball cards.

I suppose I could try to salvage something from this piece. I could seal up the cracks with CA or cast it in resin but, well, why? It would still look like a badly cracked bit of wood. This one will get chucked into the burn pile, I think. Won’t be the first time I’ve had to do that. And it isn’t like I have a wood shortage around here. I have dozens of blanks of various sizes and species sitting on the shelf in varying stages of drying, quite a few probably ready to turn.

I don’t just do wood turning, of course. I do everything from rough framing to furniture.

This a blanket chest and it is on the agenda for tomorrow. It was kicking around the shop for ages and finally MrsGF put her foot down and told me to just finish the dopy thing, so I got the lid done and a few other things finished up and now it needs finish sanding and some of the glue joints to be cleaned up and I need to get some handles for it and this will be ready to go out the door. It looks rather pale now but once the finish is on the inlay will really pop and the black walnut edges will really show.