Well it was a wild ride on the commodities market this past week as corn hit $7.40 and soybeans hit $15.71. We haven’t seen prices like this in something like ten years or more, and a lot of people are puzzled by why the commodities prices have spiked up this high, this fast. There are no natural disasters or reports of extreme shortages that would cause this, so what’s going on?
It’s a combination of things that have made the markets a wee bit nervous. China is trying to rebuild its pig herds after they were decimated because of culling from African Swine Fever, so there is increased demand there. There are weather problems in parts of South America that are interfering with some corn production down there. USDA announced that US farmers are going to plant less corn this growing season. The reduction isn’t much, but enough to make people think it might make supplies tight. They think people are going to be driving a lot more this summer which is going to mean increased demand for gasoline which, in turn, means more demand for ethanol to meet the blending requirements.
So here we are with corn at 7.49 at the moment. Extended out into the future commodities prices get more reasonable, but not by much. July corn is sitting at 6.73 which is still high but not utterly horrible, and September corn is at 5.92
So, why should you be interested in corn prices? Because volatility in corn prices ripples through the whole economy. High corn prices mean it costs a lot more for the dairy, beef, chicken and pork producers to feed their cattle. That’s going to put pressure on consumer food prices across the board, not just dairy products and meat. High corn prices can force producers to look at other grains like wheat to substitute. That can push wheat prices up, increasing costs for flour, which increases the cost of baked goods. Well, you get the idea.
It also puts pressure on fuel prices. The government mandates that refiners blend a certain amount of ethanol into their fuels, and in the US the majority of that ethanol is made from corn.
Now the markets can absorb some of these increased costs, but not a lot and not for long, and sooner rather than later it’s going to result in increased prices on consumer products. So if corn prices stay this high for much longer, you’re going to see that rippling out into increased prices on food, fuel and other products that you buy yourself. Some companies like General Mills and a few others have already already announced that they’re going to have no choice but to start raising consumer prices. Wholesale beef prices have gone up about 33% already this past month.
And it isn’t just food. Just look at the craziness going on with lumber. And speaking of lumber…
What The Hell Is Going On With Lumber?
That’s a question a lot of people are asking because lumber prices have gone nuts. Prices on lumber have spiked up around 360% in just the past year. That is not a typo. 360% in one year. I was paying under $2 for 2×4 studs last year, now that’s up to around $7 each. MrsGF and I have pushed back plans to do a few remodeling projects here at the house because not only have prices skyrocketed, it’s hard to get materials even at those prices. I talked to one contractor who builds houses. he bid on building one house late last year at $350K and now the same house would be closer to $450K.
Why this abrupt spike in prices? It isn’t because there’s a shortage of trees or something like that. Nor are the people growing trees getting the money. They’ve seen only a 2% increase in the price they’re getting for the logs. It’s all the haulers, sawmills and processors in between that are the cause.
The claim is that it’s being caused by a labor shortage. They can’t find truck drivers, workers at sawmills, tree cutters, etc.
Herbicide and Plastic Shortages
As if corn and lumber prices weren’t enough to worry about, we’re also seeing shortages of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and, believe it or not, plastics. Farmers are having trouble finding things like field drainage tile and the plastic wrap used to protect bales. There are reported shortages of glyphosate and some other herbicides, some fungicides and insecticides that are used to prevent weeds and protect crops.
What this all adds up to is considerable pressure to increase prices. Someone has to pay for all of these increased costs and in the long run that’s going to be us, the consumers. How bad those increases will be, well, I have no idea. It is going to depend on how long commodities prices remain high and how much of the cost increases the industry is willing to absorb before they have to raise prices. As I said earlier in this, a lot of companies have already announced price increases.
Dairy Pride Act
So, let’s talk about plant based “milk”. I didn’t really want to talk about things like almond milk and all that, but it’s in the news again thanks to the Dairy Pride Act being pushed by Sen. Baldwin from Wisconsin and a few other politicians.
The whole problem revolves around that one word, milk, and how it is defined. There are two real definitions of the word, one biological, and one legal. Biologically speaking milk is the scrections of the mammary glands from mammalian animals and which are used to feed their young. The legal definition is, well, here’s a direct quote from federal government regulations:
“Milk means the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows, which may be clarified and may be adjusted by separating part of the fat therefrom; concentrated milk, reconstituted milk, and dry whole milk. Water, in a sufficient quantity to reconstitute concentrated and dry forms, may be added.”
You will undoubtedly note a lot of problems with the above. The most glaring problem is that it claims milk only comes from cows, ignoring the fact that goats, sheep, horses, oxen, even beavers, give milk. (Mmmm, beaver milk. Yum. Wasn’t there an old Monty Python joke about Peruvian beaver cheese?) (Sorry, my mind just flashed up an image of a farmer trying to milk a beaver. That’s just the way my brain works. It scares me sometimes. My brain, not beavers.)
So, here’s the problem. For years now certain companies have been selling nut, grain or bean based liquids as substitutes for dairy milk and calling the stuff milk. This is, technically, illegal. The US has very strict labeling requirements when it comes to food, and the government has gleefully gone after a host of companies and individuals who mislabel their products. But not when it comes to this stuff. For whatever reason the agencies responsible for food labeling accuracy have blithely ignored the mislabeling of these products, despite a considerable amount of pressure from the dairy industry to do something about it.
Now you might think this whole thing is silly, and you do have a point. But on the other hand the anger of the dairy industry is understandable as well. The dairy industry has spent many, many decades and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, propaganda, health claims, puffed up PR campaigns and other efforts to try to make its products appear to be healthy, good for you, pure and wholesome, and even essential. And then along come these upstarts trying to cash in on all of the work the dairy industry put into making milk look good, and claiming that their products are “milk” as well, and, well, they’re pissed.
Legally speaking, the dairy industry has a valid point. This stuff does not meet the legal definition of “milk”. US food labeling laws, if strictly interpreted, should make the labeling of this stuff as “milk” to be illegal. But the court system doesn’t seem to see it that way and has let this continue, so, well, here we are then.
Politicians from large dairy states like Wisconsin are upset about this as well because, well, let’s be blunt here. The only reason they’re upset is because the dairy industry is paying them to be upset. The dairy industry pumps huge amounts of money into the coffers of these politicians and their PACs. The result is this Dairy Pride thingie which basically says that you can only label actual milk as milk.
Will this actually go anywhere? I have no idea. If it passes, will it help the dairy industry? No. Won’t do a thing to help the dairy industry. Will it hurt the fake milk industry? Probably not. They’ll just come up with something else to call their stuff, pump a few more bucks into their advertising budgets, and that will be it.
Now, let’s see, what else did I want to babble about? There was some more stuff… Oh, amateur radio! Gads, almost forgot about that.
My OCFD (that’s an “off center fed dipole” for you non-radio people out there, a kind of antenna) came down again. That is a long wire antenna, about 130 feet long in total. It had snapped before and I’d repaired it and put it back up, but it snapped again now, so I figure that years of hanging in the air and flapping about in the wind has caused metal fatigue or something in the wires, so I didn’t bother fixing it again. It’s going to come down and I already have another one on order. Why not build my own? I could, but I did mention about the lazy thing, right? Why build one when I can buy one that’s probably going to be better than I could make myself.
Meanwhile I’m using a GAP Titan DX vertical antenna which has turned out to be way, way better than I’d hoped. I’ve had that one up for some time now and it works amazingly well. I had contacts with 3 Japanese stations in the space of about 10 minutes yesterday afternoon using less than 100 watts output, plus one or two in Europe and in other exotic places like Texas, New York, etc.
My woodworking and wood turning has come to a screeching halt recently because I’ve been spending a lot of time out in the gardens hauling compost, tilling up stuff, etc. We got the onions and garlic in but it’s still too early to put anything else out. The weather hasn’t exactly been warm here except for two days when it was in the mid 80s. Generally it hasn’t gotten much above 50 here, with night time temps pushing down into the mid 30s or even a bit lower. That hasn’t kept the tulips from blooming though as you can see from that photo up there.
But back to wood working to wrap this up. I really enjoyed making decorative lamps with resin and wood and want to do some more of those, so I’ve got more resin on order and that should be coming this week yet. The few “jumble” pieces I did as experiments with odd bits of wood cast into resin, well much to my surprise people really seem to like those for some reason so I’ll probably do a few more of those. But what I really want to make are more decorative lamps. Anyway, more about that when I get into that.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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 uprather 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.
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 – 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 – 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?