What Woodworkers Owe to the Natural World
We tend to think of the tension between pristine nature and human ambition as a contemporary struggle, but the urge to own and exploit forests is a fundamental human impulse. At every point in history, wherever humans have possessed sufficient technology or population to deplete natural abundance, we have done so. In much of Central America, Australia, Europe and Africa, territory that has been void of trees for centuries was once cleared by people to make fire and build homes. According to one theory, the Sahara is the result of a giant, ancient clearcut. Today’s forestry dilemmas are simply the latest round in what has been a protracted engagement.
The wood of large, healthy trees has been the foundation of craftsmanship since the beginning of human endeavor – a hundred thousand years or more. What is the craftsperson of today to make of the threatened extinction of many tree species? How can we preserve the traditions and values of the woodworking experience while also protecting and nurturing the woods which have made woodcraft possible? What follows is a basic guide to navigating these difficulties.
The classic woods – teak, mahogany, oak, cherry – represent the romantic character of woodworking. The health of these species is essential to the craft tradition, and each one is in danger. Over-harvesting of these woods, particularly in old growth forests, has led to environmental and supply challenges wherever commercially viable timbers are grown. It’s difficult to know precisely how serious the problem is: environmental groups call it a global crisis, whereas most lumber companies are solidly sanguine. But on balance, much more evidence supports the environmental position.
Most teak comes from Myanmar (formerly Burma), with Indonesia, India, and Thailand also producing considerable amounts. The wood is unequivocally endangered. For several years, reports out of Myanmar have claimed that the military government often uses forced labour to harvest the trees from plantations. These plantations, in turn, have largely supplanted indigenous rain forests. Much Myanmar teak is sold in Thailand, and consumers have no way of determining which of the two countries the wood came from.
Additionally, scarcity and reputation have together contributed to the appearance of new varieties of ’teak’ that are not teak at all: Rhodesian teak is umgusi, and many other teak substitutes – with various names – are iroko. Each of these woods is outstanding in its own way, but neither will match the teak that may already decorate your boat or china cabinet.
South and Central America were once plentiful in so-called ‘true’ or Honduras mahogany, but for more than a century the stocks have been dwindling and now approach extinction in many areas. In Bolivia, Panama, Guatemala, most of Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico, naturally-growing mahogany supplies have been exhausted, and all current mahogany production is from plantations. Moreover, worldwide scarcity has led to the practice of labeling various substitute woods ’mahogany.’ The most common are agba, ramin, idigbo, iroko, African mahogany (khaya) and Philippine mahogany (lauan). Agba and lauan are the woods most likely to be called mahogany in plywood.
There are more than 200 species of oak (not including the Australian and Tasmanian varieties, which are not true oaks). This diverse group grows in every temperate region of the northern hemisphere, and has long been a favorite among craftspeople. Oak was used as the principal wood for the British Royal Navy from the 16th to 19th centuries, and the wood’s contribution to that endeavour (the making of a warship consumed about 3,000 trees) is the main reason that England has many rolling hills and open fields but no longer any substantial forests.
Among the world’s timbers today, oak is currently faring better than some; which is to say that most of the old-growth timbers have been harvested, supply is costly and limited, and much illegal and unsustainable logging takes place.
A member of the rose family, cherry flourishes in areas that have been cleared by forestry or fires. It does particularly well in Canada and the U.S. on open, unshaded land that has been allowed to reforest naturally. The abundance of cherry during the middle part of the twentieth century was possibly a result of mature trees (about 80 years old) being harvested from lands that were abandoned during and after the American Civil War. Recently, the supply of cherry has begun to dwindle, and will likely continue to do so. Ironically, as a growing environmental consciousness promotes selective harvesting, leaving fewer clearcut areas and more shade, cherry trees will become more scarce.
Cherry is typically used for fine furniture, as are several substitutes, Brazilian cherry (jatoba) and sapele (an African wood) among them. Neither of these woods is a true cherry, but both are equal to cherry in beauty, longevity, and durability.
Sadly, choosing woods is no longer simply a matter of aesthetics and functionality. Woodworkers are the purchasers, and therefore the stewards, of much of the world’s hardwoods. This suggests an ethical responsibility to preserve and replenish the materials that offer so much to the craft tradition. One practical and straightforward solution is to use local woods harvested by people in your community. After storms, when property is cleared for building, or when decay and residential culling require trees to be felled, countless board feet become available. Most communities have wood salvagers (who reclaim old wood from condemned buildings or from riverbeds), tree surgeons (who often make wood available for subsequent use), and portable bandsaw operators (who saw trunks into boards). Most of the wood in my shop is reclaimed or personally harvested. Not only is this approach more environmentally sound, it’s also far cheaper than purchasing from retail or import sources.
In the Pacific Northwest, most local woods are pale in colour. Much of the beauty of tropical woods, conversely, is derived from their deep, rich hue. If this appeals to you, but you wish to use local woods, consider darkening the wood with water-based aniline dye. With the right mix of dyes, almost any colour match can be achieved. I routinely dye maple to look like cocobolo, and birch to mimic cherry. Frequently, when I look at the work months or years later, I can’t easily tell which woods are substitutes.
And with today’s finishes, tropical woods no longer outlast local ones. Tropical woods might generally be stronger than local varieties (perhaps with the exception of oak and maple), but most woods today are used primarily for aesthetics. Strength comes from other materials layered over or under the wood: MDF, steel, composites, and fiberglass (in the case of boatbuilding). Today’s materials offer strength and durability superior to any wood (with the surprising exception of Douglas fir, which by weight is stronger than steel). Purists will inveigh against an approach that substitutes modern for traditional materials, but a purist aesthetic only makes sense within an ethical context that respects the wood and its conservation.
A number of recent initiatives have been undertaken to protect the forests and, by extension, the supply of woods for craft use. Groups such as the International Forest Stewardship Council promote the philosophy of ’chain of custody,’ in which wood is tracked at every stage in its progress from forest (or plantation) to final sale. FSC currently certifies about 42 million hectares of forest in 60 countries (about 4 million hectares are certified in Canada, among 18 forest companies). Organizations such as the American Tree Farm System and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative have developed similar guidelines. (For a detailed study of the merits of several certification systems, see Footprints in the Forest.)
Certification and chain of custody should mean that you can be sure your wood was not harvested using forced labour or from endangered old-growth stocks. But as with many initiatives that involve multiple stakeholders from government, industry, and culture, international wood certification is a complex, messy business. As a consumer, it’s difficult to know what standards are being applied, and whether your purchases actually contribute to conservation. Ideally, certification should be the international equivalent of buying wood from your local tree surgeon, salvager, or wood-lot owner: you’d know precisely where it comes from.
But until certification becomes an internationally dependable mechanism, our ethical responsibility as consumers is to know the origin and status of the woods we buy. Many people already make ethical choices to avoid products on environmental or political grounds: Chilean sea bass (actual name: Patagonian toothfish), ’blood’ diamonds from Africa, animal fur, tuna, salmon, GMO crops, and so on. Typically, industries are slow to act upon environmental concerns until pressured by consumers. Ask your local wood supplier where the wood comes from, and whether it’s harvested responsibly. If the supplier balks, or doesn’t know, go elsewhere. Conservation and trade are complementary aims, and reputable wood suppliers support both.
Look for wood certification (particularly FSC), but don’t depend solely upon it. Every commercial wood species used for boat building and furniture construction is currently under duress, with some close to extinction and others struggling for habitat. Even the famous red cedar of the Pacific Northwest is vanishing. Over-harvesting is a global problem, and you can safely assume that any wood, from anywhere, requires caution in purchasing and use. If you find one of the many substitutes for teak, mahogany, and cherry, be aware that most of these are endangered as well. Know and respect your wood.
Tropical woods are available from certified, sustainable tree farms and timber recyclers: jarrah, purpleheart, mahogany, teak, cocobolo, jatoba, and many others that are nearing extinction in their native habitats. Until the long-term solution of restoring native rain forests is achieved (and this may not happen), tree farms are one ethical way to make tropical hardwoods available for human use, despite their lack of biodiversity in comparison with rain forests. And if you are a tropical hardwood aficionado, you can even grow your own trees, by contracting with organizations such as Tropical American Tree Farms.
The appeal of wood derives from the beauty of its structure and the romantic resonance it imparts. Much of this resonance involves the past, and notions of endurance. As craftspeople, we honour the spirit of that endurance by ensuring its future.