A Prerequisite to Benchwork


Yesterday my family spent the morning stacking firewood for the coming winter. Having both my seven-year-old and my (almost) two-year-old handling so much split wood I think embeds within them a deep awareness of the nature and properties of wood as a material. Eden (7) has known for years which logs make great splitting stumps and which ones are great for riving. He watches out for crotch wood and knows the implications of knots.

Besides serving as a basic introduction for kids, I think all woodworkers should have some of this experience. Straight grain is understandable in theory but seeing how grain runs on a split burns it into your mind in a way you’ll never forget. If you haven’t done any riving in your work, you are simply missing out.

If you live in such an urban area that you feel intimidated about dealing with logs, then  just grab some ‘camp wood’ from a convenience store. Or, even the sawn lumber from your lumber rack can split nicely if persuaded. In my experience, riving is not a “green” thing exclusively - riving dried wood is just about as easy as riving green wood. So don’t sweat the moisture content. Next time you’re looking for a straight grain piece and only have boards with wonky run-out, rive it straight. This experience will show you a lot. For one, it will make you a lot pickier with your choice of boards.

The more you get familiar with the movement of the grain in boards, the more you will feel in control of your work. Woodworking is not mysterious – its mastery can always be traced back to a thorough understanding of grain movement.  This knowledge is displayed in stock selection, riving, planing, and especially carving. Once you get grain, you get woodworking.

When Eden works at his bench I see him thinking hard about how the orientation of the board affects his work. Even at this young-kid-level of woodworking I can see the fruits of our time together getting our firewood in. So spend some time with the axe as soon as you can. In my view, this kind of knowledge should be a prerequisite to benchwork.