“Wood is a wild material not easily tamed,” I wrote in “A Tale of Two Trees,” featured in Issue Six of M&T. The point is that even as we use the latest technology to prep and process the living daylights out of a piece of lumber before it gets stacked at the home center, we can’t fully remove its rowdier inclinations. Wood is hygroscopic, so it absorbs and releases moisture based on environmental conditions. The nature of grain structure causes wood to expand in warmer, more humid seasons, but it often does so unpredictably. Trees rarely add growth rings with perfect uniformity; instead, they are built in response to stresses the tree perceives through the growth cycle. Prevailing winds cause a tree to build more mass on the leeward side for strength, and limbs build up wood on the undersides to help support their increasing weight. This means that the grain is uneven from one side of the trunk or limb to the other, which can create amusing effects when we just want a straight, flat plane cut through it.
Here in Maine, we have natural weather forecasting tools that are at least as accurate as the soothsayers at The Weather Channel. We call these things “weather sticks.” They’re made from a balsam fir branch and small trunk section, peeled and dried and nailed to the side of your house or barn. Drier weather causes the stick to point up, while damp air makes the tip point down. Weather patterns and trends can be noted while sipping morning coffee. This useful device works thanks to that hygroscopic, reactive nature of branch wood.
Of course, some varieties of seasonal wood movement are less immediately useful. We’re all familiar with sticky drawers and doors in the summertime, which open with remarkable ease in the winter. Most of the interior doors in my house were apparently salvaged from some centuries-old structure – they’re of beautiful, handmade frame-and-panel construction, complete with layout lines and big through-tenons. While they are comparatively quite stable, it seems that the house moves around them. One door downstairs catches on the floor when opened in the winter, but right now it swings freely. I can note the changing seasons by feeling how much resistance the door offers as I open it: As autumn approaches, it will begin to kiss the floorboards again.
In his book, The Wheelwright’s Shop (which we’re thrilled to now have available as an audiobook), author George Sturt shares insights from an incredible connection that artisans of old had with the natural tendencies of wood – how it dries, how it moves. That kind of knowledge is worth exploring and keeping alive.
What kinds of seasonal wood movement have you had to deal with?