When you think about it, most of what I do is take pieces of wood, make them smaller and then attach them to each other. Obviously, it's a little more involved than that, but - at its most basic - that's pretty much it. And maybe the most overlooked step in the process is the first time you take rough lumber down to something dimensional for building with a process called milling.
While not the most exciting or enthralling activity, milling is really at the heart of all good woodworking. It's sounds boring, but creating straight and square stock allows for a project to progress smoothly and with minimal surprise. Think about how many times you've seen a warped 2x4 at Home Depot (I know.... EVERY time!) or a piece of wood that's been left outside in the weather that has twisted into a shape more akin to a piece of tagliatelle than a piece of lumber. Now imagine trying to building a piece of furniture from that.
Wood doesn't grow straight and square. After being felled, trees are roughsawn by huge saws into various dimensions for sale. You've noticed how 2x4s are not really two inches by four inches? Well, they actually WERE, when they were in their rough state. (These are called the "nominal dimensions." It's the same reason a 1x6 is really 3/4 of and inch by 5 1/2) By the time you see them, they've undergone a milling process that leaves them smaller, but hopeful straighter as well. When it's sold in this form, it's known as dressed lumber. And in theory it's ready to build with.
Here at Shy Dog, we buy almost all of our lumber in its roughsawn state. It doesn't look like much to begin with, but - just like people - the beauty is on the inside.
But how do we get to that beauty? It starts by allowing wood to acclimate to our shop. Solid woods are natural products and react to temperature and humidity changes by moving. The best furniture takes this into account by allowing for some wood movement in it's design. We keep the majority of our lumber in its rough state until it's ready to be used.
When wood is ready to become part of a project, it's selected for species, color and grain, then broken down into rough pieces, usually with the help of the bandsaw, miter saw or circular saw. (Occasionally, even the hand saw!) It's after this point that the milling process really begins.
The first stop is usually the jointer. Our jointer has spinning spiral cutter buried in its cast iron table. As a rough board is passed over it, the cutter removes wood in a consistent plane, turning the surface into a perfectly flat one. Once a single side is completely flat, the board is usually flipped on its side and run across the jointer against the fence to flatten the edge at a perfect 90 degree angle. Look at that, one machine and we're halfway to square stock!
From the jointer, our next stop is the table saw. Here we put out newly jointed edge against the saw's fence and rip a perfectly parallel edge on the opposite side. Because it's parallel, we've got another 90 degree angle. Nearly there! Our final stop is the thickness planer. This takes our rough stock to it's final thickness and gives us our last two 90 degree angles.
Just like that, we've turned this:
Is it hard work? Yes. Does every furniture maker mill their own stock? No. Do we feel it's worth the extra effort for the consistency and results it allows us to achieve? You'd better believe it.