Working with greenwood – what is it about freshly cut wood?
One of the most common questions I am asked is, “Why greenwood?” Most people know that, as it dries out, wood naturally shrinks and has a tendency to warp and crack. What sense does it make to put effort into something which will unavoidably be damaged or distorted?
The prejudice is well founded. Some objects are, indeed, wholly unsuited to being made in unseasoned greenwood. If elements have to closely and reliably fit against each other, with accurate dimensions of the finished product, making it from a material which will still significantly change in size and shape is quite a challenge (though not impossible). Similarly, where thick sections are involved and drying is uneven, tension is created at the surface where drying occurs faster than in the interior and cracks often result. Better to dry the timber first, for the shrinkage to take place and make dimensioning more predictable and for warping or cracking to have finished. Wood can then be selected defect-free or deformities can be machined away and “proper woodworking” can be started on a material stable in size and quality. But that is a bit one-sided.
As wood dries out it becomes increasingly strong and resilient. Green wood is softer by nature than seasoned wood. The water content within the fibres lubricates the blade making it easier to cut and the fibres are less tightly bound together so it is easier to split. While a saw or abrasive tool such as a rasp might get clogged, bladed tools such as axes, knives and gouges require much less effort to use. Objects such as spoons or bowls have thinner walls so drying is more even. The resulting tension in the wood is lower and cracks are much less likely to form. Yes, the wood will change shape a bit, but the change does not affect the object’s functioning and may even enhance its aesthetic. So, where there is no clear need to use dry, seasoned wood to make an object, the use of greenwood is an option. But why do I prefer it?
It is all to do with the softer material and ease of cutting. It is not the efficiency which is appreciated. Let’s be honest, power tools are extremely effective at processing wood as quickly as possible. But greenwood gives you the freedom to work with simple hand tools. You are not bound to a power supply. There is no accompanying noise and dust, or at least much less. And working with seasoned wood, however beautiful the timber might be, somehow slightly lacks soul with its natural unpredictability removed. Working with green wood on the other hand is truly organic. The tree from which it came is fully apparent. Its shape and structure suggests what is to be made with the hand of the maker influencing rather than imposing an outcome. The grain guides the cuts. Removing material is not simply the excess being cut away, but a form steadily being revealed. It is a mindful process where sharp blades provide a quick reminder should concentration drift. An object emerges, encouraged out gently rather than forcibly.
That personal and active transformation forms a connection between the maker and the object which endures long after the process is completed. It is a meditative journey - the purposeful application of head, heart and hands intimately bound with the natural world by the wood on which you are focused. The reward from the connection is every bit as strong as any sense of achievement with the finished article.