The wood trades

Specialties keeping tradition alive
Paul Epp

Wood certainly isn’t a sticky material. It’s fairly easy to reduce a large volume of wood into smaller ones, if you understand its propensity to split along its grain. But it is altogether another matter to stick it back together. Of course, we now have an array of wonderful adhesives that do the job for us, but at one time doing that job was the job.

If we were to list the various wood trades in order of how fundamental they are, wood-cutter would come first. In fact, that is how my young daughter described me in a school exercise. It was a term she would have learned from the fairy tales she was familiar with. There were no industrial designers mentioned in those books. But wood-cutters may have originally been those who procured fire wood. Chopping down whole trees is a specialization that requires very specific skills, known to lumberjacks, fellers, arborists and so on. But these trades don’t typically do much with the wood they have harvested. That is left to others.

Log-home builders work with the whole trunks of trees and the necessary joints are obtained by carefully fitting of one part to another. Post-and-beam building is also site work and reliant on joinery. Now, wood building is usually some form of studwall stick construction. Carpenters do this and usually use fasteners like nails and screws.

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Smaller scale woodwork, like that utilized in interiors and furniture was, fundamentally, a matter of reducing large pieces of wood into smaller sizes and then fitting them back together into a larger volume of a different configuration. Usually we desire furniture to be another form than that of a section of log. This required special skills and special knowledge of joints and how to achieve them. Joiners were what those specialists were called. Frame-and- paneling is a good example. This could still be done on a building site, but a further specialization was achieved by those who worked off site, building furniture and other portable items. These wood trades could be cabinetmaking, chair-making, woodturning and so on, all with their special and esoteric knowledge and techniques.

These specializations remain, although contemporary woodwork is now more a task of using prefabricated panels of one composition or another, thereby achieving the larger volumes needed. Very sophisticated hardware is employed, and the woodworking machines and their tooling are both very smart and incredibly accurate. It is industrialized woodwork, which is not to minimize the amount of human skill and knowledge that is still required. But there is not so much solid-wood to solid wood joinery employed.

That kind of work might be best described as pre-industrial, or craft-based. Before the specialization of industrial design emerged, which of course required industrialization, the woodworker would have relied mostly on precedent for their designs, although there would undoubtedly have been individuals who were extra creative and who expanded the lexicon of what was both possible and desirable. But this would likely have been facilitated by them knowing what they were doing.

How do contemporary designers fit into the work done by contemporary woodworkers, or, more properly, contemporary wood industry? There isn’t much of a requirement to know about traditional wood joints or any of the other specialized techniques of solid-wood working.

Image by tookapic from Pixabay

Usually the ideas that designers propose are filtered through the screen of practical knowledge held by the people that actually build things. This seems to work well enough, but occasionally designers will benefit from a deeper understanding. Fortunately, there are woodworkers who have made a point of retaining the specialized technical knowledge of an earlier time. Why this is so is actually an interesting question. It’s hardly because it’s a route to easy money. But it seems to be innately gratifying to these eccentric people, and I mean that description in its most flattering sense. Society is lucky to have them.

So are designers, specifically and especially, whose job it is to know about materials and processes. There is far too much to be known than is feasible for any individual to obtain or retain. So, these specialists are like a library of knowledge that can be drawn on as needed. They are likely to just refer to themselves as woodworkers, or craftsmen, or makers or something else. They rarely have big shops or even big reputations. But they are out there, keeping tradition alive.

Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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