What is it about wood? Watch how someone will pick up a well-made piece of turning, passing their hands over it almost as if absorbing something from it. This is just what they are doing - they are taking in the natural qualities of this wonderful material.
To a receptive person, the feel of wood has the power to evoke something of the calm of the forest, the imposing presence of a full-grown tree, the durability of old oak beams and the delicacy of fine furniture.
Handling a piece of timber puts you in touch with its history. In each piece, you can see the annual growth rings that tell its age. Over the years, events in the life of the tree leave their mark. In cold years the rings will be narrow and the wood will be fine-grained, while in good growing seasons they will be wider, and the wood more porous. Burr formation may date back to an injury to the tree trunk. A branch broken long ago in a storm will be enclosed by later growth, leaving dead knots and disturbed grain in the wood. Insects may attack the sapwood, leaving holes and tunnels under the bark. A nail driven into the trunk years ago may leave no visible trace on the surface of the log, but there will be tell-tale staining in the wood itself, a warning to the craftsman that tool edges are at risk of damage. Spalting shows that the tree suffered from fungal attack while standing, or that the log lay on the damp ground for a long time before use.
Like other natural materials, timber is variable. It varies in hardness, in colour, in durability, in density, in smell, in its grain and figure, in strength and in its resistance to splitting.
The craftsman, particularly in past times, had a great knowledge of the properties of different species of timber, and selected wood that was suited to its function. They would pick oak for its strength and durability when building a house, elm for its resistance to splitting when making wheel hubs, sycamore for its fine grain when making kitchen ware, beech for its workability and strength for furniture, ash for its toughness when making tool handles. They preferred straight grained timber for its ease of working, rejecting knots and bark inclusions because they weaken the wood. Spalted wood was considered waste. Burr wood was not used for furniture because of its lack of strength, but was cut into veneers to be overlain on stronger material.
Where appearance is as important as function, and conditions of use are not too onerous, the modern craftsperson chooses material for its beauty. Swirling grain, spalting, knots and burrs, bark inclusions and even insect damage are all valued for bowls.
The demand for cheapness shows in the difference between mass-produced wooden bowls and those that I make. At the factory, timber must work easily without needing individual attention to each piece, and the results are plain, uniform and bland.
Artists may sometimes also prefer plain, 'easy' timber, but for different reasons. They may want people to appreciate the shape of their work and not be distracted by the material. A wood carver may need fine, straight grain to enable fine detailing. A sculptor may want to make large pieces, eliminating the great variety of small trees. But sometimes artists will pick wood with more character, perhaps incorporating its natural features in the design. The finished work may have a silky-smooth finish or a surface with texture, whether natural or applied. They may want the contrast of rough and smooth in one piece. Few materials are as versatile as wood.