I have mentioned lessons in wood-working. I entered an informal apprenticeship under my father at ten years of age. Being quizzed on the nature, properties, and uses of wood, however, was a game my father started playing with me when I was much younger.
One of my earliest memories is of the smell of cedar. To this day, it’s a favorite. I must have been only two and learning such basic words as cat and dog and house and car when my father added cedar and fir and birch and cherry, among many others, to my vocabulary. My mother said he began with a simple piece of wood, well-sanded and with the edges well-rounded. He held it to his nose and made an obvious sniffing sound. He smiled and handed the piece of wood to me, slowly saying cedar. I couldn’t help but notice the scent. I liked it immediately.
My parents said they would sometimes employ cedar shavings as a pacifier. If I became too rambunctious, one or the other would place me near a pile, and I would quickly quiet down to enjoy the sensation. I tried putting some of them in my mouth. They were clean enough, but they didn’t stay long: too dry, too hard to chew, and too hard to swallow. Never mind the taste.
Fir at first meant balsam fir. The name refers to the aromatic oily resins contained in the tree. In older days, the resin was used to make varnish. Before that, the resin was used to seal birch bark canoes. The needles, of course, are especially fragrant. Smelling them always makes me think of winter and of Christmas past.
Birch referred to sweet birch and yellow birch. Both trees have twigs loaded with methyl salicylate, otherwise known as wintergreen. A nice tea can be made from the twigs. Pioneers boiled the sap to make syrup, mixed it with honey, and then let it ferment into birch beer.
Cherry referred to black cherry. The bark and roots contain hydrocyanic acid, which was used in bygone days to make the flavoring so many of us like in candy and in cough medicine.
I got to be pretty good at identifying — with my eyes closed — some kinds of wood by their scents, but I never got as good as my father. Eyes closed, he truly could smell the differences among redwood, spruce, pine, larch, fir, and baldcypress. He could distinguish between walnut and willow, between oak and elm.
Fathers and sons used to challenge each other to games of basketball or to games of checkers or chess, and now it’s become something for the computer or plasma television set. My father and I would play games of guessing the identity of wood, usually when it was still green and not seasoned. Playing with dry wood made the contest almost impossible. Either way, though, my father always won.
Even when I cheated.
Not every kind of wood imparts scent or flavor. Beech is a good example. It won’t change the smell or taste of a food or beverage, or even influence the color. That’s why in times past beech was used to make such containers as casks. Maple is another good example. So, too, sycamore and honey-locust.
If I tried handing such a piece of wood to my father in one of our shut-eye games, he would declare me a trickster with a smile and toss it back.
My father didn’t restrict wood-is-good lessons to smelling games, of course. He also educated me in the sight, feel, and sound of wood.
Yes, there is a sound to wood. Play a xylophone or a marimba, and it becomes obvious. There’s a reason why red spruce and yellow-poplar, among others, are used in making musical instruments.
Additional lessons began with an event as simple as entering my father’s shop one day sucking on a toothpick. I had checked my toy gun at the door, but I had kept my cowboy hat on my head and the toothpick in my mouth. I hadn’t eaten anything. The toothpick was just a prop.
“What kind o’ toothpick ya got there, pardner?” my father asked.
It seemed a strange question, and not just because my mother wouldn’t have allowed that lingo if she were listening. I figured he should have said something more like a simple, “Howdy.” But he hadn’t.
So I said, “A round one. The flat ones are too sissy.”
“You might want to consider a different word,” he said. “Try weak. The flat ones are too weak.”
I looked at him, trying to figure out what he meant. I thought I had said that.
My father asked again, “What kind o’ wood ya got there in that toothpick, pardner?”
I pulled it out and looked at it. What did it matter? It’s a toothpick, just a toothpick. I looked at my father, and then back at the tiny piece of wood. “I dunno,” I answered. “It could be anything. Any old crap wood, I s’pose.”
By the way, my mother would not have allowed me to speak that way, either. She would have had me repeat, “I don’t know. It could be anything. It could be any old piece of scrap wood, I suppose.” She insisted upon proper enunciation, good diction, and complete sentences.
“Scrap wood, probably,” said my father. “But not any old scrap wood.”
“Yes. Paper birch, probably.”
I looked at the toothpick. “How can you tell?”
“You can tell,” he said.
“Well, yeah.” Splinters in the tongue would be no fun, for sure.
“The wood of paper birch is light, hard, and close-grained. And it doesn’t splinter. That’s why it’s been used for things people handle a lot. The spools and bobbins in your mother’s sewing box, for example. She can handle them without getting splinters. Moreover, they won’t snag the thread.”
“Out at Grandma and Grandpa’s farm?” That would be my mother’s parents. My father would have said “Grandfather’s” if he had meant his own parents’ place. “You’ve seen some of their old buckets with wooden handles. Those are birch. And those antique doorknobs inside the house. Those are birch. And so is your toothpick.”
I looked at it again and said, “Okay.” I put it back in my mouth.
Lessons continued. My father saw to sprinkling them into my daily living. In the shop. In the house. In the truck or car. And out of doors.
He would ask about the hammer I used when pretending to be his apprentice. Hickory. The wood is very heavy, very hard, very stiff, very strong, and very resistant to shock. The wood, therefore, is excellent in making handles for such tools as hammers, axes, picks, mattocks, brush hooks, and such. It has also been used for skis and wagon wheels.
He would ask about the pencil I held when drawing a picture. Cedar. It has an extremely narrow grain, and thus it sharpens well.
He would ask about the paper on which I was drawing a picture. If manufactured in Wisconsin, it could very well be made of jack pine, eastern hemlock, northern white cedar, black spruce, white spruce, balsam fir, and poplar.
He would ask about the captain’s chair in which I sat when reading. Elm. It has excellent bending qualities.
He would ask about the book itself. High-grade paper came from aspen. Highest-grade paper came from cottonwood.
He would ask about the stock and foregrip on my toy Winchester rifle. I had a really nice one that shot round corks via air compressed by working the lever. The question was tricky, though, because the gun’s stock and foregrip were made of plastic. Pretty good plastic. Tougher than what was used in most toys. But it was plastic nevertheless.
“Nevertheless,” my father would say, “the plastic was made to look like wood. See? There’s the fake grain. Now, if you were to order a real Winchester, or any other rifle, what kind of wood would you expect?”
I thought about it. “Oak?”
“Good guess,” my father said. “Oak — white oak, in particular — is heavy, very hard, and strong. The heartwood is waterproof, and it resists decay fairly well. But the wood doesn’t shape easily. There’s a better choice.”
“Take a look at the color of that plastic. It’ll give you a hint.”
I looked, and then shook my head. “Wood is painted all kinds of colors.”
“True. And some woods accept paint better than others. But not all wood is painted; some is stained, and some is oiled, and some is varnished. Sometimes, some woods get creosote. And sometimes, some woods don’t get anything. Coloring chemicals aside, different woods have their own differing colors. You know cedar has that distinctive red and yellow. What wood has the color of that plastic?”
I thought for a while. I had been in and out of my father’s shop many times. I knew he worked with many kinds of wood, and I had probably seen samples of every one. “Walnut?”
“Right! And do you know why?”
I thought some more. “People like the color?”
“Right again. People have long liked the grain pattern and dark brown colors of walnut. But there’s more to it than that. Like oak, it’s heavy, hard, and strong, and it resists shock well. The heartwood is very durable. Moreover, black walnut is worked very well by tools, is easily glued, and takes on paint, stain, and polish exceptionally well. Most important, after seasoning, the wood is very stable; it doesn’t shrink or warp. With regard to rifles, that’s critical. Changes in the wood due to changes in temperature and humidity can change the aim of the gun itself, making it less accurate.”
I looked at my toy Winchester. “Makes this sound kinda cheap, don’t it?” I said.
“Your description makes this seem rather cheap, doesn’t it?” my mother corrected. On this occasion, we sat in the living room, but she could hear us from the kitchen. She liked listening to our conversations.
“Maybe I should get a real rifle,” I ventured.
“Maybe not,” my father said.
In time, I did get a real rifle. It wasn’t a Winchester Model 94, though. It was a Colt M-16, and it had black plastic, not brown walnut.