Woodcraft 17: Dead Wood

26 09 2014

That evening, shortly after my sister and I had gone to bed for the night, I heard my grandfather call my father on the telephone.

Now, back then, long distance calls were not frequent.  Because of the expense, people tended to reserve such calling for special occasions: Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays….  I could think of no special occasion for this call.  My mother had phoned my father the evening of our arrival in the Fox Cities.  She had pretty much said, “Hi!  We’re here. The trip went well. I love you. Good bye.”  She kept it short.

I heard my grandfather say, “Georg, my son.  You have taught your son, Konrad, many things about wood….”

Indeed, he had. A game we had commenced playing about the time I started grade school involved grading lumber.  The game got harder as I got older because of so much to appreciate.


People in the forest products industry subdivided softwood into three main classes: yard lumber, structural lumber, and factory & shop lumber.

Intended for general construction, yard lumber could typically be found in community lumber yards and was used in the manufacture of housing. Yard lumber was subdivided into finish lumber, common boards, and common dimension lumber.  Dimension lumber was further subdivided into planks, scantling, and heavy joists.

Mill workers cut structural lumber to meet requirements for greater strength and subdivided it into joists and planks, beams and stringers, and posts and timbers.

Factory and shop lumber didn’t need to come in long lengths or wide widths.  Smaller planks and boards were acceptable as long as the wood itself was clear and useful for such millwork items as sash, frames, doors, moldings, and cabinets.

All these various pieces of wood had grades based upon the presence or absence of defects such as cracks, splits, beetle borings, knots and knotholes, and even stains. Anything that would weaken the wood could be considered a defect, and anything that would spoil the appearance of the wood could be considered a defect.  It all depended upon intended use.  So, a piece of finish lumber could receive a grade of A, B, C, or D.  I could understand that system; that was the way teachers graded tests and quizzes and papers and other assignments at school.  The better the board, the higher the letter grade.

Things got more complicated, though.  Common boards didn’t get letter grades.  They got number grades, 1 through 5.  Number 1 Common was a pretty good board.  Number 5 Common was pretty poor.  Dimension planks got one of three number grades.  So, too, scantling and heavy joists.

Hardwood lumber had its own grading systems.  One system pertained to hardwood dimension stock, which had at the time only a small portion of the market.  The other system pertained to standard hardwood.  The grading system oriented on how much of the wood piece’s surface area would yield either clear or sound cuttings relative to specified sizes.

Here’s the sequence of standard hardwood grades:  Firsts.  Seconds.  Selects.  Number 1 Common.  Number 2 Common.  Number 3A Common.  Number 3B Common.

For example, for a piece of hardwood to be graded Select, it had to meet these requirements:  Six to sixteen feet long.  Four inches or more wide.  If the surface area of pieces measured 2 or 3 square feet, then 91.66% of each piece had to work into clear-face cuttings.  Only one cutting was allowed, and it had to be at least 4 inches by 5 feet, or 3 inches by 7 feet.

I could go on, but you’ve probably had enough by now.

My grandfather said, “You’ve taught your son, Konrad, many things about wood. What have you taught him about trees?”

I fell asleep trying to figure out what he wanted to know.

 woodcraft 8




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