Subtleties of wood

I was experimenting with turning a Redwood pen. Redwood is a soft wood, used mainly for outdoor fencing and furniture here in California. It’s also fairly light. I’ve only turned hardwoods to date, and was curious how Redwood would look, as I know when it’s oiled it’s got a fairly pretty color. I had a scrap with a knot in one end, so turned that into a pen. It’s light! I also suspect it won’t wear very well – a quick way to tell whether a wood is “soft” or “hard” is whether you can dent it with a fingernail easily. I’m curious what this pen would look like after a year of wear and tear.

But the interesting part came when I want to turn an ebony pen for myself. I keep my pen blanks and scraps in little bins sorted by wood type. Usually I take a 5″ length of wood, cut it in half, and those become the two parts of my pen. The grain lines match up through the center band, producing a nice continuity.

Ebony runs from very dark brown to black, with occasional light streaks. Trying to be “economical” I grabbed two short pieces, set them up for turning, and began the pen. It wasn’t until I was in the final sanding stages that I noticed something was off – the bottom barrel was a lot lighter than the top. The top was pure, cool black, while the bottom was brownish. Ooops! Then I had to figure out what other pieces of ebony might match those two (came from the same sources), and I think I came close but not perfect. Fortunately, when wiped with BLO the ebony darkened quite a bit, so subtle mis-matches don’t show as readily.

Somehow I managed to forget that ebony was wood like any other, with natural, organic variations in tone and grain. It’s so dark and uniform it’s tempting to think of it as a manufactured material like acrylic. It’s not.

I was going to write something profound about the wood halves not being interchangeable – like pairs of people – but somehow the thought has slipped away…


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