The final quality of a wood product is a combination of the raw materials, the tools and processes used, and the skill of the craftsmen.
Wood, Stain and Assembly Characteristics
We stock several different quality hardwoods for our creations. The most common woods we use are red oak, cherry, white maple and black walnut. We have used teak and poplar. We can acquire almost any other hardwood, too.
Almost all hardwoods have a few things in common. First they continue to 'breath'. That is, they gradually react to the moisture content in the atmosphere. A large, solid hardwood maple panel, for example, might expand and contract by as much as an eighth of an inch or more due simply to seasonal climate changes. An improperly designed solid hardwood piece will literally tear itself apart over the years due to this expansion and contraction of the wood. However, we carefully design our pieces so that the grain aligns in such a way as to minimize any effects of humidity.
Hardwoods generally have 'tight,' heavy grain and are characterized by weight, hardness and strength. Weight, though, is a flaky measure, because it is so easily affected by atmospheric humidity. "Hardwood" isn't necessarily a precise description. For example, poplar is considered a hardwood, but there are "softwoods" that are stronger than poplar.
Red oak appearance ranges from white to pink, depending on the particular tree and section. Oak is heavy, strong wood, excellent for most general furniture framing. The only drawback to oak is its grain pattern, which alternates between tight, small cells and rings of large, dark cells. People differ on their affection for its grain pattern; the preferred (and most expensive) is quarter-sawn, which has a very even, "classic" appearance. The drawback to the large-cell rings is not so much the appearance, but in the staining. The effect is two fold. First, if a dark stain is used, the contrast is amplified because the dark stain collects in the large pores and barely penetrates the rest. Also, the large, open cells draw in oil stain and hold it. When the piece is exposed to warmth (sunlight, for example), the stain and air within the cells expands, causing the uncured stain to bleed back out upon the surface. This causes the oil finish process to take much longer on oak than on other woods, because we have to stain it, allow it to cure, then heat it a day or more later and do a second rub-down. Some people avoid this by applying an initial filler-coat. Raw oak has a slightly-acidic smell, and yellows and darkens with exposure to the atmosphere, especially to sunlight. Red oak is the least expensive of the hardwoods we carry.
White maple is similar in weight and strength to oak. It yellows more when exposed to UV light. It does not have the highly-contrasting grain rings, but instead has a variety of grain irregularities, many of which are sought after. These include curling, quilting and birdseye. These grain patterns can be quite stunning and attractive, but make the wood difficult to work, as they usually chip and tear unless handled just right. Maple is also susceptible to disease when living, which can result in colored bands within the boards, something that is preferred by some people. The grain 'defects' and disease colors do not appear to have any significant effect upon the strength of the boards for our purposes.
Cherry is a joy to work with. It has strength comparable to oak, but is more pink and brown. It has a greater variety of colors within the boards. It has excellent strength and hardness, and average weight. Cherry naturally darkens over time to assume a much-sought-after reddish-brown hue. It takes stain readily and machines well (and it smells good while working with it).
Black walnut can vary from a light, milky-chocolate color with a tint of grey to nearly black. It is the hardest of the woods we generally work with, but also a little lighter. The result is a kind of brittleness while working, which requires more care and planning during cutting and assembly to avoid corner chipping. It takes stain readily but, because of its dark color, does not show the stain as much as the lighter woods.
Lyptus has become more popular in recent years for good reasons. It is a fast growing, heavy hardwood. In appearance it is like a combination of mahogany and cherry, with a touch more purple/pink color. It darkens and evens with exposure to sunlight. It is heavy, almost as heavy as teak, and hard like maple. It stains nicely. At the time of this writing it costs about as much as red oak per board foot.
We rarely use poplar any longer because we do not believe it can stand up to heavy kneeler use. Teak, however, is an interesting beast. About four times as expensive as oak per board foot, teak is similar in weight. It has ruddy-brown coloring and a rich, natural oil that makes it nearly impervious to general atmospheric exposure. That is, humidity cycles and moisture that would trash other woods do nothing to teak. However, while other woods tend to yellow or brown with exposure, teak turns grey. Some finishes can slightly deter this greying, but it will happen eventually and appears to be the wood's response to UV light exposure. A light sanding will (re)reveal the natural wood color underneath. Teak's oily nature requires additional work during glue-up, but other than that, it is nice to work with, and it emits a unique aroma for some time after cutting.
We use only solid boards, not 'butcher-block' or other laminated pieces. The exception to this is the monastic bench, chest and other pieces that have larger panels. Panels of these size require joining multiple hardwood boards together on edge.
We prefer to use a mix of varnish, linseed oil and mineral spirits commonly known as Danish Oil. Danish Oil is relatively-fast to apply, it highlights the wood (rather than cover it over), and is easy repair and refinish. Danish oil provides only a moderate amount of protection from general handling, and little protection from liquids. It reacts with some plastics. On some pieces we add a coat of polished wax. If no wax is added, an additional protective layer like polyurethane or lacquer can be applied to offer superior protection from liquids (at the expense of ease of repair).
The stain application process is fairly fast, but the follow-up rub downs can take several days, especially for woods like oak that suck the stain into large pores and hold it there.
We used to use stock stain colors provided by Watco, but now custom mix stains by combining high quality oil color paints with boiled linseed oil, and then mix the pigment-solution with varnish and a solvent. There are a few reasons for this. It became increasingly difficult (and expensive) to get Watco (or any) Danish Oil in gallon cans locally, and the total cost to have a gallon shipped here is now over $50. By mixing our own we are able to use better quality pigments, and because the constituent chemicals are available locally in bulk we can make a better quality stain for less.
For top "show" surfaces, especially on the altar or table tops, we perform a series of stain applications and wet sandings that result in an almost-mirror finish. For additional protection a wax polish can be added.
Though Danish oil stains can be dry to the touch in a few hours (in a warm environment), they can take three days to fully cure. In cold climates even longer. Until cured they have to be handled very carefully to avoid blemishes.
For teak we incorporate varnishes with UV blockers to slow the greying process.
All of our products start with 'raw' lumber that we hand pick from a mill here in Oregon -- usually 'hit and miss' or 'S2S' boards. By handpicking the wood we can weed out knotty, fractured and warped boards from the start. We cut these down to their final dimensions using our own equipment. This results in a much better finished piece than purchasing S4S, 'finished' lumber from a local lumber supply.
A joint's ability to stand the test of time is a function of its precision, the holding materials used, and the joinery technique employed. We carefully assemble the pieces using proven techniques like pocket screws, biscuits, dovetails and the highest quality glues available (type-III aliphatic resin glues for dovetail and biscuit joints, 'Gorilla' glues for all others). Our woodcrafting skills have been honed for over ten years, and our shop is equipped with a table saw, jointer, thickness planer, drum thickness sander, 18" bandsaw, an excellent workbench, and more hand tools than we care to count, all of which are kept in top condition.