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The role of wood in the old homesteaders’ lives cannot be overstated, and honestly, I think, has been a little forgotten. They built their cabins out of it, their furniture, they cooked over it, and built fences with it. This post will introduce you to the different types of wood and how best to use them.
The majority of people nowadays go to Lowes or Home Depot for their wood, and ask the workers there for what they want. Until I got my hands on the FoxFire books, I had no idea how different each type of wood is, and how to choose which type for what we want on our homestead. Below I’ve shared what I’ve learned:
Firstly, when discussing wood, we’re either talking about green wood or seasoned wood. Wood will shrink as it dries out and seasons, so for the pieces that need to maintain their shape or fit, seasoned wood is always the best. Rafters, fence posts and rails, shingles, etc. could be shaped out of green wood.
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When needing cured wood, you can either buy it, or cure it yourself. Small pieces can be boiled to draw the sap out of it, or laid next to a fire, being careful it’s not too close to warp or burn. Dry kilns or smokers were also used. If the pieces were too large, or weren’t needed right away, they would be stacked, perpendicularly, with plenty of room to let air circulate and left alone, covered until needed. This method, however, can take months depending on humidity and weather.
In fact, we had to remove a maple tree to build our garage, so we planed it with an Alaskan sawmill and it’s now curing in the loft of one of our sheds. Waste not – want not!
I mention cutting trees for lumber or making wooden pens in my post on how to make money on the homestead.
Chestnut usually grows fairly straight, is soft and light, and easy to work. A favorite among Appalachian homesteaders, it was used for practically everything. It lasted forever if kept well, and wasn’t susceptible to rot if left wet for a length of time. Green chestnut was used for fencing, doors, wall boards and logs, rafters and joists. The bark was used as piping for directing water from a spring. Seasoned chestnut was used for furniture, animal calls, cutting boards and kitchen utensils. Unfortunately, a blight in the early 1900’s wiped out a majority of the mature chestnut trees and an effort is underway to preserve what remains. You can find out more about this effort by visiting The American Chestnut Foundation.
Hickory is a heavy, durable hard wood. It’s wavy grain can make it difficult to work with, but it can be flexible, and lasts forever. Green hickory was favored for making fires. It’s slow to light, but the flame it gives provides the most heat and burns the longest of all the woods. The leftover ashes were often saved to make lye for soap. It was also used for wagon beds and rough furniture. It was often, also, chewed like gum. Seasoned hickory was also used for tool handles, axles, spokes and wagon wheel hubs. It was the favored wood to use for wagon parts because it was flexible but durable.
Oak has a lot of the same properties as hickory, but it’s easy to work. Unseasoned oak makes great long-lasting fires and coals that don’t pop. Thin strips of it was often used for baskets and weaving chair bottoms. Green oak was also used for roof shingles, wagon beds and split rail fencing. Oak saplings in the woods were often used as springs for animal traps as well, because it was flexible and whippy. Seasoned oak was used in wagon wheels, flooring, furniture, barrels, bathtubs and buckets.
Locust is hard, hearty, and difficult to work. It’s so hard, it doesn’t shrink much when dried, is termite-resistant and does not rot when in water or underground. Young locus trees are referred to as “sap locust” and can grow to 8-10 inches in diameter fairly quickly. After that the growth slows tremendously. Mature locust trees are called “yellow locust”. Because of it’s resistance to water, it was often used for pieces of wood that was in direct contact with the ground: foundations, fence posts, railroad ties, floating bridges, etc. Seasoned locust was used for pegs, dowels, and some wagon parts that didn’t require a lot of flex.
Pine is favored for furniture, detailed wood pieces in the home (door frames, window sills) due to its softness and straightness. Unseasoned pine was used for all parts of a log cabin, flooring, paneling, and rafters. For more delicate work, you want to use seasoned pine to ensure it doesn’t warp. Large pine logs are great for starting fires, and the large pine knots were often chosen for torches. Pine sap is also often used in homeopathic remedies.
Walnut is a hard wood, but was often used more for its beauty than it’s useful qualities. Unseasoned it was used for split rail fences. Seasoned, it’s color and beauty made it a favorite for furniture. If you are looking for something more useful, however, the other woods are probably better choices.
Maple is a hard wood. It has a light color, and it very easily carved. It can be carved very thin without splitting which made it a favorite for fiddles and guitars. It also works very well in a hand lathe, so it was a favorite for more delicate pieces of furniture, spoons, gunstocks, drawer knobs, etc.
Cherry is a moderately hard wood, with a beautiful, rich, color and a slightly wavy grain. It was usually used, seasoned, for furniture, however, the bark was often used as a ingredient in homeopathic cough syrup.
Ash is a very hard wood, has a straight, fine grain, but it often brittle. Due to its lack of flexibility, it was often used, seasoned, for rolling pins, handles for hoes or shovels, or anything that didn’t require a lot of flexibility.
These are just the most common trees, and their uses, but each species of tree will have its own level of flexibility, durability, type of grain, and its own unique purposes. While most of the wood you’ll work with will be purchased form a store or lumbar-yard, it’s good to know why you would choose one type over another, or if you have any of these types on your land, you’ll know what they could be used for.