Maple + Hand Tools = Hard Work

The December 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine recently came out. In this issue, I wrote a piece for the Arts & Mysteries column in which I talked about choosing woods based not just upon their looks, but for the application and the ease with which they are worked. Well, on the heels of that article, I’ve recently found myself working with a couple of kiln dried species that I specifically suggested be avoided if possible, ash and hard maple. Working with these two kiln dried woods has reminded me once again why I typically try to avoid the dried versions of woods this hard. In my defense, they’re intended for very high stress applications, so I need their rigidity and strength. However, that doesn’t make them any easier to work with.

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Some time back, I timed myself ripping a 40″ length of a 4/4 board of black walnut. It took me about 2:00, give or take. For a similar sized piece of white pine, I’d expect it to take about half that long. For this similar length of 8/4 hard maple, it took just over 13:00. Same saw; same sawyer. But it took almost 7 times as long.

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You may have seen the podcast “Flat & Square” where I timed myself facing a piece of walnut about 10″ wide. It took about 5-1/2 minutes to surface one side of that wide board. The maple, again, took about 13:00, for a face a bit longer than the walnut board, but about 1/3 of its width. Once again, same tools, same craftsman, much more difficult material.

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Finally, there’s the mortises. Two 3/8″ thick through mortises in 3″ hard maple. Let’s just say they took a bit longer than the same sized mortise in pine. The Ray Iles mortise chisel worked like a champ though. It was ready for more after these two maple mortises, no sharpening required.

The mating double tenons took much longer as they had to be much more precisely fit since maple does not compress nearly as much as a softer species. After some paring here and there, they were finally “persuaded” into position.

The final result was certainly worth the extra effort, since, as I mentioned, these are high stress items where rigidity and strength were much more important than workability and appearance. But working these timbers made me ready for a nice piece of Eastern white pine.

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13 thoughts on “Maple + Hand Tools = Hard Work

  1. I once made the unfortunate decision to resaw 6″ wide 4/4 maple which I assume was kiln dried. It took me around 45 minutes to get through one 18″ piece and I had three more pieces I needed to resaw. It was the first time I ever broke down and started looking around for someone who had a bandsaw. I couldn’t find one and eventually got around to doing it myself, but I can honestly say it was the only time I’ve ever not enjoyed working with hand tools or didn’t look forward to going to the shop/garage.

    To be fair, part of the trouble was caused by the fact that my workbench just wasn’t built for that kind of work and it kept sliding around on me.

    But in a way it was good. it was like running with leg weights. Once I got a chance to work with pine or cherry again it was so much easier than what it was before.

  2. Hi Bob,

    It’s an interesting point you’ve raised before on your blog. I think I have to disagree with you on this one, at least partly.

    First, I strongly believe that traditional hand tools should not be «limited» to period furniture-making. I love to use old hand tools and techniques to build pieces that I design in a modern style. Maple and ash fit well with the aesthetics of many contemporary types.

    I prefer to work with locally sourced wood. It might make more sense ecologically but I do it mainly because it adds to my appreciation of the woodworking process. I like to look at my finish piece and think that I have a pretty good idea of the wood lot it came from (one of the advantages of living in rural areas). Since I live quite a bit higher north than you, it means my choices are (aside resinous woods) : white birch, yellow birch, hard maple, ash and soft maple (harder to come by; few seem to think of having it sawn). No walnut, cherry, white or even red oak in my area. I feel taking maple and ash out of the equation limits my options significantly.

    Third : curves! Moving away from right-angles only really opens-up an all-new world of design possibilities. Air-dried ash really reacts well to steam bending. That in itself is reason enough to make it a favourite specie.

    But the question I wanted to raise : is the problem maple and ash or the kiln-drying process? Kiln-dried wood will be more stable but it’s been my experience that it is also much more difficult to slice. Thoughts?

    Manni

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Manni.

      I don’t disagree with you at all. And contrary to what it may appear from most of what I write on the blog, I actually do like some contemporary furniture. When designed and done well, it can be absolutely stunning, even to my traditional tastes.

      I’ve always said that hand tools are capable of doing anything that machines are. However, there’s a difference between capable and efficient. A lot of the beginners I have talked to that have struggled learning to use hand tools have been trying to do so using woods like maple, red oak (because it’s easily available at any home center), etc. Hand tools can certainly work these woods just fine. But it takes a bit more knowledge of things like reading the grain, sharpening, setting up ones tools, etc. Also, these woods just take more time to work because one simply cannot treat them like pine and poplar and expect to hog off 1/16″ thick shaving with the fore plane. The harder woods simply require lighter cuts and more time. But it can certainly be done.

      I would never suggest that hand tools be limited to traditional woodwork or a small subset of woods. However, I do suggest that folks who like to use hand tools (or any one who really wants to improve their woodworking for that matter) study traditional woodwork if for nothing else, just to understand that woods were chosen for reasons other than aesthetics alone. Understanding the different working properties of different woods helps us to make more informed decisions about the woods we choose for different applications. That was the main theme of the article. You’ve hinted on it yourself, suggesting how well air dried ash steam bends. I regularly use green, riven ash and red & white oak because they are so easy to work with when they are green. They all steam bend exceptionally well and, along with hickory, were used almost exclusively for traditional ladder back chairs and the upper parts (i.e. spindles and bent parts) of American Windsor chairs because of their working properties. There’s a big difference trying to hand plane dry oak and ash and green oak and ash though. Maple and birch were probably the most common woods used for the undercarriage of American Windsor chairs, again, because of their properties. But again, there’s a big difference working these species green vs. working them dry. And you don’t see many steam bent items made from maple either.

      You do bring up a good point about air drying vs. kiln drying. Air dried lumber is definitely easier to work than kiln dried. But even air dried lumber is still a lot harder to work than green. Still, I’ll take air dried to kiln dried any day.

      So don’t get me wrong. I like maple and ash and oak just fine. But when I choose to use them, I am usually picking them for a specific reason, not only for their appearance or because that’s just what the home center had in stock. The maple I just recently finished up using was chosen for a specific reason. If I was building a contemporary piece of furniture, I might choose to use hard maple for it, especially if that is what my customer wanted. But my expectations for working with dry hard maple are much different from my expectations working with pine or mahogany. I think that is often why beginners struggle with hand tools. One can’t watch a video of someone planing or chiseling a well behaved board of mahogany and then go out and try to do the same thing with a board of hard tiger maple and expect the same results from the same setup. Experience teaches us to set our tools up differently depending upon what we’re working with. Beginners typically don’t have that experience and often struggle simply because they chose a difficult wood to work with based only upon the way it looked.

      • «I do suggest that folks who like to use hand tools (or any one who really wants to improve their woodworking for that matter) study traditional woodwork if for nothing else, just to understand that woods were chosen for reasons other than aesthetics alone.» That is why I love to read your blog. Always lots to learn, think about … and discuss!

  3. Bob,

    I’ve had a similar nightmarish experience with shag bark hickory but this was green wood, not dried at all. I cannot imagine what the kiln dried version would’ve been like! I had just sawn a number of Douglas fir planks with a freshly sharpened saw and was flying along. When I started into the hickory I could have sworn someone had switched my saw for a butter knife. The end result was more than worth it but what a bucket load more work for the same sized piece of wood. Sawyer beware!

    Cheers
    – John

    • Sawing Hickory? That’s what you’re doing wrong John. With such a perfect ring porous structure, there is no reason to saw it other than some crosscuts to length. Split it and your life will be much easier.

      Thanks for the post Bob. I lost count of the number of people I have talked to who are having problems with hand tools only to find out they are using Hard Maple. As illustrated above, it can be done, but there are many more options that are much easier. I switched to Soft Maple a while back and never went back to the hard stuff.

      • I love soft maple. Such an underrated wood. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to risk the stress in this application. May have been fine, but I played it safe. Sure would have been less work though.

  4. Stupid question – how can you tell the difference between hard and soft maple? Is it in the maple species or the way the lumber is dried/preped?

  5. Thank you, that’s good to know. I live in eastern Ontario where there are lots of different maple trees, so I will have to keep that in mind.

  6. All of my ash trees died from the blight. One tree I left standing for about 2 years before I cut it down. I kept about 6 fee (6″ in diameter, or so) of what was essentially air dried ash. I periodically take a piece off and use it for tool handles.

    • Well ill find out how hard hickory is to work. For my Bob inspired work bench I got a piece to make my vise chop out of. No ash around here I could find. But hickory we have a lot of.

  7. Great article Bob in Popular Woodworking. You hit it dead on in regards to wood selection for the woodworker that uses hand tools. I have learned through the years the hard way, and now I carefully select which wood I am going to use for my projects. Can you recommend any good publications or sites that talk in depth about the different species of woods, and how they work with hand and machine tools?

    Thanks Bob, and look forward to reading more of your articles in Popular Woodworking.

    Scott

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