Handcrafted 18th Century American Furniture

Finding a Steady Supply of Wide Boards

One of the greatest challenges during the first couple of years was finding wide stock. This was especially true for native hardwoods like cherry and maple. Mills usually sawed logs for maximum yield, which resulted in narrow stock, typically seven or eight inches wide. Boards of that width are not a problem for manufacturers of mass-produced furniture. In fact, they prefer to glue-up numerous narrow boards for their wide panels, since the resulting panel is less prone to warping. Our dilemma was that 18th century cabinetmakers used wide stock whenever possible. There were two apparent factors behind this preference, other than aesthetics: the availability of wide boards from the prolific virgin forests up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and the substantial labor involved in preparing the interfacing edges of joined boards. Today, multi-board glue-ups are easily accomplished with a joiner or a ripsaw, but 200 years ago each board edge had to be individually hand-prepared with a joining plane prior to glue-up. The more joints, the more labor.

While in Hanson, we explored numerous avenues in our search for wide stock. Initially, we purchased a few 12-inch-wide cherry and maple boards from several specialty wood dealers who advertised in various woodworking magazines. However, these dealers only had a limited supply of this rare stock, and it was very expensive. We quickly determined that they would not be a viable long-term source. We also visited with several antique dealers who, as it turned out, often accumulated wide stock to use in the restoration and repair of their antique furniture. Again, we were able to obtain a few choice boards, but only after a lot of pleading, and again at a premium price. Two local lumberyards carried hardwoods, and we convinced them to let us pick through their incoming stock. The price was better, but the pickings were slim.

Wide boards of native eastern pine were easier to obtain, since there was significant demand from builders for their use as flooring in reproduction colonial homes. We were routinely able to find boards up to 20 inches wide from local sawmills. The only problem was that they were usually covered with large red knots. Since we were using pine as a secondary wood, primarily for backboards, case bottoms, and drawer parts, a few solid knots were not a problem. However, most of the stock we received was so riddled with knots that we could only use the best sections of each board. This often resulted in yields of less than 50%. Since 18th century cabinetmakers typically used clear wood for drawer sides and backs, we elected to purchase a better grade, narrower-width pine with less knots for these applications.

Our sales volumes were modest during the first couple of years, and we managed to obtain enough wide stock from dealers, and from hunting and pecking though various lumber yards, to meet our production requirements. However, with our move to Pembroke and growing demand from our customers, securing a reliable source of wide stock rapidly became a top priority. Fortunately, one of Bill’s friends, Chet Churchill, owned a wood brokerage company that specialized in native hardwoods. His business, based in the nearby coastal town of Duxbury, brokered wood from a large number of sawmills located throughout Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. Chet assured us he could obtain 10-to-12-inch-wide cherry and maple, but the wood would be almost double the price of random-width stock. Since wide stock was such an essential material for our furniture, we didn’t hesitate in ordering 1,000 board feet of each. At the time, we sorely needed wide widths of both woods for scheduled runs of four-, five-, and six-drawer chests, so we waited for the first delivery with more than a little apprehension. Thankfully, Chet was true to his word, and the boards were all 10 to 12 inches wide, with the vast majority being around 11 inches. Since case sides ranged from 18 to 20 inches wide, and small table and nightstand tops from 18 to 22 inches wide, this stock served our purposes perfectly. Finding this reliable source of wide cherry and maple was a turning point for Eldred Wheeler.

Locating a reliable source of tiger maple (or curly maple as it is sometimes described) was an even greater challenge. During 1979 we made relatively few pieces in tiger maple. This was not due to a lack of demand for tiger pieces, but was rather due to our inability to obtain adequately figured tiger stock, especially in boards greater than 8 or 9 inches in width. The stock for the few tiger pieces we did make came from antique dealers’ private hoards or from picking through incoming loads of regular maple. We repeatedly asked several wood dealers if they could help us locate tiger maple, but they seemed disinterested. The extra effort required to bird-dog the sawmills did not seem to make economic sense to them.

Ironically, and unbeknown to us, the majority of sawmills were already culling tiger maple from plain-grained maple. The terms “tiger” and “curly” refer to an abnormal striped grain pattern found in a variety of hardwoods including mahogany (often termed “fiddle-back”), cherry, walnut, and maple. The incidence of tiger grain seems to depend on the wood species and the environment where the tree grew. For New England–grown hard and soft maple, the incidence is typically less than 1% of the trees harvested. Sawmills usually separate the highly figured maple during the sawing process, because the majority of their customers do not want it included in their orders. This is due to the fact that much of the maple purchased is used for hardwood flooring (gyms, homes, etc.) or in multi-board glue-ups for mass-produced furniture and accessories. Obtaining a uniform appearance with the inclusion of a few strongly figured boards is virtually impossible. Therefore, the person sawing the log inspects each board as it is cut, shining a bright light across the plank to determine if it should be rejected because of figure. If so, it is directed into a rejection chute. Otherwise it moves ahead to the output pile. Historically, wood in the rejection pile was considered scrap, and used for low-value things like pallets and crates.

With our dealers and direct customers clamoring for tiger maple pieces, obtaining a reliable supply of tiger stock had become critical. Our attempts over the years to secure such a supply had largely been unsuccessful, but our persistence finally paid off early in 1980, after we contacted Steve White at GMC Hardwoods. Steve volunteered to ask one of his contract mills if they would put some of their figured maple aside. His only condition was that we had to commit to purchasing 1500 board feet at a 20% premium. At the time, it was a significant dollar outlay for us, but we figured we didn’t have much of a choice but to try it.
The wood needed to be kiln dried, so delivery wasn’t expected for almost a month. When the load finally arrived, we excitedly watched as the deliverymen unloaded the bundles from the back of their truck. We hoped a reliable source of tiger maple was finally at hand. Unfortunately, we had no such luck. While there were a few boards with decent figure, most were relatively plain grained. Even worse, the vast majority were of narrow width, averaging less than 6 inches. Having special-ordered the wood, we had little choice but to take delivery. We were deeply disappointed that the experiment didn’t work out, and proceeded to use the stock for several of our small items, like pipeboxes and Chippendale mirrors. We began to wonder if we would ever find a dependable source of strongly figured wood.

A week after the delivery Steve called and asked about the wood. I am sure he instantly knew by my telephone demeanor that the stock was not what we had hoped. He inquired if we wanted to try again. Being still a fledgling business, I had to weigh the risks of investing another $2,000 on stock that might not turn out to be usable. At that point we weren’t selling copious quantities of pipeboxes and Chippendale mirrors, and the first batch pretty much took care of our needs for the next six or seven months. I told Steve that I needed an assurance that the figure and width of the next batch would be much better than the last. Without hesitation he suggested that the best way to insure I got what I wanted was for us to plan a trip to the sawmill in northern Maine. He indicated that the trip would serve two purposes. First, I could pick through the stock myself to get what I was after; and second, I could explain to the sawmill crew exactly the type of wood I was seeking. Steve noted that the mill was intrigued with the prospect of developing a market for their rejected figured-maple stock, especially if they could sell it at a premium. I immediately accepted, thinking the trip would be an interesting adventure, since I had never visited a large sawmill.

Steve made arrangements to visit the mill Tuesday of the following week. It was located just outside Dover-Foxcroft, which was about six hours’ drive from my house in Norwell. Because of the travel time, he suggested we allow two days for the trip. Steve said he was going to be in Maine on other business so we should meet at the sawmill around noon. He indicated that the mill had put aside more than 50,000 board feet of lumber for us to look at. Steve calculated it would take us about ten hours to sort through the dozen or so piles, because the effort would involve a lot of unstacking and restacking. Fortunately, the sawmill had volunteered two yard hands to help us. By arriving at noon, we would have almost seven hours of daylight. We could finish the job on Wednesday morning, leaving plenty of time to make it home before dinner.

I left my house at 5:00 in the morning, which enabled me to avoid Boston’s heavy commuter traffic. I pulled up to the mill’s main gate shortly after 11:00, and was directed to a small red building at the far side of the property. I carefully navigated my way across the cluttered yard and parked at the side of the building in a space identified as visitor parking by an obviously homemade sign. Upon entering the office, I notice that Steve had already arrived and was engrossed in conversation with what appeared to be the “head man.” They immediately noticed my arrival and rose to greet me. Steve made the introductions, and after a bit of small talk, the issuance of prerequisite safety gear (hat, glasses, etc.), and a brief tour of the sawmill, we were ready to begin our undertaking. The foreman directed us to a large field where there were hundreds of neatly stacked piles of lumber arranged in rows. He explained they were waiting to be loaded into one of the mill’s several drying kilns. Next, he pointed to several piles located near a large wood storage shed and said they were the ones set aside for us. He also motioned to two individuals walking toward us from the far side of the yard and mentioned they were going to be our two helpers for the day.

As the two helpers came closer, I couldn’t help but notice that they were the epitome of what I pictured a Maine lumberjack might look like. Both were tall and muscular and had weathered faces that looked like they were chiseled from local granite. Each was dressed in a plaid long-sleeve shirt, one red and the other green. Both had on dark khaki pants with what appeared to be several months’ accumulation of stains, and ankle-high brown work boots laced two-thirds of the way to the top. Appropriately enough, both sported Red Man Chewing Tobacco caps. Their use of the product itself, and not just the promotional apparel, became apparent when they ceremoniously spit a curd after nodding an acknowledgement of our introduction.

The four of us began immediately walking toward the piles. I guess they didn’t believe in small talk, since both Steve’s and my attempts to make conversation were met only with grunts and nods. Soon Steve and I were both standing on top of a pile and were ready to begin sorting through the boards below. We each had a wooden tally stick, which looked like a yardstick with a handle at one end and a metal plate with pointed hooks at the other. A tally stick has scales on both sides. The main scale measures the plank’s width, and an associated scale calculates the board-feet of lumber based on the plank’s length. Steve also had a tally book in which he planned to keep track of the wood we selected.

Before beginning our project, Steve thought it might be wise to decide on a sorting strategy with our two yard-hands. He suggested that the best approach might be for me to inspect each board, using the hook on my tally stick to flip it as I checked for figure. If I wanted the board, I would mark it with a red crayon and one of us would measure it with our tally stick. Steve would then record the board footage in his tally book. As we sorted through the pile the yard-hands would pull boards we accepted and put them into a “keeper pile.” Conversely, those we rejected would be stacked in a separate pile alongside the original stack. Steve and I would move from side to side as they pulled boards and the pile shrunk lower and lower to the ground. The two helpers positioned themselves at either end of the stack and we were ready to begin.

Things started rather slowly. I was determined to pick only strong tiger maple, and two-thirds through the first pile I had yet to select a single board. The look on Steve’s face indicated he was becoming a little worried. I imagine he thought that we might spend the next ten hours and end up virtually empty-handed. Also, I noticed the yard-hands beginning to subtly shake their heads in mild disgust with each board I rejected. “Maybe I’m being too picky,” I thought as I turned over a fairly wide board. As I examined the plank, I rationalized, “it doesn’t have much figure, but it’s got to be more than 12 inches wide. It’ll definitely work for a porringer table top.” I swooped down with my crayon and made a large X. Out of the corner of my eye I immediately detected faint smiles not only from Steve but also from the two yard-hands. “At last!” Steve blurted out. “Yeah,” I replied, a bit embarrassed. I didn’t want to tell him I had selected the plank for width, not figure. The next dozen or so boards were disappointing both in width and in figure, but then at last a group of six boards with definite tiger striping; not as strong as I had hoped, but the best figure I had seen so far. Several more red X’s, and a few more boards for our keeper pile.

Having now been staring at boards for over an hour, I found myself questioning my judgment as to the degree of acceptable figure. I observed that the saw blade cuts left impressions on the surface of the raw stock that sometimes looked like tiger striping. Only after closer examination under the bright sunlight could I tell if I was looking at saw marks or the iridescent glow of light reflecting off the undulating tiger grain. I now understood the challenge sawmill workers faced during the sawing process in deciding whether a board has figure. I was sure that when in doubt about a board they probably rejected it. No wonder I was having so much trouble finding strong tiger stock among the 50,000 board feet of supposedly figured maple stock!

It was hard remembering specific tiger boards I had selected over the past several hours, so when we took a break, I used the opportunity to examine our small but growing keeper stack. Overall, I was disappointed at the fruits of our labor so far. While the boards had acceptable width (most were more than 8 to 9 inches wide), the figure was average at best. We were approaching the halfway point in our sorting, and I was rapidly becoming convinced that developing a reliable source for strong tiger maple was going to be much more difficult that I had hoped. In my mind I had already began redefining the choice of woods in which our products were offered from maple, cherry, and tiger maple to maple, cherry, and figured maple, with tiger maple noted as “only upon special order and subject to availability.”

Then it happened. As I turned over the first board of a new row I immediately saw a 10-inch-wide plank of tiger maple with figure so strong it almost danced in the afternoon sun. There was no questioning whether I was looking at tiger striping or saw marks. This was what I had been looking for all afternoon. I shrieked with excitement as I scrawled a pair of giant X’s on each end of the plank. As I motioned to the yard-hands to pull the board, I noticed by their expressions that they thought the afternoon sun had gotten to me. I am sure they had never seen anyone get so excited over a board. Before they had time to remove the first tiger plank, I impatiently turned over the adjacent one. Eureka—another one, as good as the first! On and on they came, more than 20 strong boards in all. Then it dawned on me that they were all from the same tree. Obviously, the mill sawed logs one at a time, so it made sense that a highly figured log would produce a consistent batch of tiger boards, whereas a weakly figured log would yield a mixture of figured and plain planks.

The other boards in the keeper pile paled in comparison to these newly discovered tiger boards. I almost wished I could put earlier picks back, but knew I would have a revolt among my co-workers if I even hinted at the possibility. First thing Wednesday morning we finished the remainder of the piles and discovered at least four more logs’ worth of highly figured boards. Our final tally was just over 1700 board feet in our keeper pile; enough to carry us through at least three to four months of our production schedule. But even more importantly, I decided that the right approach to securing our supply of tiger maple was to select figured logs before the mill processed them, and then have them sawn for maximum board width rather than yield. As we walked back to the main office, I mentioned this idea to Steve. He was uncertain how the sawmill would react, and suggested we find the foreman and discuss it with him.

We didn’t have to go looking for him; he found us, wanting to know how our undertaking went. We took the opportunity to show him several of the best tiger boards, emphasizing that this was the quality of tiger maple we were seeking. He nodded in understanding, but was quick to point out that obtaining such strong figure consistently might be a problem, since the incidence of incoming figured logs was unpredictable. He also mentioned that the way he motivated his employees to save the figured stock was to give them a little extra money based on the amount they found. Of course, the more they found the more money they made; not a great incentive program if your goal is to obtain only the most strongly figured wood.

I mentioned my idea of selecting incoming figured logs and cutting them for maximum board width. He indicated that it was possible, but only if we selected logs in the spring and early summer. It is virtually impossible to tell if a tree has figured grain with the bark still on the trunk. However, once the bark is removed, the undulating grain pattern is easily noticeable on the log’s surface. Evidently the bark is less solidly attached to trees harvested in the early spring. In fact, just the rough handling of the logs in the yard by log-moving equipment is enough to remove essentially all their bark. To illustrate his point, he took us to the log-receiving area to see if we could detect any logs with strong figure. Sure enough, we found one with striations so strong it resembled an oversized barber pole. Point made, we agreed that I would visit again in a couple of weeks to look through a new batch of incoming logs. In the meantime, the foreman assured us he would set aside any logs he thought were good candidates, starting with the one we had just discovered.

In about a month the kiln-dried wood from our “keeper pile” was delivered to our workshop. This time I knew what we were getting, and there was no disappointment when the load came off the truck. The stock allowed us to make our first full runs of tiger maple chests and highboys. We even made a small number of tiger maple porringer tables, Connecticut lowboys, and dish-top tea tables. At long last, we had established a way of reliably obtaining our most elusive stock—strong tiger maple.

I made several more trips north to select figured logs. The process was less than perfect, but adequate to supply us with our needs for the next few years. Over time we found that a combination of personally selecting logs and having the sawmill cull figured stock worked best. I like to think that Eldred Wheeler’s determination to offer a large variety of pieces in tiger maple helped create renewed interest in this beautiful figured wood. Interestingly enough, it was not too long after we began actively marketing selected products in tiger maple that numerous small cabinet shops also began offering furniture in tiger. Even more surprising, some large production houses added limited tiger maple selections to their lines. With suddenly increased demand for this wood, the sawmills naturally became more enthusiastic about culling it and then selling it for a premium. By the end of the 1980s tiger maple was almost plentiful, at least relative to its availability earlier in the decade. As Eldred Wheeler moved into the 1990s, we had secured several sources for the wood, although we continued to have logs custom-sawn in order to obtain the more than 13-inch-wide boards we needed for single-board slant lids for our desks and secretaries.

Wide, choice stock is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to obtain. Considering that tree trunks must have diameters of more than 20 inches to yield 10-to-11-inch-wide boards, one can easily understand the diminishing supply. While wood is a renewable resource, it takes decades for native hardwoods to achieve the size needed to produce suitable furniture-grade wide stock. Even eastern white pine, whose ubiquity has been taken for granted for so long, has become over-harvested. Wide pine that is mostly clear of knots is almost as expensive as cherry, and increasingly difficult to obtain.

Our forefathers’ pride and work ethic drove them to build pieces of lasting quality and beauty, and time has confirmed their success in achieving their objective. We like to believe that Eldred Wheeler’s craftsmen take similar pride in their work, which is reflected in every piece they make. But as important as it is, craftsmanship is not the ultimate foundation of our products’ quality and beauty. Wide, native stock, a treasured natural resource, is the real foundation of every piece we build. We feel entrusted to use this wonderful wood wisely, so that it will be available to future generations of craftsmen.