One thing is for sure. Author Spike Carlsen doesn’t take wood for granted. And after reading A Splintered History of Wood, neither should anyone who works with wood.
Since it is a splintered history, Carlsen describes dozens of unusual and unrelated applications and processes, from chainsaw carving to wood pipes, kite construction and an interview with former president and current woodworker Jimmy Carter.
Is a compendium of wood’s many uses, some well-known and expected, others as obscure as the rarest species. Carlsen looks at the basics of wood, such as weight and density, color, figure, how trees and wood developed, and the business of logging the industrial forest.
Baseball bats, golf clubs, pool cues and the rise and fall of wood tennis rackets are all covered. The author even tries his luck in the belt sander races (in Mt. Horeb, Wis., not Las Vegas).
Don’t know much about barrels? Carlsen offers a detailed look at the history and techniques involved in barrelmaking, the traditions of the cooper, and even a barrel of debate. (The French insist their barrels are better made.)
The book hits a musical note with descriptions of wood in violins, how guitars and pianos are made (with a detailed section on Steinway pianos) and a visit to the National Music Museum.
Another chapter is dedicated to weapons made of wood, and Carlsen has a special affection for catapults. (Google the words “catapult” and “fun” together to see how many results you get, he advises.) He also writes about wood warships (and white pine masts) and the longbow, from 1415 to today. Preferred species for longbows: Osage orange.
Don’t forget Howard Hughes’s giant Spruce Goose, which was actually mostly birch and was intended to serve as a flying cargo ship that could cross the Atlantic safely during World War II.
Wood plays a major role in the gondolas of Venice and Venice itself, which is perched on thousands of wood pilings.
The “Miraculous Staircase” at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, N.M., which I saw a couple of weeks after reading the book, is a wood double-helix stairway was built by an unknown carpenter and makes two 360-degree turns with no visible support.
Carlsen also covers some of the less romantic uses for wood, such as construction and structural lumber, along with a list of products in which wood plays a role. Some are obvious (pens and pencils) and some not (ping pong balls and cosmetics).
There isn’t much about woodworking equipment, but there is an interview about and description of the SawStop table saw (along with a brief history of saws).
If you work with wood every day there are likely to be dozens of things you didn’t know about in the book.
And then there’s the role of wood in solving the Lindbergh kidnapping…
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