Saturday, October 25, 2014

Identifying Wood Samples Through the USDA

Ok - This site is supposed to be just about making toys so please excuse the non-directly toy related post that follows.

For anyone not interested in my ramblings but needs to have some wood identified let me cut to the chase: If you are a US citizen you can submit up to five samples per calendar year to the Center for Wood Anatomy research and they will identify them for you for free.

Seriously. For free.

The mailing address is:
Center for Wood Anatomy Research
USDA Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory
One Gifford Pinchot Dr.
Madison, WI 53726-2398

All the details can be found here.
The preferred sample size is 1x3x6 but they can work with much smaller samples if needed. 
I sent the two samples above over the summer.
I got answers on my samples after about 6 or 7 weeks.

(Please note - Toy Making Dad is pretty much a small government type but every once in a while, some free cheese tastes awfully good. This is a fantastic service provided by incredibly talented and knowledgeable people who work for us. It really is amazing that this service is available to all of us and when you look at their site and see the depth of knowledge available to us, it is impressive.)

And now my ramblings about the samples I submitted...

I'm mostly interested in making wooden toys. There is something about them. A certain indefinable quality one might say. They have so much character and yes, at times they seem alive in a way that a plastic toy never can. (Although I do think stuffed animals share the same qualities... maybe the whole organic origin piece.)

This shouldn't come as a shock to most of you but there are a lot of different kinds of wood out there because well, there are tens of thousands of species of trees out there. Each variety has different characteristics and you need to take advantage of some of those characteristics (How hard it is, how easy to work it is, its cost and availability etc) and know when to avoid certain species (Is it too soft or brittle. Is it toxic, cursed by wood demons etc) The problem is that for the average dude or dudette weekend work worker, identifying wood can be very difficult. If it didn't come off a clearly labeled shelf, you either have to trust whoever gave it to you or you have to become very familiar with identifying wood on your own. The only way to do that last piece is through experience working with and getting to know a large variety of wood through years of practice.

That or you can cheat and just mail it to the government.

Which is exactly what I did. (See above.)

Well, the whole point of this exercise is that I recently acquired a very modest stash of a couple different types of mystery wood.

Sample 1 - A friend of mine had to have her beautiful hard wood floor ripped up because a small patch of it had been ruined by a leaky fridge. It was an insurance company thing. They couldn't match and replace just part of it so it all had to come out. She had been told it was "Brazilian Walnut." It is very hard and reasonably expensive. She hated to see it all go to waste so I got a big shelf of it in various sizes FOR FREE! (The rest was donated to a charity that will be able to re-use it. Part of my stash will find its way into the claws of a certain fresh water crustacean over at Crawls Backward When Alarmed.) 

So the first thing I find in my research is that "Brazilian Walnut" is basically the "Chilean Sea Bass" of the flooring world. It is more of a brand/marketing name than a species identification. It is a variety of Ipe (pronounced e-pay) - a legendarily hard, durable, blade killing variety of wood.

Each piece has a highly finished side (remember, it is a floor board) and around the back very shallow grooves. Well, the finish gets taken off courtesy of an 80 grit belt on "Bob the Belt Sander" and I begin to practice my hand planing skills on the back to deal with the grooves since I do not have a power planer. (Bob also lent a hand to the backs.) Boys and girls... wear a dust mask and run the vac when sanding this stuff.

Front Before and After

Back Before and After

On a side note - I have A LOT to learn about hand planes. I removed a fair amount of material but also took too many divots out of the wood by being impatient. I have three different hand planes right now and learning to use them on Ipe may be the equivalent of teaching a 16 year old to drive on a Formula One car but hey, I gotta learn. I can read about it or I can do it. All things in time and with practice. I do have to say, it is incredibly satisfying working with hand tools like this. It gives me a taste of why people like Roy Underhill and Chris Schwarz are so passionate about hand tools.

Sample 2 - A week later I was at an architectural recycling and salvage warehouse. Standing out in a pile of trim and miscellaneous boards was the sturdiest board I think I've ever came across. The board was about 7’ long and 5 3/8” wide, and just short of an inch thick. It had grooves cut down both sides. It looks to me like this was a high end exterior decking board that was never installed. I was super impressed with the weight and had NO idea what it was. I took it to the checkout and walked out the door with $2 less in my wallet. Not too shabby.

It has a lighter shade of brown than the "Brazilian Walnut." It has a different feel than the floor boards. It is thicker and does not have the high gloss finish of it the other wood.

These grooves down the sides were the clue that told me this was a high end decking board - there are special fasteners that link the boards with the grooves.

So just to close the loop, I cleaned them up and sent the samples to the Center for Wood Anatomy research and eagerly awaited the reply. Honestly, I was bit like Ralphie in A Christmas Story checking the mailbox every day for his decoder ring. Anyway, the letter arrived and it was a bit anti climatic but fit everything I'd seen:

Sample one (the floor boards) Tabebuia sp (probably T. impetiginosa)
Sample two (the beck board) Tabebuia sp.

In short - both samples were Ipe.

When it comes to wood, I'm pretty much inexperienced with anything except for pine, red oak and a little bit of cherry. I couldn't believe how HEAVY and dense this wood seemed. If you don't know about the Janka Scale, take a moment and check it out. It is used to measure the hardness of wood varieties. The higher the number, the harder the wood.

So for example:
Douglas Fir - 660
Cherry - 950
Red Oak - 1290
Ipe -3680

Yeah... so almost three times as hard as red oak. Time to learn how to sharpen my tools.


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While we don’t necessarily need more objects, we just might benefit from more making.
- John Dunnigan


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Regular guy who likes to make stuff who lives with a very patient wife, three daughters and three cats.