Family tree

What is it about old, handed-down wood that appeals to us so much? You could mention a lot of reasons, but there’s really only one: It’s cool.

Last October, I told you about some walnut boards a friend gifted me that his dad had milled years ago. For some reason, that wood seems better than other wood. All other things being equal, common sense tells you that as long as it’s been dried correctly and seasoned properly, recently milled wood isn’t much different from wood milled a few decades ago.

But for some reason – again, with all other things like wood quality, good grain, clear of knots and defects, etc. – old wood that’s passed through a few hands has a certain cachet new wood can’t match. In the case of that walnut I got last fall, it was milled by one woodworker, handed down to another (his son), and then given to a third, namely me. Somehow, I feel that a bit of the essence of the first two woodworkers rubbed off on that wood while in their possession, and it comes to me far more ready for the creative process than something from a local supplier.

I visited a shop in central West Virginia last Friday for an article I’m working on, and the shop owner had a walnut log standing upright next to his band saw. Measuring 4 or 5 feet high and a foot in diameter, it was destined to become a gunstock, with whatever was left over becoming turning blanks. When I asked how old it was, he had to stop and do some math. A woodworker friend had given it to him 10 years ago. That woodworker, who’d had it in his shop for a decade, got it from a local farmer who had been storing it in his barn for 25 years after harvesting it on his land. So, that locally harvested log has taken a 45-year journey in its creative process.

And in a nutshell, that’s probably why we like old, hand-me-down wood so much. We know where it came from, how it got there, where it’s been since and, now that it’s in our possession, what it’ll eventually become – pretty much its entire history.

You can’t even say that about wood from a good supplier, much less a Big Box store.



  • Craig says:

    This year a lady that works at our school asked us if we would be interested in “a lot” of wood that her father had storing in his barns. He wanted to give it to the school if we would be able to use it. Her definition and our definition of a lot of wood was quite different. The only condition that he had is that the kids would be able to use it to make projects out of at a reasonable price.

    We went to check it out and it turned out that there was about 8,000 bf of wood (hickory, sycamore, cedar, oak, walnut, and chestnut). Of course we said we would be interested in it and would give him a document on letterhead stating its value so he would be able to write it off on his taxes (he wasn’t so much interested in the donation value as seeing that kids could use it to make projects).

    Like you said we think it is better wood than we could get from the supplier we normally use. We know the history. It was harvested from his farm (which he inherited from the DuPont family) and has been sitting around for over 30 years. The grain looks better, has fewer knots, and better color.

    Most of the wood is 5/4 however about 1/8th of it is at least 8/8 and some goes up to 16/4 and there are some boards that are 24 inches wide (and that isn’t through the center).

  • John Murphy says:

    I recently turned some walnut into stile and rail Passage doors that I had been sitting on for ten years. My dad had gone along with my grandfather to a farmers place when my dad was 5 years old.My grandfather bought some walnut that the farmer said was forty year old a the time.My dad died at 86. It took 3 generations and a farmer to turn this would in to something.

  • Alex says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I have a small cache of interesting wood that my late Father collected for me. I recently pulled out a piece of Kentucky Coffee Tree and made a handle for one of my lathe tools. I’ll be reminded of him every time I use it.

    Alex Pettigrew
    Pettigrew Woodworks

  • Gary Schmidt says:

    I inherited some white oak that Dad had intended to use to rebuild his grand-dad’s 1870’s cider press. He had had it about 25 or 30 years since he had it cut on a steam powered mill at a local antique agricultural show in Stonington Il. Dad cut the logs on his place. My intentions are to make a traditional woodworkers bench with the lumber so , like Alex , I will think of Dad every day I use it. Gary Schmidt, Gary Schmidt Woodworking

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