Heart, Heart and Hand

My latest little journey did not take me far from home. Last week I made a trip over to Gennett Lumber, located in the old warehouse and railroad district next to the French Broad River flowing north through Asheville. I was headed there to pick up the lumber for the picture frames I make for the participants in the Stains, Dyes & Finishes Workshop that Dennis Bertucci teaches each year at the Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Conference.

Like most of our workshops, the participants leave with an actual item they have made. Head, Heart and Hand, right? The embroiderers work on an Arts & Crafts handbag designed by Ann Chaves, the metalsmiths on a piece of sterling silver jewelry or hammered copper bookmark supplied by Ron VanOstrand, the tile and vase decorators with a tile or vase made by Peg Morar that they carve, and the stains and dyes participants with an Arts & Crafts frame for their conference poster.

There’s nothing fancy about Gennett Lumber, especially in the winter. Its a large, brick and concrete block warehouse, probably sixty feet wide by more than a hundred feet long, filled with stacks of rough-sawn lumber: mahogany, bird’s eye maple, cherry, red oak, chestnut, hard maple and my favorite – quartersawn white oak.

Fumes from the three forklifts taint the air, as they scurry from stack to stack, arranging and rearranging massive piles of wood. Six men, all wearing heavy coats to protect them against the winter wind that whips through the warehouse each time the overhead doors open to allow a truck to enter, also wear ear plugs to save what hearing they have left from the shrieking, cast-iron planers.

The small pile of quartersawn white oak I came seeking is stacked over in a far corner. I grab a low, flat handcart with iron wheels and awkwardly push it over to the wood. At first glance the boards are not very impressive. Each is about nine feet long, eight inches wide and more than an inch thick. ‘Rough’ is putting it mildly. These heavy boards can soon shred a pair of leather gloves.

But when you peer closely at them, you can just make out the classic flakes of flat grain running diagonally across each board. Botanists know them as medullary rays. My grandmother called the dramatic stripes by their more common name, ‘tiger oak.’

Once I had selected the boards I needed, the crew went into action, taking their practiced positions around the squat, cast-iron planer. As the first board emerged at the opposite side, its once rough surface now as smooth as a piece of glass, the quartersawn rays literally gleamed in the light. As I ran my fingertips over the top board, one of the crew leaned over and shouted above the din, “That’s the best quartersawn white oak we’ve ever seen. Came from Indiana.”

I had am immediate flashback. I could recall reading one of Gustav Stickley’s catalog introductions in which he said that some of the finest quartersawn white oak used in his Craftsman Workshops had also come from the forests of Indiana.

And, then, I could imagine him and his crew standing over a freshly-planed stack of white oak in their cold, brick warehouse next to the railroad siding on the outskirts of Syracuse. Naturally, Gus would have been explaining to his younger workers what medullary rays were and why they were so important to the furniture they were about to make with these boards, the same furniture we each cherish and admire today, due, in no small part, to the quartersawn flakes that provide the only decoration Arts & Crafts furniture ever really needs.

Until next Monday,


PS – In addition to Dennis Bertucci’s workshop and demonstrations at the Grove Park Inn, woodworker Chuck Connor will also be explaining how quartersawn oak is cut and demonstrating how – and why – Arts & Crafts furniture makers highlighted the dramatic rays.

For more information on the conference workshops (seating is limited!), go to http://www.arts-craftsconference.comwww.Arts-Craftsconference.com