Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Word is Out: Waney

Waney: adj. (of a sawn timber) having a wane or wanes, i.e., cut so near the outside of the log that the timber lacks a squared edge on at least one side.

How about that word 'wane' then?

Wane: a defect in a plank characterized by bark or insufficient wood at a corner or along an edge, due to the piece being cut near the outer circumference of the log. Oxford English Dictionary cites the first use of the word wane in that sense to have occurred in the 17th century.

Derivation: from old English wana, meaning 'defect' or 'shortage'. Ultimately traces to the Germanic root wano~ (defect), and before that Old Norse vanr, 'lacking'. Digging deeper, we find the Latin root vānus, which means 'empty', 'vacant', 'unsubstantial', 'deceptive', 'untrustworthy'. The Latin in turn derives from Proto-Indo-European wān~, meaning 'empty'.

Coming forward from the Latin vānus, we obtain the modern word vain, that is, 'overly proud', 'of little substance', or 'effecting no purpose'. Here's where one can pick up a bit of bonus French as well, as the word 'vain' in French similarly means 'useless', 'ineffective', 'fruitless', and 'shallow'.

A picture of a stack of boards which have waney edges:


Pic taken from a timber supplier's site in the UK.

A stack as shown above, is from a log sawn in a manner termed boule cut. That's a word for another day. A board may be sawn and cleaned up to have a square edge which runs out partway along and shows the curved edge of the tree trunk - that portion would be a waney edge as well.

Commentary.

It's too bad that the term 'waney' is not more widely known among those who work with wood or sell products made from wood. In this era of hackneyed Nakashima table knock-offs, the term one most often encounters to describe waney board is 'live edge'. I've always thought this term a bit, well, idiotic. Why? Well, for starters if there is a thing we call a 'live' edge, then what exactly would a 'dead' edge be? If the term is meant to suggest 'live' in the sense of the 'growing edge of the tree', there is a slight problem with that concept as lumber, once it has been converted from the log and dried, is no longer 'alive'. Wood is no more alive than a cotton shirt, a page in a book, or a dish sponge.

The term 'live edge' seems to be adored by the marketing community.  I came across the following descriptions for pieces made in this way on the Custommade website:

"The feeling is pure, the look is impressive, and the selection is truly one of a kind." 
And,
"With live edge furniture, the beauty of nature is brought to light in its purest form."

Ah, I feel like standing under a waterfall and washing my armpits with Irish Spring soap. The above descriptions flow in and around a photo montage of what I presume to be pre-cat lacquer sprayed slabs of wood with unimaginative underpinnings in most cases - often table supports are simply bent and/or welded metal plate stock, etc.. Well, I do get it: take a slab of wood, run it through the wide belt, 'soften' the edges to avoid the lawsuits, spray on the plastic, stick it on some sort of generic base, and voila! a table is born.  The wood sells the piece for you. I'll avoid posting pictures of examples - they are by no means hard to find. Minimal craftsmanship is required, the work is completed in but a few days, and you can charge thousands for this stuff. The words 'sustainable' and 'local' can be appended. The client gets a 'dramatic showpiece' - everybody's happy, right?

In most of the older carpentry texts with a glossary where the word 'waney' is listed, it is invariably a term to characterize a defect in lumber. It's not a benefit. It associates to what some would call an overly-economical conversion of wood, and denotes the presence of sapwood. While sapwood, when dry, is as strong as heartwood, it remains higher in sugars than the heart and thus is more attractive to boring insects, fungi, and other pests. Not the best choice in general when the idea is to make things that are durable. On the positive side of the ledger, sapwood does absorb preservatives more easily, which perhaps partially explains the wide use of sapwood-containing lumber by the decking industry.

That said, in this modern world of plastic extrusions and glossy smoothness in most manufactured goods, to see an object which has a strong visual tie to the natural world, as a waney board connects to the tree trunk, is appealing to a lot of people. a waney edge appeals to me visually as well, however I avoid using sapwood in anything I make if at all possible. There are lots of options for molding and shaping an edge, though I must confess I find it a challenging design detail to sort out sometimes. A waney edged plank does relieve the designer of the trouble of coming up with an edge profile, though judiciously easing a waney edge, which can be a bit sharp in places, or of bark inclusions, etc., is a tricky matter in its own right. I've seen a fair few  - well, lots of - waney edged table pieces in which the edge has been rather vigorously gone over with abrasives until it has become little more than a vague blob of an edge. And if the maker leaves the edge all raw and convoluted, I wonder how the client keeps that dusted and clean?



(above image from Stylehive).

And I'll leave aside the issue of the near-inevitable warpage that eventually occurs with flat-sawn material.

While, as I mentioned, I do 'get it', on the other hand I really don't get it.

18 comments:

  1. Actually, the above image from Stylehive looks good to me. The contrast between polished and raw works. Generally, though, I am of a similar mind as you on the topic.
    I like your phrase "vague blob of an edge"!

    For me sapwood can be incorporated in the composition of edge glued boards to good effect. Some pieces I've made are the stronger, visually speaking, for it. Again, restraint and intention are called for.

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    1. Tico,

      good to hear from you. While I like a tension between contrasting aspects in a piece, not so much in that one illustrated on the blog. There are plenty of other ways that tension can be developed and played with.

      I've used sapwood on just one piece before - Walnut sapwood to make kumiko on a Black Walnut vanity. I felt it would match the texture of the rest of the piece's material well, and was a little 'stealthy'. Had I had a better material substitute in a similar color available to me, I would have used it in preference to the sapwood, and in any case, would avoid such a move nowadays.

      ~C

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  2. To be fair when lumber is sawn through or in the boule it is not waney by definition, it merely has a bark edge and is yet to be edged. When the material becomes dimensioned stock and is edged if there is bark left on or a rounded corner then it would be referred to as waney because then something is lacking from the full dimension.My father used to say that you could always tell jack pine lumber as it was waney on all 4 corners, or as he said it "Weenie".

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    1. Mike,

      nothing unfair intended. Interesting point about what sort of edge to call waney or not. I think that any board edge, whether entirely or partially with wane can be called waney. I would agree that the matter is clearer I suppose when the board has been trimmed up and just a portion of the edge is waney - shows the insufficiency. I'd still describe those boule cut boards as waney though.

      If there is to be a term 'natural' edge, then does that render any other form of edge treatment as 'unnatural'? I suppose technically speaking the answer would be 'yes' but it would seem a funny descriptor to apply.

      There's nothing wrong with the term waney - it's just not a commonly-known piece of vocabulary.

      Thanks for your comments!

      ~Chris

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  3. To finish my thought I believe "Natural" edge is probably a better descriptor than "Live" or I have also heard "Free" edge for this type of edge treatment as it is an edge provide by nature. Whether one likes it or not is a matter of personal taste.

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  4. Chris,

    It seems like calligraphy in some respects. If you want some character drawn with a high degree of naturalness, you might best ask a zen monk with his lack of self consciousness, to do it. With the inherent wood edges, it seems a similar situation, where the odd partners of restraint and giving yourself over to the moment, can allow the best effect, rather than being so planned or calculated. Some folks don't even think about their Buddha nature, so in that lies a potential to do it well. Unfortunately, the possibly pleasing result is too easily led astray from harmony, with self reflection or a can of Varathane.

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  5. Are slabs " boards"? I think not. And not all Natural Edge is disireable. There really is only a couple good slabs on either side of the pith anyhoo. It's a near quater cut, you need to sit on the material for five years or more to let it settle down, many woods make fine slab tables. Wane, a common word in New England amongst carpenters and woodworkers. It is the bit of natural edge that was left from edging at the mill site. So the natural edge on a slab is most definitely not the same wane is on rough dimension lumber. Some woods you certainly do use the sap wood such as Pine and maple, there are plenty others as well. Live edge, natural edge....the Japanese would see the spirit the great massive slab,I don't find it hard to imagine. If live edge gives something more life, let it shine.
    Correy

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    1. Well, hmm. Interesting.

      What separates the 'boards' from the 'slabs' then? According to Corkhill's Dictionary of wood, a 'board' is:

      "Applied to converted softwoods over 4" wide and less than 2" thick, and to hardwoods of any width and up to 5/4 thick."

      By that definition, a large portion of those 'slab' tables out there are made with a 'board', or two in some cases.

      Websters says a 'board' is:

      "1. a piece of wood sawed thin and of considerable length and breadth compared with the thickness. 2. a flat slab of wood or other material for a specific purpose....7. a table, esp. to serve food on..."

      And Chambers says a board is:

      "...a long and wide, comparatively thin strip of timber; a table..."

      So those two major regular dictionaries give defs. for a board more or less hanging on what 'thin' is, and the relationship between length width and thickness, without giving specifics. So, Corkhill's definition is perhaps the most useful in this case.

      And Corkhill's definition of 'slab'?:

      "1. The outer irregular pieces left from squaring a log, or the pieces cut away when preparing a handrail wreath, etc.. 2. A thin piece cut from a board in boxmaking."

      The other dictionaries cited above consider a 'slab' to be the outer pieces, planks, sawn from a log, or a thick slice of any material. So, again, what does 'thick' mean exactly? These terms thick and thin are relative.

      While 'slab tables' may be the term currently in vogue, the semantic difference between the use of the word 'board' and 'slab' is a bit subjective, and certainly calling a large table top made from a slice of a large tree a 'board' is not unreasonable.

      I think that while your sense of 'waney' is confined, like reader Mike above, to a sense of boards that have been squared and have but a portion of the outer portion of the tree remaining, other folk out there consider waney to apply to that irregular outer edge, even running the full length of the board. Do a search under the term "waney edge board" and you will see what I mean. So, describing a "natural edge on a slab" as 'waney' is perfectly legitimate.

      When I do these word hunts, I consider the word's usage in other countries besides the US, and there turn out to be interesting semantic differences, occasional significant differences in meaning or even cases where a word exists in Britain but not the US and vice versa. when I write the account, I try to take that all into account and be as thorough as can be. There are plenty of readers here from the British Isles, Australia, Canada, and those countries have their own language nuances which I want to include. I hope that makes good sense to you.

      Thanks for your comment.

      ~C

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  6. Given the definitions, would it be improper to introduce irregularity and call it "waney". A torch and then wire brushed can leave a pleasing effect on an edge, both adding some contrasting color and a softening form to what might otherwise be a hard edge. I have done it many times, and so far nobody has questioned whether it is authentic or not. Perhaps waney by appearance but not by actual fact? It proposes a bit of a dilemma as to whether the word applies.

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    1. Dennis,

      thanks for your comments. I would tend to say that waney refers generally to an irregular edge of sapwood on a timber, the irregularity completely natural. Of course, in many cases that natural form is then worked over by the maker, either to soften sharp spots, remove torn fibers, or extend the wane over a section of the board which lacks it, etc..

      I imagine there are people simulating the waney edge entirely, applying it to completely edge-trimmed, sapwood-free stock. And then of course there are the Japanese practices of binding a tree trunk to create a specific kind of surface, so the edge of a board sliced from such a log would be in a curious sort of in-between zone, both natural and man-made at once.

      It seems to me that any edge which has been significantly modified from the raw, fresh off the log state would not be waney, but perhaps 'textured' (?). I feel that any edge which is made to look waney but is not actually sapwood cannot truly be called waney. I guess we need a new word for that. There's a bit of a gray area there to be sure, hovering around the words 'significant' and 'modified' - kind of like the unspecific nature of the terms 'thin' and 'thick'. There certainly are abundant options for modifying a board edge in an irregular fashion, many of which create beautiful results.

      ~C

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  7. Hi Chris,

    The 'live edge' nomenclature, I agree is more for the effect and feeling it elicits, rather than for descriptive accuracy. My guess is that in descriptive terms, it may have been chosen to describe the liveliness of the edge. But, as I said, that's unlikely to be its main function.

    As for the aesthetic merits of incorporating natural edges in furniture, I think there are some. Much like using ornate grain and figure in furniture design, a natural edge is one, very strong, way of reminding us of the exact nature of the material at hand. In some extreme cases, the presence of figure (for the aesthetic value that it adds) means compromises in structural integrity (e.g. with burls). In such cases, the design (structure, joinery, etc) has to take this into account (e.g. burl might be used for accents only, or as - take a deep breath, Chris - veneer). Similarly, using a board's live edge as part of the design, requires similar structural considerations (as in the example where boule slices are used). One possibility for wide boards is to rip them in 2 or 3 pieces to relieve some of the cupping issues and reglue. Done judiciously, the effects can be good. This is but one example, of course.

    I think the trick with using a live edge is know how and how much of it to use. This sort of thing (http://www.jdlohrwood.com/Free_Form_Live_Edge_Console_Table.jpg) looks ghastly to me, because it's busy, loud, has no balance and makes the same point 100 times (not to mention it's caked in plastic). A bit like an overly made-up person or a dessert with too many sweet elements. Something like this (http://www.galere.net/pics/prodimg-417.jpg) on the other hand, (yes, by THAT maker) is more successful with its aesthetic balance. The geometric base offers contrast to the fluidity of the top's edge and I find that pleasing (which, to some extent, is subjective, of course). The edge, in combination with the grain in the centre and base, the colour, the texture etc add layers of, let's call it information, about the material. They add layers of interest, visible and appreciable at different distances and with different senses.

    In any case, I wanted to say I really like your word posts. Great stuff, as we've come to expect from this place!

    cheers,
    Tassos

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    1. Hey Tassos, long time no hear. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      That first link indeed led to a ghastly piece (did you have to do that to me so early in the a.m.? :^)), while the second, to a Nakashima piece, well, definitely better. I think that when the overall form of a piece suggests ease of manufacture, and a golden sales opportunity, there are going to be plenty of knock-offs. That's what has happened to Nakashima's work, not that the table form was his creation by any stretch, but he was certainly the popularizer of the form. And I think in this culture the nuances are frequently blurred and what ploughs through is the drama of a big honking slice of a tree. I think many folks see that and not much else, and indeed, it's one of the reasons why the legs on those tables are frequently little more than an afterthought, an undesired source of competition for the tabletop. So while I agree with your sentiments about the waney edge adding layers of interest, information, those messages get drowned out by the rest and the viewer is often not sensitive to these fine points. I imagine that for a maker of tables with waney edges who is sensitive to these points there must be considerable irritation with all the knock-offs they must contend with, made by those shops simply out to cash in on a trend who could care less about the nuances.

      I think that ripping a wide board so as to relieve the cupping stresses, then rejoint and re-glue is a wise idea. I was at a furniture show a few years back and an exhibitor right across from me had a 12' long walnut table with a 4' wide natural-edge top. Squatting down, One could clearly see daylight at the edges of the table support battens from the board having curled upwards crosswise. And that is happening in walnut, an exceptionally stable material in most cases otherwise. I don't think most buyers notice such things though, they're too wowed by the big honking slab of meat and too unaware of how wood will move to resolve stresses and respond to changes in humidity.

      ~C

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    2. Hi Chris,

      I read your post with care every time they appear. The lack of commenting is partly a byproduct of my browser not allowing posting (the various extensions I have to block advertising and other undesirable elements also seem to mess up with the commenting system here, which means I have to turn on my IE to do so...) and partly the result of having too much on my plate.

      What you say makes a lot of sense to me. It's true for a lot of things, too. Many folks miss the nuances or even the main point very often, so tend to focus on the wrong elements, or to focus on the right elements wrongly. What I have always appreciated about Nakashima is that he had a good sense of design balance. Not to say that I like ALL his work. I am not a huge fan of his burl-top tables. There, the live edge appears too busy to me.

      To disclose fully, I am currently (and for a while; see above comment on plate fullness) working on a walnut dining table based on Nakashima design. It's a copy, if I am honest, to the best of my copying abilities from what I could gather from various photos, sketches etc. If you're curious, here's some info: http://artefactual.org/2012/01/17/new-beginnings/ and http://artefactual.org/2012/01/29/nakashima-dining-table-pt-1-preparing-the-cleats/
      I have done more work since then, but haven't written about it yet.

      I would welcome your, critical, I hope, comments.

      cheers,
      Tassos

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    3. Copying Nakashima's designs is one thing, but better to not allow yourself to also fall for the myth of the individual. George was an angry and selfish man, and his unhappiness with the world was also expressed in the preface of his book, written by someone that knew him, and it coincides with the impression that he left on a number of people with whom he also had contact with over the years. Sad that someone that had achieved such acclaim and commercial success, never also had the capacity to want to be supportive of other woodworkers. He also offered little in the way of thanks to the traditions from Japan that he utilized. It went so far as to upset some craftsmen from that country. He wanted all the success for himself. The truth be told, he was a bitter little man.

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  8. Tassos,

    I'm afraid I have a low opinion of the 'Conoid' style of tables and chairs. I think they are of dubious structural merit. People often lean on table edges, and push down on them when they stand up from the table, and all that load is being concentrated on a central pillar, the table edge effectively a cantilever. Eventually, the joint will work loose and compression set will occur, and the joint will degrade in integrity. I think it is a risky design, and given the relative young age of the piece, hardly what I would call time-tested and proven. I would say the same about the Conoid chairs.

    Dennis,

    it's curious how often the case it is that those who are charismatic and who often inspire a lot of people are themselves damaged inside in some way. I wonder how much of his anger came from being interned?

    It was remarkable how much success he had in the 1950's, a time so close upon the end of the second world war, when anti-Japanese sentiment would still have been strong in the US. An improbable story in certain respects, but it is evident he had some sense of how to develop his brand, something many commercial woodworkers have no clue about or desire to cultivate.

    ~Chris

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  9. Dennis (Young, right?),
    I have no real opinion on the man himself. I've read a few things he has written; some of it has merit. I have also read things about him that mirror what you say. I am, frankly, more interested in woodworking and I happen to like some of his designs and approaches.

    Chris,
    That's the sort of comment I was expecting. I can't say much about the cantilevered chairs other than I don't find them appealing. I remember you sat on one at a museum a few years ago, right? What was your impression, structurally? It must have seen a fair amount of traffic, but then again, it must have also been under the close eyes of the curators.
    For the table leg design, I agree with you. I am uncertain how it will cope with the leaning of elbows and pushing of hands. You say it is a young design; would it not be considered a variant of the trestle table? They've been around for a few hundred years at least.

    Keeping these issues in mind, I have the intention of using reversible joinery, so future repairs are possible. Hot hide glue and drawboring to connect the pillars to the tabletop braces. I hope that the size of the elements and the reversability of the joints will ensure a long life. We shall see. At the moment the biggest enemy of this table is lack of time to build it, not lack of structural strength :)

    best to both of you,
    Tassos

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    1. Tassos,

      thanks for the follow-up.

      " I remember you sat on one at a museum a few years ago, right? What was your impression, structurally? It must have seen a fair amount of traffic, but then again, it must have also been under the close eyes of the curators."

      It creaked. There are other Nakashima chairs in the museum, really low ones, which do not creak (at least not yet).

      I'm not crazy about trestle tables regardless, however I imagine there is some relationship between the size and strength of the connection between post and batten, and the effective cantilever obtained by the width of the table top that would provide a decent long term stable set up.

      Trestle sawhorses, on the other hand, do not have a wide top so no cantilevering can occur, except in cases where there is a lot of weight on the horse and the piece gets dragged laterally, in which circumstance the lower joint is the one gets stressed a fair bit.

      Tables and sawhorses with 3- or 4-point leg support are much better in terms of structural stability, especially if the legs are splayed to some extent. Any time you triangulate the base you obtain a significant improvement in stiffness by virtue of geometry alone.

      ~C

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  10. Interesting post Chris. As you may know I have been a fan of natural edged pieces for many years and it has been my main focus as a furniture maker. Those times are passing me by. So many makers here in the Mid West are using fantastic flitches to build ugly furniture. It's ashame that most of what I see is done very poorly and assembled with cleats and screws vs using good joinery.

    From what I have heard George Nakashima also used poor joinery in his furniture as well, cleats screws etc. Another reason I no longer have the interest in making these type of pieces is because most see it as rustic furniture. This really began to bother me since I tend design in contemporary style. Enclosed are a couple links to recent work for example: http://twitpic.com/3ch200 http://twitpic.com/ap2bvr To me these pieces don't look rustic in design yet that how others view them.

    Anyway, I'm moving on from the natural edged work and working more on developing my own style. Also interesting to read Dennis's comments on George Nakashima, I too felt he was a bitter man.

    Take Care

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