the Carpentry Way: The Word is Out: Waney                                                          

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.


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." 
"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.