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Some friends of mine are getting married in the fall and I want to make them something more unique than a set of martini glasses.

I got this idea to make bookends for them out of solid blocks of green wood--something simple as I'm a relative novice, likely either cubes 4" or so, or maybe longer blocks or rounds from a branch. My thinking is that as the wood dries, it will crack/warp, revealing a character that's unique to the block of wood and the environment in which it is kept. My basic question is, will this work?

I've never worked with green wood before and so I have a couple other questions:

  • Will blocks that big change the way I want them to? I understand that thinner boards will warp and crack, but will the changes on something this thick (4+ inches) be noticeable?
  • Are there certain features of the wood (grain, location in the log, etc) that I should look for when picking out blocks to shape? Is there a way to sort of predict how the wood will change as it dries (everything I've seen is for planks, but I want to use something thicker)?
  • Do certain woods have more movement than others? I'm located in the mid-Atlantic, and ideally it'd be something native to the region.
  • Ideally, these pieces would be something that are constantly changing over the life of my friends' marriage, but I know that at some point the wood will become stable. Is there any way to slow the drying process down so that it takes years instead of months?
  • Has anyone done this sort of thing or worked with green wood and can give me some pointers/tips?
  • In essence this should work fine, but the problem is you don't know how any block will crack. It is possible for them to split entirely leaving two pieces, not one piece with interesting/unique cracks. Since you have plenty of lead time you could make a bunch and cherrypick the best two..... however, why start with green wood in the first place when seasoned wood would be so much a surer bet? As long as you're not using a really tough species seasoned wood isn't a complete bear to work with, both American black walnut and cherry are two good candidates among the hardwoods. – Graphus supports Monica Jul 23 at 18:59
  • Maybe, maybe not. You won't know until....you know. Still, sounds like it could be a pretty cool gift. – Greg Nickoloff Jul 23 at 19:28
  • Thanks to you both! I didn't realize that it could split all the way, though I guess it makes sense. (I'll have to make sure to tell them that whatever happens is not a omen for their marriage though). I want to use green wood so that it's kind of a "living" piece, I want the changes to happen after I give it to them. I like the contrast between a perfect cube (or as close as I can make it) and the imperfections arising over time, to remind them that no matter how hard we try, nature will always have her way. (Sorry for the formatting, I'm new here and trying to figure out mobile) – SoNamu Jul 24 at 1:39
  • No need to apologise for the formatting, anything that makes a long Question easier to digest is a good thing (in preference to a Wall Of Text which is fairly common). However, one thing about here is that each Question should basically ask one thing, I count five follow-on queries after the main one which is asking too much of potential responders. The idea here is that ideally each major query should have its own Question (and it's fine to ask multiples at one time) but that's IF it hasn't been asked previously, SE doesn't allow duplicates, so searching first is important. – Graphus supports Monica Jul 24 at 6:37
  • Understood, and appreciate the advice. Everything I've seen (both here and on the wider net) is about avoiding the changes in green wood that I'm looking to encourage (or at least preserve). – SoNamu Jul 24 at 15:36
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Full disclosure: much of this Answer is going to be hand-waving, because no one (especially strangers on the internet) really knows how a particular chunk of wood will react to unknown environments over time. There is experience that can be gained that will suggest how these materials change over time, but this will only go so far. This is not to dissuade you from your idea! Just be prepared to change your approach as you learn.

It looks like you are interested in working these blocks to the desired shape green, and then letting them check and split a little before stabilizing them. This is not an unknown process, given the prevalence of "live-edge" carpentry these days.

Green wood can be easier to work with, as it is soft and forgiving. So, there is no reason you couldn't work these pieces to the desired shape while green. You could even soak the pieces in water to slow the drying while you work on them. Just change the water regularly.

Remember that the finished product may end up a different shape, and a little smaller than where it starts. So factor this into your design. Or be prepared to be surprised.

Ok, so now you have two pieces of wood shaped to some desired profile. Now you want to creatively "cure" it. This means time; perhaps even weeks. Let's assume you have weeks to wait. It may be better to control the drying so it is slower. I'm not sure how you might easily do this, but I've heard of turners (etc.) placing pieces in plastic bags to retard the drying process. This might be a place for more research or experimentation.

As they dry, they will check and split, and maybe they will split all the way through. Since wood is a natural product it is hard to predict how it will move as it dries. But, assuming it dries into some profile you like, now you can consider how to stabilize the pieces.

There are many wood stabilizers out there, and some folks even make it themselves with stuff like polyethylene glycol. Again, this is a place for some research. Pay attention to what carvers and turners do in this regard, as they tend to work less with dimension lumber, and more with larger hunks of tree. But, I'm assuming there are also tough poly and epoxy style finishes that could seep into cracks and cell walls in order to stabilize and seal the pieces. The idea is to let them dry just enough so you can stabilize them. This is partly science with respect to moisture content (you might want to buy or borrow a moisture meter) and partly art with respect to how it looks over time as it dries.

One caveat that I can think of is that as they dry they are going to get lighter and lighter. Maybe to the point that they don't really work as book ends anymore. A good amount of the mass of most wood is moisture, and many species will get very light as they dry. I think species like oak and walnut have more mass when dry, and my assumption is that you will want to stay with dense true hardwoods for this project, as expensive as that can be to make mistakes with.

And an editorial comment:

Given there is (and of course there is) a Japanese art of letting wood naturally age and crack over time in order to put it back together with specialized carpentry, maybe this sort of approach might work? If this stuff start to fall apart, maybe figure out how you can use butterfly joinery etc. to put it back together in an artful manner. From this perspective there is a certain symmetry in observing a well-aged and oft-repaired piece of art as a parallel to married life.

  • Bravo, wide-ranging Answer to a difficult Question to try to cover adequately. – Graphus supports Monica Jul 25 at 17:14
  • Thanks @JDV. Am I right then in assuming that the radial checks referred to in the link above are the only changes I can expect? (Also, to be clear, I want to give my friends the bookends when they're still green, so that they'll have something that changes long after their wedding--I'm not really looking to stabilize anything) – SoNamu Jul 25 at 18:22
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    @SoNamu how the wood checks is really dependent on how the lumber was dimensioned, and what species it is (along with a healthy dose of "it will do what it wants to do"). It could split all the way through, right in half! Or a radial chunk could separate. It's really hard to predict. I see what you are going for without stabilizing things, but depending on how it is sized, and how it was cut from the tree, and under what circumstances (heat, relative humidity, exposure to sunlight etc.) it lives, the nature of the aging process is really unknown. – jdv Jul 25 at 18:41
  • There may be another question you can ask about the ideal species of wood for making larger pieces expected to weather and age over time. i.e., others here might have some insight into species that will check and split nicely in an artistic manner, but still maintain much of its integrity. For example my mind immediately goes to West Coast NA tradition of totems, which are usually made out of local rot resistant cedar. This goes against my advice above regarding walnut or oak, but in terms of art that is intended to decay artfully, it's a starting point. – jdv Jul 25 at 18:56

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