Today furniture is often made from just one kind of wood. In the old days, when people knew wood better, a simple rocking chair might contain as many as seven kinds of wood. The hard woods were used for pegging, with still harder wood to peg the pegs; soft wood cradled the load and springy woods carried the weight. Old chairs creak during weather changes, and creaking has much to do with their longevity. Wood, as the early craftsmen knew, “breathes” with the weather, warping, contracting or expanding with each change of humidity and temperature. The art is to match woods which react in opposite manners and thereby keep joints tight. So the creaking you often hear in an ancient house during weather changes is only the natural movement of healthy wood as one piece settles comfortably against the other.
The joining of green wood to dry wood in such a manner that age welded the two together with their own “glue” was another ancient trick. Benjamin Powers of Lyndon, Vermont, remembered that his father accused him of being a “square peg in a round hole,” and thought the idea not too bad. In late years, when he became a chair-maker, he hammered green squared dowels into wet round holes in such a satisfactory manner that the joints today are stronger than the rest of the chairs.
Flat-sawed lumber such as you get at modern lumberyards was unheard of in early times, as all sawing and splitting was done according to the grain. The first shingles and clapboards were split with the grain during the long winter months, almost as a fireside pastime; the joy of seeing fine wood crack apart with mathematical precision is a lost pleasure. When the first clapboards were sawed, the saw was run with the grain along the length of one log, thereby tapering each board correctly and eliminating warping.
The early shingles known as “shakes” (from the obsolete use of the word meaning to split) were split with the grain and therefore shed the rain; cut shingles held moisture and rotted. This explains why so many unpainted shingle houses have lasted so long without damp-rotting.
“The American pioneer,” reads one history book, “made everything out of wood. The scarcity of metal forced him to pin his timbers together with wooden pegs.” But even if metal nails or spikes had been plentiful, the wood-wise man of a century or two ago would still have preferred wooden pins. Wooden pins or trunnels (treenails) did what metal failed to do. They breathed with the joints and held fast instead of cracking the timbers. They were put in place hot and dry so that they might swell up and weld the joint together. Often the two borings were made purposely ever so slightly off center, so that in hammering in place the timbers were brought closer together. Even where ancient timbers have now split naturally with the dryness of age, the joints and ends are sound.
Most of the wood lore practiced by the old-timers is now looked upon as superstition. The word “seasoning,” which now means the proper drying of wood, once pertained directly to the season of the year when a tree was felled or when wood was cut or put into a building. “Wood cut during the old moon of January and February” was wood that was expected to stand straight and true. Felled trees were only hewed into four-sided beams during the old moon, usually in March or May. Whether it was floors to be laid, shingles rived or put in place, or just firewood to be cut, the old-timer usually did it “by the moon.”
It is seldom realized that doing things by the moon in the early days was not mere superstition; rather it was scientific. By using the moon to do work with timber, the farmer was assured that the dormant state of tree life, the midwinter state of sap, and the coldness of outside air conditioned the wood properly for the task at hand. Cutting timber for poles and splints was done in May when the sap ran best; if cut then, the bark can be most easily removed. Live wood contains the maximum amount of oil in May, so trees cut for hoops, wheel rims, and other springy uses were cut in the “late moon of May.” The New England Farmer states that “The moon has such potential influence in the various parts of her orbits, that by cutting one tree three hours before the new moon and another of the same kind of tree six hours afterwards, a difference in the soundness of the wood would be noticed.”
Many of the old folklore superstitions turn out to be no more than quaint presentations of sound scientific information. Perhaps it is time to ask how backward grandfather really was—particularly when we run our hand over the patina of antique woodwork that has hardened and become more beautiful with the years.