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So common, yet so amazing

The Nature of Wood by Paul Epp

For we designers, wood is just another material, or so it seems. When we consider what we should use for a project, many options come to mind. That's how we are supposed to think: we could use wood, or plastic, or metal, or...

But I don't believe that. I believe that wood is its own category and deserves its own consideration. Here is what wood is.

Sustainable. It's a plant. It grows and then it dies. We can interrupt its journey back to the earth by harvesting it and using it. Eventually, it will return to the natural, benign elements from which it grew whether we use it or not. That's pretty good. We might describe it as a prolonged version of no-trace camping. If we build with wood, eventually, the building will disappear with hardly a trace. The constituent components of wood will grow into new wood.

Recyclable. Wood can be reused, re-purposed, re-applied to other projects, once the original application has outlived its usefulness. The pieces of lumber will likely get smaller and smaller with each new use, but if the wood is kept from decaying, it will remain useable for a long time. And when its time is over, it will automatically turn into new wood, if we wait long enough.

Workable. We can, fairly easily, change its form from the lengthy cylinders it grows into to other forms of our own choosing. We can cut it up and readily assemble the new forms we make into almost anything we can imagine. It's flexible, split-able, carve-able, glue-able and easy to apply finishes to.

Buoyant. It floats. Most of it does, anyway, and all of what we find in our northern hemisphere. We can make boats out of it. And it's an extra benefit that most wooden boats not only float, but are beautiful as well. Wood bends in such a way that, with it, we get lines that are not only pleasing but are uniquely suited to the hydrodynamic requirements of boat design.

Insulating. Wood is a natural insulator. It doesn't conduct heat, which maks it suitable for the handles of cooking pots as well as for the walls of our buildings. We can use it to remain either cool, or warm, as our situation requires.

Resonant. Imagine a world without music. That's almost the world we would get without wood. Most of the musical instruments that we cherish are made of it: guitars, pianos, violins, clarinets, bagpipes, and other of their family members like mandolins, harps, cellos, the woodwinds and so on. We ought to be grateful.

Beautiful. The orderliness of its grain structure, caused by the cycles of growth, coupled with its diversity of patterning and coloring make wood a visual treat. The tree's life story is written in its figure, the changes in grain direction and nuances of tone. Each piece is unique. Its scent is powerful and evocative. Polished forms invite our touch. It reminds us of nature, in environments that are now often artificial and synthetic. It is friendly.

Plentiful. Trees are almost everywhere. Empty spaces and untended ground are soon occupied by these irrepressible volunteers. Our boreal forest is the largest part of the world's largest terrestrial biome.

Combustible. Wood burns, providing a renewable source of energy. It has been the principle source for heating and cooking for millennia. New biomass technology will likely extend this usefulness into our future.

Processable. It is amenable to industrialization. It can be broken down into its fibres and reconstituted into many kinds of new forms. History is literally written on wood, reformatted as paper. Its problematic hygroscopocity is largely overcome when it is processed into the many types of sheet material that our building trades use. Its idiosyncratic uniqueness can be subverted into uniform, stable, catalogue-able material.

Versatile. It is both light and strong. Other materials may be lighter and stronger, but wood has a unique combination of these properties that has made it preferable for many applications. Although it has more recently been supplanted by newer materials, It has been used (and still could be) for most of the things we build: aircraft, boats, buildings, furniture, bridges, coffins, tennis rackets, sculpture, spoons, sleighs, toys, walking canes...

Altogether, these properties and potentials make up a pretty impressive list and not one that can be duplicated by any other material. There are lots of good reasons to consider wood. For me, te most compelling is its sensuous appeal. I, quite simply, like being surrounded by wood.

Paul Epp is a professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design.

Reprinted with permission from Wood Industry magazine, May/June 2009.
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