The Smell of Wood
Many years ago I read a short essay by Andy Rooney (The "did you ever wonder.." guy from the Sixty Minutes news show) regarding his appreciation for the smell of wood. At the time it seemed odd to me that such an obviously intelligent and well-read person would devote so many paragraphs to something so seemingly mundane as the smell of lumber. After all, lumber is a building material, like nails or mortar or glue or cement, an ingredient in the overall fabric of cabinetry or carpentry. It might be thought of as the canvas upon which or with which great artistic cabinetry is formed. But, like canvas, it is not art or an object of beauty in itself. It becomes something creative through the manipulations and skill of the worker.
Some time later, I found myself touring an ancient "tithe barn" near the city of York, in merry old England. I was fascinated with the joinery of timber framed structure. By way of background, a tithe barn was a very large structure where medieval farmers would bring the local "Lord" his share of their produce. It was sort like a collection point for taxes, payable in the yield of the farm. These structures were massive in size. The one I happened to be in was erected somewhere between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with modifications made over the ensuing several centuries. I spent an inordinate amount of time studying the joinery of the compound mortises and tenons, particularly among the series of hammer beams that held the considerable spans of open space long before metal beams allowed such a thing to be commonplace.
Being, at the time, only recently acquainted with the artistry of woodcraft I stood in awe of the long since dead crafters of these complex but tightly fitted joints; joints so tightly fitted that without any adhesive they held such a complex and heavy structure for centuries combining to achieve the better portion of a millennia. These men, these masters of their trade were of a brotherhood, I reasoned. They understood that wood was more than a material from which an edifice or cabinet could be constructed to hold back the elements of nature. Rather they understood that there was something more to the substance of wood; that it was a living, breathing thing. They saw it as a medium to be worked with, to be shaped and chiseled and bent and straightened, that it had its own form and shape and its own properties of substance and, well, smell.
Suddenly I became acutely aware of the mellowed, subtle scent of anciently jointed English Oak. It rose from the floorboards and wafted downward from the rafters and beams and posts and joists. It surrounded me from the unpainted walls and the shingles that covered the roof. It was acidic, but only slightly, pungent only in its totality. I liked it. I liked the way that it seemed to have always been there, that anyone could sense it, yet few did, that it was something that lingered and existed only for those few who chose to appreciate it.
The best part of a workshop
The smell of wood is something that goes unappreciated by most. I am not speaking to the obviously aromatic woods like cedar or apple, whose pungency is so opaque as to inspire scented soaps and detergents. Nor am I speaking to the long established associations of wood to a task; Pine scent to delineate cleanliness or the smell of cherry in cough medicine. Rather I speak to the appreciation of a given species of wood to its task as only one who works in wood can truly appreciate. Much as that long since dead jointer who, chisel in hand, carved the intricacies of mortices and tenons on a two tiered hammer beam system to hold a tithe barn aloft for so many centuries, the modern woodworker comes to appreciate the sense of completeness that smell brings to wood. It is something he discerns as much as his forerunner did; something that joins him in that ceaseless line of a brotherhood of wood joiners and shapers and carvers.
I thought back to Andy Rooney and his appreciation for the smell of wood. Suddenly I understood. Over the ensuing years I have come to appreciate the subtle differences in wood, between red oak and white oak; between black cherry and southern cherry; subtle differences in sweetness between one or another species of apple. I find the scent of a freshly opened log to be particularly powerful, a resonating testament to the most and least desirable attributes of the particular wood in question. The tannic aroma of Oak speaks to its thick grain, its strength of use; its masculinity. The sweet, lingering scent of cherry leaves the senses cognizant of its more feminine charm and tells us that it has a unique quality to it, that of soft beauty. Pine, with its sharp, pitchy odor resounds with a more utilitarian purpose, it is powerful yet also sweet; masculine at times and less so at others.