What Is Green Woodworking All About?

What Is Green Woodworking All About

Green has become a popular color in the past decade for a number of reasons.  The term “green” often refers to something that is environmentally friendly; green tea has risen in popularity, and Starbucks even offers a green tea chai latte, which is actually quite good; the blood that runs through the veins of Boston Celtics fans is believed to be “green.”

Spiritually, green represents nature, growth, good health, and general well-being.  A green light means you can go.  Green gives a sense of optimism and a refreshing feeling.

Key Points:

  • Green woodworking refers to using unseasoned wood or wood that has not been dried
  • Green wood is often softer and easier to work with than seasoned wood
  • Joints made with green wood can become tighter as the wood shrinks and reaches moisture equilibrium with the surrounding environment

In our field, green woodworking has become a thing in the past decade, although it is not a new thing.  We find many green woodworkers now exclaiming the virtues and benefits of their “green” practice.  It goes back, though, to the earliest of woodworkers, well before the advent of power tools or even power.  

Green Woodworking Today

The term green in reference to woodworking refers to using unseasoned wood, rather than dry wood, for certain aspects of working with a piece of wood.  By unseasoned wood, we mean recently felled wood or wood that has not been kiln-dried, air-dried, or vacuum dried.

Stacked Lumber

We wrote about these processes recently, too, in reference to warping.  In fact, in green woodworking, wood might even be stored in water to keep its moisture content high until the woodworker is ready to use it.

Wet wood, or green wood (unseasoned wood), is easier to work with than seasoned wood (dried, also called cured) – it’s softer and can be worked with using hand tools rather than power tools.  It’s easier to shape and form, and all hand tools can be involved in working with it, and not simply a sharp whittling knife.

Then, as the green wood dries, it shrinks.  Moisture leaving it will result in that shrinking. Shrinking wood can be used to a woodworker’s advantage in making joints tighter and, therefore, presumably stronger. 

Whether you’ve chopped down trees yourself and broken logs down on your own, or you have a mill close by that will do that for you, using the wood from a newly chopped down tree before it has had time to cure is green woodworking today.  Felling trees and storing the yet-to-be-used wood in water will keep the wood unseasoned until you are ready to work with it.

What Is the Recent Interest In Green Woodworking?

There are some persuasive reasons to engage in green woodworking, working with wet wood or unseasoned wood.

It’s softer and easier to work with.  Wood that has not been dried/cured, whether in a kiln, by air drying, or by vacuum drying, is softer.  The wood fibers are still pliable, and the material can be more easily removed with hand tools than if the wood has cured and is harder.

Spoon carving, for example, becomes much easier when using unseasoned wood.  Wooden spoons of all sizes and configurations made entirely by hand using green wood is a much simpler task than if the wood had been cured. Spoon carvers will tell you they prefer to work with wet wood.  The same can be said about wooden spatulas, salad bowl utensils, and more.  

The same holds true for wooden bowls, whether using hand tools to dig out the wet wood and wet pieces of wood turned are easier to work with faster because the wood fibers are soft and the inner bowls come clean more quickly and with less turning.  Purists may take umbrage with the use of power tools like lathes and prefer to argue for hand tools to keep green woodworking authentic with past practices.

Joints become tighter.  Imagine you’re project involves mortise and tenon joints – pieces of furniture like a table or chair, for instance.  Using wet wood for the mortise can contribute to a tighter joint when the tenon is inserted.  The tenon will take on some of the mortise piece’s moisture, and then they will dry together until they reach a moisture equilibrium with the surrounding environment.

As we mentioned earlier, the wood will shrink as it dries, and in the case of a mortise and tenon joint, that will form a tighter grip and presumably a stronger joint.

Here’s a new word for you, perhaps:  bodging.  It refers to the old way of making the components of a chair in the woods after felling a tree; the components are then brought back to the woodworking shop for assembly by furniture makers.  As the wood components dry, they form a tight grip and bond around each other, and the chair is made sturdier in the process.

Some Tools Used in Green Woodworking

Morakniv 106 Carbon Steel Wood Carving Knife With Sheath, 3.25 Inch

We’ve talked about some of the uses to which green or unseasoned wood is put, including wooden spoons and bowls, and other common kitchen utensils. Hand tools have had a renaissance of sorts with the increased awareness of green woodworking.  Among those tools:

  • The Sloyd Knife.  A popular choice for spoon carving, it has a blade of between 2 – 4 inches with a long, flat, primary bevel.  It is sometimes referred to as a “Scandinavian grind.”  It works well with wet wood and is favored by those who like to make their own kitchen spoons of various sizes.
  • A Carving Axe.  Not the kind of axe that felled the tree that sourced the wood you are working with, but rather, one of about 1 lb in weight, maybe 1.5 lbs.  The handle of a carving axe is such that the carver can grip it high on the tool, near the head, in order to maintain a more accurate and controlled cut in the wet wood.  
  • The Hook Knife.  This tool is exactly what it sounds like it would be.  Those spoons and bowls need to be hollowed out at some point, and since purists stay away from electric tools like a lathe, a tool is needed to remove wood material from the spoon’s bowl or from a bowl proper.  In fact, purists will refrain from using any electric tools in their green woodworking.  This hook knife will do that task easily for you while the wood is still wet.  

While these are the main tools you will find in the hands of green woodworkers, there are others, including the adze (used for larger bowls to remove material from the bowl’s hollow), gougers, and augurs.  They will likely have a shave horse in their shop and will make bowls on a bench using their adze.  Some may even have a foot-turned pole lathe, again, to stay away from electric tools.  

These purists and we use that term with great respect for their craftsmanship and skill, keep power tools out of their shops completely.  It’s the basic tools of old-world furniture making and general woodworking that matter.  Keep a sharp tool, and it will serve you well in your woodworking; rely on that sharp rather than power to do the work.

The Green Woodworking Weekend Hobbyist

We can understand the appeal of green woodworking and why a hobbyist would be drawn to it.  Hand tools generally cost much less than power tools, and the setting up of a green woodworking shop will be much lower than those of us who have a good inventory of them.

Producing a few pieces of hand-tooled green woodworking items a month can be very satisfying, the tactile pleasure of working with your hands and a few select tools.  They are producing those spoons, bowls, and such for the sheer pleasure of working with wood and not to make a living.

When green woodworking was the “thing,” back in the days before power tools, these pieces were made for utilitarian purposes in their own homes and maybe for the village.  

Of course, for those who make their living by their woodworking skills, furniture, and cabinet makers, for instance, some measure of speed is required that bespeaks the need for power tools and more rapid production.  But, for the hobbyist who can take his time, green woodworking is a wonderful way to produce personalized work pieces for their own home and family.

We mentioned a mortise and tenon joint benefiting from green woodworking principles, and we found a video that demonstrates just that.  The videographer felled a tree in the forest and made a chair from it in one day using the wet wood of the mortise shrinking around the tenon and holding the chair together very tightly when it had dried.  It’s worth a watch.

YouTube video

Sometimes you will find booths at crafts fairs and festivals where woodworking enthusiasts will gather and share ideas that center around green woodworking.  We even found online green woodworking classes and know that local adult education classes in green woodworking are offered.  We think this is a pretty cool thing, to be honest.