I was reminded the other day, how selection of wood for dovetailed boxes, can make or break the project. I’m sure this initially seems like I’m only talking about aesthetics, but in actuality, the physical characteristics are at least as much of concern. A man brought me a piece of wood whose species was not immediately apparent. From the coloration, weight and relative hardness, it felt like Brazilian Cherry. He was having a really rough time cleaning up the board without significant tear out, even using a high-angle of attack. We worked on it with multiple planes, and ultimately found a scraper plane worked well. I had a different scenario with the Brazilian Cherry I’d purchased.
A number of years ago, I bought a board labeled Brazilian Cherry, since I thought it would compliment some Maple or other light colored wood, in a hand-cut dovetailed box. Many times I will use some good contrast in my dovetailed boxes, which is usually pleasing to the eye. The board I purchased was already surfaced on four sides, and was very flat. I cut the lengths I needed, on my tablesaw, which gave me no idea just what I was up against. I cut the tails on the Maple boards, and laid out the pins on the Brazilian Cherry. I sawed the pins, as usual, and didn’t really notice much difference. Same thing when I removed the majority of excess wood, with my coping saw. It was only when I shifted over to my chisels, that this wood reared it’s head. As usual, I made sure I was working carefully, so I didn’t try to hog off too much wood in each pass, and potentially risk diving below the scribe line. I noticed fairly quickly that my chisel was acting strange; almost as if it was already dull. I looked at the edge of the chisel, and it was amazingly dull, and had chipped as well. I re-sharpened my chisel, thinking it had probably started to get dull on the previous job, and I hadn’t noticed. OK, now this baby is sharp. Back to the board. I know this is likely fairly obvious, but in very short order, I was headed back to the sharpening stones. I’m not sure how many times this went on, but I finally decided to shift to another chisel. This time I picked up a Japanese chisel I bought while in Japan in 2001. This chisel had really shown me just how long it would retain it’s sharpness and also it’s fine cutting edge. I started removing wood, and at first it was doing great. Well, this didn’t last. I finished one end of one of the two pin boards, and thats when I set the Brazilian Cherry board aside. It felt like I was going to use up a chisel or two, just in the amount of sharpening required, and this was on a small box. I milled up some regular Cherry, and finished up the pins on these boards, finalizing the box fairly rapidly.
I’m sure I might find another usage for Brazilian Cherry, in the future, but let this remind you to assess each wood’s attributes before buying in large quantity. This instance was not too bad, since I only bought one fairly smallish board of the Brazilian Cherry, to test for this box. What if I’d been making a chest of drawers, with lots of dovetails, or something else with similar design. I’d ultimately have had a bunch of wood sitting around, waiting for a project in which it would behave.