Wood is slow

Timeless material requires patience.

Now, that’s kind of a funny way to describe wood. Why would a description of movement be applied to wood?

Wood doesn’t move, at least not by itself. But we move wood.

In particular, we move it into tools or tools into it. And it is the nature of Wood is slow wood to require a lot of very careful deliberation before the tool meets the wood.

And also while the tool is meeting the wood. This takes time.

Wood is a slow material. Plastics are often fast materials. Resin gets squirted into a mould and seconds later, there is a complete table waiting to begin its new life.

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

Of course, a very large amount of time went into designing and making the mould and machine that accommodates it. But ultimately, production clips along at a pretty good rate. Try that with wood?

Moulding is a fast process and other materials that are amenable, like glass, or ceramics, or even metals (which can be hard and truculent), can be pressed into service, or serviceable items, with a pretty good turn-around. But wood, lovely wood, fails to pick up the pace.

Other form giving activities, like bending and impact-transforming don’t suit wood so readily either. Wood takes and holds new shapes very well, but there aren’t any expedient ways to get there.

Wood isn’t really a material suited to the pace of industry.

Rather like a princess, it prefers to wait out the commercial bustle and to be treasured for what it intrinsically is. If you want to be friends with wood and to get the most out of it, be prepared to be patient.

A lot of thought and effort and the expenditures of vast amounts of capital have gone into transforming wood into a material that is more amenable to our volume-oriented expectations.

But even all of the highly engineered sheet materials require a lot of additional and careful processing before they are in a form or format that we ultimately find useful.

Working wood is usually a careful and time-consuming process of removing unwanted material from a piece of stock to produce a construction element in the configuration that we want.

And then, various elements, so processed, are assembled, slowly and carefully, to produce a composite construction to fulfill our desires and intentions. Even then, we usually find that the unfinished material would benefit from enhancement or protection, so a finish is applied.

And often not before another round of laborious preparation. So cumulatively, this can take a lot of time. So why do we put up with this demanding and stubborn material?

Because it remains one of the most versatile materials we have. It is a material for which we have an intuitive emotional and aesthetic appreciation. It is both figuratively and literally warm. We have a lot of close history with it and it seems to be interwoven into our expectations of our immediate and material world, our near-milieu.

We can’t readily bend it to our will, or beat it into submission. We have to proceed with a thoughtful, slow, methodical and painstaking approach. Some people are unwilling to behave in this way. They would rather be spontaneous, dramatic, quick and impulsive.

Those people aren’t wood-workers. Most of the predictions of a distant future envision an environment that is largely synthetic, or synthetic-like. It is imagined to be of highly polished surfaces and bright colours, the sorts of forms that plastics and metals are so good at.

But I doubt it will be that sterile. We have a long association with wood and however much less of it we now live with, we still seem to want it around and miss it when its not.

It may be slow, but I think it will keep up.

Paul Epp is a professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.


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