Epoxy Versus Patches in Wood

Epoxy Versus Patches in Wood - Alabama Sawyer

March 29, 2022

The Challenges of Urban Lumber

We’re proud to source sustainable urban lumber, but it’s not without its own unique set of challenges. Urban wood has a different and much varied grain than its graded counterpart. In fact, graded wood is chosen exactly for that reason. 

Urban wood is imperfect, but that is also something that we like about it. In dealing with live edge slabs and our particular source of timbers there are a few practices that we use which have evolved over the years. In this article, we’re going to talk about a few of them, their history, and shine a bit of light on what goes into the wood which we create with. 

Patching Wood: Blurring the Line Between Craft and Art 

While the natural imperfections of the material in question are part of the appeal - there does come a point where intervention is required. Knots, holes, and cracks are a fact of life with salvaged lumber like ours. 

The solutions that constitute that intervention are not only functional - they are beautiful. There is an ancient philosophy of humans working together with nature that is represented in these practices, and we’re going to touch on that a little further down. 

When we find a slab of wood that has a split, crack or knot that can't be dealt with otherwise, we remove it. This is often done with a router. A patch is cut to exactly the same size as the void and carefully glued and hammered with a mallet into place. 

Patches aren’t just great for replacing defective portions of the slab, they can also be used to add beauty to a piece. Seattle artist and architect Roy McMakin is something of a notorious patch artist. Though he may not use that verbiage. He uses them prolifically, creating almost a mosaic effect. It’s a neat effect, the subtle distortions are intended to trigger memory and dissonance and it is indeed very beautiful.  

We certainly do admire and respect what McMakin is doing. Our approach here at Alabama Sawyer is a bit more puristic in nature. We like to intervene as little as possible and let the wooden textures stand up on their own or with the juxtaposition of another material, like steel or bronze. 

Epoxy and the Resin Table Trend 

If it isn't obvious already, we love wood. We like the texture, the shape, the feel, the aroma. We love working with it, living with it, and giving it new life. That’s why we tend to prefer using patches and other techniques over epoxy, but we do use it when it’s called for. 

Sourcing urban lumber also presents challenges that can’t be remedied by patching alone. To better understand what these entail, you have to keep in mind that a living tree holds water. When the tree is felled and cut into slabs, it then needs to be dried. As the moisture leaves the wood it becomes harder and during this process, cracks can appear.

The grains of the wood can be thought of as pores. As the moisture leaves the urban wood and it shrinks, these pores open and can cause weaknesses in the material. In this case, we use a penetrating epoxy to stabilize the wood. This clear, hardening epoxy gets right down into those pores and hardens, filling the spaces in between. This results in a stable, useful, and every bit as beautiful of a material. 
We love the appearance of imperfections, but we need the wood to maintain its structural integrity. Using epoxy is a great way of achieving this. 

Lately, it’s become trendy to use epoxy and resins in tables to create sections of clear table between the wood. While we can appreciate it, it’s not our style. We are often asked to do it and we decline. We like to let the wood speak for itself as much as possible. We borrow this way of thinking and a few tricks of the trade from the grandfather of live edge furniture, George Nakashima.

Collaborating with Nature

Our way of thinking goes back through George Nakashima to Japanese carpentry, which is a method that is not hundreds but thousands of years old. What makes this style of carpentry so beautiful in our eyes, is that culmination of nature and craftsmanship which is the result of a relationship that goes back as far as mankind does.

Nowhere is this practice more poignantly represented than in the method by which splits in a slab are remedied. This is done using a butterfly, which is a practice that, in the 1950's, George Nakashima is responsible for making the most popular joinery still today.

The butterfly is a bowtie-shaped piece of wood which is inserted across the split and acts kind of like a stitch. It goes by many names - a butterfly, a dovetail, a dutchman - it’s even called a Nakashima, for obvious reason. No matter who you are or what you call it, when you ponder it long enough, one thing becomes clear. 
There is something profound that this little detail on a slab of wood represents. It’s the role mankind was meant to play - it’s akin to the meaning of life, for all of us; To tend to, and where possible help mother nature along, rather than trying to bend her to our will. That’s a huge piece of who we are and our philosophy in our work and in our lives. 

Who knew that a little piece of wood could represent so much? The other great thing about it is that it works a treat to fix the split, so no slab needs to go to waste. 

So there you have it, a look at some of the challenges we face and the philosophies behind them. Woodworking, epoxy, and the meaning of life all wrapped into one. Urban lumber may not be the easiest material to work worth, but the way we see it means we wouldn’t have it any other way.