Birdseye maple is captivating, lmi has a reputation among woodworkers of being hard to find and miserable to work with. These are myths. Actually, birdsevc is readily available in staggering varieties. I'll tell vou where to find it and how to choose the best boards. And surprisingly, birdseye is easy to work with. I'll show you how to tame its unruly grain and give you a recipe for a great-looking finish.
"Birdseye1' describes a figure pattern that occurs in the sugar maple tree (Acer saccharum). It's also found occasionally in several other varieties of wood. Individual birdseyes are randomly located pockets of irregular growth. Nobody knows what causes a tree to produce them, despite decades of research. We do know they have nothing to do with birds!
Birdseye s occurrence in sugar maple is not rare. In fact, a recent field study of old growth stands in the upper Midwest suggests that, because it occurs so frequently in old growth, birdseye could be considered the normal growth pattern for sugar maple. However, it typically occurs in such small amounts that its presence is considered a defect that actually reduces a tree's value. What's rare are trees with enough birdseye to make them commercially desirable. /
• Buy surfaced material. It's hard to pick good birdseye from rough lumber. which is the way you're most likely to find it. Even if you're accustomed to looking at rough-sawn material, it'll be tough to see the birdseye flub V • »' l it ^
BIRDSEYE FIGURE is caused by craters of wild grain that recur in successive layers of growth. On the face of a board you see the "birdseyes," on the end grain you see cone-shaped cylinders.
BIRDSEYE VENEER HAS MANY ADVANTAGES over solid wood. Logs chosen for veneer are the cream of the crop, so you'll have access to the very best birdseye figure. You won't have to try to read the quality of figure in rough lumber or deal with tear-out. With veneer, you can see exactly what you're buying.
TEAR-OUT IS TYPICAL when you run a birds-eye board through a planer. The grain changes direction around each birdseye, so it doesn't matter which way you run the board. It's gonna tear out in chunks.
WET BIRDSEYE BOARDS before you plane them. Let the water soak in for a couple seconds before you run them through the planer. Make shallow passes, removing only 1/32 in. at a time.
figure. It's easier to choose from birdseye that's been planed "hit-and-miss." This light planing sacrifices a hit of die board's working thickness so you can see what you're buying, but the trade-off is worthwhile.
• Look for flat boards. Birdseye's ornery grain gives it a tendency to warp or cup as it dries. If you can't find boards that are flat, look for ones that are extra thick so you can plane them flat and still end up with the thickness you want.
• Order from a specialist. Few lumberyards stock birdseye. The only way to get it may be through a mail-order supplier. There are several that specialize in figured woods (see Sources, page 57).
• Consider using birdseye veneer, especially for large surfaces such as tabletops and cabinet sides. The color and figure- varies so much in solid birdseye lumber that it's hard to find boards that look good together. Sheets ol birdseye veneer have a consistent appearance because they're cut sequentially from the same log. Veneer saves money, too. It's less expensive than solid lumber (per square foot), and costs less to ship.
Planing rough-sawn birdseye is a challenge because the eyes are pockets of swirling grain scattered all over the surface. When you run it through a planer, the birdseye figure tears out dramatically—usually with disastrous results. The commonly recommended alternative is to take the rough lumbei to someone who has a drum sander for surfacing. Technical schools and cabinet shops often rent time on their machines, but you have to pay a minimum of S25 per hour. And it's a hassle.
Here's a much easier solution. Wet the surface before you joint or plane it. Don't worn about warping. Planing removes ihe wet layer before the moisture affects the board. The effect of wet-planing on your machines will be negligible il vou follow these simple maintenance procedures.
• Moisture causes rust, of course. Keep cast iron tables and fences protected with paste wax or a metal scaler.
• Use a dust collector to draw the wet shavings away from the machine—the\ contain all the moisture.
• After you've finished running the birdseye, wipe the cast iron tables dry with an absorbent cloth. Then run a dry board through the machine. The friction-generated heat helps evaporate any remaining moisture.
• Wipe the pressure roller, cutterhead. knives and other effected surfaces with denatured alcohol. Don't cut yourself on the knives. Be sure to unplug the machine first.
TEAR-OUT IS DRAMATICALLY REDUCED when a birdseye board is wetted just before planing. Look at the birdseye pattern —this is the same board as the one above!
Sand or Scrape
After planing, von have to remove mill marks and minor tear-out before the birdseye is ready for finishing. It's too risky to do this with a hand plane—even one that's finely tuned. One bad pass can cause enough tear-out to ruin everything. It's safer to sand or scrape.
A random-orbit sander helps make sanding less tedious, but sanding dust is a problem. It lodges in torn-out areas, making it hard to know when to quit. A scraper is better. It makes shavings instead of dust, so you can see when the tear-out is gone. The best time to use a random-orbit sander is for final smoothing, after scraping.
Even the simplest wipe-on finish makes birdsevc look good. Here's how to make it look great:
• A coat of penetrating oil. like lung or linseed, brings out the birdseye figure and adds a warm amber tone.
• A thin coat of dewaxed shellac on top of the oil makes the figure shimmer.
• For non-wear surfaces, buffing the shellac with wax adds luster. Protect tabletops and other wear surfaces by topcoating with lacquer, varnish or poly. These finishes adhere to dewaxed shellac that's been lightly sanded.
• To minimize yellowing (a problem with all maple), skip the oil. Start with a seal coal of dewaxed super-blond shellac and top it with waterborne polyurethane. Waterborne finishes are clear and don't yellow with age.
• If you want to color birdseye, don't use traditional wood smins—they're made with coarse pigments that obscure the figure. Dyes are a better choice, but over time they can fade.
Birdseye maple veneer: Certainly Wood (716) 655-0206 www, ce rta i n ly wood. com
REMOVE MINORTEAR-OUT with a scraper or by sanding. Scraping is best because it's fast, quiet and dust-free. Sanding is effective, but tedious. Hand planing may create even more tear-out.
ATHIN COAT OF PENETRATING OIL (one part oil, two parts mineral spirits) followed by a seal coat of dewaxed shellac and topped with varnish or polyurethane is a great finish for birdseye. It warms the color, brings out the figure and protects the surface.
Was this article helpful?
THIS book is one of the series of Handbooks on industrial subjects being published by the Popular Mechanics Company. Like Popular Mechanics Magazine, and like the other books in this series, it is written so you can understand it. The purpose of Popular Mechanics Handbooks is to supply a growing demand for high-class, up-to-date and accurate text-books, suitable for home study as well as for class use, on all mechanical subjects. The textand illustrations, in each instance, have been prepared expressly for this series by well known experts, and revised by the editor of Popular Mechanics.