The amount of moisture contained in what may be regarded as dry, workable wood is perhaps more a matter of scientific than of practical interest,and need not be insisted on if the fact is understood that all timber is influenced more or less by atmospheric changes. In long-continued dry weather wood will shrink, in cold wet weather it will swell. As dwelling-rooms are seldom damp, and are in winter kept warm and dry by fires, it is very easy to see that if furniture is made of damp wood it is sure to split sooner or later when kept in a warm room. All that can be done is to dry the wood well before using it, and this is best done gradually by keeping it for a time in a dry, warm place, similar to that which it will ultimately occupy. Under ordinary circumstances the amateur or small consumer cannot do better than keep it for a time in a warm kitchen. It must, however, not be placed too near a fire, for to do so would probably cause it to twist and split. Of course, the kitchen may not always be a convenient place to dry the wood in, and then some warm, dry place should be selected, more care in this respect naturally being necessary in wet, wintry weather than during a hot summer.
As far as possible the wood should be arranged to allow an equal amount of air all round it. Simply to put a heap of boards neatly on top of each other without any space between would be of little use. If this is the most convenient way to place them, keep them separate by a couple of sticks between each, and see that the bottom board is well raised above the floor. A better way is to stand them on end, always being careful to provide air space between each. If leaning against a wall, especially an outside one, the position of the wood should be changed now and then to ensure the drying being equal on both sides.
Some kinds of timber require more careful treatment than others, and so susceptible are some to atmospheric influences that even after they are, or seem, thoroughly dry, on a fresh surface being exposed to the air by planing, they will cast and twist. Brown oak with much figure in it may be mentioned as a good specimen of this kind of wood.
It is not an easy matter for the novice to tell whether wood is seasoned and dry, and even old hands are occasionally mistaken. The amount of seasoning may by the experienced be fairly estimated by noticing the weather stains and general appearance of the rough surface, but the dryness is somewhat different, and can best be ascertained by actual working. Wet wood is heavy and unpleasant to work, and if the novice will try to saw and plane two pieces of each kind, one purposely wet and the other thoroughly dry, he will easily be able to recognise the difference. I have insisted on the drying of timber more, perhaps, than some experienced cabinet-makers will think necessary, but the novice can hardly take too much care in this respect. Better to have the wood dryer than may be absolutely necessary than the reverse; and I know the tendency when only a small stock is kept is to work up the wood as soon as it is bought.
Very frequently a board after it has been cut for a time does not remain perfectly straight and level. It may twist more or less throughout its entire length or simply become rounded, i.e., hollow on the one side and correspondingly convex on the other. In the former case the only reliable way is to plane it down, and even then it may twist again. Such pieces, therefore, are not the most suitable. Flattening them by weights or pressure is sometimes recommended, but the remedy is little more than temporary.
Boards which are simply rounded may often be brought level either by causing the hollow side to swell or the other one to shrink, though sometimes nothing short of planing down will do. The shrinking of the rounded side may be accomplished by placing the board near a fire, but not so near as to cause it to split, or what is more likely, instead of merely flattening it, reverse the curvature, making the previously hollow side become round. A moderate degree of warmth will soon draw flat a board susceptible to this treatment. The hollow side may be swelled by the application of moisture, and though this theoretically is wrong treatment, when judiciously done harm seldom results. The moisture must, of course, be of the slightest, for to really wet the wood is out of the question. In fact, to direct the wood to be damped is almost to convey an erroneous impression. At the most a little damp sawdust should be sprinkled on the hollow side, and allowed to remain for a few hours, for if the hollow side is swelled too much it will become rounded. The safest course, perhaps, is to lay the board with the hollow side down on a cold stone floor. Even though this is not perceptibly damp it will very often have the desired effect in the course of a few hours or a day or two. Sometimes it is even sufficient to lean the board against a wall, hollow side to it, or to lay two hollow-faced pieces on top of each other. Any of these courses may be tried, and if they do not answer there is nothing for it but to plane the wood level. Actually wetting the boards and then drying them under sufficient pressure to keep them flat is not a good plan.
As it has an immediate practical bearing on many details in construction, it will be well to bear in mind that wood does not contract in length but merely in breadth. This fact seems to be often forgotten, but as it will be found mentioned more in detail elsewhere nothing more need be said about it now.
It will be observed, as experience widens, that the value of timber may be looked at from two points of view - that of utility and that of cost. Thus pine, white-wood, and bay mahogany are valuable to the cabinetmaker from their good qualities, though not expensive; while others, though costly, either because they are fashionable or for other reasons, are from a manufacturing standpoint not worth so much because they are unreliable or difficult to manipulate. If, therefore, the cabinet-maker meets with any wood with which he may be unacquainted it does not follow that because it may be low priced that it is unsuitable, nor the converse if it is costly.
The question of waste is one which is of considerable interest to the cabinet-maker, waste being defined as those short pieces which are comparatively valueless. It is impossible to avoid this, so that on reckoning the quantity of timber to be got specially for any piece of work due allowance should be made for it. To buy simply the number of feet of stuff which the finished job contains would not be nearly enough in most cases. Thus, if a sideboard top measuring 6 ft. X 2 ft. = 12 ft. is to be made, to suppose that 12 ft. of wood only would be required would probably leave the matter very short. If the pieces are of exactly the length, viz., 6 ft., or of such lengths that they will cut into them, very little more, only enough to trim the edges, would have to be reckoned for, but this rarely happens, and the short ends must be to some extent considered as waste. Of course, if of any size they may be usable in other parts of the work, but in any case there must necessarily be a good deal of waste. In large factories it can be averaged, but the small user can hardly do this. The amount of actual waste must necessarily depend on circumstances which it is impossible to enumerate here, and it will be sufficient to direct the attention of those who make furniture as a matter of business to keep a careful watch over this item when estimating the cost of anything. To regard every short piece cut off as absolute waste - that is, worth nothing - would, of course, be unfair to the purchaser, but full value certainly should not be calculated for the 'short ends,' which will be caused by making up almost any article of furniture. In connexion with this part of the subject it may be well to suggest that as the pieces accumulate, for anything that is likely to be useful should not be burnt as is often the case, they should be put on one side, when many of them will answer for portions of other work. It is not an economical plan to cut into a fresh board for a small piece which may be required when something equally suitable can be selected from the 'short ends' corner.