Review: A Splintered History of Wood


I received Spike Carlsen’s book A Splintered History of Wood as a gift this past Christmas, and have read it a few times since then.  It is one of my favorite sorts of books; each chapter is an overview of a related topic.  In this case, of course, the central theme is “wood and its uses”.  I like this format because, if the author is any good at all, each chapter will be full of interesting “hooks” that can capture one’s interest.  Since the author will likely not know the specifics about a wide range of fields, the effect is usually sort of a travelogue, reading interviews of specialists and getting secondhand tours of relevant places.  Of course, each of these experts wants the author, and reader, to be interested, and so the result is that each topic has some of its most interesting points picked out and presented.  And like a book of short stories, if you find the current topic uninteresting, just wait for a few pages.

I am at a loss to think of a person for whom belt sander racing could be considered uninteresting, particularly when one is told of the fabled “open modified” class.  However, belt sander racing is headlined as a topic on the cover of the book.  Does the rest of the book hold up to this promise?

Basically, yes.  I noted above that the formula works if the author is any good at all, and Mr. Carlsen has evidently done much writing for various craft and woodworking publications.  Writing for a broad audience, his writing is solid (workmanlike?), and enthusiastic while maintaining restraint.  There were a few points at which I would have wished for a slightly less heavy tone, but this may be unavoidable when required to teach, in text only, how to turn a pile of lumber into a baseball bat or somesuch.  More illustrations might have helped with this, but some of this is innate to the material.  I get the sense that Mr. Carlsen excels at getting along with the varied people met in the book, and their enthusiasms are what really carries much of the book.

Because of these enthusiasms, my favorite parts of the book discuss the use of wood in sports and music.  While other sections of the book cover things that I know a little about already, such as the Swedish Vasa and the Loretto Chapel staircase, or are discussions of woods that are interesting but that I am unlikely to come across (45000 year old kauri wood), some topics make me want to take up (another) hobby, if only as entertaining research.  I know a little about baseball and music, but not enough to have heard even relatively basic lore.  Everyone knows somebody who is enthusiastic about these topics, and the book, if nothing else, contains good conversation material.  What is a baseball bat made of?  I hadn’t really thought about it, but there’s a company betting their jobs on a different theory from the established one.  Everyone has wondered what makes a Stradivarius a, well, a Stradivarius, with a name (Hammer, Il Cremonese, The Fleming) and pedigree, but probably hasn’t had a few of the theories presented.  After the best chapters of the book, one wants to go to the library and pick up a few of the threads that are dangled those interviewed.  While I’m unlikely to follow Wild Mountain Man Ray Murphy into chainsaw carving belt buckles while they are being worn, I can see wanting to learn more about the Forest Products Laboratory’s forensic history, or to spend time considering George de la Tour’s St. Joseph in the Carpenter Shop.  And I would very much like to spend time at the National Music Museum in South Dakota, with its 13000 instruments.

All in all, an interesting book, and a fun read.

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