Sunday, August 28, 2016

A venerable plank

For over twenty years I've stacked, lifted, re-stacked, carried, tripped over, lifted and stacked a piece of Australian red cedar salvaged from the roof space of a church in Sydney. About 1.8 metres long and 280mm wide, it appeared to have been used as an architectural piece with a wide edge glued along one side with about five early wire nails having been hammered in with brutal accuracy.

Cedar is one of those resources that histories can be told through; like salt or cod or the porcelain chronicled by Edmund de Waal in The White Road, economies and lives are changed by our demand for such commodities. And none are more fiercely exploited than the resources in the colonies of the European powers.

The British invasion of Australia in the late eighteenth century followed a familiar terrible pattern of dispossession of the lands of the first nations' peoples, and with each expansion of the frontier, a new round of conflict and its handmaid, genocide. One of the causes of the appalling impact of colonisation upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was the relentless over-consumption of natural resources. Early accounts from the First Fleet provide accounts of hunting parties shooting hundreds of waterfowl, leaving most of them to rot. The landscape was changed too as regular firing of the open woodlands ceased, and soon the 'bush' make the ride to Parramatta a bash through tangled undergrowth. The foods that the Gadigal and Garigal relied upon became scarce.

Red cedar (Toona ciliata, syn. Cedrela toona) was identified as a valuable cabinet timber in 1790. It was lauded as superior to mahogany and was soon being cut for export to England and India. This was a tree that grew in the forests of the coastal fringe with higher rainfall. As its worth was recognised, parties of convicts were sent into the hinterland to fell and extract the trees.

Unlike the eucalypts which were harder than oak, cedar could be cut, processed and worked with the tool technology of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. Manual labour of which a colony based on convict slave labour had plenty, could make the harvesting of a scattered resource economically viable. Eucalypts would not become a valuable commodity until the introduction of mechanical mills in the 1840s.

Cedar-getters were some of the first non-Aboriginal people in both the Illawarra and Hunter regions, then northward, moving inland along the major rivers and onto the penal colony of Moreton Bay. Over time, they would often be the first non-Aboriginal inhabitants of much of the coastal and hinterland areas, supporting themselves on small holdings and extracting logs which would be barged down to Sydney.

The felling was indiscriminate, setting the pattern for timber felling generally across Australia. By the 1840s, cedar was rare although its harvesting in NSW was not controlled until 1902. The profligacy of its use was astonishing - the first streets to be paved in the colony were up on The Rocks, a huddled group of huts on the hill to the west of Sydney Cove. They were paved with blocks of cedar.

Its use as a joinery timber was extremely common, with the larger civic buildings such as Sydney Hospital, the Mint, Old Government House at Parramatta showing off Regency timber work of outstanding quality and figure. Cedar cut before the 1830s often has a density and golden hue which is iridescent under shellac or the early gum based varnishes used in the colony.

But cedar is also very stable with excellent structural integrity whilst not being overly heavy. These properties were quickly recognised so that it was also used for agricultural equipment. Most land transport up until the 1920s involved bullock teams capable of hauling huge weights. Among the bullockees of the north coast, the most prized bullock yokes were red cedar, shaped and then hung to season high in the corrugated iron chimneys of their huts. The timber was smoke hardened, and the yokes virtually indestructable.

About twenty years ago, a friend was working on a church in Sydney and found some planks of cedar in the roofspace. The vicar saw them as rubbish and one plank ended up with me. I've done enough furniture restoration and architectural conservation work to see such timber as worth hanging onto - one day it will provide just the piece needed for a repair and so it has been lugged and stored in six workshops.

About two weeks ago, I decided to make a moxon vise. Being able to cut dovetails higher than my Record vise could comfortably do seemed like a very good idea and I had a pair of cast handles with a 3/8" internal thread I'd picked up somewhere. As the threaded rod or bolt would be considerably lighter than the usual 3/4", I didn't want to go much longer than 4".

Hunting through the wood rack, that piece of cedar became the obvious choice after a couple of days of musing. Its weight suggested it was reasonably dense, unlike much red cedar imported into Australia. So I brutally removed the nails and glued-on edge and jointed the plank.

It was and is lovely; far lovelier than I expected with a discreet ripple of gold and beautiful texture off the plane. It is almost buttery with the slightest hint of oiliness. It was a little brittle on the edges but given its life as a plank, it nevertheless stayed absolutely true.

So I now have a rather more beautiful twin threaded vise than I expected, lined with cork and polished with shellac and then waxed. Its taller than most at 165mm and certainly the vise faces are thinner but I don't intend to cut anything wider than 450mm. I hope it is a good and proper use of a venerable plank.


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