Since the outward appearance of a box is the first thing a customer sees Ray is always on the look-out for ‘interesting’ timber; that is wood with lovely figuring, markings or colours. It is for this reason that he likes using spalted timbers including beech, birch, ash or even sycamore, where there is always a good deal of variegation. Over the past year or so he has also used a lot of black poplar which, excuse the pun, has proved very popular!
At the end of the day these timbers can only be used if they are available. It’s a bit like the ‘Fish of the Day’ – what you get depends on what’s been caught. Ray also likes using elm burr, (or burls if you are reading this in the US), which can still be found in Scotland. Other timbers which are used when Ray can find them include walnut and oak burr.
There are, unfortunately, many timbers that are unsuitable for Ray’s work because he is limited by having to use a 3mm band saw blade with 14tpi. Some timbers are simply too dense or too oily to be cut with such a blade. Olive is one such wood. He would love to make boxes from olive wood but the blade simply won’t let him!
Right: The back of Ray’s Transit van after a ‘shopping’ trip to Lanarkshire Hardwoods near Edinburgh. Ray has to travel to Scotland because it is the only place in the UK where he can still buy his favourite timber – elm burr.
The wood is sourced from all over the country; Scotland, Somerset, Dorset, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire – wherever “interesting” timbers can be found. Since only dry timber is suitable for Ray’s construction method he has to buy the wood through merchants who have the space to air dry the wood or who have a kiln. This, of course, increases the price of the raw material, a cost which has to be passed on to the customer.
Below: These elm boards are ‘book-matched’, which is more than you can say about Ray and Patrick Baxter, the owner Lanarkshire Hardwoods.
The price on the label reflect a number of factors:
1. The cost of the wood – elm burr, for example is a much pricier material than, say, ash.
2. The quality of the wood – some box tops are much more attractive in terms of figuring, colour and character.
3. The amount of work inside – ‘busy’ complex boxes take much more time to make.
4. The size – bigger blocks of wood are much more difficult to cut. Also, in a bigger box, it is very time consuming to ensure that the sliding components all move smoothly.
5. How the wood has been dried – air dried wood is less expensive than wood which has been kiln dried although it is harder to source.