Brad Burdette and Brad Williams, both freshmen at Western Maryland College, sat in a science laboratory on a campus abundant with oaks, elms and ashes one day last week puzzling over their most recent assignment: Identify the 10 squares of wood spread out on the table before them.
The pieces - each about half an inch thick and the size of a candy bar - looked the same: pale, unfinished, barkless. They weren't identical, however. Each sample came from a different kind of tree.
Even after three months of studying the biology, physics and chemistry of wood, Burdette, Williams and their dozen classmates in Professor Richard Smith's "science of wood" class struggled to distinguish the beech, maple and ash from the walnut and black cherry. Armed with straight razors and hand-held lenses, the students shaved tiny slices from the wood and scrutinized the freshly cut end grain for patterns of pores and rays.
They sighed. They slumped. They sighed again.
Finally Williams and Burdette identified their first piece of wood: Liriodendron tulipifera - yellow poplar. Others weren't so lucky.
"This lab is impossible," Sylvanus Adenaike, an 18-year-old business major from Randallstown, exclaimed from the back of the lab.
Despite its name, the class isn't just about wood science. It's about woodworking. Specifically, it's about 18th- and 19th-century woodworking techniques. In the course of the semester, students use what they learn about wood grain and cellular structure and apply it to the callous-causing, knuckle-smashing creation of two 8-feet-long yellow poplar benches - without power tools.
"We need a band saw," Tyler Stewart, 18, of Demarest, N.J., said jokingly as he took a two-minute break from the shoulder-tingling task of planing wood.
Some facts the class has learned about wood: White oak is better for making outdoor furniture than red oak because it does not soak up water as quickly, and wood dried in an oven has a moisture content of zero. Students know the wood of an Osage orange tree glows in black light and that yellow poplars aren't poplars. They're magnolias.
They don't know what kind of wood Smith's desk is made of, however.
"He won't tell us," said Williams, 19, of Bowie. Smith would prefer that his students find that out for themselves, he said.
What does a piece of wood's cell structure and moisture content have to do with handsaws and augers?
Everything, said Smith, a chemist who also studies anti-cancer and anti-aging drugs and has been working with wood for most of his 56 years. "Although it sounds complicated, [the science] translates into how you can work with wood and how you can make work out of wood strong," he said.
The freshman seminar class meets three times a week - twice for lectures and once for a woodworking lab in the college's wood shop. Before the students touched a piece of wood, they had to sharpen rusty old planes by rubbing them with stones. That took Williams about 18 hours.
All but four of the students are making the benches, which require time outside class to complete. The four are making a chopping block for the shop. And except for an electric lathe, the students don't use power tools, and they don't use nails or screws.
Using hand tools requires knowledge of the inherent strengths and weaknesses of wood, Smith said. "You have to understand wood," he said. "With power tools, you can cut wood in any direction you like, but you can only split it along the grain."
Only four of the class' 13 students plan to major in a science. None has experience working with wood beyond high school or middle school shop classes.
Many of the students said the class is harder than they expected. The median scores for their first test were in the high 60s, Smith said. "They've risen significantly since then," he added.
"The classroom part threw me off," Adenaike said as he worked a plane down a piece of yellow poplar and left a mass of purple-streaked white curls on the board in the tool's wake. "The woodworking part - that's what I was looking forward to."
"It's kind of hard to grasp," Lauren Cramer, an 18-year-old from Barrington, N.J., and the only woman in the class, said as she drilled a hole in piece of tree trunk. She said she had little experience with wood aside from putting logs on the fire at camp. She said she took the class because it was one of the few freshman seminars with space remaining.
Erich Bass, 19, of Doylestown, Pa., said he enjoys the challenge. "It's good to get out," he said, surveying the chopping block he was working on. "You can only listen to so many lectures. Besides, after this class, I will be able to buy unfinished furniture and finish it myself."
This is the first year for the class. Smith, a Western Maryland professor for 30 years, got the idea for the seminar in the spring on the 30-minute drive to the college in Westminster from his home in Woodsboro, Frederick County.