Hard Wood Species

by admin on March 11, 2012

From Grant Cambell’s blog woodworking today.
Alder: Alnus rubra

Where it GrowsPrincipally the Pacific Northwest, where it is the most abundant commercial hardwood. Average height is 90 feet and the tree matures in 25 to 40 years, but will begin to deteriorate by 60 to 80 years of age. Alder grows well on burned over lands and thrives in areas that have been ravaged by fire, earthquakes or logging

Main UsesFurniture, kitchen cabinets, doors, shutters, moldings, panel stock, turnings, carvings and kitchen utensils.
Alders, like the gumwoods, can be stained to approximate many other species, and when finished, it takes a practiced eye to discern the differences.

Ash: Fraxinus spp.
Norse mythology refers to ash as “the mighty tree that supports the heavens” and “below earth its roots went down to hell.” Ash belongs to the olive family, although its only fruit is a dart-like winged seed. Ash is a popular species for food containers because the wood has no taste. Admiral Richard Byrd wore snowshoes made from ash during his polar expeditions and early windmills were made from this species.

Where it GrowsThroughout the Eastern U.S. White ash trees range in height from 80 to 120 feet with diameter from 2 to 5 feet.

Main UsesFurniture, flooring, doors, architectural millwork and molding, kitchen cabinets, paneling, tool handles, baseball bats, hockey sticks, billiard cues, skis, oars and turnings. Ash lends itself particularly to the finishing technique known as “Pickling”, where paints or pigments are thinned to translucency, then wiped on and clear-coated after drying. Many spectacular colors and effects can be achieved with pickled finishes.
Green Ash is well suited for steam bending and for rough turnings which are left slightly over-sized and finished after seasoning.

Beech: Fagus grandifolia
Known as “Mother of the Forest” for its nutrient-rich humus. Beech has a long, illustrious past. The Aryan Tribes of Asia, the earliest known people to use a written language, carved their messages into the soft, smooth pliable bark of the beech tree trunk. The writings, cut out of the bark and used intact, were called “boc”, which eventually became “book.”

Where it GrowsThroughout the Eastern U.S., commercial concentration is in the Central and Middle Atlantic states. Average tree height is 120 feet.

Main UsesFurniture, doors, flooring, millwork, paneling, brush handles, woodenware, bending stock, toys and turnings. It is particularly suitable for food and liquid containers since there is no odor or taste. Beech is normally straight grained and is used for its’ resistance to warping.

Birch: Betula alleghaniensis
From sap to bark, birch trees are used to make everything from beer to toothpicks. Native Americans stretched birch bark on their canoe frames and used the wood for their arrows. The birch is New Hampshire’s state tree. It is also popular as an ornamental tree and has gained the nickname “Mother Tree” because birches were planted at the White House to honor the mothers of U.S. presidents. The oil extracted from the bark contains a chemical used to treat rheumatism and inflammations.

Where it GrowsEastern U.S., principally Northern and Lake states. The average tree is 60 to 70 feet in height. Birch prefers valleys and stream banks although it adapts itself to higher grounds.

Main UsesFurniture, millwork and paneling, doors, flooring, kitchen cabinets, turnings and toys. The drink “birch beer”, a root beer-like drink is decocted from the roots much like sassafras tea or root beer.

Cherry: Prunus serotina
Like all fruit trees, cherry belongs to the rose family. American Colonists used the cherry tree for its fruit, medicinal properties and home furnishings. They mixed cherry juice with rum to create Cherry Bounce, a bitter but highly favored cordial. The bark was used in the production of drugs to treat bronchitis, and cherry stalks were used to make tonics.

Where it GrowsThroughout Midwestern and Eastern U.S. Main commercial areas: Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and New York. Average tree height is 60 to 80 feet. Cherry trees can live to the extreme ages of 150 to 200 years.

Main UsesFine furniture and cabinet making, moldings and millwork, kitchen cabinets, paneling, flooring, doors, boat interiors, musical instruments, turnings and carvings.

Cypress: Taxodium distichum
Other Names: Bald cypress, Red cypress, Yellow cypress, Southern cypress
Cypress trees are conifers, but unlike most American softwoods, these are deciduous trees that shed foliage in the fall like hardwoods.
Although cypress is a softwood, it grows alongside hardwoods and traditionally has been grouped and manufactured with hardwoods. The oils in cypress’ heartwood make it one of the most durable woods when exposed to moisture conditions causing decay. Unfortunately, Cypresses are very slow growers, and the bulk of the virgin timber has been logged off. Some loggers are now harvesting “Lost” timber; that is timber that sunk in rivers and streams on the way to sawmills, and have remained submerged for as much as 100 years. This salvaged timber goes for a premium price, but it is better to pay slightly more for a project than to completely deplete the virgin forests.
Where it GrowsMost cypress trees are natives of the South. They are found primarily in wet, swampy areas along the Atlantic Coastal Plain from Delaware to Florida, and west along the Gulf of Mexico to the border of Texas and Mexico. Cypress also thrives along the Mississippi Valley from the Louisiana delta to southern Indiana.
Cypress roots love water. Some trees growing on wet sites develop what are called cypress “knees” or pneumatophores. The knee-like upright growths come from the roots, helping to support the tree and also to aerate the waterlogged root system. The wood from the knees is soft and light and can be used to make vases and novelty items.
Main UsesExterior: siding, shutters, shingles, trim, fence posts, patio and deck furniture.Interior: paneling, molding, millwork, cabinetry, flooring, furniture and bead board ceilings.

Elm: Ulmus Rubra
Elm is the state tree of Massachusetts and North Dakota.
Where it GrowsThe Eastern to Midwest U.S. Average tree height is 40 to 60 feet.
Main UsesFurniture, cabinet making, flooring, millwork, paneling and caskets. Green Elm is turned for bowls and finished after seasoning. Small turnings can be dried in a microwave oven.

Hard Maple: Acer saccharum, Acer nigrum
Other Names: Sugar Maple, Black Maple
The hard maple is the state tree of Wisconsin, Vermont, New York and West Virginia. In the North, during the cold nights and warm days of late winter, the sugar maple is tapped for its sucrose-containing sap, the source of maple syrup. It may take up to 30 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Early American settlers used maple ashes to make soap and Native Americans crafted their spears from hard maple. Until the turn of the century, the heels of women’s shoes were made from maple. Maple has been a favorite of American furniture makers since early Colonial days. Hard maple is the standard wood for cutting boards because it imparts no taste to food and holds up well.

Where it GrowsEastern U.S., principally Mid-Atlantic and Lake states. A cold weather tree favoring a more northerly climate, its average height is 130 feet.

Main UsesFlooring, furniture, paneling, ballroom and gymnasium floors, kitchen cabinets, worktops, table tops, butchers blocks, toys, kitchenware and millwork: stairs, handrails, moldings, and doors. Straight grained Maple is used for musical instrument necks, and Fiddle-back, curly and birds’ eye Maple are used for instrument backs and sides.

Hickory and Pecan: Carya spp.
Its name is an English contraction of the Native American “powcohicora.” In Eastern North America, it survived the catastrophic changes of the Glacial Epoch, some 50 million years ago. Thus, it is the first strictly American hardwood species. Westward trekking pioneers made hickory a prerequisite for their wagon wheels. Later, the Wright Brothers whittled hickory for their “flying contraption.” Hickory sawdust and chips are used to flavor meat by smoking. Commercially, the pecan is the most important native North American nut tree and it is the state tree of Texas. Pecan was a Native American name given to any nut hard enough to require cracking with a stone. Native Americans, particularly in the Northeast, used hickory for their bows. Unless pecan is ordered specifically, it is generally sold with hickory. Look for somewhat pinker wood in your hickory stockpile.

Where it GrowsEastern U.S., principal commercial areas: Central and Southern states. Tree height ranges from 60 to 120 feet. Hickories grow slowly and it is not unusual for a tree to take 200 years to mature.

Main UsesTool handles, furniture, cabinetry, flooring, paneling, wooden ladders, dowels and sporting goods.

Poplar: Liriodendron tulipifera Other Names: Yellow Poplar, Tulip Wood, Whitewood
Yellow poplar trees grow taller than any other U.S. hardwood species and they are members of the magnolia family. The bark, leaves, flowers, fruit and roots contain pharmaceuticals. Poplar is the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Where it GrowsWidespread throughout Eastern U.S. Tree heights can reach 150 feet.

Main UsesLight construction, furniture, kitchen cabinets, doors, musical instruments, siding, paneling, moldings and millwork, edge-glued panels, turnings and carvings. Poplar sands to a very fine finish, holds paint extremely well and is very stable. Staining presents a blotching problem, but this can be overcome by conditioning with a light coat of thinned shellac, or with the use of gel stains.

Red Oak: Quercus spp.
The Latin name for oak, Quercus, means “a fine tree.” The oaks have been key in America’s industrial transformation: railroad ties, wheels, plows, looms, barrels and, of course, furniture and floors. The oak is the state tree of New Jersey.

Where it GrowsWidespread throughout Eastern U.S. The oaks are by far the most abundant species group growing in the Eastern hardwood forests. Red oaks grow more abundantly than the white oaks. The red oak group comprises many species, of which about eight are commercial. Average tree height is 60 to 80 feet.

Main UsesFurniture, flooring, architectural millwork and moldings, doors, kitchen cabinets, paneling and caskets. Quarter sawn white oak is prime furniture and veneer wood, but the cathedral effect of flat sawn red oak is hard to beat from an esthetic viewpoint.

Sassafras: Sassafras albidum Other Names: Golden Elm

Where it GrowsSporadically distributed throughout the Eastern and midwest U.S. Height varies with region: southern trees generally grow tallest with average heights of 80 feet.

Main UsesFurniture, millwork and moldings, windows, doors and door frames and kitchen cabinets.

OTHER USES Sassafras tea and root beer can be made from boiling the tree’s flowers and the root bark, and the leaves are dried and pounded in a mortar and pestle to make the file that thickens and seasons Cajun soups and gumbos. Sassafras oil from the tree’s root can also be used to perfume soap and as medicine. Chewing on sassafras twigs stimulates saliva production: a useful fact for desperately thirsty hikers.

Soft Maple: Acer rubrum, Acer saccharinum
Other Names: Red Maple, Silver Maple, Box Elder

Where it GrowsThroughout Eastern U.S., and to a lesser extent on the West Coast (bigleaf maple). Average tree height is 60 to 80 feet.

Main UsesFurniture, paneling and millwork, kitchen cabinets, moldings, doors, musical instruments, and turnings. Soft maple is often used as a substitute for hard maple or stained to resemble other species such as cherry. Its physical and working properties also make it a possible substitute for beech.

Sycamore: Platanus occidentalis Other Names: Buttonwood, Plane tree, London Plane tree

Where it GrowsThroughout Eastern U.S. Average tree height is 60 to 125 feet, with peeling outer bark and a smooth, mottled cream, tan and green inner bark resembling camouflage. The wood is near white and subtly grained, but it takes stain well. This is the “London Plane tree” of literature.

Main UsesFurniture, furniture parts (drawer sides), millwork, cabinetry, paneling and moldings, flooring, kitchenware, butchers blocks, toys and fruit crates.

Walnut: Juglans nigra
The roots of the walnut tree release a toxic material which may kill other plants growing above them. From the time of ancient Greeks until well into modern European history, walnuts symbolized fertility and were strewn at weddings. Just the opposite, in Romania, brides who wished to delay childbearing placed into the bodice of their wedding dresses one walnut for each year they hoped to wait.

Where it GrowsThroughout Eastern U.S., but principal commercial region is the Central states. Average tree height of 100 to 150 feet.

Main UsesFurniture, cabinets, architectural millwork, doors, flooring, paneling, and gun stocks. A favored wood to use in contrast with lighter-colored species, especially in marquetry and inlay work. The walnut/maple combination is popular for cutting boards and checker boards.

White Oak: Quercus spp.
White oak is impervious to liquids, and has been used extensively for ship timbers, barrels and casks. White oak is the state tree of Connecticut, Illinois and Maryland.

Where it GrowsWidespread throughout the Eastern U.S. The white oak group comprises many species, of which about eight are commercial. The trees prefer rich well drained soil, and average height is 60 to 80 feet.

Main UsesFurniture, flooring, architectural millwork, moldings, doors, kitchen cabinets, paneling, barrel staves (tight cooperage) and caskets.

With the diversity of sustainable native species, there is very little reason to turn to exotic woods. The use of rare and endangered species only promotes destruction of forests through clear cutting and illegal logging. I only use exotic lumber when it is certified as plantation grown. Although you will pay a premium for certified stock, the sellers of illegal lumber know that they too can charge a premium price, and they undercut the price a little to make it attractive to buyers. If we buy only certified stock, the market for illegal lumber will cease to exist, and our forests might be saved for future generations.

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