The Importance of Wood Patterns – Creating “Wood with Character”

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Wood Patterns and “Wood with Character”

Winter has arrived, which means it’s time for working in the shop on a special project or two.  With the snow outside, I’m reminded that every snowflake is supposed to be one of a kind, unique, and never to be duplicated in nature.  I believe wood fits the same category when you think of color, wood patterns, figure, knots, and other visible characteristics found in every piece of wood – no two are alike.  Even when you rip a board and a lay the two faces side by side, you will see slight variation from the wood pattern to color and everything in between.

As you’re planning your project and materials, I suggest looking for unique wood patterns and “wood with character.”  I would suggest that wood with character is what makes your project unique; it sets it off from the ordinary.  It can take your project from a function piece to a work of art.

So what makes wood with character?  There are many possibilities.  It could be wood with a unique grain pattern like that of walnut crotch wood or pieces where the wood pattern stands out such as cathedral grain found in ash or oak.  It could be color variations including the difference between heartwood and sapwood.  Highly graded lumber will not have any knots, color variations, or flaws, but to me those knots, color variations and flaws add character to a piece.  Quarter sawn oak, maple, and sycamore are examples where character shows because of the angle the wood has been cut from the trunk.  Quarter sawn white oak is found in many fine antique pieces and it is readily available today.  Rustic look furniture and cabinets give you another type of look.

Examples of Unique Wood Patterns

Wood Patterns - Wood with Character - Figured Bubinga

Figured Bubinga

Wood Patterns - Wood with Character - Walnut Crotchwood

Walnut Crotchwood

Wood Patterns - Wood with Character - Fireplace Cover Cathedral Grain

Fireplace Cover Cathedral Grain

Wood Patterns - Wood with Character - Hickory Cabinet

Hickory Cabinet

Wood Patterns - Wood with Character - Hickory Bench Leg

Hickory Bench Leg


Maple is a species with so many variations.  Much of the variation is called “figure”.  Without trying to get too scientific, figure is caused by the wood reflecting light at different angles from within the wood itself.  Figure in general runs at right angles to the grain of the wood.  The types of figure have names such as curly, tiger, fiddle back, and quilted.  Some hard (sugar) maple can be found with “bird’s eye” figure.

Wood Patterns - Wood with Character - Figured Maple Bowl

Figured Maple Bowl


Spalting is another way wood can have character and is caused by decay.  Black lines will be found in wood and these are caused by fungus.  The fungus is, in a sense, staking out its territory for decaying a piece of wood.  Spalting is not unique to any particular piece of wood but spalted maple seems to be more common than others.  Variation in pattern or color can be also caused by insects such as that found in ambrosia maple.

Wood Patterns - Wood with Character - Antler Hat Rack


Do not forget my favorite type of wood with character – burl wood.  This is hard to find in lumber but may be readily available in veneer from a number of wood supply houses.  Burl figure is so unique and is normally be used as accents or inlays.  Wood turners prize this kind of wood.

Wood Patterns - Wood with Character - Burl Slab

Burl Slab

Mixing Wood

We tend to think of furniture and other wood projects as being a maple this, a walnut that, an oak something else and so on.  However, mixing types of wood for their color contrast can be quite stunning.  Accents in dark woods such as ebony, purpleheart, walnut and others can really add some spice to your piece.

Another way to mix woods is through inlay banding and string inlay.  This is a little more challenging as you are cutting into the face of your project but can add striking contrast or a nice touch to make it unique.  Various patterned material is readily available at Woodcraft and Rockler along with internet sources.  The pictured blanket chest mixes walnut with white cedar and has inlay banding on the lid.

Wood Patterns - Wood with Character - Blanket Chest

Where to Find Wood Patterns

Adding wood with any of these features, methods or wood patterns can add to the beauty and uniqueness of your project.  Simply going to the big box store and grabbing some wood is not the way to build you project in my opinion.  In fact, I would avoid the big box stores entirely when buying project wood.

So where do you go?  Check to see if there are some local sawyers that have wood for sale that you can pick and choose from.  I am quite fortunate to have two stores like that within a reasonable distance.  You may have a local lumber yard that carries some good boards. Woodcraft and Rockler stores will stock some very nice boards including some exotic woods.  There are also some great internet based vendors that will help.  I have found some great wood at North Woods Figured Woods, Bell Forest Product and Hearne Hardwoods.  There are many others that advertise in woodworking magazine.  Be prepared to have to square up and flatten these board as they are usually quite rough.

Let your imagination go and have some fun designing and making that next special project by using wood with character.  Now get out to your shop, make some sawdust and perhaps…a family heirloom.

Wood Patterns - Wood with Character - Coffee Table

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Lon Knoedler loves woodworking and spends all his spare time working passionately on projects in the shop for family, friends, and occasional customers. He became …Read more

26 comments on “The Importance of Wood Patterns – Creating “Wood with Character”

    1. Lon Post author

      Thanks Kurt. Sorry I didn’t even know about these replies until now. As far as knowledge goes, I have a lot more to learn that I have to share. Wood is such a great material to work with and make items that will hopefully last a long time.

  1. John S

    Wow, wow, wow. The grain of those different types of wood look amazing. I didn’t think I would like the mixing of two types of wood, but that blanket chest looks really great!

    1. Lon Post author

      Thanks John. I love walnut but it can create a very dark piece unless you lighten it up a bit. I have made some stools and benches with figured walnut tops but the bottoms were maple. I thought they looked great that way and others did too. Sometimes just mixing in a contrasting element like a spline or inlay really sets things off well.

    1. Lon Post author

      As I mentioned to John, even just a little piece for contrast can be quite effective in making the piece even more special. I love inlay banding material. It is available with so many patterns. Another way to mix woods is with veneer and I have yet to try that. Using book matched pieces can be awesome.

  2. Matt

    Really great read Lon, some of those are really beautiful, I hope to get to work more with solid wood and slabs in particular in the next year. That burl slab is beautiful.

    1. Lon Post author

      Making a slab table is something I always wanted to do for myself. Find the right slab Matt and it will all fall into place for you. It is really not that complicated of a project. I am looking forward to seeing what you put together.

      1. Rich

        Great article Lon. The walnut and white cedar cabinet is stunning. I have always loved the way walnut looks when it’s finished just right. Your slab table is to (excuse me) die for. I am amazed at what some people have done with slabs and how nice they always turn out. One of these days That’s what I want to try.

  3. Dirty

    Lon you do some very breath taking wood work!
    I love all the natural grains in your work.
    The last pic with that 3″ slab of wood for the table top is for me just gorgeous. I love the heavy look of it.

    1. Lon Post author

      Thank you very much Dirty. I have to figure out what to make in Koa. That beautiful wood is missing in my array of projects. The inspiration of what to build has not hit yet.

  4. Keith

    Always loved the natural beauty in wood grain. I know quite a few people that just slap on the paint right away, but for me, a clear coat of Varathane can make the project be so much more.

    1. Lon Post author

      The wood grain is why I love woodworking. There is so much beauty there in the wood and each piece is unique Paint has its place but I am with you, let the wood grain beauty shine.

    1. Lon Knoedler

      Thank you very much John. It is simply a matter of looking for the unique pieces to start a project. I am making some footstools with some quartersawn oak now. I will post some pictures in a while. A fair amount of work to go.

  5. Gerald Taylor

    Thanks Lon , you have me looking more at the grain in the different cuts . I like to use granite that has lots of movement in it in making my furniture . So If I can select wood that has a complementary movement in it that can really make it out of the ordinary . My work has mainly been in metal an granite . My brother in law has made a fantastic homemade chainsaw an band saw mill thats highloy accurate. So I can be very selective in my wood .
    Thanks for sharing .

  6. Sergey

    Great post Lon! I really enjoyed reading it. Great work too, proper pattern selection brings out a great deal of wood’s natural beauty. Please keep up posting wonderful articles.

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