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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.