Since the industrial revolution people have become removed from nature. Things that were taken for granted in past centuries are not obvious to modern city dwellers. The novice woodworker usually purchases dimensional lumber and turning blanks from commercial houses. Often the species are limited to oak, maple, walnut, cherry and a few other species.
Being frugal by nature I have always gotten my wood in the rough. Neighbors give me trees or logs or I find them left by the side of the road by utility companies. Much of the wood I find comes from inside city limits where the wood is a liability for the home or business owner.
There are many non commercial species that one runs across. Timber men want tall straight trees with no defects, crotches or knots. Many trees do not have such a growth pattern and don’t find their way into their inventories. However, many are very beautiful or have unique characteristics.
I want to share my perspective as a turner and treen ware maker about some of the woods I have encountered. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list but just my own personal experience. I will start with the more common trees one encounters.
Oak is probably a very underrated species for wood turners. I had a real bias against oak as rough turned bowls always seemed to check on me. I would take large blanks out of the paper bags in which they had aged only to find to my dismay large ugly checks going all the way through the bowl making it useless.
A few years a large red oak had died across the street and when it was taken down by the professionals my neighbors said I ought to get some of it. I told them I was not very interested as it always seemed to check on me. Curiosity prompted me to walk across the street and actually examine the tree. Lying on its side it was about five feet high. It had lived 150 years by ring count. The trunk had been sectioned into boles about 16 inches in length.
After inspecting one of these massive boles I determined that I could get some quarter sawn two inch thick pieces to make large platters with. So, with permission, I ended cutting out a platter blank from the heart out to the top, bottom and each side of the bole. However, it was so large that I was able to get four more from the remaining quarters. Looking at the pieces that remained I could not make myself leave that beautiful wood in the snow. Even though they represented eight sections of the bole they were still very heavy to lift into my van.
I had just learned to make natural edge bowls and decided to try that technique on these blanks. You had the black bark, a layer of spalted sap wood and the red heart wood for nice contrast. Now the technique for turning a natural edge bowl is to turn it to finished dimensions on the lathe. I leave it attached to the face plate for a few days and then can begin sanding before I reverse chuck it to finish the foot.
The secret is to turn the bowl thin and make sure the bottom is s trifle thinner than the rim. I partially make a parting cut to isolate as much of the wood screwed on the face plate from the foot of the bowl to make sure that it allows the base and foot to dry along with the rim at the same speed. This was a trick I learned from Fred Williamson, a fine bowl turner in the Crozet, Virginia area.
To my amazement six of the seven bowls I turned had absolutely no checking. Now I was hooked on oak. Here are some examples of the 150 year old red oak.
On another occasion I was offered some 350 year old white oak. It was part of a stand of virgin timber in a park in Baltimore, Maryland. This tree was just outside the park but part of the stand of virgin timber. Most of the trunk had already been cut up for firewood . I took three pieces from very large limbs. I remember not being very impressed at the time. I split each piece and got six blanks to work with. As soon as I put my gouge to the wood I realized I had something special. The wood worked with unusual ease for oak and it completely drew me in. I guess anything that can live for 350 years has something special going for it. None of the six bowls checked and the woman who gave me the wood bought all five that I had completed. I have one more that was not finished at the time and every time I look at it I wish I had gotten more. The point of this is that oak is a lovely wood and when handled correctly gives wonderful results. The big plus is that oak is everywhere. Here is a picture of the white oak bowl. The light areas are due to spalting of the sap wood.
Cherry has to be one of my all time favorite woods for turning, treen ware and furniture. It is hard and does not carve easily like mahogany but in every other respect it is without a peer. It is tight grained, machines easily, takes a beautiful finish and is very durable. All woods tend to darken with age. Wood is carbon and if you have ever seen any 17th century antiques they are black. All wood reverts back to this color. Cherry wood has a dye in it which turns a beautiful deep red with continued exposure to light. Bowls that have been to many outdoor shows with me over the years are ever so much more pleasing to my eye because of that deep cherry red they have assumed and look quite different from their pale peers which have been newly turned. So, you don’t have to keep your cherry bowls out of the sunlight, it just makes them prettier. Other woods such as walnut tend to bleach in the sun but not cherry.
The reason I know about the dye in the cherry wood is that it stains my clothes like no other wood I work. My wife is constantly complaining about the stains it leaves on the towels. So you woodworker be careful what you do with your cherry dust.
This is a cherry bvwl which has begun to take on that deep red color.
This is a more newly turned bowl. In time it will get as dark or darker than the cherry bowl above.
The crotch of a cherry tree is something in which timber men and fire place log splitters have no interest. Yet within these pieces are designs of spectacular beauty. Nature sews a crotch together with wood cells growing in all directions. Cells growing in one direction diffract the light differently than those growing in another direction. The result is light and dark ares which some have likened to a flame hence the name flame grained cherry. Below is a platter showing this feature. I have learned to cherish irregular grain. Flame grain is also spectacular in other woods such as walnut, mahogany, etc.
Don’t overlook ornamental cherry trees. I was asked to make some things from a flowering cherry whose roots were growing into a swimming pool. It was not particularly large but I took some of the best pieces to the shop. Below is what came out of one. This wood took a beautiful finish and the yellow sap wood was most attractive to my eye.
Maple is another wonderful wood. For those not familiar with the commercial timber nomenclature they use two terms. The first is rock maple. This generally means sugar maple and sometimes includes red maple. The second is swamp maple. By this they mean all other maples. The maple family is large. There is little question but what sugar or rock maple is a marvelous wood to work. It, too, is tight grained, but has a light color and machines well. It takes a lovely finish. Over time the maple turns a lovely yellowish gold color. My experience is that it takes about 20-30 years for this color to become fully apparent but it is very warm and pleasing to the eye. Stains cannot really do it justice. I prefer an oil stain without pigment and just allow the wood to age.
The maple is subject to genetic variation in how the wood cells grow. A wavy growth pattern can give us curly maple, tiger maple, fiddle back maple and birds eye maple. Norway maple, not native to America but imported as an ornamental tree, has some spectacular grain patterns as evidenced below. I have heard that the Stradivarius violins and cellos may have been made of Norway maple. If someone offers you Norway maple, it would be prudent to take them up on the offer.