Unusual Characteristics of Wood

Certain woods have unusual characteristics that are not widely known.  These are characteristics that are beyond the normal everyday usage of the wood.  These also include unusual ways that trees grow as well as folklore, myth and legend associated with certain woods.  While this information is not necessary for woodworking, a craftsman should be fully informed.

Wood that grows on the south side of trees (in the northern hemisphere) is more flexible and springy that wood which grows on the north side of the tree, which is harder and denser.  Under normal growing conditions the center of the tree is closer to the north side of the tree.  Trees are sugared on the south side of the tree and sap is removed for navel stores on the south side of the tree.  Under the largest branch also produces more sap.  A large Oak tree can transpire over a ton of water (250 gallons) in a single day.

While Basswood is excellent for carving because of its uniform soft grain and its ability to deaden sound and used in musical instruments, it also can be soaked in water and compressed to about half its size, it will spring back to its original shape when it dries.  Used to make puzzles where one piece of wood is placed through another piece of wood without any trickery except its ability to be compressed and forced through another piece of wood.

Most trees grow in relation to the seasons, the sap is up in the summer and down in the winter. Satinwood however grows to a different cycle, the sap rises on the full moon and drops on the new moon.  Perhaps this is why the wood is so full of minerals that contribute to the crystalline look of this beautiful wood.  In the fall, the Ginkgo biloba, while a primitive gymnosperm from China, can loose all of its fan shaped leaves in as little as 30 minutes.

Both Ash and Walnut (which are related) have collapsible pith at the center of their branches and were used by the Native Americans to make pipe stems.  A grub was put in one end and allowed to eat its way through the soft pith to the other end.  A hot wire can easily clear the pith from the center of the branch.  Black Ash trees can be pounded while the wood is still green and this pounding loosens layers of wood used for baskets and chair seat bottoms.  The open ring porous part of the wood (springwood) is crushed and the layer of solid wood (summerwood) comes off in thin layers, which are scraped and formed into strips for weaving.

Cherry produces the sweetest fruit but the inner bark of the tree contains concentrations of strychnine and is used medicinally for sore throats, coughs and as a stimulant.  The inner bark of Willow contains salicylic acid, which at the turn of the twentieth century was used to synthesize modern aspirin.  A branch of willow will keep mold from growing in the glue pot.  The bark of Cork Oak (Quercus suber) is periodically harvested every four to seven years without harming the tree for making of all things, cork.  The best comes from Portugal; the finest quality cork comes from 2nd, 3rd and subsequent harvests.  The bark is thicker on the north side of a tree.  The root of the Spruce tree is used to flavor ‘root beer’ and is used as cordage by the Native Americans for lashing canoes and other bark utensils.  The bark from the roots of Sassafras makes a delicious tea, is a blood thinner and a tonic.  You can rub the ‘nut’ of the buckeye on joints to alleviate pain.  The shavings of Osage Orange can be used as a dye for lightwoods or textiles.

The largest tree on earth is the Giant Sequoia, the largest living thing on earth is the Aspen tree and the oldest living tree on earth is the diminutive Bristlecone Pine that can grow more than 5000 years if not accidentally cut down.  When trying to determine the age of these trees, scientists did a core sample of what they thought was the oldest tree in a stand in the West.  At 4600 years, they thought it was the oldest, so they cut down a smaller one nearby to do a ring study, that tree was over 5000 years old.

Some trees such as lodge pole pine, jack pine and limber pine requires fire to scarify the seeds for proper germination.  Controlling natural fires have caused a decline in propagation.  The aspen is a short-lived nurse tree for evergreens and for the same reasons the total number of individual examples are dwindling.  If you have seen one aspen tree you have seen them all.  Every aspen on earth are genetically identical with every other aspen.

Coppice (also called copse) is a thicket or scrub forest originating from root growth, stump sprouts and suckers.  Climax forest is old growth at its maximum maturity and called original growth, virgin forest or wildwood.  Previously logged areas that have re-grown is second growth and because of the more open growing conditions the wood will have wider rings that the old growth which competed for nutrients.  A weald is an English term for a heavily wooded area.  Arboreal, Alburnam and sylvan are terms used to describe anything relating to trees.  Sylvan or Silvan is a spirit that frequents the forest.  ‘Wood’ is an Old English term for being insane or mad.  If you are ‘out of the woods’ you are free from danger.  If someone is a ‘chip off the old block’ they resemble their parents, as does ‘that acorn didn’t fall far from the oak tree’.  If someone has ‘a chip on their shoulder’ they are ready for a confrontation.  A ‘woodenhead’ or ‘blockhead’ is a numskull.  ‘Timber’ can be used as a noun to describe growing trees and as an interjection to describe trees being cut down.  A person can ‘lumber’ along or be ‘lumbered’ with burdens.  You can ‘board’ a ship made of boards on a gangplank.  With all members ‘on board’ the ‘board’ met in the ‘boardroom’ and agreed ‘across the board’.  ‘Springboard, sideboard, buckboard, blackboard, bulletin board, dart board, dough board, cutting board, game board, dashboard, backboard, headboard, footboard, centerboard, bundling board and board like.  One can ‘leaf’ through a book or ‘needle’ an opponent.  Trees and other vascular plants produce most of the oxygen made on this planet.  Dryads are wood nymphs and Druids are ancient Celts with a fondness for oak trees.  The word ‘wood’ can mean the place where the tree grows, the very material itself or something made out of wood.  And no one ever wants to be taken to the woodshed.  How far can you walk into the forest?  Only halfway, then you are walking out of the forest.  If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?  Of course it does, it will make a physical noise or sound but not a perceived sound.  If you walk around a tree, and there is a squirrel on the other side of the tree and it remains out of site on the backside as you walk around the tree, do you walk around the squirrel or not?  ‘Knock on wood’ or ‘touch wood’ is a superstition intended to bring luck or at least ward off bad luck.  While its origins are obscure it appears that it has to do with the spirits inhabiting sacred trees such as the holly, ash or oak.

There are about 100,000 species of Hardwood commercially available in the world today.  There are about 700 species on North America and about 100 species of Conifers on this continent.

Phrases relating to wood and trees:

A real log jamb.
A walk in the woods.
As the twig is inclined so the tree is bent.
Augers well.
Barking up the wrong tree.
Can’t see the forest for the trees.
Cash on the barrelhead.
Chip of the old block.
Chip on the shoulder.
Dull as a froe.
Fall off the wagon.
Get on the bandwagon.
Going against the grain.
Hammer it out.
Knock on wood.
Lock, stock and barrel.
Neck of the woods.
Out of the woods.
Out on a limb.
Over a barrel.
Sleep like a log.
Sleep tight.
Square peg in a round hole.
Squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Stiff as a board.
That acorn didn’t fall far from the oak.
That old saw.
Top drawer
Touch wood.
Turn the table.
Walk the plank



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