Copyright 1989 - 2006 John T. Kramer
following listing is a selected representation of woods commonly used
in North America during the early nineteenth century. Some of the
unique features and suitability of various specie to particular
purpose is noted.
First published in International Woodworking Magazine as Alburnum's Almanac
used for charcoal in making gunpowder. Holds tacks well as
upholstery frames. Durable under water well suited to objects
repeatedly wet. Good firewood few sparks.
interlocking grain suitable to mallets and mauls. Can be
finished with only a chisel or knife, turns well. Wears smooth
with use good for long wearing moving parts like spinning
wheels, bobbins, pulleys, and shuttles for looms. Resists
cracking and checking when seasoned and imparts no flavor when
used for cooking utensils; dough boards, spoons, ladles, bowls,
springy and weathers well it makes excellent baskets and seat
bottoms as it also splits readily. A good choice for bent or
bowed pieces, like wheel felloes snowshoe frames, or ones
taking shock as in shooting bows and striking tool handles.
Unusual firewood as it burns well green or seasoned.
long lived weak soft wood was easily fashioned into implements
but, is difficult to finish is plain and resists stain, and
decomposes readily. Was occasionally used for temporary forts
and outposts as the light logs were easy to cut and move. The
inner bark after slight decay makes excellent tinder.
carved and finished into bowls, scoops, spoons, cups, shovels
and other necessities of life. Linden is used for sound
deadening in musical instruments. Cut thin is readily bent and
formed into square or round boxes. First choice for dry
cooperage storing tea, flour, sugar, meal, &c. Paint and
glue brushes can be made by pounding the ends of green twigs.
grain dense wood that seasons well with only minor checking,
tends not to warp. Fresh beech will split when nailed, seasoned
will not. Stable when well seasoned hence ideal for plane
bodies, wooden screws for vises, clamps and presses. Some old
trunks would rot in the middle providing habitat for bees, often
felled to recover honey then sawn, hollowed more, fire hardened
and used as "gums" for storage of grain or watering
troughs. Fine for kitchen utensils.
be tapped like maples for syrup. Bark used extensively for
boxes and storage containers as well as canoes; has been used
for cooking pots. Highly figured it can be used for furniture
and veneers. Strong and durable it is brittle and nail holes
are best pre-drilled. Pounded and frayed branches make
brittle and needing pre-drilled nail holes it turns and carves
beautifully. Seldom found without some wave or curl to the
grain. Dense close grained and sometimes difficult to plane
when highly figured.
split is well suited to snake rail fences. Bark is used for
tanning leather as it is rich in tannin. Straight grain is well
suited to large members of household looms.
for dugout canoes needs to be hollowed when green. Inner bark
is used as winter food for livestock as well as fire tinder.
used for charcoal in gunpowder it was used extensively for
wearplates, bobbins, pulleys and shafts because of smooth
wearing qualities. Rots easily in the weather and is
susceptible to insect damage. Young slender shafts were favored
strong tough wood that resists splitting due to its interlocked
grain was used for parts requiring exceptional strength; wagon
hubs, knotty boards used for the wagon boxes. Early water
pipes, wharves, piles, barge and fishing boat hulls all were
made of elm because of its excellent resistance to water.
Readily rived when green into the most durable shingles, it is
nearly impossible to split when well seasoned. Sawn into
clapboards it was preferred sheathing for homes and buildings.
Burns well once started it has an unpleasant odor to its smoke.
Requires long careful seasoning to prevent warping and
shrinking. Lightweight and bendable was used for bowbacks and
windsor seats. Furniture frames hold tacks well, longest
lasting coffins, used for bowls and barrels. Nearly wiped out
by Dutch Elm Disease.
beech sweetgum hollows with age providing honey and large
containers. Twists, warps, curls and shrinks while seasoning;
weathering well and easy to paint used extensively for house
to split as ash or oak it was primarily used for firewood, takes
a fine finish with oil. Good legs for short stools.
eat the nuts, enjoy the smoke flavor in cooking, make ink and
dye of the husks, switch the youngin's, among the best firewood,
it is among the most versatile of woods. The bark was woven
into seat bottoms, used for lashing, or woven into baskets.
Strong and resilient is excellent for tool handles, treenails,
pegs, dowels, shooting bows, barrel hoops, arrows, shafts,
wooden screws, bows of ox-yokes, bowback chairs, strong legs and
spindles and a lot more. It wears well but, the surface
roughens with use. Roots and burls being tougher with more
interlocked dense grain they are fine for mauls and mallet
whitest wood it must be cut in winter and worked before warm
weather to prevent a light bluish tinge spoiling the ivory color
of the whitest wood. Difficult to dry without distortion is cut
into small pieces to season. Used primarily in marquetry and
inlay or layered with ebony for purfling or stringing of
instruments like violins. Can be ebonized as a substitute for
generic name given to the hardest wood in the area. Hornbeams
are oft called ironwood. Whatever you call ironwood it is
generally used for digging sticks, throwing sticks, firewood,
mallet heads, shuttles, bobbins, war clubs, and cogs of gears.
to split the thorns make it difficult to handle. Resistant to
rot it makes good fence posts if, as with all, they are put into
the ground up side down; to resist the capillary action of
ground water. Tough and ready for abuse it makes excellent
trunels and harrow teeth. Preferred firewood for cooking it
offers long lasting hot coals.
like tulip-poplar it drys well with moderate shrinkage and
serves as secondary wood for cabinetry and in interior joinery
and trim. It turns and carves better than poplar as its
hardness holds better detail.
hard or soft, close grain and even texture make this readily
turned, worked, or carved wood a perennial favorite of
woodworkers the broad variety of color, texture, spalding and
figure the owners. Properly finished is nearly iridescent with
great depth and lustre, as it ages the richness of color, yellow
or red, and patina is unequaled. Strong yet slender parts grace
many beautiful designs employing this versatile wood. Providing
syrup and sugar the wood makes the finest kitchen implements and
cutting boards. Long wearing machine parts were made of
this elegant wood.
called ironwood and weighing 55 lbs per cubic foot this tight
grain wood is found only in western desert mountain country. If
you can find a piece suitable to your project it'll make a
as fodder for silk worms the purple berries are delicious.
Sometimes used for cabinet and trim the primary use was for
tough, resistant, easily split, good firewood, bendable, so
useful it has been worshiped in past centuries. The unique
cellular structure of white oak makes it ideal for wet
cooperage, every part of this valuable tree found use. The bark
is used to tan leather, the burls for bowls and mallets, the
galls for ink, the wood for everything else. Easily worked it
is suitable as a secondary wood in cabinet making; the open
grain keys well the glue and is excellent ground for fine
finest shooting bow wood, or never rot fenceposts which can be
worked fifty years later into unequalled tool handles. The
shavings make good dye. Dense, springy, tough, long wearing it
serves as a heavy duty replacement for hickory or ash. Poor
firewood as it sparks and pops noticeably, burns hot. The
fruit, called hedgeapples, were stored away in nooks and
crannies of cellars, cabinets and closets to discourage
invasions of insects.
for tool handles, bowls, planestocks, and drawing instruments
the primary uses were in inlay and marquetry. Strong, fine
textured, tough and difficult to split it will distort while
drying slowly if grain is irregular. It turns well and finishes
smoothly but the grittiness of the fruit is rediscovered in
blunted tool edges.
was the general purpose wood of the south and midwest. Light,
soft, straight grained, and easily worked it was made into
everything from dugout canoes, cradles and chair seats to
cupboards, tables and molded trim. Tulip poplar was the most
common secondary wood in cabinetmaking and it takes stain and
paint well, is easy to carve with sharp tools, and has a fie
even texture excellent for floors furniture frames, shelving,
musical instruments, sashes, door, and crossbanding veneer. The
white sapwood and yellowish heartwood often have streaks of
green, brown, blue or purple.
American or white ebony (the same genus as black) with a
specific gravity greater than water it is strong, smooth wearing
and resistant to impact. Shrinking considerably while drying
with noticeable expansion and contraction with changes of
humidity, it found use in textile shuttles, mallet heads and
beer and licorice are flavored with the roots and bark which
also make good orange dye as well as delicious tonics and teas
to ward off the chillblains and such. As firewood the smoke is
exquisitely fragrant. Resistant to moisture, though not as
strong as ash, it found use as butter churns which kept the
butter sweet. A bedstead of sassafras insures pleasant dreams
and sound sleep driving away the spirits that disturb.
grained and fine textured, huge old trees may be hollow and
suitable for storage gums. When quarter sawn the multitude of
fine rays and flecked figure is called lacewood, when fumed
called harewood. Most common uses were in inlay and veneering
though many kitchen utensils including butcher blocks were made
of it. Tending to warp while seasoning it makes the finest
to shock and changes of humidity; purplish cast if from the
south, rich brown in the north; walnut was made into the finest
furniture, most beautiful gunstocks, as well as hewn into beams
for houses and barns. So plentiful that in many areas was held
in contempt and called "black pine" because it wasn't
as hard as maple. Also called "piss pine" because of
the distinctive aroma in the shop while turning. Many fine
shooting bows have been made of walnut. The husks make good
wood, cloth or people dye.
inner bark makes a fine tea to cure headaches, mixed with other
barks, leaves and roots it was part of many smoking mixtures of
our grandfathers. Saplings were woven into baskets, chicken
coops and thatching; beaver hide hoops were bent of its
branches; thin boards were steamed, creased and bent into boxes;
cobblers made their "lasts" for forming shoes,
hatmakers blocks for forming the hats were of willow as well.
Pioneers built deer fences around their gardens setting a
fifteen foot high sapling every five or six poles; this fooled
the deer into thinking the entire fence was that high, so they
don't try and jump it.
oldest living thing and the largest living thing in the world are
both called softwoods. Majestic Sequoia gigantea can live 3000 to
4000 years and attain heights over 270 feet, 36 feet in diameter at
the base; stunted, gnarled, tenacious Methuselah is much older yet, a
bristlecone pine clinging to life in the wind swept arid southwest. The
distinction between hard and soft woods is between porous and
non-porous internal structure it does not necessarily, though
generally does, refer to the specific gravity or density of the wood.
The unique characteristics of softwoods made them indispensable to
our ancestors lives.
for water storage casks on board ship as the wood kept the water
fresh for months without algae growth. Makes unequalled
fenceposts, crotches are highly figured and valuable for veneer.
Is of the same family as Sequoia and redwood. The knees or
fingers are used extensively in decorative lamps and such.
strong, flexible, resistant to rot, repugnant to insects,
fragrant, it has been a cornucopia of utility; light strong
boats and canoe ribs, blanket chests and shingles, long lasting
fenceposts, beautiful paneling or bent wood boxes all and more
were best made from this useful wood. The bark is used in
smoking mixtures and as excellent tinder, and burnt in ceremony.
Expands and contracts readily, with no internal damage, with
changes of humidity.
blue berries are the chief flavoring agent in gin. Occurring in
the desert west the harsh climate and blowing sand pack the wood
so densely that tools quickly dull. Branches have been used for
shooting bow staves as well as effective war clubs and digging
sticks. Similar to cedar and used for same purposes.
strong and fairly heavy this wood serves well in bridges,
houses, docks, wharves and piers. Weathering well it should be
treated or charred before placing in the ground. Easy to work
and readily finished it does not take stains well.
specie of pine grow in every part of the country. The light
soft wood has been used for every purpose conceivable including
masts for ships, homes of logs, the most common wood in use
today: its primary importance in years past was for the
production of Naval Stores. Blazed pine trees are drained of
sap which is then distilled into tar, pitch, turpentine and
rosin; further distillation yields camphene. Plentiful supply,
easy to work and paint made this our most used wood for over 200
light strong wood not as resinous as pine; dries quickly with a
fine texture. Used for masts, planking, oars, canoe paddles,
sound boards and tops for musical instruments, the roots were
used for lashing birch bark canoes and flavoring spruce beer.
It is our second most commonly used wood.
many old bow makers; it had to be yew. Close dense grain,
strong and springy, fine textured and durable it sees limited
use because of scarcity.
before the American revolution we were importing certain woods to
specific purpose. Today we import a great number more because of
more efficient shipping and distribution, and because carbide tools
can stand up to the dulling effects of high silica contents most
contemporary exotics are endowed with.
be dried carefully to avoid splitting, once dry shows little
dimensional variation with fluctuations of humidity. Very dense
grain which holds fine carved or turned detail, long wearing was
often inlaid into the sole of planes at the point of most wear.
Used for inlay and marquetry it was also made into combs,
rulers, tool handles, navigational and surveying instruments.
plant offering a red dye used to be called "brazil" the
premier red dyestuff was made of this special wood. Also known
as pernumbuco it is used to make the finest violin bows, other
uses include inlay and marquetry.
surgical tool handles, philosophical instruments, buttons,
chessmen and many more small things were made of this hard super
dense wood. Primarily used for knife handles as the naturally
waxy wood is unaffected by long immersion in hot soapy water.
fine even texture it nonetheless dulls tools due to its
hardness. The blackest of woods it is used for purfling,
fingerboards, piano keys, tool handles, walking sticks, &c.
heaviest and hardest wood in the world is excellent for
turnings, mallets, soles of planes, and for any purpose
requiring resistance to wear like mortars and pestles, ships
pulleys, bearings and bushings.
durable than oak or ash, resistant to rot, dimensionally stable
with little warping, the beauty and variety of figure and color
is legendary. Used as veneer as well as lumber it has broad
applications, chair frames, table tops, ship building, panels,
doors, instruments, tools, musical instruments, and much more
was made of this the most important imported wood of the early
nineteenth century. Four types of mahogany were available known
by from whence they came, Santa Domingan, extinct since
Napoleon, was highly figured, Honduras the heaviest, Spanish or
Cuban was of finer texture, paler color, harder and usually well
figured. African was imported early but soon fell to disfavor
as it won't hold glue and upon seasoning turns to a
dis-agreeable dirty purple.
all varieties is a dense oily wood that requires cleaning with
strong vinegar before gluing, rub until no more red color comes
off on the rag; the wood should be "keyed" before
gluing especially veneer. Indian rosewood has the unusual
property of not shrinking in either direction of the grain so is
used for the most precise instruments of exact measurement, it
is lighter than Honduras rosewood which is coarsely textured and
difficult to finish, Brazilian is the most highly figured with
sharp contrasts, tulipwood was the favored rosewood of the
French. All were used for veneer, inlay, marquetry, tool
handles; musical, medical, mathematical, navigational, and
philosophical instruments of all description has a rosewood part
or several. To obtain a uniform color stain with alkanet root,
annotto seeds or dragon's blood.
extensively for veneer and inlays by Sheraton and Hepplewhite which influenced use in Colonial America.
Often contrasted with dark woods in panels, tops and banding.
trees throughout the world produce, in addition to lumber, fruit, &
nuts: gums, resins, oils, waxes, &c. All of these gifts have
specific uses. The finest varnish is made only with the products of
trees; amber (fossilized tree resins) is dissolved in turpentine or
wood alcohol. For extreme exposure (i.e., the pounding of the sea)
pine tar, another tree product is the best wood preservative. Dry
rot is prevented by good air circulation to the wood.
is the natural tendency of wood as the grain tries to straighten
itself during curing. The cup, crook, wind, bow, wain, etc. all
indicate the exact location in the tree of the board. Warping
defects are greatly reduced by quarter sawing the wood. Trees grown
in the northern hemisphere are thinner on the North side of the heart
due to magnetism. The thinner north rings are more brittle, weaker,
and denser. Wood is stronger in the middle of the trunk than the
branches. Knotholes are the terminals of branches, burls are
disruptions to the cambium layer of the bark by damage or disease.
the ends of posts before putting in the ground reduces rot. Rot, wet
or dry, is a fungal growth, which breaks down the fibers and cells of
the wood, that can be arrested and prevented best by natural products
tree with sweet sap can be sugared, every tree has sap, sugaring is
the process of rendering down the sap by boiling or freezing to syrup
or sugar. Best flow is on the south side of the tree above the main
root and below a main branch. Trees which can be sugared include
maple, boxelder, hickory, sugar pine, basswood, birch, and sweet gum.
Pines and spruces are blazed for naval stores or scientific
wood parts are made to wear against each other; like in window
sashes, drawer glides or all the parts of a spinning wheel always use
dissimilar woods wearing against each other to eliminate friction.
Use open grain woods against close grain woods, use woods of similar
relative hardness of different specie and little other lubrication
will be needed. To increase friction use the softest wood available
wearing against itself. Use lye soap to lubricate other folks
timber weakens and rots when submerged in water for long periods.
Some do not; birch, elm, cedar, oak are good examples. In New Jersey
during the 1700's clear cut cedar swamps were mined for submerged
logs which were dried out and split to shingles.
shelter, tools, transportation, clothing, medicine, and comforts
beyond description all are provided us by trees and their principal
product wood. Without it we wouldn't be where we are now. If we
kill all the trees we won't ever be again.