Figured Wood & Wood Grain

Talking about wood grain and figured wood can be confusing since woodworkers use the word "grain" in many ways.

Specifically, grain refers to the direction of the wood fibers.

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Think about stroking a dog's fur. If you move from head to tail, the fur lies flat under your hand. If you stroke "against the grain," from tail to head, the fur stands up.

Wood grain is similar. In one direction you will be going "with the grain," in the other "against the grain." Neither is the same as going "across the grain," which would be stroking  the dog from shoulder to shoulder.

Grain characteristics are determined in part by the wood species and in part by growing conditions. If a tree bends during an ice storm and then grows back up again, think what happens to the grain of the trunk.

The wood from the area of high stress, where the trunk bends, is called reaction wood. A board cut from reaction wood will be unpredictable because of the internal tension caused by the shifting grain.

Unfortunately, you can't always recognize reaction wood before you cut it. Once you do cut into it, however, it becomes clear. The wood will have tension in odd directions. It may bind in the saw blade, or split along a seam.

If you discover the board you're working with is reaction wood, it's best to toss it in the burn pile and start over. It may seem like a waste at the time, but the headache of working with it pales next to the disappointment of trying to force a joint together just to realize that, no, it's not going to work.

The more complicated the joinery the more important it is to have straight-grained wood.

"Grain" can also refer to the visual characteristics, also called the figure, of wood. So, if someone is talking about figured wood, they mean that the board has a lot of character to the grain.

Often injury or disease causes beautiful designs in the grain. Ambrosia maple (photo to right), for example, has wavy, gray and black streaks leading from tiny holes in the wood caused by the ambrosia beetle.

A burl is a warty sort of growth on the trunk of a tree. Burl wood, like crotch wood (from the area where branches join the trunk) is popular because of its swirling grain pattern.

Other types of figure include curly, quilted and bird's eye. When you are in the lumberyard look for these choice grain patterns.

Some types of figured wood are stocked by larger lumber yards, others you can find by carefully digging through the stacks. In all cases, the choice of wood grain is essential to your woodworking projects.

For  more information visit the following pages:

Wood Burls

Wood Species

About Trees

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