Wood is a versatile material. It can be used for furniture, flooring, musical instruments and Christmas decorations. However, each kind has unique qualities suited for specific uses. Learn how figure affects materials like oak or maple hardwoods to help you choose.
What is figured wood?
Figured wood has distinctive markings or features on its longitudinal surface. The way the timber grows, milling, and other innate features can all generate these markings. There are many different names and orientations, each with a distinct character. The elegance and distinctiveness of design can benefit a wide range of applications.
In woodworking, figure describes the wood characteristics not generally produced in nature. This happens because the material is polished, and light reflects the chatoyancy. Some woods, such as curly maple, are prized for their lustre and used for high-end furniture. Others, like spalted maple, are for decorative pieces because of their patterns.
What causes wood figure?
There are many reasons and causes for figured wood. The most accessible is compression/tension or crotch wood from a fork in the tree trunk. It could also result from an attack by various insects, fungi and bacteria. The figure found in wood is created when these organisms dig into the tree’s sapwood. This creates a void, causing the sapwood in the area to spread and fill it in.
Injuries and infections are brought on by physical trauma or an infectious disease. Some diseases are hereditary, while others by contact with people or animals.
A burl is a growth of dormant buds that can form on trees in varying sizes and shapes. Burrs develop together with the tree, forcing the surrounding twisted or wavy growth. But its hardness, bark inclusions, and interlocking grain make it tough to work. Burl wood is often used for knife handles, pool cues, and other tiny things because it is so hard. A large selection is also available as a wood veneer for cabinetwork.
Amboyna is often used to denote the dark-coloured wood of any Pterocarpus family member. Because it is prone to splitting and warping, Amboyna can be tough to deal with. However, it is also very decorative and has various patterns.
Fungi are a group of eukaryotic organisms distinguished from plants and animals by the presence of chitin in their cell walls. Chitin is a complex carbohydrate not found in the cells of plants or animals. Fungi include mushrooms, moulds, and yeasts. Unlike plants, fungi do not photosynthesise; they get energy by decomposing organic matter.
Root/butt rot, canker diseases, foliar/shoot diseases, and vascular wilts are the four principal fungus forms. Depending on the fungus, a tree can rot or leave desirable traits after infection by fungi. For example, when a tree is infected with butt rot fungi, it can cause the tree to weaken and eventually die. Some fungi can enhance the looks and strength of wood grain, known as figuring.
The pictured block of spalted wood is a fantastic example with striking black lines. The longer it’s left to rot, the more lines you get, but it also gets harder to work as it softens and crumbles. It can be hardened with resin in a vacuum pot if too bad.
How do you maximise its chatoyance?
Working with figured wood can be a challenge and a test of craftsmanship, but it’s also very rewarding. When jointing or planning the stock, follow the grain direction instead of against it. This will help you avoid tear-out and achieve a smooth finish. Check your results often when machining to ensure you’re getting the best results. You may need to choose a feed and cutting direction that gives the best results in some cases.
There are many variations, but curl, burl, and quilting are more common. In most cases, surface-planning or sanding to thickness will solve any problems. Remember to keep this figure visible throughout the entire project.
There are a few things you can do to help preserve good figure:
- Use a clear, film-forming finish. This will help protect the wood from dirt and other debris that can cause it to become dull over time.
- If you want to accentuate it, use dye stains. These will bring out the natural beauty of the grain.
- If you want to mask it, use gel stains.
- Gel stains will usually cover any distinguishing features and give a uniform look.
Figured Wood Types vs Grain
Straight grain is the basic texture seen on the wood’s surface. Figure is a combination of colour, grain, lustre and texture on side-grain surfaces. The appearance may be different depending on how the wood is cut. If you rip a piece perpendicular to the growth rings, you will see another figure than if ripped along the growth rings.
The figure in wood is the result of various grain deformations. Tigerstripe provides wavy bands of chatoyance parallel to the grain. Other types of figure include fiddleback, flame, and curly. Each has its own distinct beauty and can be used for a variety of purposes.
Curly figure is a result of light refraction on the fibres. Polishing the wood or applying a finish can intensify this effect. Bears scratching trees, water flowing over bark, or other climatic changes may cause this pattern to form.
Pommele resembles suede, often densely packed with ripples, which give exceptional optical properties. Domestic species with this same figure are referred to as “Blistered”. Pommele is used in a variety of applications, including custom furniture and panelling.
Bird’s Eye is a type of figure that occurs most commonly in hard maple. It consists of small swirls (resembling eyes) interspersed throughout in varying frequencies. It can add value to high-end furniture or ornamental goods because it is highly coveted.
Mottled wood has a blotchy appearance. This is often the result of wavy grain that has fused with its spiral, interlocked grain. The term “block mottle” is used when a regular, checkerboard-like pattern is present.
Quilted figure has a three-dimensional, bubbled chatoyance. It is often coveted for use in musical instruments, as it can give the instrument a very luxurious appeal. Quilted woods are also utilised in cabinetry and decor, among other things.
Masur Birch is a type of birch tree from the Karelia region between Finland and Russia. The variant’s name has been classified as Betula pendula var Carelica, the scientific name for this particular birch. Sometimes referred to as Karelian Birch due to its place of origin.
The grain of Masur Birch is akin to burl wood, and frequently used for turned objects or speciality items. The figure in the wood can be quite striking, making it a popular choice for high-end pieces.
What is Quartersawn Oak?
There are many varieties of figured wood, but the most prevalent is figured oak. The orientation of the log when cut determines the kind of timber. The most common way to make logs into lumber is by using a plain sawn, or flat sawn. The log is quartered and then twisted in this procedure, so the rings are perpendicular to the saw blade. This yields boards with a consistent thickness and no figure.
Quartersawn oak has a unique and beautiful grain exposing the medullary rays. Because of its distinctive style, this is often utilised in high-end furnishings. The grain pattern is the result of annular growth rings that are at a 60-90 degree angle to the surface of the wood. This produces a striking ray fleck, particularly evident in red and white oak.
Is Highly Figured Wood More Expensive?
Anything with character will cost more; the most expensive being figured hardwood. These have a wavy, ribbon-like grain or an unusual colouration like purpleheart.
In general, most figured wood is more expensive because it is harder to find and takes longer to process. When looking for furniture, be sure to ask the salesperson if the piece is made of solid wood. The better quality of furniture, the more you can expect to pay for it.
Figured guitar tops are acoustic guitars that feature an intricate and eye-catching design. There are many different styles of guitar makers featuring large and small figures. Giving character to any acoustic guitar collection, they also look stunning.