Watching Your Figure: 5 Natural Wood Grain Patterns

Watching Your Figure: 5 Natural Wood Grain Patterns

Johnny Williams
Sep 28, 2009

Written upon every piece of wood is the story of a tree. A board's surface appearance, otherwise known as its figure, reveals a coming-of-age narrative — annual droughts, insect infestations and other hardships are all recorded in the grain. Luckily, trees have a hard time growing up, providing us wood-lovers with many forms of beautiful figuring.

Ironically, today we seem to value imperfection in wood over all else. We are pleased when the wooden tables and bowls we buy show signs of life — variations in figure (coloring, luster, texture and grain pattern) are now admired as the character traits of a natural material. Authenticity is hard to find in a world full of identical Walmart dining sets, but in figured wood we can enjoy nature in all its randomness. To help you figure out your favorite figuring, I've selected five of my own.

Bird's eye – Found primarily in sugar maple, dendrologists (tree scientists) are unsure what causes this beautiful and rare swirling pattern

Burl – Resembling large tumors, burls are a deformity caused by infestations or physical damage to a tree's limbs or trunk. With very little straight grain, it is a difficult wood to work, but the stunning aesthetic makes it popular in woodturning and veneering

Curl – Curly wood is believed to be caused by windy conditions. The resulting wave-like patterns are highly sought after by woodworkers. Curl is also referred to as fiddleback for its traditional use in making instruments

Ghosting – Ghost figure is the result of insects burrowing into a tree — once inside, they leave thin spectral streaks. The Ambrosia beetle is the most common culprit in these tree hauntings

Spalting – Spalting occurs when a dead tree is slowly attacked by fungi. The resulting rot resembles lines of black ink

(Images: 1 Flickr member Robbie1 licensed for use under Creative Commons, 2 Pioneer Wood, 3 Trees for Life, 4 Accent Custom Furniture, 5 Wethersfield Woodcraft, 6 Hobbit House Inc)

Johnny is currently blogging his experience as a student and amateur woodworker. You can keep track of his projects on his blog, Woodlearner.

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