There is just one species of sassafras, also called cinnamon-wood, in North America, Sassafras albnidum. The name, sassafras, is believed to be the Native American name for this tree.
The tree is most commonly found in the South, preferring humid, warmer climates. In the best climates and soil, the tree can reach 100 feet in height and more than three feet in diameter. However, the tree does grow as far north as Maine and as far west as Kansas, but it may look more like a shrub than a tree in these less favorable areas.
Sassafras is one of the few trees that are either male or female. It also has three different leaves one looks like a mitten with one thumb, one looks like a mitten with two thumbs, one on each side, and the third looks like a mitten with no thumbs.
Sassafras was considered very special by the early European explorers in North America. In 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh brought the sassafras roots of younger trees back to England from Virginia. In 1602-1603, ships were dispatched from England to collect the roots the roots have a pungent odor that smells like root beer. The roots were cooked and brewed to make a tonic that was supposed to provide youthfulness and cure many ills. These sailing trips were called the Great Sassafras Hunts.
Today, the oil from the roots, which consists mainly of safrole, is considered very toxic and is a known carcinogen.
Sassafras wood does have a high resistance to decay, so it is excellent for use in wet locations. Its light weight and decay resistance made it a popular choice for building forts and fence posts by European settlers. The wood also was purported to have the ability to drive away bedbugs. In addition to these uses, the wood was used for furniture, general millwork, small boats and slack (non-liquid holding) cooperage.
Today, sassafras, although somewhat soft, is an excellent furniture and cabinet wood.
Processing suggestions and characteristics
Density. Sassafras averages about 30 pounds per cubic foot at 7 percent MC. This is roughly two-thirds as heavy as oak. A kiln-dried lumber planed to ¾ inch will weigh about 2 pounds per board foot.
Drying. Sassafras dries very easily. Slow drying can result in some sticker stain development. Shrinkage in drying is 5 percent. Final moisture contents for sassafras should be between 6 to 7.0 percent MC. Slightly higher MCs are tolerable; however, when over-dried, the wood often becomes very brittle.
Gluing and machining. Sassafras is easy to glue. Pressures must not be high as the wood is not extremely hard. Sassafras machines quite well with sharp tools.
Stability. Sassafras is subject to small size changes when the MC changes - about 1 percent size change for each 6 percent MC change across the grain parallel to the rings (tangentially), and about 1 percent size change for each 7 percent MC change across the rings (radially).
Strength. Sassafras is not exceptionally strong or stiff. The bending strength (MOR) averages 9,000 psi (two-thirds of red oak). Hardness averages 630 pounds (one-half of red oak). Stiffness (MOE) averages 1.1 million psi (less than two-thirds of red oak).
Sassafras often splits when nailed near the end of a piece. Predrilling nail or screw holes (90 percent of nail diameter or 70 percent of root, not thread, diameter for screws) will eliminate this risk.
Color and grain. The wood of sassafras is pale brown with sometimes a slight orangish tint. The grain is coarse, due to the presence of large vessels in the early part of each annual ring. Overall, it resembles ash in appearance. The wood has a faint spicy odor, somewhat like root beer and cinnamon. The odor is very faint when the wood is dry.
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