Wood is truly an amazing material with so many desirable properties.

Certainly, that is why we continue to use so much wood in this country and around the world every day. But, did you know that some species of wood have special properties?

Here is a listing of a few special things about wood.

No splinters

Aspen (also called trembling aspen, quaky, aspen poplar) and other trees in the Populus genus (but not tulip poplar or yellow-poplar, as they are not in this genus), are splinter free.

This could be especially important for wood that might be chewed on, such as children's toys, and sat on, such as sauna seats.

It glows!

Some species will glow (technical term is fluoresce) in black light or ultraviolet light. The wood looks quite eerie indeed.

Slippery elm fluoresces yellow-green; black locust and honey locust (which are not related genetically), bright yellow; Kentucky coffee tree, deep bright yellow.

Living fossil

The tree called dawn redwood was only known as a fossilized tree until just after World War II, when a few living trees were discovered in a remote valley in China.

Seeds from these trees have been distributed and planted throughout the world. Lumber is now available.

Special aromas

We all know that wood has a special smell, but certain species have special aromas.

  • Eastern red cedar smells like cedar-chests. (The odor is supposed to ward off moths.)
  • Western red cedar and incense cedar taste slightly bitter and smell pungent, like pencils (especially to us old-timers who used cedar pencils all the time).
  • Port Orford cedar smells like ginger. Alaska cedar smells like raw potatoes.
  • Spanish cedar (a leaf tree so it is a hardwood and not a softwood like all the other cedars) was used to wrap cigars.
  • Sassafras smells like root beer.
  • White oak, if allowed to air dry for two years will smell like vanilla.
  • California laurel smells quite spicy.
  • Eastern cottonwood often smells unpleasant.
  • Bald cypress is also rather rancid.

Bacterially infected wood smells putrid or a bit worse; the infection is found in the living tree, but the odor persists especially in damp wood.

Natural resistance

A few woods have heartwood with natural resistance to decay, fungi and insects; that is, the wood is poisonous to them.

This resistance is often highest in old growth trees.

Softwood trees with decay resistance include old growth bald cypress, all the cedars, juniper, redwood and Pacific yew.

Hardwoods include catalpa, cherry, chestnut, black locust, honey locust, mesquite, mulberry, white oak, Osage orange, sassafras and walnut.

Eastern red cedar is supposed to repel moths, but most studies fail to show this property.

Color variations

The color variation in the heartwood from species to species makes certain wood species attractive.

  • Holly is the whitest of all woods, but often has a blue-gray fungus in the wood giving it a gray, streaky appearance.
  • Aspen, buckeye and basswood are creamy white; hard maple sapwood is not far behind.
  • Yellow-poplar (also called tulip poplar) has a greenish cast that can be rather obvious at times.
  • Red mulberry has an orange to golden brownish color.
  • Osage orange is golden yellow, although the color fades quickly to an orange-brown.
  • Walnut has a special chocolate brown color.
  • Eastern red cedar is deep purplish red.
  • Redwood is deep red.
  • Yew is orange.
  • Alaska cedar is yellow.
  • Engelmann spruce is very white.

Most species will turn toasty brown if heated well over 250 degrees F during drying. Several species will turn pinkish or deeper red if heated to around 200 degrees at 100 percent relative humidity (often called steaming) before drying. These include cherry, red oak, hard maple and beech. Walnut will turn a richer chocolate brown if steamed.

Wavy grain

Hard maple and to a lesser degree, soft maple both develop wavy grain and curly grain. Depending on the appearance, this grain can be called bird's-eye, curly, fiddleback, as well as several local names.

Other species, such as birch may have such grain rarely.

The crotch wood of walnut and other species oftentimes will exhibit curly grain as well.

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