Wood of the Month:
Aspen: The Under-Rated Species

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Populus tremuloides of the Family Salicaceae

Aspen, Canadian aspen, trembling aspen, quaking aspen

Average height for the tree is 40 to 60 feet though the tree can grow to 100 feet with an 8- to 12-inch diameter and have an average weight of 28 pounds per cubic foot.

The wood dries easily but has a tendency to warp or twist during drying. Experts recommend care in storage to avoid distortion. Aspen has a low bending and crushing strength and low stiffness. The wood works well with hand and machine tools, but it has a tendency to bind on a saw or tear. Sharp-edged tools are recommended.

Aspen is one of those domestic woods that gets very little glory - after all, a wood that makes excellent excelsior is not going to get high marks from furniture manufacturers. But users say this under-utilized wood deserves more credit.

Don Stecher, president of Andover Wood Products Inc. in Andover, ME, has been using aspen for approximately two years to produce furniture panels, shelves and drawer sides. Stecher said aspen is found in pure stands from Maine to the Great Lakes states and, unlike most species, usually comes in after a fire.

"Aspen is an under-utilized species that has taken a bad rap. It has a reputation for becoming fuzzy when machined or sanded. I feel this is a result of not getting all the wet pockets of the wood down to 5 percent moisture content," said Stecher. He adds that the wood works well with power tools and, when stained, it "comes to life, resembling maple or birch."

Stecher said another use for aspen is lumber stacking sticks. "It does not sliver, is strong when bent and is light to handle."

Aspen is ideal for producing food containers. It is lightweight and has no odor. The light-colored aspen is frequently used to make cheese containers and baskets and all kinds of crates and boxes. It is an excellent wood for excelsior - wood wool - and for pulp and paper making. It is also used to make brake blocks and for furniture parts and interiors.

Marked increases in the sale of aspen for furniture use have been noted by Bob Groninger, owner of the World of Oak furniture store in Brown Deer, WI.

Groninger, who also provides finishing services on-site to customers, also has personal experience in working with aspen.

According to Groninger, water-based finishes tend to work better than oil-based finishes. "The oil-based or mineral finishes seem to penetrate more with aspen and give more color variation," he said.

Groninger added that care must be taken in the sanding and finishing of aspen, otherwise the wood can be "wooly." "We wet down the wood and sand it with progressively finer abrasives. Wetting raises the grain, then we sand it with a 150 to 180 grain to take away the wool or fur. Fine sanding sponges are used to buff out the wooly spots and polish the wood," he said. Care at this stage will result in a beautiful finish, he said.

Other Advantages
Availability as well as cost are just some of the advantages of aspen. In a finished form, the wood is significantly lower priced than oak and ash. Groninger said an aspen coffee table would retail for $345 while the same one in oak would cost $800 or $1,200 in ash.

Some aspen logs are cut into highly figured logs and sliced into decorative veneers. The wood can have fantastic crotches with a very attractive mottled figure and streaks of pink, orange and yellow. This highly figured wood is often used for marquetry or other high-end uses such as paneling or cabinetry.

Quaking Aspen
Aspen, or quaking aspen as it is also known, has a short life span. Just before reaching full growth, the tree has a tendency to suffer from decay.

Aspen has one of the most widely distributed growing areas in North America. It is found most prevalently in the northeast, western and northern United States as well as in Canada. Another common name for the tree is Canadian Aspen.

In the book Encyclopedia of Trees, Hugh Johnson writes that the name "quaking aspen" refers to the leaves of the tree which are said to wave furiously, or "quake," in the wind. Its botanical name, Populus tremuloides refers to the leaves that appear to tremble.

Populus tremuloides is the American aspen. A related species is Populus tremula, which is aspen that grows in Europe, Asia and North Africa. The European aspen features round leaves that also tremble in the wind.

Other related trees include Populus trichocarpa, black cottonwood; Populus deltoides, Eastern cottonwood; Populus balsamifer, Canadian poplar; and Populus grandidentata, known as Canadian poplar or big tooth poplar.

Rising From Ashes
Aspens are known for seeding and thriving in places where fires have been.

The European aspen, according to J.C. Loudon, "took over the ruins of Moscow in 1813, the year after Napoleon had reduced most of the city to ashes," writes Johnson.

Aspens also have a short life span which is affected by the way they grow. The trees need lots of light and offer larger, more hearty trees a light shade during the heartier trees' early growing years. But when the other trees mature and gain height, they in turn tend to block the sun from aspens, causing the trees to die.

Tall aspens are said to be more susceptible to attack by predators such as beetles. However, a greater threat to the trees comes from beavers who eat the inner bark, despite the fact that it is astringent.


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