Thursday, May 13, 2010

Don’t Cry Over Spalted Wood

On a recent trip to the sawdust-laden shop where Ben and Craig turn hunks of wood into fine furniture and cabinet boxes, I peer around. I survey several work benches where carcases in various stages lay like patients on gurneys. I ask the guys, as I always do, “Whatcha workin on?”
They tell me who they’re making a bookcase for and how they plan to detail a coffee table. We discuss a hutch project we’re collaborating on.
“Hey, I want to show you something,” says Craig suddenly. He fishes a 1x4 out of a pile. “What do you think? I got a bunch of this stuff from a guy in Southern Oregon.”
I can’t identify it, but I like the fine-grained sample with auburn streaks laced with fine brown and black veins. “Rustic Maple?” I ask.
Turns out, Craig has a pile of Spalted Tanoak. And I’m told it’s most closely related to Beech.
Here’s a piece with some clear lacquer on it:
I discovered that the term spalted comes from an old loggers’ term for “spoilt.” Fallen, decomposing trees are lifted from their final resting places in forest beds or fished out of marshes for eager woodworkers.
Spalted is the term for the coloration that happens when fungi set up housekeeping in dying wood. The large discolored areas are one type of spalting: pigmentation or sapstain. Those lacey black and brown lines are called zone lines and they’re not actually a fungus, but an interaction zone in which different fungi have erected barriers to protect their resources.
Considered a link between the Chestnut and the Oak, Tanoak (lithocarpus densiflorus) is an evergreen hardwood. It has flowers like the chestnut and acorns like the oak, and grows best on the humid moist slopes of the seaward coastal ranges.
                                  moss-covered branches on Tanoak along the Jedediah Smith River near the northern California coast tanoak_range
Back in the 1800's, when the fur trade was a booming business in Oregon, roads were built through the forests in order to log Tanoak. The tanin they produce was and is still used for treating furs and hides. Douglas fir trees were cut as a secondary use species while they were logging the Tanoak. Today that’s reversed, and tanoak is logged only because the Doug Fir trees are being cut. 
My woodworking friends and I may use Spalted Tanoak for the Craftsman-styled hutch we’re collaborating on. Spalted wood also inspired these gorgeous projects:
spalted beech
I think its simple, rustic beauty makes it a fit for Central Oregon. Can you picture other uses?

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