What is Figured Wood?
What is Figured Wood?
If you Google this question you’re likely to get so many contradictory answers that after a few clicks, you may be more confused than when you started. That is due in part to the fact that wood grain, patterning, and color are notoriously difficult to classify. There are a few definitions, which seem to apply across the board. The confusion starts with the sub-categories that spring out of those agreed-upon definitions.
As simply as possible, let’s talk about the grain vs. figure question.
What is grain?
Grain is the orientation of the cell growth fibers in a tree. Think of grain as the darker lines in wood, which show the tree’s growth pattern. In a round piece of wood, there will be continuous circles, or growth rings. When the wood is cut, those growth patterns can appear in different ways, depending on the cut. In terms of things like construction, straight grain wood is preferred, meaning that a board is cut in such a way that the growth rings run in more or less straight lines up and down the board. Put another way, the cut of the wood is parallel to the vertical axis of the tree. This pattern lends strength to the project.
This photo shows a piece of plain maple. There is no figure in this piece. The dark lines are grain.
There are many terms which describe the type of cut. One may hear words like: rift sawn, flat, quartered, etc when looking at wood. These terms all refer to the angle of the cut relative to the vertical axis of a log. We’ll leave those mind-boggling words for another day. They have relevance to the subject, but in the interest of simplification, let’s focus on grain vs. figure.
If the grain is the appearance of cell-grown patterns, then what is figure?
Figure is a unique pattern in the surface of the wood. It is not the same as grain. It is a function of a ratio between cut, grain, and growth pattern. Think of it this way: all wood has grain but not all wood has figure. Figure can present as wavy patterns on the surface of the wood, which lends brilliancy or chatoyance to the piece. There are several different types of figure. Let’s examine a few individually.
Quilt or Quilting is a deep bubbling pattern. It can appear as “blisters” or “finger rolls”.
Flame is also referred to as: tiger stripe, curly, and fiddleback. This is a figure pattern most often used by luthiers to make instruments.
Basketweave is an interesting pattern, which we see most frequently in species like mango, eucalyptus, and longan. It is a figure pattern where the wood appears woven together.
Spalt doesn’t necessarily refer to figure at all. Spalting is the result of fungus being present in the wood. It is a black line. When it is paired with figure, the result can be a stunning and interesting piece.
Terms for different types of figure seem to vary by industry standard and even by region. This is part of the reason there can be so much confusion around the terms. No matter what words are used to describe figure, seeing it makes the difference between grain and figure perfectly clear. When you are looking at or working with a figured board, there is no doubt that you are seeing something special.
What makes wood figure?
There are so many questions about what causes figuring in trees. Studies have been conducted using hypotheses that include: genetic predisposition, water abundance or water lack, and rocky soils vs. sandy soils vs. loamy soils. None of these hypotheses have been proven.
While all or none of these factors may have bearing on whether or not a tree “figures”, what is known is that figured trees are rare. All trees will display figuring at the base and under branches. This is what is known as “reactionary figure”, or the result of the wood fibers being distorted from a straight trajectory in growth. A figured tree, or one where there is deep curling in the fibers may have experienced growth trauma, such as a lack of water or it may form the pattern from the orientation of its growth being slightly off a straight, vertical path due to competition for light, or possibility from having it’s roots disturbed by ground movement, then growing in a curve as it corrects for proper light-catching orientation.
A curly maple log
The question of genetic propensity has been studied with seeds from known figured trees being collected and planted in controlled planting experiments. So far, with mixed results.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, Acer Macrophyllum, or Big Leaf Maple is everywhere. One could easily assume that figured maple is widely available. However, just as in koa and other commonly “figured” woods, we find that only about 10% of maple trees have figure. The question of how a figured tree can appear in a forest where other trees, identical in size, age and climactic exposures are not figured remains an elusive puzzle.