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Ask the Expert: Figured Wood

What is figured wood?

Figured wood is when the surface of a piece of wood appears to have a ribbon/unique effect. Figure in wood can happen in any species, but it is most common in maple, particularly soft maple. 

What causes figure in wood?

It is unknown what causes the figure in most trees, but what we do know is that the figure has an unusual grain orientation that developed while the tree grew. We typically like to work with straight grain material. Straight grain wood is very strong and machines well. Spiral and interlocked grain are where we find most figure. In spiral grain, the tree spirals in one direction while it is growing. The interlocked grain is when a tree spirals in one direction for a couple of years and then spirals back in the opposite direction. The light reflects off the surface of the wood differently in these areas, giving an appearance of a ribbon.

The figure will also be shown in areas of compress/tension wood. Examples of this are around the crotch of a tree and within knots. Although it might make the wood look very interesting, these grain patterns are problematic to a machine. 

Another form of figured wood, called birdseye, is formed differently during the growing process of a tree. A hard maple tree tries to produce new blossoms. But due to poor growing conditions, the growths of the blossoms are stunted causing the wood to form tiny knots or eyes. 

There are a bunch of different names and orientations of figure. There is curly, tigerstripe, quilted, flaming, fiddle back, birdseye, and many more. Forms of figure are developed in different ways. But, the most important thing to remember is regardless of the figure orientation, the lumber is not straight-grained. 

Since figured wood isn’t straight-grained, it is weaker and much more difficult to machine. If figured wood is machined the same way as a straight-grained wood, you will get much more chip out and tear out. You will want to make sure to leave extra thickness on your material and bring it down to the final size using sanding or scraping techniques. 

You can contact Kretz Lumber for more information at 1-800-350-1438

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