Talking Figure

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This article is from Issue 39 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Quite often a project’s most prized ingredient may be its eye-catching wood. Here’s a look at attractive choices.

By Jim Harrold

Special thanks to consultants Larry Osborn, Wood Technology Research Associate, Appalachian Hardwood Center, West Virginia University and Rocky Mehta, President, West Penn Hardwoods

Beneath the bark of select trees worldwide reside our most exciting woods, featuring decorative grain pattern, color, and texture. More than likely, this excitement in the look of a board, turning blank, or thin slice of veneer appears as an anomaly, and it very well may be. But it could also stem from how the wood was cut, how it grew, or from some external influence. In the most general sense, when a wood species strays from the straight and narrow in appearance, you have a variance, a visual departure from the norm—what woodworkers seek and refer to as “figure.”

I’ll demystify how figure happens and help woodworkers understand its diverse manifestations. I’ll also touch base with an expert for pointers on buying figured woods and sprinkle in key terms you’ll want to know.

Gems beneath the bark

Figure wears many masks, and so it never appears exactly the same. Slice open two soft maple trees that grew side by side in the same soil and climate and you might find one containing very ho-hum straight-grained wood and the other boasting a spectacular curly figure that instantly screams for attention. Since the environment was not a factor in the different grain look, the only other explanation lies in the tree’s genetics. But that doesn’t mean the seeds of that figured tree will produce still more figured gems beneath the bark. Go figure.


How you slice it

Predicting that figure lies beneath the bark of a certain tree then would seem next to impossible. But in some cases, fantastic figure, such as wavy or curly grain seen in the spectacular waterfall bubinga on the opposite page, can be spotted by a trained sawyer or buyer of figured woods. For trees that haven’t won the genetic lottery and have undergone normal growth, figure can reveal itself in how you slice them up. Note, for instance, the sycamore sample left. Its flatsawn, or plainsawn, edge (see Figure 1) displays a common wood look, while its quartersawn face typically offers a far more interesting ray fleck appearance.




Slice logs along different tangents to the rings, as shown in these end-grain views, and you run the gamut from flatsawn to riftsawn to quartersawn boards.


Grain and texture

While figure speaks to the deviations, colors, and unique patterns found in wood, grain more specifically has to do with the direction, size, type, and arrangement of the wood cells that yield figure. In flatsawn or plainsawn boards, the blade cuts the wood at a right angle to the radius of the log on a tangential plane. An end grain look shows the annual growth rings to be less than 45° to the face. While the ring lines will vary from edge to edge, this is typical and results in arched cathedral grain figure as shown in the red oak sample right. An interesting figure variation called bird feather appears as a series of W’s in some flatsawn boards such as domestic elms, hackberry, and the exotic (nondomestic) wenge. When you slice or quartersaw a log along its radial plane, where grain lines run perpendicular to a board’s face, you expose medullary rays. This creates desirable ray fleck figure in not only the domestic woods of sycamore, beech, and oak (to name a few), but also in exotic species such as lacewood.

When figured wood changes looks due to the direction of light, it is said to have chatoyance, an aspect of grain.

When grain lines roughly run parallel to the axis of a board or tree trunk, the wood is said to be straight-grained. Light and dark stripes or bands in southern yellow pine (see left) represent a conspicuous example in the change of density between the light earlywood and denser dark latewood of each annual growth ring. When you cut pieces from just the outer one-third of the board that spans the tree’s diameter, you end up with a consistent pattern devoid of cathedral grain. With several species, however, such as basswood and aspen, grain lines are not as distinct. Some woods even feature alternating direction of spiral growth that displays ribbon stripe figure. Here, you have the illusion of light and dark color bands that run the board’s length due to the way light reflects off the surface.

Ample waves of grain

Curly figure is one of wood’s most familiar anomalies. Resulting from tightly undulating grain, this figure can fool the eye into perceiving a rippled, three-dimensional surface that begs to be touched for verification. Sometimes referred to as fiddleback or tiger figure, it’s found in several species around the world, as illustrated in the curly soft maple, walnut, and Honduran mahogany samples shown above.

Related to curly grain are these eye-candy figures: quilted or blister western big-leaf maple with its bubbly, three-dimensional look (below); bee’s-wing, featuring the delicate repetitive wing pattern you see in the satinwood sample, and pomelle, the dappled figure on this African mahogany sample.


Location, location, location

Saw cuts and genetics aside, some types of figure can develop at different locations in the tree. Still other figure tends to be more common in certain geographic locations. Along the trunk of a maple, for example, you may find bird’s-eye figure, below. This pattern more likely appears in trees that grow in northern states like Michigan or Maine. 

   Dramatic crotch figure develops where limbs branch out from the trunk, forming a Y, as shown in the walnut crotch veneer below. By contrast, burl wood, with its tortured-looking grain, results from deformities that appear like boils on a tree’s trunk or from the stump or roots. In addition to the redwood burl shown left, common burls include walnut, maple, and Oregon myrtle.


Common Veneer Cuts

Veneers play a major role in giving woodworkers a visual design option in projects. While a variety of cuts offer different figure looks, two major cuts constitute the majority of veneers in the marketplace. One is rotary-cut veneers, seen in both softwood and hardwood plywood. Here, veneer is peeled off in a single continuous sheet, resulting in a repeated grain pattern as shown below. The other is flat or plain slicing where a knife edge cuts a prized block of wood into a bundle of sequential layers called a flitch. For instance, fine figured woods like bird’s-eye maple, crotch walnut, and redwood burl are sliced into thin, adjacent sheets that can serve in a four-way book-matched pattern for a box top, matching door panels, or other spotlighted project parts.

True colors shining through

Finally, color is another manifestation of figure. The extreme color contrast of some woods results from the difference between its earlywood and latewood or its sapwood and heartwood. Other woods, like the zebrawood shown below, feature parallel stripes that have nothing to do with tree ring growth. Still others, like black and white ebony and eastern red cedar, feature random streaks and patches of color.






Outside forces can also color wood. Fungus takes credit for the pinkish-red stain in box elder. It’s also the cause behind the attractive black lines, or spalting that occurs in the early stages of decaying wood such as maple. Then there are the unusual gray-brown streaks in ambrosia maple and cherry that result from insect infestations as shown below.

So whether you’re a furnituremaker, box builder, or turner of things artistic, you can do much to add the “extra” to the “ordinary” with a thoughtful infusion of figured woods.  

Buying Figure: Tips From A Pro

While sources for figured woods range from a local sawmill to a woodworking supplies retailer to the stand of trees behind your house, the best source for choice exotics and rare domestics may be a mail-order outlet. Its contacts span the globe, allowing outlets to buy containers full of quality wood and store it in volume. To help you buy smart from such outlets, Rocky Mehta, president of West Penn Hardwoods (westpennhardwoods.com), offers the following insights:

• The price for figured stock is an upgrade from the cost of “regular” stock of the same species because of its rare and unique nature. If a board exhibits exceptional one-of-a-kind figuring, it may classify as “exhibition grade” and be priced accordingly.

• Figured stock native to an outlet’s geographical region will likely sell for less due to lower shipping costs. For instance, quilted big-leaf maple will cost less on the West Coast, its origin, as will curly maple on the East Coast.

• Larger orders can qualify for a discount and/or free shipping, though quantities of figured stock may be limited.

• Check out mail-order suppliers’ Web sites frequently for closeouts that may offer boards that are partially figured or contain minor defects at a lower price.

• If visiting a figured woods supplier, use a damp rag or splash water on candidate boards to get a better sense of figure quality.

• Note that different suppliers may specialize in carrying certain figured woods.

• Some suppliers may agree to notify you about the arrival of special figured woods, or of a resupply of stock you had requested.

• Figured stock is usually available in thicknesses of 4/4 (1"), 6/4 (11⁄2"), and 8/4 (2")

• Mail-order figured stock will most likely be skip-surfaced (rough-surfaced) to 13⁄16" or 15⁄16", unless further sanding is requested.

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