Woodsense: Spotlight on Sassafras

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Sassafras

Technical Consultant: Larry Osborn

In Colonial America, the bark and roots of sassafras (Sassafras albidum) were mistakenly believed to contain curative powers that fixed a variety of ailments and prolonged life. As such, it became an export to Europe and tried as a cure for syphilis, rheumatism, and more. It proved ineffective. During spring in North America, settlers steeped its twigs and leaves into a strong tonic for upset stomachs, a practice learned from the Native Americans, who made it into a bitter brew believed to cure everything from soreness in the eyes to diarrhea.

Its ground leaves, called filè, as in filè gumbo, are still a traditional ingredient in Creole cooking. Oil of sassafras, distilled from its roots, remains as an ingredient in numerous products. It serves as a flavoring in medicines and candies and as a scent for candles and soap. The sharp-smelling yet pleasant aroma of this wood is noticeable when sawing or sanding in the shop.

Sassafras

History in woodworking

Sassafras characteristics include lightweight, dimensional stability after drying, and moderate to good natural decay resistance. In the past it has been used in slack cooperage for dry-goods barrels, fencing, and small boats. In fact, Native Americans hollowed out sassafras logs to use as canoes.

Restorers of antique furniture have sometimes milled the wood to stand in as replacement parts for chestnut. Its open grain and color similarly allow sassafras to be mixed in with darker or brown ash in cabinets and furniture. In addition to the grain, woodturners and carvers appreciate the wood’s softness and ease of working.

Where the wood comes from

Locally called cinnamon wood and red sassafras, the species grows large in Arkansas and Missouri, with specimens reaching 100' tall and 4' in diameter. In smaller size, even shrub form, it’s found from Massachusetts to Florida and west to Iowa. The tree seldom grows in stands, but instead takes root alongside white oak, sweet gum, poplar, and persimmon. Due to its scattered growth pattern and limited size, sassafras only represents a relatively small percentage of commercial lumber.

What you’ll pay

Normally found at lumber outlets in its growing region, sassafras is sold in only #1 Common, #2 Common (or combined 1&2 Common) and FAS (First and Seconds). In 1&2 Common, 4/4 (1"-thick) stock costs about $1 per board foot. FAS sassafras in 4/4 runs about $3 to $4. In 8/4 (2"-thick), it’s about twice that per board foot. Boards range from 4" to 81⁄2" widths and about 8' to 12' lengths. All stock is flatsawn. Sassafras veneer and plywood, although less common, are available online.

Sassafras

How to select the best stock

Although straight and coarse-grained like ash, sassafras appears the same in color as brown ash and weighs less. Old trees yield wood of a redbrown color; tannish yellow wood comes from younger trees. You won’t see much color difference between heartwood and sapwood. For the best look, stick with stock of uniform color and grain.

Lumber dealers often mix sassafras with ash and label it as such, thus raising its price. When mixed with ash, you might not see a difference between the two. To discover which is which, scrape a bit of surface with a pocketknife to detect the telltale sassafras fragrance.

Working sassafras in the shop

Because it’s a soft hardwood, you can easily work sassafras with sharp hand planes and chisels. Due to the brittleness of sassafras, take special care when machining. When assembling sassafras project parts with screws, drill pilot holes to avoid splitting.

• Jointing, planing, sawing, and routing. Feed sassafras to the jointer in the direction of the grain (“downhill”) to avoid tear-out. This also means making shallow passes with a router. Back the wood when routing end grain or crosscutting. Expect slight fuzzing when rip-cutting.

• Assembly. All types of adhesives work well with sassafras. Because screws can lose their grip in this soft wood, always use them in combination with glue.

It’s a fact that…

In the hills and hollows of Appalachia and elsewhere in the South, there’s a continuing belief that a bed frame made of sassafras assures a good night’s rest. The foundation of this notion is the wood’s strong smell that’s said to drive away nocturnal bugs.

Deciding on the right finish

All dyes, stains, and finishes work well with sassafras. For outdoor furniture, try exterior penetrating oil.

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