WoodSense: Spotlight on White Ash

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This article is from Issue 70 of Woodcraft Magazine.

A bargain blonde hardwood

Even if you haven’t laid woodworking tools to white ash (Fraxinus americana), odds are good that you’ve done plenty of other work with this wood. It’s the traditional handle material for garden implements such as rakes, hoes, and other non-striking tools. Because it imparts no odor or taste to food, ash is also a major player in many kitchens. It’s often used for food containers, bowls, and serving utensils.

At first glance, ash may not seem as awe-inspiring as other top-shelf cabinet woods such as walnut, cherry, or mahogany, but this affordable home-grown hardwood can be employed to build beautiful furniture. Here’s what you need to know to select the best stock, and to make the most of this blonde beauty.

History in Woodworking

Due to its many amenable physical attributes, including strength, elasticity, and shock resistance, ash has long been used for myriad utilitarian objects: baskets, wheel rims, oars, tool handles, chairs, and even spears. The wood has even been steam-bent or glue-laminated to form sturdy wooden frames for motor vehicles and aircraft. In the age of composites, ash has lost ground, but it is still used for hockey sticks, polo mallets, snowshoes, skis, and baseball bats. (But don’t leave this outdoor equipment outdoors; despite its toughness, ash doesn’t hold up well to extended exterior use without a film finish or preservative treatment.)

In addition to its many other utilitarian purposes, ash’s light color and attractive grain make it well suited for furniture, cabinetry, and even car interiors, where highly figured ash veneers often come into play. As an economical stand-in for oak, ash played a strong supporting role during America’s “Golden Oak” era.

Where the wood comes from

Ash trees are widespread across much of Europe, Asia, and North America. The U.S. hosts 18 different species, led in quantity and commercial value by white ash. White ash and its cousins green, blue, and pumpkin ash (all often sold as white ash)—range from New England and Nova Scotia west to Minnesota, and south to Texas and Florida. Black ash (Fraxinus nigra), sometimes marketed as brown ash, can be found in the northern part of this range.

How to select the best stock

Because low-grade logs are relegated to pallet stock or sold for firewood, finding clear straight-grained boards isn’t too difficult, but pay close attention to the color of the wood. If the boards contain mineral streaks, or striping between late and early wood that won’t work with your design, look elsewhere. A few boards of brown ash will often slip into a stack of white. If you find a board that has sapwood that’s as dark as the heartwood of its mates, choose another board, or risk problems when finishing.

Ash’s distinct grain can complement or compete with your design, so scrutinize the end grain to determine whether a board is flatsawn, riftsawn, or quartersawn. Choosing to capitalize on the cathedral arches of flatsawn boards or, alternatively, on straight-grain quartersawn stock is a matter of choice, but to obtain relatively straight grain on adjacent faces of a leg, the end grain must run diagonally. If riftsawn blanks are not available, start with flatsawn stock and rip it so the end grain runs diagonally.

Ash occasionally displays interesting figure, including bird’s-eye and curl (top photo, facing page). One distinctive and highly-prized figure is referred to as “olive ash.” When found, this zebrawood doppelganger is typically reserved for veneer.

Working ash in the shop

Ash is slightly less dense than red oak and burns more easily so keep machine knives, bits, and blades clean and sharp. Expect some blunting effect on hand tools, which must also be kept sharp.

Like most domestic hardwoods, ash glues up well with standard adhesives. To avoid splitting, pre-bore for screws and nails. To avoid scratch marks when sanding, do not skip grits. Finishing up with fine paper will bring the wood to a nice polish.

Finishing ash

Ash accepts dyes and stains well. The wood’s open pore structure also makes it a good candidate for pickling. As with oak and other ring-porous woods, pigment stain will accentuate the large pores of the early wood in ash, so if you want more consistent coloring, use dye instead. All topcoat finishes work well on the wood, but keep in mind that, under a clear finish, white ash yellows with age much like maple.

Emerald Ash Borer (EAB)

Battling the Emerald Ash Borer

Since its discovery in 2002, the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) has killed millions of ash trees from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic States and in southern Canada. At risk is not only commercially harvested trees but also all the varieties of ash trees growing along city streets, in parks, and on private property.

You can help control the EAB’s spread by heeding the following guidelines:

  • Look for 1⁄8" dia. D-shaped holes in trees and firewood. Adults emerge from infested trees in mid-May and reach their peak by early July.
  • If you detect EAB infestation, report your findings to authorities. If you own the suspect tree, call a tree service for possible insecticide treatment. (Trees with less than 40% canopy die-off can often be saved.)
  • Don’t transport firewood. (In some regions, this is a fineable offense.)
  • If you collect ash for turning, or buy it from a local woodlot, remove the bark and the first inch of sapwood before transport. (This is the part of the tree that harbors the eggs and larvae.)

For more info, go to www.emeraldashborer.info.

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