Offcuts: A Sassafras Saga

Several years ago I made a cabinet that really reminded me of winter, and the idea popped into my head that it would be kind of interesting to make cabinets to represent the other seasons. I quickly settled on using maple for the spring cabinet, and cherry and bubinga for the autumn one, but I really wasn’t sure what wood to use for the summer cabinet. I knew that I wanted something with a yellowish tone to go with the limba veneer that I intended to use on the door. Not much time passed before I found myself at a local sawmill, perusing the sawyer’s stacks of local hardwoods. A quantity of sassafras intrigued me. The color was good, I’d never worked with it before, the name itself was euphonious to my ear, and, best of all, it smelled great. I bought a few boards and took them back to the shop.
One day I began working up the planks. I cut the boards to rough length and breathed in deeply, savoring the aroma of freshly sawn sassafras. There’s just nothing like that smell, I thought to myself. Soon I was over at the jointer, surfacing one side of the first of a stack of about 20 boards. Now the volatile oil that’s reminiscent (notice the “scent” in that word) of root beer and sassafras tea came pouring out of the pores, and I was all too eager to breathe it in, wallowing in my good fortune to be working with such great-smelling wood. That was my reaction to the initial board, and the second and third were just as good. By the fourth board, or thereabouts, I was becoming aware that this was a really strong smell. By the tenth board I began to think that maybe I needed a break from this constant sassafras odor, and that I should go outside to get a breath of fresh air. Which I did, returning shortly to the shop to enjoy anew the aromatic atmosphere. By the time I finished running all the boards through the jointer I was beginning to think the atmosphere was more on the pungent side of aromatic, and went outside for more fresh air.
Armed with freshly flushed lungs, I returned to the shop to attack the thicknessing part of the job. Jointing the lumber had been relatively quick and painless, but now I was dealing with a pile of lumber of significantly different thicknesses that required several passes through the planer for the thickest of the lumber. Each pass released clouds of invisible gas, redolent of the aromatic oil that is the base of some types of perfume. My reddened eyes were getting a little blurry, and I began to imagine (at least I hope I was imagining) that I could actually see the volatile oil in the air, and defying me to find any oxygen to use. Soon my brain was beginning to feel oxygen-deprived, and was questioning the wisdom of my wood selection.
Other body parts got in on the act. My nose had decided that the odor had crossed over from pungent to acrid, and was wrinkling in rebellion with each breath I took. I decided to bypass this problem and breathe through my mouth. Oil droplets soon coalesced on my tongue, seeking out taste buds. This brought back the memory of the time that I’d chugged five bottles of root beer in my youth, to the dismay of my stomach. The memory wasn’t an especially good one. My lungs, in the meantime, threatened a work stoppage if I didn’t get back outside for relief. “Sooner, not later,” cautioned the bellows. I lurched towards the shop door and olfactory alleviation, weaving slightly through the cloying stench. Just before I passed out, I reached the great outdoors, giving mute thanks to the woodworking gods.
The remainder of the afternoon passed in a fog, both literal and mental.
A few days later, when I’d recovered a bit, I was looking up sassafras in my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. I was trying to find out a little about the volatile oil that is in the wood, when I noticed the word satinwood was listed on the page opposite. It’s kind of yellow, too. I think maybe next time I’ll try that instead.

Jerry Spady is a lifelong woodworker and author whose doctorate in biomedical science has only marginally intruded upon his pursuit of and love for his craft.

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