Their Two Scents’ Worth

Quotations, anecdotes and observations on the near mystical effects of the aromas of wood − by some of your favorite woodworkers.

Several species of wood boast distinctive aromas. Sandalwood, sassafras and several cedars come immediately to mind. Other oily species such as teak and some of the rosewoods have a heavy, rather than a heady, aroma, which also imprints them on our subconscious. Perhaps the most distinctive and certainly one of the most familiar wood smells is the sweet perfume of aromatic cedar. Who hasn’t opened a closet door or a dresser drawer, and inhaled its intense fragrance? Sandalwood, another instantly recognizable aroma, in some species is so strong that it is used in perfumes, potpourri and even herbal medicines.

The strong scents of wood play a sensual role in our lives. The things we do to wood release those odors, and our memories — sawing, sanding and burning — bring us back to favorite times.  Aromas of wood enrich our existence, embellish our memories and add another fine dimension to that most enjoyable of hobbies, woodworking.

— John English, author and woodworker

“I work exclusively with Arkansas hardwood, and there are visual similarities between species that can lead to confusion. A stroke with the saw, or a cut with a knife can put confusion to rest. 

“The scents of working with wood, and even the individual fragrances of the woods become an unconscious thing, simply part of the pleasant aura of being in the shop. When I have guests in the shop, they frequently remark, ‘Boy, this smells good.’ I often think to myself, ‘You should be here when I cut persimmon.’”

— Doug Stowe, maker of furniture and wooden boxes, and a  teacher

“People come by my flute shop all the time to play with the flutes and touch the flutes and see the flutes; but a special group turns up when I am working with Alaskan Yellow Cedar.  All the people from the nearby shops just show up to smell the flutes. It is hard on my coffee budget.”  

— Bill Hughes, Native American flute maker

“I can’t tell you the number of times customers have walked into my shop and told me that they just love the smell of wood … when what they were smelling was a solvent I was using to clean a surface or thin a finish.”

— Bob Flexner, professional woodworker and finishing author

“Walnut has always been my dad’s favorite cabinetmaking wood, and perhaps my original connection to this odor could be traced to a childhood experience in his shop 50 years ago. My own woodshop experiences with the wood led me, after months of working only with cherry, to pull out a plank of walnut, to lay it across the tables of my radial-arm saw and to draw the saw toward me, slicing off an inch. Just so I could lose myself in the aroma.”

  — Kerry Pierce, professional furniture maker and author

“My father was a passionate woodworker. I remember one day he was standing at the lathe in his old cement block shop out back. I was trying to sweep up all the sawdust I could with my hands to make a big pile on the floor — just like you would expect from a six-year-old.  Dad was turning a candy dish out of walnut. There was a very specific aroma to that walnut that is totally unlike any other walnut I had ever smelled before. To this day when a piece of walnut is cut at the school that is the exact type of walnut (not all walnut) I can see IN COLOR exactly where I was, where my dad was and what he was doing. The great thing about this brief memory is that it only happens with a very specific walnut, and I treasure the moment. I cherish those moments when I get a brief whiff of that smell.”  

— Marc Adams, professional woodworker and founder of the Marc Adams School of Woodworking

“The sense of smell is an overlooked yet integral part of our woodworking experience; the smells released as we alter the wood alter us as well. After a stressful day at work or home, that first whiff as we walk into the shop begins the relaxation process. The slightly coffee aroma of white oak being planed breathes anticipation as the creative process begins anew. Maple sweetens the air and reminds us of fall as it takes form. As woodworkers, we’ve been practicing aromatherapy for generations.” 

— Ralph Bagnall, reproduction furniture builder, teacher and writer

“The hint of toasted marshmallow when cutting maple is a hint that it’s time to change blades or check my saw’s settings. An encounter with zebrawood, a striped wood that certainly resembled its namesake but smelled like an entire herd as soon as it touched blade, forever convinced me to stick with less endangered, local stock.”

— Joe Hurst-Wajszczuk, writer and woodworker

“I have worked with some exotic woods such as afromosia and padauk. When you hold these woods under your nose they really don’t have much of a smell. But as soon as you feed them into a machine like a table saw or router, they suddenly fill the air with the most wonderful and exotic aroma! If only such a smell would last, but it’s only there for a brief time. I guess it’s one of the rare treats that is a special reward for those of us lucky enough to spend our leisure hours laboring at this most ancient of crafts!”

— Wolf Moehrle, custom furniture designer

“My introduction to the odor of wood came as a young boy when my father took me to a woodshop in Boulder, Colo. I can still see the fat old man behind the table saw and smell the odor of ebony and sugar maple he was cutting. The odors of woods have played an important part in the history and pre-history of the use of wood, as I suspect even the Ice Man could have distinguished the odors of woods that he used in his personal effects.” 

— David Ellsworth, world-renowned woodturner

“The odor of walnut always reminds me of my woodworking beginnings at Beckley Junior High and Mr. Gray, our teacher. I remember the first piece done with walnut, a turned lamp for my mother.

 “Sweet birch has that special smell of the bark that I chewed as a kid. It takes me back to my childhood.”

— Fred Friar, chairmaker

“You talk of the smell of wood. There’s nothing quite like walking into a woodshop and smelling the scent of freshly cut wood.” 

 — Justin Gordon, professional carver


“Whether it’s the smell of freshly baked cookies or freshly cut wood, you will more than likely have fond memories of your Grandma and Grandpa. Fresh-cut wood is incense without the flame. Different species of wood will emit their own unique aroma when cut or hand-planed.  For example, imbuia wood, also known as Brazilian walnut, has a sweet, spicy aroma. When folks enter my cabinet shop, the aroma usually evokes a smile. Smells can create quite an emotional response!” 

— Stephen Staples, specialist in furniture design using reclaimed and old-growth wood

“For me, the acrid but sweet smell of pine mixed with the deep, musky smell of Stockholm tar evokes my most cherished and earliest memory of working with wood. Whenever I catch a whiff of either of these, I’m carried back to that first year of my woodworking career when I cobbled together a wooden skiff under the informal tutelage of the late Bud MacIntosh of Dover, N.H. Awestruck by how and by what he built in his ramshackle shop, I quickly came to understand that a life in crafts could be a good, fulfilling life. So for me, to smell pine and tar is to smell the sweet success of a decision I made 36 years ago to work with wood for a living and for a lifetime.”   

— Jim Tolpin, custom cabinet maker and award-winning author

“The smell of fresh-cut birch reminds me of wet tinker toys.  Grandma bought old (damp) tinker toys from the Goodwill. It brings back a warm sense of security and the aura of absolute love that only Grandmas produce. I smell birch, I feel good.

  “My father and I made a pinewood derby car, and I won a trophy. I no longer have the car, the trophy or my father. What I have is the memories of my father patiently showing me how to use a rasp. I still am very good at shaping wood.  Pine brings all this back.”

— Dave Van Ess, woodworker and application engineer for Cypress Semiconductor

“After a long day at the office, I would often came home all tied up in knots from the hustle and bustle of the day. I could walk down the stairs to my shop, and open the door where the smell of oak and pine would fill my nostrils. That sweet smell would soothe away all the tensions of the day by reminding me of all the great times my son and I had in the workshop.” 

— David Sapp, woodworker and owner of the Nashville, Tenn., Woodcraft Store

“I decided to cut some firewood.  Each time I struck the end grain with the maul an invisible mist gently sprayed up on my face and delivered the smell of root beer, a taste of birch beer soda as clear as day, and I realized that there indeed were treasures inside these trees.”

— Owen Rein,  carver and author

“Oak. That was the wood I learned to carve in. At the start of WWII we had plenty of oak. By the end we had nothing. To carve in oak, even today — some 60 years later — I am transported back to a time when my father, Johannes Leereveld, and I were known as the father and daughter woodcarving team. Those years when Germany occupied Holland were difficult and dangerous times but you made the best of it. In our carving studio we would sing operatic duets and people would stop on the sidewalk and listen. I love the smell of oak (even wet) because it reminds me of those days.”

— Nora Hall, master European carver

“When I rip a piece of cherry the unique, delicate, fleeting fragrance takes me back to 1963 when I built my first furniture, a bench for my mom and dad that they put at the base of their bed.”  

— Curtis Whittington, master custom furniture maker

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