Woodworkers are always looking for wood that has "figure" or some other anomaly that makes it distinctive. Figured wood is relatively hard to find, as is most wood with some sort of distinction. When it comes to wood that look different there are a few different things to look for and it depends on what you want to do with the wood when you are looking. Wood turners are very often making smaller pieces like bowls, urns, pens and other smaller projects so finding distinctive wood for a turner is very important. Luthiers are probably the highest on the level of looking for distinctive woods because they are always looking for some sort of figured wood for making musical instruments. Wood artists who make smaller projects are also often looking for wood that is different so there is a big call for these kinds of woods.
Very often it is possible to find some of these woods, particularly if you don't need a large volume of it, in something a close as a wood pile. When trees are cut down for firewood, from time to time there are parts of the the tree that are hard to cut with a chain saw, or hard to split with an axe. These pieces or often cast aside, and these are often the pieces that can provide some sort of figure, unique grain structure or even spalting.
Distinctive woods come in a variety of ways, they can be something a simple as "crotch wood", a term used to describe the way wood grows around the joint of a branch and where it joins the main part of a tree, to something more elaborate as a spalting, which happens when wood gets wet for long periods and fungus grows throughout the wood changing the color patterning within the wood.
All of these woods can be useful for a wide variety of woodworking projects or even parts of projects like handles, knobs, hinges, legs, trim, edging and so on. Depending on the kind of figure, you many need to be selective on how and where you use your figured wood, for expample splalting is basically an early form of wood rot. When the spalting is allowed to go too far it compromises the strength of the wood. Other forms of distinctive woods can also have weakened strength depending on how the grain is formed. The weakest form of wood is twisted wood, that is, wood that grows and twists as it grows, similar to how a what a red and white barber shop pole looks like. Twisted wood is probably best avoided for anything having to do with strength.
While we are on the topic of woods, lets take a minute to talk about bark. Although bark is not necessarily recognized as a distinctive wood, it is often incorporated into some projects, or at least the edge of the tree without the bark can be used and is often referred to a "live edge" look. If you have any experience with working with live edge wood or logs you will know that some bark is easy to take off, and sometimes will even fall off the log while other bark is almost like it is glued to the log, you have to chisel it to get if off. Sound familar? Well here's the reason why trees that are cut in the summer while the sap is running and the tree is growing, that area of growth between the bark and the tree is very fluid because the tree is actively growing, conversely when a tree is cut in the winter when all the sap has moved to the roots and stopped flowing that area between the bark and the tree much denser and sometimes even sticky like glue and that is the reason it holds the bark firmly to the log, even when it is cut.
If you are having trouble trying to remember which is which, it's pretty easy with little reminder I made up and use frequently, which is summer skin (i.e. the wood that shows after the bark is taken off) and winter coat (i.e. the bark of the tree is the coat).
Spalted Broad Leaf Maple
Finding some likely candidates in a wood pile is a great way to find some interesting and useful pieces of wood, all you need is a jointer and a bandsaw, you might also need a planer if you are going to need "size" the wood.
WORK SAFELY ... when use smaller woods it is more dangerous so make sure your woods are supported and held properly and that your fingers and other body parts are NOT in any danger of being drawn into the machinery. This is VERY important with smaller pieces of wood. More accidents happen with smaller pieces than large pieces.
The first step is to make sure the wood is clean and free of rocks and dirt as these items will make your blades dull quickly. Using a wire brush is often sufficient. The next step is to make one side flat, and for this you will need a jointer. It is NOT recommended that you use a table saw to make this wood flat, in fact it is down right dangerous so don't even try. Your fingers and well beind are not worth the risk. Once one side of your wood is flat, the best approach is to now make another side flat at 90 degrees to the first surface. When this is done you will have accomplished 2 things, first you will have made a wood that is safer to work with, and second you will be able to see in either one side or the other if there is any figure in your wood that is worth going after ... unless the figure is buried deeper in the wood, which can be the case from time to time. The last step of course is to make a cut on your bandsaw, or if you have a thin kerf blade, you might be able to use a table saw if the wood is not too wide, but a bandsaw is best.
If you are a wood worker, you have probably already scoured your own wood pile looking for some hidden gems, but maybe you should be going farther afield and chatting up your neighbors or relatives to check their wood piles too ...
Copyright Colin Knecht