So what causes wood to be ‘figured’?
It is a question that I have been asked many times and always failed miserably to come up with a convincing answer. When asked again last week I thought no, no more veneer industry flannel, it’s about time I did some serious research and got to the bottom of this. So after half an hour spent on Google while waiting for my daughter’s football practice to finish, I can now authoritively say… erm …no one knows, well no one on Google anyway.
This was a surprise given the number of explanations that I have heard offered up over the years, such as:
- It’s caused by wind and that the tree was probably on the edge of the forest on a slope and as a result it moved way more than most trees in the forest
- It’s a fungal infection
- A beetle does it
- A bear urinated on it when it was a sapling
- The pixies do it
For those who didn’t even know it was a question, then the term ‘figured’ is used to describe veneer that appears to have shimmering waves, blocks or stripes of reflective grain. The commonest description is ‘fiddle-back’, which describes the fine decorative stripes you would see on the back of a Stradivarius violin (other makes of violins are available).
However there is whole lexicon of terms used to describe the varying forms it takes, such as bee’s wing, curly, mottle, pommele, quilted, ripple, ribbon and my favourite, used by my daughter to describe the newly delivered bedroom furniture, hand-made in specially chosen Silvered Eucalyptus, ‘nice’.
The ‘nice’ patterns are caused by variations or distortions in the vertical alignment of grain in either radial or tangential directions and is due to how the cells in the wood have divided and caused some to become enlarged. The result is an optical illusion of movable stripes or contrasting patches of light and dark areas, but it isn’t a different colour this is just how the light is refracting off the fibrous structure of the various cells*.
There are a lot of theories as to why this happens (especially as highly figured logs are rare and often demand a huge premium), but no scientific study has been able to show a definitive correlation of variables such as location, climate, soil, bark, foliage, rate of growth, etc. on the distribution of figure in the log populations. You get figured logs in almost every specie and across every region. It is more common in some species and apparently in some regions, but linking them has confused the greatest minds of the timber industry, along with those minds like mine that are far less than great.
Anyway I hope now you are as ignorant as me on the subject, but equally appreciative of what nature can serve up to brighten up our dull bedrooms.
Pictures are: Curly Maple in my brother’s bedroom top left, a Figured Cherry log top right, a dyed Figured Mappa Burl, Figured Smoked Eucalyptus bottom right.
*Largely cribbed from https://www.lespaulforum.com/slubarticle/maple/figure.htmlShare