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Thread: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

  1. #1
    Registered User Sue Rieter's Avatar
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    Default Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    In the Douglas Fir thread, Adrian said

    Quote Originally Posted by HoGo View Post
    I've been tree and woods nerd all my life and always watch for "interesting" trees on all my trips (I mostly look for odd wood grain etc - just few days ago I found black poplar that is completely burly/birdseye on the whole trunk 20'+ long and 3.5' diameter before the branches start, during Covid isolation trips to local forests few months ago I found extremely curly beech - the grain pattern looked much like the famed D-log.
    How do you know what the wood grain will look like while the tree is still standing in the woods? Inquiring minds want to know.



    Sue

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    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    You can't tell at all!

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    Registered User tree's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    You can't tell with absolute certainty, but some things are fairly obvious. Because ray cells extend from the center of the tree into the phloem, sometimes you can get a good general idea of grain straightness from the bark. For example, in a tree like white oak (Quercus alba), if you see the bark swirling like a corkscrew along the axis of the trunk, you can assume the grain does the same.

    You can generally assume some things from "body language" of the tree also - for example, a series of ridges that ripple outward from the underside of a branch junction can indicate curly figure in the grain. Burls are large obvious, unusual looking "growths" on a branch or main trunk that are areas of convoluted grain direction.

    Two examples off the top of my head, I'm sure there are others. The important thing to remember is there is no absolute rule that all trees obey. Heck, trees (even within species, even growing side by side) are as variable as people. But sometimes, if you know what to look for, you can predict grain or figure.

    Most of the time, though, you have to either cut off a patch of bark (to see curl or quilt figure) or cut the tree and mill it.
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    Hands of Pot Metal
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    Quote Originally Posted by sblock View Post
    You can't tell at all!
    Not always. On big leaf maple, the trunk and bark on quilted figure trees shows the same ripple pattern as reflected in the grain on the cut lumber.

    But typical grain figure is dependent on how the log is cut. And I don't think there's a reliable way to tell if a maple has birdseye figure until its cut, although burl figure extending into the tree around the burl will often appear as birdseye in a board.
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    Registered User j. condino's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    I use an increment borer to take a core sample before I make any larger decisions:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPJUewNcvao

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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    Many trees exhibit "wind", or spiral grain. That means you cannot get boards without grain run out from the tree. That can often be detected by looking at the bast of the tree where roots start to flair out from the trunk into the ground. If the lobes of roots go more-or-less straight from the ground and merge into the trunk that indicates* straight grain. If they lobes join the trunk at something of an angle that indicates* potential spiral grain.

    *I use the word indicates because it is not a sure thing. Notice I also used the word potential.

    Some trees, sugar maple (Acer saccharum) for example, have bark that spirals around the tree. It's a reasonable assumption that those trees have spiral grain.

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    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    As has been said sometimes it is possible, sometimes not.
    BTW, here is the poplar in question (poor pics from my not-smart phone)
    The beech I mentioned had big open split where you coud see the curl all through the wood from center of trunk to bark. I couldn't take pics of that as my camera batteries just died at the moment I wanted to take them...
    Wavy bark on sides of trees don't necessarily indicate curly wood. Such curls are normal under branches and very little actual curl is underneath. Typical curly Euro maple (acer pseudoplatanus) shows almost no sign on surface as the curl is oriented mostly in tangential direction with just small amount of waviness to telegraph through bark. Some maples (especially red maple) can have much more of the curl in radial direction or changing direction along the tree causing the wild look like D-log.
    "Carelian" birch typically has somewhat "swollen" trunk that is easy identifier. I have some curly birch that also had the low part of trunk noticeably thicker than expected for size of the tree.
    Wild grain patterns are "growth defect" of tree so they are sometimes visible indirectly.
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    Bob Ayers Ranger Bob's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    Fascinating thread. Thanks!

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    Hands of Pot Metal
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    Play it like you mean it

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  16. #10
    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill McCall View Post
    They don't care about the forest and just peel the bark on every promising tree, then it is perfectly clear what you have inside.
    Adrian

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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees


  18. #12
    I really look like that soliver's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    Always loved this stuff.

    When I lived in midtown Atlanta, my wife (then girlfriend/fiance) would walk the dog and I would look at the enormous oaks growing out of the sidewalk and daydream about what the burl would look like from the mass of root that was growing around and enveloping the concrete curb. It almost looked as if it was bubbling up out of the ground.

    Sue, the easiest thing to "see" what kind of interesting grain might be hiding inside of the trunk is to look at a piece of "Crotch" wood, where the trunk splits from 1 to 2 or where a significantly sized limb is growing out from a main trunk. You can see little humps or "waves" in the center of the Y... the bark at times that usually indicates something interesting is happening.
    Last edited by soliver; Sep-13-2020 at 9:59am.
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  20. #13
    Registered User Sue Rieter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    So one of the reasons for starting this thread, beyond basic curiosity, is this maple tree that my husband cut down in the yard. I didn't really want it cut down, but there it is. I have to keep an eye out when he gets going with the chain saw

    This tree has had kind of a funny growth pattern due to a big chunk that broke off near the ground quite a few years ago. I keep looking at it laying on the bank and wondering if it is a waste to cut it up for firewood. It's got a pretty long straight section, maybe 15 feet or so before it splits into two trunks.
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  21. #14

    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    Sue, your maple had a hard life. Lots of trauma showing up at the cut and above that at "the big chunk" area. It is not done, however, you can manage one of the coppice shoots to be the new tree. Keep the deer and cows off of it until at least six inches diameter.
    Define "waste."

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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    Stating the obvious here to say that peeling away some bark from the trunk will not injure/harm the tree at this time. If the surface looks curly under the bark you might have mandolin wood there. If the surface is simply smooth you still might have some quality wood, just not curly.
    Considering the work, equipment and space needed to process, store and dry the wood, lawn trees like this are usually best used for firewood unless said equipment and space are readily available and said work is deemed enjoyable.

  23. #16
    Registered User tree's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    And for mandolin use, sometimes the firewood pile is not necessarily the final destination. My favorite mandolin was made by John Hamlett (#32) and was, I believe, salvaged from firewood or at least chronicled in a thread as the "firewood" mandolin.

    Attached photo is a piece I snagged from a firewood pile, with the bark removed. The horizontal waves are the curl figure.

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    Clark Beavans

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  25. #17
    Registered User Sue Rieter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    Hmmm. I guess I would define waste as using something at much less than it's optimum value. I certainly am not set up to process boards, but I guess if someone else saw significant artistic value there, I would give it to them. I might peel some bark just for the heck of it.

  26. #18
    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    Quote Originally Posted by tree View Post
    ...was, I believe, salvaged from firewood...
    Indeed it was. A farmer had bulldozed a bunch of trees into a pile to get them out of his pasture, a friend of mine (fellow luthier) asked the farmer if he could cut firewood from the pile, the farmer said 'sure' (he just wanted the trees out of the pasture), my friend found curly maple in the pile, didn't have the equipment, space or time to deal with it, called me, and now there are several mandolins made from that tree. (Of course, I reserved some of the wood for my friend who discovered the curly wood and turned it over to me.)

    Here's a link to the thread about the firewood mandolin, for those who may find inspiration from it and to indicate what is needed in terms of tools, equipment, space and time to process our own wood. In this thread I said I was 99% sure the wood was silver maple. I've since decided that the other 1% is most likely in play here. After working with the wood I believe it to be sugar maple, and if so that helps explain many of the observations of more similarly than difference between the two mandolins. Also, one of the things that steered me (erroneously?) toward thinking silver maple was my mistaken notion that there wasn't much sugar maple in the area from where the wood came. Turns out that is wrong, sugar maple is common in the area.
    I've recently been in contact with this mandolin's new owner as it has recently changed hands.
    https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/t...ewood-mandolin
    Last edited by sunburst; Sep-15-2020 at 11:32am.

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    I really look like that soliver's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    That was a cool thread, John. Great stuff!

    My second build, I plan to make the back out of some Redbud wood from a tree I cut down in my front yard. It was a huge tree (for that species) and I'm excited to see how it turns out. Unfortunately though, I did not get any long enough to make the sides from, so I will have to use something different.

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  29. #20
    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    Just to show some more pics of trees I met...
    Here is one spectacular european beech (fagus sylvatica) I found while driving few years ago... We drive that way quite often so I stopped there just to have a loser look and take some pics. It stands just few steps from country road and it's split side faces the road so in winter when it is not too covered in leafs of surrounding bushes it screams in the sunset light with dramatic waves. And the waves show somewhat through the bark so in this case the grain curls in both directions. You can notice my keyring on one of the splinters just for size comparison (approx 1 1/2' - 2' diameter at chest height). BTW, this tree is still living but won't be for long as the exposed wood is full of tiny woodworm holes.
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  31. #21
    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    And here is my most recent find from today's walk through woods... again beech of similar size but in completely different part of country.
    I cannot be sure what is inside but the waves in the bark go all the way up in regular 1" itervals and approximately 1/8"+ depth. Potentially nice wood inside if the waves go in both directions I've seen beech wood that showed the waves just in this one direction and split quarter was almost as smooth as baby's butt. They are visible on slab-cut wood but they are not as dramatic and the wood is also not extremely stable on slab.
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    Registered User tree's Avatar
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    That's cool, Adrian. Looks to me like a codominant trunk split off at the union, often that is a weak structural junction. I see some included bark at the top of the wound that would be evidence of such a defect. Judging from the amount of woundwood growth at the margins, the split happened a couple years ago or more, if that piece is still on the ground it is probably decaying by now.
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  34. #23
    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: Assessing wood grain of standing trees

    Quote Originally Posted by tree View Post
    Judging from the amount of woundwood growth at the margins, the split happened a couple years ago or more, if that piece is still on the ground it is probably decaying by now.
    Yes, that happened at least three years ago when I noticed the tree (and being tree nerd always looking around for trees it wouldn't take me many drives around to notice). The fallen part is gone as I guess it fell right across the road and got removed immediately. Sad is that the standing part is attacked by woodworm and that means its demise in close future.
    Adrian

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