Look almost anywhere, and you'll see things made from wood. It forms the furniture you sit on, the floor you walk on, the cabinets that store your dishes, the doors that secure your home, the frames that hold your treasured photos, the clock that chimes the hours, and perhaps even the trim in your car. Wood also has uses you don't see: the framing inside your home's walls and the pallets that store inventory for the stores where you shop.
According to the Unites States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forestry Service, the U.S. demand for wood products is growing at twice the rate of the population [source: Northern Research Station]. In 2008, this translated into 10.7 billion board feet of U.S.-produced hardwood lumber [source: Associated Press]. And that's just the hardwoods.
Harvesting that much wood can have devastating effects on forests and surrounding environments. Irresponsible logging leads to deforestation, pollution of waterways from erosion runoff, and the removal of a major resource in the carbon cycle -- a whole forest of oxygen-producing, carbon dioxide-absorbing trees.
Fortunately, some of the hardwoods most popular for home improvement and woodworking projects are now grown and harvested sustainably, often domestically. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) recognizes more than 100 million acres (40,468,564 hectares) of forest in the United States and Canada that are managed to its environmental and social standards [source: FSC].
Sustainable hardwoods are harvested from forests managed to maintain a natural balance of tree and plant diversity. The harvesters also take pains to reduce the impact of the harvest by maintaining a buffer of trees around waterways and reseeding areas damaged by the lumbering equipment. That's good news. But lumber producers must do even more to earn FSC certification for their products. They must document the journey of the lumber from forest to retail shelves with a chain-of-custody paper trail to prove that the wood was harvested legally from a certified sustainable forest.
In this article, we'll look at the qualities and uses of five sustainable hardwoods. Since buying locally makes sense environmentally and economically, we'll also look at where each type of wood grows.
White Ash (Fraxinus americana)
Kiln-dried, turned and clear-coated, white ash becomes the driving force of line-drives and grand slams in America's pastime, baseball. This shock-resisting wood is also known for its ability to deliver slap-shots in chilly ice arenas, sink snooker balls in smoky parlors and navigate a thrilling whitewater run. If you're more handy than athletic, check out your hand tools. Many of them probably sport handles made from ash.
In its less active life, the strength and rich, creamy color of white ash make it a popular choice for furniture. It's a coarse-textured wood with strength comparable to oak, but because it's less dense, ash is easier to work with. Because it bends very well with steaming, ash is ideal for curved furniture, trim and crafts. Although stiff, it's easy to work with both hand and power tools; it doesn't wear down saw blades much more than softer woods. It glues well and holds screws tightly. Because the wood is hard, you'll need to drill pilot holes for your screws and nails. Ash stains beautifully, but if you're looking for a smooth, glassy surface, you'll need to fill the characteristic open pores with pore filler before finishing the piece.
White ash grows throughout the eastern and central United States with a limited range in southeastern Canada. It's harvested sustainably from Pennsylvania's 2.2 million acres of FSC-certified state forests. White ash is also a popular landscaping tree. You can grow your own ash wood right in your front yard.
Does your taste in wood run to something with more personality? Bore into black cherry on the next page.
Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
Black cherry is the only cherry tree that grows large enough to have commercial value. Because it was abundant and had qualities similar to mahogany, cherry was often used to make furniture in Colonial America. It's still highly valued today for the lustrous glow that it brings to furniture, cabinets, flooring, paneling, doors and trim. Sustainable cherry is also a wood of choice for some Martin Guitars.
Pink to reddish hues are characteristic of black cherry, but the wood is photosensitive and darkens quickly if exposed to sunlight. Cherry is blessed with a straight grain and fine texture. Wavy growth rings give it interest and personality, and it often presents with a swirl figure.
Softer and less dense than white ash and oak, cherry is easy to machine, nail and glue. It's somewhat brittle, though, and may split, chip or crack if you drop it or ask it to carry too much weight. Cherry bends with relative ease and finishes smoothly with sanding and polishing.
Varieties of black cherry grow throughout the eastern and central United States. Most trees large enough for commercial use grow in the Allegheny Plateau of Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia. Of all the trees grown in the mixed-wood, FSC-certified forests of Pennsylvania, cherry is the most valuable.
On the next page, learn about a sustainable hardwood that's at home in formal living rooms and in outdoor spaces.
Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla)
Mahogany's fine texture and deep, rich color have made it the world's choice for fine furniture for centuries. A tropical wood, mahogany is also tough enough for outdoor and industrial use.
Furniture-quality mahogany comes from Central and South America and the Caribbean. The heartwood starts out with pink, salmon and red tones that age to rich reds and browns. The grain can be straight or wavy, with swirl, quilted or ribbon stripe figures commonly occurring. This type of mahogany is easy to work and easy on your tools. If your selection is highly figured, use fine blades and small cuts to avoid tearing and chipping. Lush and lustrous to begin with, mahogany from the Americas is easy to polish to a smooth, glassy finish.
Mahogany is also a good material for decking around pools and hot tubs. It's tough enough to stand up to the elements, smooth enough to keep bare feet safe from splinters, and it ages gloriously.
The workhorse of sustainable mahogany is the dense, irregularly grained Australian variety, Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata). This stuff is tough to work with and blunts cutting tools more than other woods, but it glues well. Jarrah is coarse-grained, and gum-pocket defects are common. It's suitable for tough-use applications such as flooring, railroad ties, dock and harbor installations and heavy construction.
Mahogany meets its match in the pale beauty on the next page.
Sturdy, handsome, versatile maple comes in hard and soft varieties. Sugar maples form the hard type, which is also valued for extremely white sap wood. Wood from red and silver maples have all the qualities of hard maple, but is about 25 percent less dense, making it easier to work with [source: EarthSource, Hanafee]. To find soft maple in the stacks of lumber at your retailer, press your fingernail into the surface of the wood. If your fingernail leaves an impression, it's soft maple.
If you want to show off the beauty of wood in your project, maple's a great choice. This wood presents with a variety of figures: bird's-eye, curly, fiddleback, quilted, spalted and swirl. The spalted effect is different in origin than the others. Its characteristic dark streaks and thin lines are the beginning ravages of rot. Kiln-drying stops the decay and preserves the unique figures in the wood.
Maple's pale color, lively graining and fine texture combine with strength to make it an excellent choice for furniture, cabinets, paneling, doors, molding and flooring, including stair treads. The soft variety bends easily for curved furniture and stair railings. Because of its resonant quality, fiddleback maple is the preferred wood for violins.
Maple is dense, so pre-bore holes for nails and screws. Highly figured boards are prone to tearing and chipping when you cut or plane them. Use sharp blades and work slowly to minimize damage. Although maple doesn't accept stain well -- it tends to blotch -- you can polish and clear coat it to achieve a beautiful, smooth finish.
Growing from Newfoundland to Miami and as far west as Minnesota, red maple (Acer rubrum) is one of the most abundant trees in eastern North America. Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is native to non-coastal areas of the eastern United States. More northerly in its range, the Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is an important tree in Canada. The leaf of the sugar maple adorns the Canadian flag.
On the next page, we'll look at the popular and versatile oak.
Strong, durable and naturally water-resistant, white oak (Quercus alba) is at home indoors and out. Light to dark brown, rich in tannins and straight-grained with long rays that contribute to figuring, it's the most popular choice for hardwood cabinets, high on the list for flooring and home furnishings, and valued in the construction of bridges, barrels and boats. Its close cousin, red oak, is pink to reddish-brown in color with mostly straight grains and very little figuring. Red oak (Quercus rubra) is more finicky and not recommended for outdoor use.
The large, open pores of oak give it a coarse texture that you can see and feel. The growth pattern results in uneven grains that make boards susceptible to splitting. Oak is dense and stiff and resists bending under weight, but if you want curves, you can get them without excessive risk of damage. Although hard, this wood takes well to machining and hand tools, and can be stained and sanded to a good surface. You'll need to drill pilot holes for nails and screws, and be sure to use only galvanized fasteners since the tannins in oak react chemically with iron. Water and earth are other sources of iron. Red oak doesn't repel water like white oak does, and traces of iron in water will stain the wood dark. Some people have an adverse reaction to oak dust particles, so wear a mask whenever your activity might raise dust.
White oak is prominent in the eastern half of the United States, with the exception of Florida and areas along the Gulf Coast. Varieties of white oak also grow in Oregon and California. Red oak species thrive throughout the eastern United States and southeastern Canada.
There's lots more information on the next page.
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