A World of Choices
There are many things for us to consider when it comes to choosing wood for our projects. First on our list is often appearance, but we must also consider the suitability to the task such as the strength, hardness and grain structure. This is especially true for us as scrollers since we often cut intricate and delicate fretwork out of thin pieces of wood.
This article will focus mainly on hardwoods. Much of what is available in softwood is ill-suited for intricate scroll saw projects. Softwoods such as pine and red cedar are quite brittle, especially when you get down to under 1/2” thickness. The density of a piece of pine also varies greatly within the grain pattern which can make it difficult to follow your pattern lines. I also often see people recommending pine to beginners in order for them to practice while keeping costs down, but having trouble cutting on pine myself, I recommend Baltic birch plywood as a better alternative. Another benefit to plywood is that it’s available almost everywhere and in many thicknesses.
I could write a whole article on these alternatives, but let us get back to the subject at hand: North American hardwoods. There are a lot of them, including a great many subspecies of each but I will try to cover what I believe are most commonly used.
Ash has a very pronounced grain which can look good in the right place. This grain pattern can clash with intricate fretwork making the resulting project look too busy and is probably best suited for pieces with little to no intricate details. The sample picture shows how ash typically appears. This is the ash sapwood. Some pieces will have darker brown sections of heartwood (The centermost part of the tree). The combination of sapwood and heartwood with any species gives a rustic look which can be used to your advantage on the right project and ash is no exception.
While being rather lightweight, ash is extremely strong, and on a hardness scale, ash is right there in the crowd with hard (sugar) maple, birch and oak although on the scroll saw, it does seem to be harder to cut, and quicker to wear blades than most other North American hardwoods.
Basswood is the softest of all the woods we will touch upon in this article. It’s a material often used by carvers due to its fine, even grain, its softness and its relative strength. These are features that can be taken advantage of scrollers, most notably those who do segmentation. You can save yourself a lot of shaping time by using basswood with very little tradeoff. It does, however absorb stain more heavily than most so your segmentation will look different than it would if you had used other hardwoods. The sample picture shows the creamy-white color of basswood sapwood. The heartwood is a pale brown color with dark streaks.
There are several subspecies of birch available to us in North America. Most birch has a creamy-white color as shown in the illustration. This is typical birch sapwood. The most common birch in my area of eastern Canada is yellow birch which has very little sapwood and is closer to a golden brown in color. Aside from minor differences in color and grain appearance , all of the birch I have used behaves almost identically to maple. It is one of the best suited materials for most of the scroll work that I enjoy doing. On the hardness scale, birch species are generally in the range of oak and hard maple except for paper birch which is somewhat softer.
As with maple, birch has a rather high tendency to have figure or curl. By this I mean that when you look at a flat board, not only do you have the grain pattern that is clearly visible, but the grain also waves towards you and away from you. Boards that have a lot of this in a regular pattern are typically called “curly “ or “flaming”. This figure is accentuated when a finish is applied and even more so when stain is used because some end grain is now visible on the face of the board. This end grain absorbs much more stain than the rest of the surface. This is why it is often said that birch and maple don’t stain well. After the wood is stained, if this waviness is random, spread over big areas or just generally undesirable, the finish is referred to as “blotchy”.
Cherry heartwood is brown and the sapwood is light yellow. These colors darken over time and when exposed to sunlight which changes the color slightly as well giving it a slight reddish hue. In general cherry consists of mostly heartwood and little to no sapwood. When drying, cherry has a greater tendency to warp than most other woods, so be sure to take appropriate precautions to avoid warping, especially if you have thin boards or did the re-sawing yourself.
Cherry, walnut and paper birch are all close on the hardness scale being softer than oak and the rest of that group but harder than poplar and basswood. Its grain is rather strong, easy to cut and holds up quite well to delicate scroll work. These qualities coupled with its beautiful color makes cherry a great choice for most any scroll saw project.
Hickory heartwood is brown or reddish-brown with sapwood being much paler. The sample photo above shows both. Typically, hickory boards have both heartwood and softwood in an interesting pattern which adds a rustic character to a project. Often used for tool handles, hickory has one of the best strength to weight ratios of any wood and is the hardest of all the woods in this article by a good margin. Despite the hardness difference, I personally find it no more difficult than ash to cut or sand.
Drying hickory is a little more problematic than most since it is prone to warp and end crack. Sealing the ends when drying is highly recommended. If you are willing to put up with the drying and cutting difficulties, what you are left with is a beautiful variation in color and grain pattern that look great on the right project. Hickory is certainly one of my favorites!
Holly is near white in color with grain that is even, strong and barely visible. On the hardness scale, it is about equal to cherry and walnut. Being fairly uncommon and also difficult to dry makes holly the most expensive wood on this list. Its color, however makes it the wood of choice for white when doing intarsia or inlay work. Due to its high cost, I have done very little work with holly. However its strong, even grain does make it a viable choice for most anything a scroller would want to use it for.
Maple sapwood is very pale brown with heartwood being a darker shade of medium brown. As with many woods mentioned in this article, there are many subspecies of maple. In North America there are 13 native species of maple so there will be some variance to what you will find. In general, the hardness of the wood will vary depending on the length of the growing season in the area from which it came. As a whole the hardness of North American maple species can vary with the softest being about the same as cherry to the hardest (sugar maple) being slightly harder than ash or white oak.
Aside from maple having a higher occurrence of figure and a slightly different color, maple and birch can be treated as one and the same when it comes to woodworking. The sample pictures of maple show some of the possibilities of what you can find. While curly figure and “birdseye” can be found in many species, it is more common in maple.
Being tight-grained, strong, cheap and easy to work as well as having nicer color than birch available in my area, makes maple my personal wood of choice for a big part of the work I do.
While there is a specific species of oak called “red oak”, when you are buying red oak from a lumber yard it could be one of several subspecies with similar characteristics that are all grouped together and sold as red oak. Heartwood will usually have a slight pink hue and sapwood is near white. High content of tannic acid and a porous grain make red oak a very bad choice for areas where it may come in contact with water. The porous grain will absorb water easily and the tannic acid will make the wood turn ugly and black. Red oak should never be used where it could be exposed to water.
Red and white oak both cut quite nicely on the scroll saw however the nature of the grain tends to make oak easy to break in delicate areas, especially when working with thinner boards. This is all despite the fact that on a hardness scale, oak rates right up there with ash and close to sugar maple. This porous grain means oak is best kept to less intricate pieces and in board thicknesses of at least 1/4”.
Just as its red cousin, there is a particular species of oak know as “white oak”, but when buying white oak, other species with similar characteristics that are all grouped together and sold under the same name. The grain pattern and hardness is similar to that of red oak however white oak lacks the slight pinkish hue and in general the dark rays in the grain are longer.
Despite a similar appearance and workability to red oak, white oak heartwood’s pores are plugged with tyloses which give it much better resistance to water and it’s grain is somewhat less porous making it a little better than red oak for use in delicate areas.
Both oak species are often available in “quarter sawn” or “rift sawn” cuts which means that the logs were cut in such a way that the end grain of your board is straight from top to bottom. This means that it will be much less likely to twist and warp which is great for us scrollers who often have to deal with thin woods that want to warp on us!
Poplar can be found in a wide array of colors with heartwood ranging from tan to yellow, blue, green, even purple with sapwood which is near white. This color variance makes it a great choice for a great many hard-to-find colors for intarsia artists. However, despite having an even grain, its relative softness and brittleness make it ill-suited for any delicate scroll saw fretwork. On a hardness scale it is only slightly harder than basswood and white pine.
Walnut heartwood is a beautiful chocolate color with sapwood being near white. When air dried, walnut heartwood can sometimes take on a slight purple hue. Although walnut boards typically have little sapwood, on the right project, I personally like the natural high contrast look of a board that has both. Walnut is the only North American hardwood with a natural dark color making it very useful when a contrasting color is needed.
On a hardness scale walnut is only slightly harder than cherry and behaves in much the same way as cherry when it comes to scroll work; not quite as hard or strong as maple and birch but it’s even grain and relative strength make it suitable for just about any delicate scroll saw work so long as it doesn’t have to support any weight. My experience with walnut has also led me to conclude that, just like cherry, thinner boards are more prone to warping than many other woods.
As many of you, I love the natural beauty of wood and truly enjoyed being able to share all this information with you. Sometimes it seemed like I could go on and on, and perhaps at times, I did. Despite the length of this article it is by no means comprehensive. There are a great many more North American hardwoods than what I have mentioned here as I am sure many of you know. Also, as I mentioned, many of these wood names are used generically by our lumber industry and cover a wide range of species. I hope that I was able to bring to you some new information on these woods and how they pertain to the type of scroll saw designs you like to make.