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Since the beginning of human history, timber has been the natural resource we rely on the most. We cannot imagine building a home without wood.
We are in contact with this material everyday, but can hardly tell apart one species of wood from another. Do you know what ‘wood grain’ refers to, and how it affects a timber’s appearance?
By knowing the specific traits of different wood species, we can know what purposes it can fulfill, so that wise choices of renovation material can be made, and nothing goes to waste.
Hardwood and softwood
Hardwood and softwood are not hardness classifications, technically speaking. They are botanical classifications: deciduous trees are hardwood species, while coniferous trees are softwood species.
In general, timber from deciduous trees are harder, more resistant to denting than coniferous timber.
There are exceptions on both sides (for example, balsa, a hardwood, is a but this categorisation is still useful in most occasions.
You will see that hardwood has a rougher texture than softwood, because in softwood, wood fibres and vessels are absent.
The presence of vessels in hardwood gives it a porous appearance, while softwood looks smoother, finer, and has a lighter weight by volume.
All softwoods are suitable for making furniture but some hardwoods are not suitable for such purpose.
Imagine there’s a tree in front of you. With an electrical saw, you make a horizontal cut at the trunk. You look at the round surface where the section is made, and see the wood’s pores and fibre arrangement. That’s the grain of this particular timber.
You can easily see how ‘wood grain’ can describe the direction of cell growth, the size of wood cells, the appearance of a cut wood surface, even the plane of the cut.
But for furniture buyers, here are some basic, simple categories: Vertical grain VS flat grain, open grain VS closed grain and tight grain VS loose grain.
Vertical grain VS flat grain
In early spring, trees produce softer, more porous wood, while in summer, the wood fibre is harder and denser. This difference of fibre textures produces what we call the annual growth ring.
The plane on which the tree is cut will affect not only the pattern show on the surface of the wood, but also the performance of the lumber.
Vertical grain lumber is more durable and less likely to shrink and cup. It also retains paint better. Vertical grain lumber is sold at a higher price but its maintenance cost is lower.
In contrast, flat grain lumber cups and warps more easily in extreme humidity levels, and retains paint more poorly. Expect to spend more on maintenance if you opt for this type of lumber.
Open grain VS closed grain
The size of the pores on the wood surface determines whether it is an open grain or closed grain wood.
Open grain wood has large pores which entails a rougher texture of the lumber. Due to the smaller size of pores, closed grain wood generally looks smoother, though it can also have a rough appearance due to thicker wood fibre.
Tight grain VS loose grain
These categories describe how thick the tree species’ annual ring is. The thinner the annual ring, the tighter the grain is.
Let’s talk about trees…
Common tree species used in construction:
Sturdy and reliable
Grown in North America and Malay Peninsula, oak timber is a hardwood with good flexibility. Pennsylvanian red oak is famous for its uniform colour, tight grain and minimal discoloration.
There are two types of oak, red oak and white oak.
Red oak features an earthy red brown colour and has a wavy grain pattern to it. The patterns on the surface of white oak resembles tiger stripes; the core of the tree has a yellowish brown tone. White oak is often used to make high-end furniture and wine barrels.
Light, resistant to decay, luxurious
Ash is commonly found in Russia, North America and Europe. Ash timber is straight and has a milky white or pinkish tone to it. After staining and polishing, its rough texture can be quite aesthetically pleasing.
Ash sapwood has a yellowish tone while the heartwood is light brown in colour. Patterns on the wood are quite defined.
Ash also has a relatively light weight by volume; ash furniture will be lighter than furniture made of other hardwood like mahogany.
Warm, evenly-textured, light and durable
There are two types of maple: hard maple and soft maple. Grown in south of Chang Jiang, Taiwan, and eastern America, maple is a subtropical wood.
Timber colour ranges from greyish brown to greyish red. Annual rings are not very defined; vessel pores are numerous and evenly spread.
Maple wood is light, hard, and durable. It retains paint and adheres well, which is very suitable for making wood veneer.
Warm-toned, high impact strength, sturdy
A tree especially found in Jiangnan, beech timber is often featured in Ming furniture. As a humble choice of wood, beech is weighty, sturdy and has a high impact strength.
Steamed beech can be bent to different curvatures for furniture-making purposes.
Beech has a medium to high level of hardness, an even and soft colouring; it is the go-to timber for making doors, flooring and wood craft.
Vibrant colour, fine-grained pattern
Cherry is not only prized for its rich russet tones, but also its straight, regular grain pattern. The spotted heartwood sometimes contains resin pockets, which are dents remained after damage like infection and insect infestation.
Polished cherry has a high lustre and retains coating well. It is often made into luxurious furniture and carved into collectable wood sculptures.
It is said that the colour of cherry timber darkens as it ages.
Saturated colour, elegant
There are two main types of walnut: black walnut and yellow walnut. Mainly grown in North America, Europe and Southeast Asia, walnut has a highly saturated tone and lustre which makes it a pricey choice of material.
Chinese walnut generally has a lighter colour; its sapwood milky white and heartwood dark brown, occasionally even purplish in colour. Wood patterns can be straight, wavy or even curly, which make the timber quite decorative.
Defined pattern, Scandinavian style, insect-resistant
Birch trees are found in cold regions like Russia and the Northern hemisphere. They are resistant to cold weather and pest, and have a high growth rate, which make the birch tree the best candidate for reforestation.
Its colour ranges from light brown to reddish brown. Since birch has a pattern similar to cherry, it is also called the ‘European cherry’.
Ancient, down to earth, natural
Pine is a needle-leaved tree. Pinewood has a light yellow colour and is usually knotty. It also releases a characteristic scent.
Because pine is prone to swelling and retains a lot of moisture, kiln drying and sap removal are needed before the wood can be used to make lumber.
Plain and down to earth, pine is a humble, unobtrusive choice of renovation material. However, due to its softness, pine is not resistant to scratching, denting and warping.
Decay-resistant, moisture-resistant, decorous, practical
Cedar is grown along Chang Jiang and the south of the river. The cedar tree is a majestic tree with high adaptability and resistance to wind and smog.
Cedar timber is finely-patterned and not prone to decay. It holds adhesive and nails well. Polished cedar has a high lustre and is often used to build vehicles, bridges, boats, furniture and even musical instruments.
Cedar is also a good source of resin.