Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Dead Wood

I've been learning recently that when pests infest a tree, the damage they cause inside the trunk can create an interesting look in the wood, which is valued by woodworkers.

Trees die in the woods all the time, but the logs are no good for lumber. It's too hard to reach commercially, dead trees start to rot quickly, and even if they can be reclaimed, modern milling techniques can't deal with the areas of board that are too damaged. Lumber harvesters want healthy, whole, solid trees.

Dead forest in Colorado killed by Mountain Pine Beetle.
Needles turn red, then the dead trees remain standing for two years.
They then fall and rot or are consumed in ever bigger wildfires.

Doesn't it seem that already dead trees would be an excellent source for wood products? Especially when you consider the huge tracts of dead conifers in the west, killed in the millions and millions by pine beetles.

The western pines that are under attack from beetles get a fungus that stains the wood blue gray. The disease colors the milled planks in beautiful striations.

Beetle Kill Blue Pine salvaged lumber has interesting
 streaked wood for furniture, flooring and crafts.
From Core 77 article

Apparently there are niche lumber operators who can harvest some of the dead trees and make beautiful use of the colorful boards. But it's never going to be a large scale operation and so it is limited to crafts people and specialty designers.

When sanded and clear stained the colors pop, making beautiful furniture slabs.

My son has discovered a specialty wood source in Denver and he has taken up woodworking. He recently built an industrial chic shelf out of spalted maple and gas pipes. Like blue stained pines, spalted wood is the result of a fungus in the dead tree.

"Spalted" describes any wood that has black streaks from a fungus.
The maple he used shows the interesting black streaky pattern.

Spalted wood happens when a tree falls to the ground and moisture starts to creep in and fungus invades the wet wood. If the log can be harvested quickly enough, the damage leaves interesting black streaks. But after only a few months the wood will rot and become unusable. So the time to harvest is very short, and salvaging spalted lumber commercially isn't feasible.

The key is to select a board that shows streakiness at its edge as well as the top.

From my son's new interest in crafty woodworking, I am learning much more about trees -- dead and diseased ones to be sure, not the live ones I nurture and grow.

What fascinates me is the fine balance between health and disease, growth and rot, that creates beauty.

It reminds me of the tulip craze in Holland in the 1600s when unusual striped tulip bulbs, called "broken" tulips, were selling for fortunes and were prized for their rare beauty.

Only in the twentieth century was it discovered that the stripes were the result of a virus that damaged the bulb, and not careful or lucky breeding. How those diseased tulips were admired, though. And still are.

I try to keep bad bugs and plant viruses and fungal infections out of my garden in order to keep my living plants beautiful.

But I am learning that even when the bad actors and the fungus among us takes over, a dead tree or diseased flower is capable of producing something really beautiful.

Here's what the woodworker built.  Check it out.


  1. Southern pine beetles are taking our pines. Makes me sad.

    1. The devastation is really awful -- acres and acres of forests dying off.