Ash wood is a versatile and beautiful medium used for centuries in various woodworking applications. Derived from ash trees native to North America, ash lumber is a common material in everything from baseball bats to furniture.
With its pronounced grain patterns and range of color variations from nearly white to darker brown heartwood, ash wood brings visual interest and appeal to any project. It also possesses excellent strength, hardness, and workability, allowing it to be shaped into elegant designs or endure daily wear and tear.
For woodworkers, carpenters, and hobbyists, understanding the unique characteristics and uses of ash lumber can ensure it is used to its full potential. From its origins and properties to comparisons with other woods, this guide covers everything you need to know about working with ash and determining if it’s the right material for your next creation. We’ll also look at the importance of sustainability and conservation as the emerald ash borer poses a real threat to the future of this invaluable wood species.
The Basics of Ash Wood
Origin and Botanical Name
Ash lumber comes from ash tree species predominantly found in eastern North America. White ash (Fraxinus americana) is the most commonly used species, native from Nova Scotia west to Minnesota and south to northern Florida. Black ash (Fraxinus nigra) is another species used for lumber and found more specifically in wetlands and swamps from eastern Canada down to the Midwest. Blue ash (Fraxinus quadrangulata) is also used but limited mostly to the Midwest.
Ash Wood Color: Discussing the Natural Hues
The color of ash lumber varies based on the species and specific board. White ash generally tends to be a light tan to reddish brown, while black ash is darker gray-brown. Sapwood, or the outer portion of the log, is lighter in color, while heartwood near the center is darker.
Figured pieces with wavy or curly grain patterns, known as olive ash, take on more complex brown and gray color combinations that many woodworkers prize. Overall, the range of brown and tan hues with sometimes dramatic, contrasting growth rings make ash visually interesting and warmer than very light woods like maple.
Ash Wood Grain: Exploring the Texture and Pattern
The grain patterns of ash wood are among its most distinguishing visual characteristics. Typically straight grained without much figure, ash can also exhibit beautiful undulating, wavy grains referred to as olive or fiddleback ash. The growth rings tend to be prominent, creating appealing contrast between the earlywood and latewood regions.
Overall, ash grain patterns create lively, organic textures that make ash popular for exposed furniture frames, cabinetry, flooring, and architectural millwork. The varied grain depths and tones provide visual warmth and character to complement the wood’s blonde to light brown coloring.
White Ash Wood vs Black Ash Wood: The Differences
While white and black ash woods share many similarities, there are few key differences woodworkers should be aware of. White ash is generally straight grained with a coarse, open grain pattern. It possesses a lighter sapwood and heartwood ranging from pale brown to a darker reddish brown. Black ash has a tighter, more closed grain pattern with typically darker gray-brown heartwood. It also has a slightly higher density than white ash.
In terms of workability, white ash is usually considered slightly superior to black ash due to its straight grain that makes it easier to work with hand and power tools. However, both types take stain and finish well and can be used interchangeably for many furniture and lumber applications.
Properties of Ash Wood
Mechanical Properties: Ash Wood Hardness, Strength, and Toughness
Ash wood is regarded as a hardwood with excellent overall mechanical properties. Compared to other common domestic hardwoods below, ash has the following qualities:
- Hardness – Ash has a Janka hardness rating of 1320, making it significantly harder than pine (680) though softer than many premium woods like hickory (1820) or maple (1450). This hardness makes ash suitable for high-wear items.
- Strength – The strength of ash wood is considered good to excellent, with an average modulus of rupture of 15,200 psi. It compares favorably to woods like maple (14,800 psi) though lower than hickory (18,900 psi).
- Toughness – Ash wood is tough to withstand sudden stresses and impacts without splintering. Its shock resistance makes it perfect for tool handles and sports equipment like baseball bats.
Overall, ash lumber’s hardness, strength, and flexibility make it suitable for high-performance applications where both strength and flexibility are required.
Ash Wood Properties: Durability and Susceptibility to Pests
A downside to ash wood is its perishable nature and lack of natural durability, particularly when exposed directly to soil and weathering conditions. Without chemical treatment, ash lumber rates as non-durable to slightly durable regarding decay resistance. Ash is also susceptible to powderpost beetles that can damage untreated ash wood.
However, ash wood performs well when properly finished and protected from direct moisture. Ensuring proper moisture levels in storage and applying finishes are important safeguards when working with ash. Its lack of rot resistance does limit its uses for exterior construction unless pretreated.
Is Ash a Hard Wood?: Debunking Myths
Ash wood is widely considered a hardwood, though it ranks on the lower end of the hardness scale compared to premium dense woods like hickory or oak. With a Janka hardness of 1320 lb, ash is harder than common softwoods like pine (680 lb) but falls short of the hardness values of 1820 lb for hickory or 1360 lb for red oak.
So while ash cannot be regarded as an exceptionally hard wood, it provides a good balance of moderately high density and hardness coupled with flexibility and resistance to shocks. For typical furniture and interior uses, ash provides sufficient surface hardness and durability to withstand regular use. Other harder species may be better suited for exterior applications or very high-wear uses.
What Are the Disadvantages of Ash Wood?: A Critical Look
The main drawbacks when working with ash lumber include:
- Lack of decay resistance – Ash wood has very little natural rot resistance, especially when exposed to moisture. It must be properly finished and maintained to prevent decay in service.
- Susceptible to insect damage – Ash is prone to powderpost beetle infestations if left unfinished and untreated. Proper drying and chemical treatment are required for long-term protection.
- Can be brittle – In extremely dry conditions, ash wood can become brittle and prone to splitting if improperly handled. Proper moisture levels must be maintained.
- Prone to brown heart – The darker brown heartwood may show unattractive brown staining if exposed at joints or outer surfaces. Precautions must be taken to avoid exposing heartwood.
- Availability concerns – The emerald ash borer poses a significant threat to ash trees which may limit supply and increase costs long-term if the species becomes extinct.
Working with Ash Wood
Ash Wood Uses: From Sporting Goods to High-Class Joinery
Ash wood is used extensively for a variety of demanding applications including:
- Sporting goods – Ash is the preferred wood for baseball bats, tennis racquets, lacrosse sticks, oars, and other high-impact sports tools due to its strength, hardness, and shock resistance.
- Tool handles – The elasticity and ability to absorb high striking forces make ash ideal for handles on all types of hammers, axes, shovels, and hand tools.
- Furniture – Ash has been used for centuries in fine furniture such as dining tables, chairs, dressers, and bedroom sets. It machines cleanly for making detailed cutouts and profiles.
- Cabinetry – The light color and prominent grain make it popular for cabinet doors, drawers, and frames that require stability and high wear resistance.
- Flooring – Ash flooring has a warm, inviting blonde tone and the hardness to withstand heavy foot traffic in high-use areas.
- Architectural millwork – Ash is easily shaped into moldings, trims, and other architectural details for a traditional style.
- Musical instruments – Ash has acoustic properties that make it suitable for the bodies of electric guitars and drums.
Is Ash Wood Good for Furniture?: Quality and Suitability
With its blend of aesthetics, strength, and workability, ash wood is an excellent choice for a wide range of furniture from beds to tables and cabinets. The warm blonde tones and prominent grain patterns work well in both modern and traditional designs. Ash sands easily and takes topcoats beautifully.
As a hardwood, ash has enough surface hardness to resist dents, scratches, and daily wear and tear. It machines smoothly and cleanly for sculpting intricate profiles and joinery. Ash also has excellent screw-holding abilities. All these factors make it a quality wood for all types of furniture where resilience and longevity are desired.
The main downside is ash lacks any natural decay resistance. Proper moisture control and regular finish renewal will be required over the lifetime of ash furniture to prevent rotting. Overall, its positive qualities make ash a prized wood for furniture as long as proper care is taken.
Is Ash Wood Good to Burn?: For Fireplaces and Stoves
With its relatively high density and calorific value, ash firewood can produce excellent heat output for home heating purposes. Ash has a gross calorific value of 23.6 MJ/kg, comparable to beech (23.3 MJ/kg) though lower than premium firewoods like oak (24.4 MJ/kg).
For fireplaces, ash burns cleanly with bright flames and little smoke. It’s easy to split and light which makes it convenient to use. Ash also produces moderate coaling when burnt. This allows the wood to smoke slowly and produce more even, long-lasting heat when used in a wood stove.
The main drawbacks of ash firewood are its tendency to spit which requires fire screens, and its lack of aroma. For fireside ambiance, denser fruitwoods like apple or cherry produce more pleasing smells. But ash firewood is an excellent and under-utilized choice for pure heating ability given its wide availability and affordability.
Ash Wood Terraria and Spiritfarer Ash Wood: Special Mentions in Pop Culture
Ash wood has earned notable mentions in popular video games that highlight its importance and appeal:
- Terraria – This 2D sandbox game allows players to utilize various resources like ash wood for crafting and construction. Ash is described as a “carefully cultivated” hardwood, medium in strength and prized for tools and structures.
- Spiritfarer – Players assume the role of a ferrymaster shepherding spirits to the afterlife. Ash wood is one of the resources collected and used as a crafting material to upgrade the boat and environment.
The inclusion of ash lumber in these games emphasizes the wood’s versatile properties. While limited to virtual worlds, the special status of ash wood in Terraria and Spiritfarer mirrors the real-life value that carpenters and woodworkers have placed on ash for centuries. Even in imaginary realms, ash is a vital resource and material.
Ash Wood vs Other Woods
Ash Wood vs Oak: A Comparative Analysis
Ash and oak are two of the most popular wood species used in furniture, flooring, and architectural millwork. But how do they compare?
- Appearance – Oak has a more pronounced, dramatic grain than ash’s subtler figure. Oak also has deeper brown heartwood while ash is lighter blonde.
- Hardness – Red oak is slightly harder than white ash, with a Janka hardness of 1360 vs 1320 for ash. But the two are fairly comparable in hardness.
- Strength – The strength values of oak and ash lumbers are similar. Both offer good strength for furniture use.
- Shock resistance – Ash has superior shock resistance and flexibility, making it better for high-impact sports equipment.
- Workability – Oak and ash work fairly easily with tools, though oak’s open pores require more sanding for an ultra-smooth finish.
- Decay resistance – Neither wood has high rot resistance. Both require prompt finishing and care to avoid moisture damage.
Overall, ash vs oak comes down largely to aesthetics and the specific application. Both are excellent hardwoods in their own right.
Mora Ash Wood and Swamp Ash Wood: Special Types
In addition to traditional white and black ash, there are few unique varieties worth mentioning:
- Mora ash – This African species has a darker olive-brown coloring and unusual wavy figure. It is exceptionally hard and shock resistant.
- Swamp ash – Found in wetland areas, this non-commercial species has attractive figure and grain patterns due to slower growth. It is popular for electric guitar bodies.
- European ash – Fraxinus excelsior is the main ash species of Europe and Western Asia. It possesses similar cream to light brown coloring as North American ash.
While less common, these specialty species illustrate the diversity and global reach of the many ash wood varieties used by woodworkers. Each contributes unique colors, figures, and properties to fit specific needs.
Is Ash Wood Expensive?: Price Considerations
Ash lumber is moderately priced relative to other domestic hardwoods. According to current market pricing, ash logs and lumber generally range between $3-6 per board foot. This puts ash on the lower end of common species like oak ($5-9/bf), maple ($5-10/bf), and cherry ($6-12/bf).
However, the ash cost will be at the higher end of this range for higher grade boards with beautiful olive or wavy grain patterns. The more figured the ash lumber, the more prized and expensive it becomes. But in most cases, ash represents a cost-effective hardwood option for projects where beauty and utility are needed.
Ash Wood Price: Current Market Trends
Aside from normal fluctuations in wood markets, Ash lumber prices have remained relatively stable over the past decade. However, there are long-term concerns that ash wood could become more expensive if emerald ash borer devastation reduces supply dramatically.
If the ash borer causes widespread mortality of ash trees, less ash would be available. This reduction would naturally drive prices upward. Some experts predict if the borer is not controlled, ash lumber could even face near complete extinction within the next few decades. This prospect makes cherishing ash while it lasts important for woodworkers and consumers.
Threats like the Emerald Ash Borer
By far the greatest threat facing ash trees currently is the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle species native to Asia. Accidentally introduced around 2002 in shipping materials, the ash borer has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees as it spreads rapidly across North America.
The metallic green beetle larvae bore beneath the bark and essentially girdle the tree, destroying its ability to transport water and nutrients. Trees inevitably die within a few years of infestation. Mortality rates for ash trees in affected areas approach 99%.
Despite the challenges in containing the emerald ash borer, measures can be implemented to conserve ash lumber resources:
- Pesticide treatment – Injecting healthy ash trees with insecticides has been shown to protect them from infestation. But treatment is expensive and impractical on a massive scale.
- Biological control – Natural predators of the emerald borer from its native range are being introduced and have had some success at reducing populations and spread.
- Forest management – Harvesting infected ash trees for lumber before they deteriorate helps make use of the wood. Replanting ash could eventually restore populations.
- Public awareness – Preventing further spread depends heavily on public diligence in not transporting firewood or materials that could harbor the ash borer.
With proactive management and a shared responsibility to protect our forests, the decimation of ash trees could be slowed to retain these invaluable resources for future generations.
Summary of Key Points
- Ash lumber possesses a blend of light blonde to brown coloring with attractive, moderately figured grain patterns that create an organic, rustic visual appeal.
- The wood rates as moderately hard and shock resistant, though not as dense or durable as premium woods like oak or hickory. Ash works easily with hand and machine tools.
- Common uses include furniture, flooring, baseball bats, tool handles, musical instruments, and architectural millwork. Ash brings both functional and decorative objects resilience, longevity, and beauty.
- While plentiful and affordable, the emerald ash borer poses a dire threat to ash tree populations. Conservation efforts to protect and replant ash are critical for the sustainability and preservation of this important wood species.
When considering furniture projects, ash wood represents an outstanding option for makers looking to combine beauty, utility, and affordability. Its range of blonde to deep brown hues and flowing grain patterns allow ash furniture to fit traditional and contemporary settings. Durable, yet not overly hard to work, ash machines smoothly and takes an exceptional finish.
For its characteristics, ash furniture hits that elusive spot between high quality and reasonable cost. It brings elegance without extravagance. Investing in ash furniture will surely become a treasured heirloom passed down through generations. However we must continue the fight against the emerald ash borer to ensure this beloved wood remains available for future woodworkers to discover and enjoy.