In the world of figured hardwoods, there has always been this spectre hanging around in the shadows. It presents itself in the inevitable clash between the imagined look of the lumber and what actually turns up at the plant or workshop. Many years ago I sold figured and exotic hardwoods to a variety of woodworkers. If, for example, I took an order for “bird’s eye Maple”, I would often get the complaint that the lumber was either too figured or not figured enough. Once, we shipped about 50 board feet of Ash to a large store fixture manufacturer and it was gorgeously figured, unusual for Ash. It was part of a much larger delivery of Ash, but I received a call from the buyer who said that their shop loved the figured Ash and made a prototype of a table from it for a large retail chain. Naturally, they showed the table to their customer who loved it and said that they would take 800 of them as soon as they could be produced. The buyer called me the next day and said that he wanted to buy thousands of board feet of Ash “to match the figured Ash from the last load”. He was crestfallen when I explained that there was no chance of replicating that look out of our general supply of Ash in the warehouse. If I called our supplier he would say the same thing. That lumber represented one anomalous tree that stood in the forest for nearly 80 years developing, for whatever reasons, that beautiful “curl” in the grain. Thus is the nature of figured hardwoods, a group in which Frank Miller Lumber is a very big player.
There are rules of thumb for how quartersawn hardwoods are supposed to look based on the angle of the end grain as it relates to the face of the board. There are rules also, in White and Red Oak, about how “quartered” and “rift” appearance is designated. It is very difficult to meet every customer’s expectations for how much figure is enough, in the case of “quartered” or how little figure shows in “rift”. In a conversation today with a colleague, she compared figured hardwoods to flowers. While it would be good, she supposed, if every rose looked exactly the same, it was an unrealistic expectation. If you can let that uniform expectation go and revel instead in the varieties of rose hues and shapes, you will be amazed at how beautiful a garden can be.
I will continue to extol the many virtues of quartersawn hardwoods, not in their uniformity, but rather their unique and varied appearance qualities.