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Types of wood used in ancient tools

Knowledge and experience are needed to identify the different species of wood used for tools. There are several good books on the subject and you can also get wood sample kits from lumber supply companies to help with identification. Perhaps the best way to identify wood is to have an experienced person label examples for you, perhaps even using some of the tools you’ve already collected, noting the distinguishing features of each species.

Wood identification is much easier in the classroom with a fresh, clean sample. The two elements that make up the grain, seen with the naked eye, are the longitudinal pores, which form the annual rings, and the rays.

Pores are the openings in the tiny tubes that run up the tree, which appear as holes when the tree is sawn along the trunk. The tree’s annual rings are the result of having more, or larger, pores at the beginning of the growing season. If the pores are visible to the naked eye, the wood is called an open grain. If 5X magnification is needed, the wood is called tight or close grain.

The pores appear differently when the log is sawn lengthwise. They now appear as little groves, like the ones you’d get from cutting a bunch of straws lengthwise. On older tools, these can be full of dirt, making them appear darker. If the cut is through the center of the tree, the annual rings appear as parallel lines. If the cut is at right angles to the radial section, the rings “wander”.

The rays appear solid and flattened and run outward from the center of the tree. In cross section, they look like thin lines running from the center to the crust. In the radial section they become irregular speckles; in the flat section they are small straight lines. Rays are important identification and generally need 5X magnification.

Two other definitions: sapwood is a doughnut-shaped section of wood next to the bark; it is usually much lighter in color than the rest of the heartwood. With just this information, you can identify the 20 most common tool woods. The clearest view of the pores and rays requires cutting the wood with a sharp knife, something most collectors would never think of doing unless it could be done in a hidden part. Cleaning the surface with #0000 steel wool will work just as well. This will also help determine the true color, as most tools have an aged surface (patina) that deepens their natural color.

The wood most used for tools is beech, especially in planes. Although it is a distant cousin of birch and maple, the three are not easy to tell apart. They are light colored woods, but can patina to almost a walnut color. Maple, used occasionally for handles and braces, is rarely used for planes, so the choice for trim planes is almost always birch or beech. Early American aircraft makers, particularly those in 18th-century New England, used a lot of birch, but wooden planes made after 1800 were usually beech.

Boxwood is used to mold planar wearstrips, plow planes, and miniatures. When this light yellow polishing wood is paged and darkened, it can be mistaken for maple. Maple’s end grain below 5X has a variety of distinct ray lines, while boxwood’s rays are so thin and close together that they could be missed even under magnification. The apple, particularly its sapwood, is occasionally taken for boxwood, but is much grainier and has a pinkish-brown color. Cherry and apple were the most used fruit woods. The cherry has a reddish hue to its brown color and although it looks very much like the apple, it is more grainy. Another characteristic of the cherry tree, often used for decorative purposes, is the color contrast between the sapwood and the heartwood. The sapwood is almost white. Many woodworkers used the sapwood and heartwood in the same piece to effect.

The forests in the next group are not botanical “cousins”, but they are all dark in color. Ebony can be jet black or have dark brown streaks or hues. You will know that it is made of ebony because of its extremely smooth surface. Ebony is also very heavy and sinks in water. Rosewood shows streaks of color ranging from reddish brown to almost black. There are many species of rosewood, the most common used in tools is East Indian rosewood, which is darker and more solid in color. Another species, Brazilian rosewood, was used from the end of the 19th century. It has a more orange hue and a dramatic grain pattern. Guayacán, another sinking wood, also has grooves that resemble rosewood, but varies (on the same piece of wood) between brown and yellow and, unlike rosewood, is very tightly grained. .

Last in this category are mahogany, generally dark brown in color with occasional reddish tinges, often highly figured, and moderately open-grained. They range from moderately heavy to very heavy in weight. There are so many species of mahogany growing in South and Central America and Africa that only an expert can tell them apart. Mahogany was most commonly used for levels, to fill in English plans, and for measuring instruments. Although you may find some streaks of color on the grain, it won’t be as prevalent as rosewoods and that’s one of the best ways to tell them apart.

Handles that need to absorb shocks such as axes and adzes; they are usually made of walnut, a medium-brown, sinuous, crooked, open-grained wood. You will be able to see long lines of fiber in the hickory. Oak, rarely used for tools, is an extremely open-grained wood with heavy flecks of lightning.

Hornbeam is a European wood used by German and Austrian toolmakers. It is a light-colored wood, heavily mottled. French Cormier is a softer wood similar to our apple. Both are common in flats and braces originating from those countries.

I hope this information helps you identify the woods in your collection of old tools.

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