By Per Friis Knudsen
Ash is a large wood species. In Europe, it gets up to 60 meter tall and a meter in diameter. Fraxinus excelsior is one of these species that doesn’t need an even terrain to grow as it prefers a more sloping terrain to reach it most optimal growth. It is also one of my favorite species because it is a beautiful tree with a very beautiful color and graceful grains in both sawn timber and veneer and it provides us with so many possibilities for utilizing it.
In the old days, ash was used for horse drawn carriages and wagons. Because of various factors such as abundance availability, beauty, and strength properties, ash was the preferred wood species; also for sports equipment and work tools. Actually, ash has better properties in regard to strength than some of its comparable species like oak. In modern times, the hardwearing timber has been in high demand within the furniture industry, both as sawn timber and veneers. Already in the 1970’s, it became more popular in flooring where manufacturers started to utilize the lower qualities for parquet flooring.
In the flooring and partly in the furniture industry, ash is still an underdeveloped species. A lot of homeowners and floor manufacturers do not agree because nearly all of them only want to use oak. Personally, I think ash has a better base color as it is lighter than oak and this makes it ideal for staining and developing color variations for both furniture, floors, and veneers. Because ash is very white in the correct sorting and quality, it is perfect to combine with darker wood species such as walnut or cherry. Both ash and beech have a heart that can be colored. For ash, it is brown and for beech, it’s more reddish. With the right furniture design, the brown heart can look awesome and in flooring, it gives the popular country style look and even more so if there are a few smaller knots in the wood.
In my days in Denmark, I got my education at a skilled furniture manufacture that produced some very nice and top-quality meeting and conference tables in ash veneer. Big long tabletops and solid edges. All made in nearly pure white ash in very high-grade quality veneers. At a later stage, some customer wanted another table in black but still ash veneer. We promised same price and they accepted. Only this time, we could use brown ash veneer that only cost a fraction of the price that we would otherwise have spent on white ash veneer and the original color of the wood didn’t matter as the customer wanted a table of ash painted black.
Ash can also be bend into components in a steam process. It’s a very interesting process to observe when they steam or boil the wood and then compress the components lengthwise to twist and turn the components almost like if it was a piece of fabric (Source: Wikiwand (Danish)). Ash is a very qualified species for bending just like beech, cherry and red oak. I can recommend trying to find videos online to have a look; it’s a very fascinating process. Please see the Wishbone Chair by Hans J. Wegner as an example of a beautiful furniture with bending features.
Ash comes in many forms. An example of this is swamp ash. A true guitar enthusiast would have heard of swamp ash because it is used to build some very fine music instruments. A quick google search reveals that the term “swamp ash” does not refer to any particular species of ash (Fraxinus genus) but it is instead a general term used to describe lightweight wood yielded from ash trees that are usually found in wet or swampy areas. Source: The Wood Database. See example of a guitar made with swamp ash.
If you read these articles, you might remember my article about Wood Science from November 2021, where I talk about the rays in wood. Ash wood does for sure also have medullar rays. In America, it often has glassworm as a well know characteristics. Contrary to what you might believe, this is not a worm, but instead it is described as “random mineral-like tracts” by NHLA.
Finally, I like to turn the attention to the world down under: Australia and Tasmania. This article would not be completed without just a few lines on Victorian Ash. In this part of the world, ash is a part of the Eucalyptus species. More specifically, Victorian Ash (also called mountain ash) is Eucalyptus Regnans. The first colonisers of Australia were from the UK and Ireland. Many items were related back to the ‘old country’ including town names, mountains, rivers, lakes and many more items including ‘Ash’. The term ‘Ash’ came from the appearance of the “new” timber being very much like Fraxinus excelsior. However, the European Ash and Eucalyptus Regnans are markedly difference in appearance in grain structure and color as evident in this picture.
Ash is one of the species still available in greater volumes and nearly in all thicknesses in the current market. It grows in most of Europe and we have both PEFC- and FSC-certified timber available most of the time. From Europe, we prefer to sell unedged to the furniture industry, but in America, it is still customary to produce the edged lumber that furniture manufactures often think gives a better yield. However, if you need to manufacture furniture, there are usually many different components and sizes where I believe the unedged boards will give a better yield.