Aug 5, 2019

Let’s talk about wood

noun /wo͝od/

The hard fibrous substance consisting of basic xylem that makes up the greater part of the stems, branches and roots of trees, shrubs or beneath the bark is found to a limited extent in herbaceous plants.

If the definition is not complicated enough then let me add that wood is everywhere, in every part of our planet in every stage of our lives. Every single day we touch, feel and consume something wood or wood made. This ordinary matter is living an ordinary life and only gets noticed when it dresses up an out of the ordinary design or product. For the sake of this story, it might be worthy of mentioning that wood has lived a long and happy life and would very much like to live peacefully and ever happily with or without us. We, the humans on the other hand, cannot live our lives without wood or nature in general. Strange enough, we know very little about wood so let’s talk about it.

Where is wood coming from

Wood is a natural evolution of basic leafy plants. In a competitive and very dynamic environment where photosynthesis is a process of converting resources into food, some plants needed to adapt, grow in height and develop a larger green surface to absorb more light. This green surfaces are leafs and these taller plants are now trees. Well, we can make chapter very long but let’s just say that wood is a living infrastructure where resources are transported from different departments back and forth. CO2 and H2O and minerals flow thru the wood highway and gets transformed into energy which is then either converted into fiber mass or other type of resources invisible yet so important like Oxygen.

The same but still very different

Wood comes in many different colors, species, shapes and forms very much like us the human race. While woods are all different they are all the same in the sense that the plan growing process produces the wood fibrous substance and in this process, consumes or produces certain chemical elements, mostly good for the environment. Wood color ranges for very dark ebony to very light bleached white. Wood can vary in density and durability from the heavy ultra-hard Australian Buloke and Brazilian Ebony to Alder or White Pine which are some of the softest woods you will encounter. Of course some of these wood species may or may not be available for manufacturing purposes this is why by industry standard the hardest commercially available species in generally agreed to be Hickory with a measure resistance coefficient of 1,820 lbs (8,100 N) on the Janka scale. “Old Hickory” is by no accident the nickname used for one of the most iconic hardliner presidents of United States.

Hardness coefficient plays just a partial role in the wood quality when it comes to manufacturing certain products and while very important, other aspects like “joint strength”, “finishing” “sanding” and “environmental tolerance” are equality important characteristics in evaluating a wood species. It’s noteworthy that European Beechwood scores higher than Red Oak, Maple and Birch when it comes to furniture manufacturing ability.

Why this, why that?

What make a wood harder than another one?

As it turns out, a hardwood is not necessarily a harder material (more dense) and a softwood is not necessarily a softer material (less dense). For example, Balsa wood is one of the lightest, least dense woods there is, and it’s considered a hardwood.

The distinction between hardwood and softwood actually has to do with plant reproduction. All trees reproduce by producing seeds, but the seed structure varies. Hardwood trees are angiosperms, plants that produce seeds with some sort of covering. This might be a fruit, such as an apple, or a hard shell, such as an acorn.

Softwoods, on the other hand, are gymnosperms. These plants let seeds fall to the ground as is, with no covering. Pine trees, which grow seeds in hard cones, fall into this category. In conifers like pines, these seeds are released into the wind once they mature. This spreads the plant’s seed over a wider area. For the most part, angiosperm trees lose their leaves during cold weather while gymnosperm trees keep their leaves all year round. So, it’s also accurate to say evergreens are softwoods and deciduous trees are hardwoods.

The hardwood/softwood terminology does make some sense. Evergreens do tend to be less dense than deciduous trees, while most hardwoods tend to be more dense and therefore sturdier. There is a direct relation with the seasonal change, growth rate and leaf type but in essence the seed and reproduction system is the main differentiation criteria. Hardwood trees have large vessels for transporting water. These pores are responsible for the grain appearance in hardwood and are best seen under microscope. Hardwood trees have a much slower growing and maturity rate and they absorb less waster and moisture from local environment while producing a lot more Oxygen and Ozone in the growing process. Hardwoods tend to have higher density too.

If you know better, you choose better

Now that you’ve become expert in wood science, let’s recap the whole information but with different terms that will not make the average furniture customer fall asleep.

The more wood, the better the furniture. The more solid wood, I meant for some manufacturers loosely and very conveniently call medium density boards or other type of wood composites and substitutes all under the term “all wood”. By the same standard paper and cardboard are “all wood” too but let’s draw a line and keep the quality discussion reasonable thus the expectations in functionality and longevity reasonable as well. Solid wood preserves its original shape and composition much longer than all if not any natural materials. Solid wood furniture provides a healthy, non-chemically or artificially modified product which may have aesthetic imperfections but has the perfect ingredients for a healthy and eco-friendly lifestyle. Hardwoods will retain their initial shape much longer than softwoods and they will also be much more tolerant to mechanical stress, dents and scratches and all sort of accidents that happen in the journey called “life”. Hardwoods are most eco-friendly woods for they provide a usable product for a longer term and most often they are harvested in the most eco-conscious manner whereas softwoods are sometimes harvested erratically.

By Furniture Ninja @Romina Furniture