Despite its proliferation across much of North America for decades, white ash (Fraxinus americana) remains an underrated wood choice for craftsmen and DIY homeowners.
Once a prized material for everything from tools and kitchenware to fine furniture, it has sadly fallen out of favor amongst woodworkers in recent years.
However, this durable hardwood still deserves recognition for its versatile properties and affordability.
With a natural range spanning much of the eastern United States and Canada, white ash was readily available to generations of pioneers and settlers.
They quickly learned of its many advantages – the wood is remarkably strong yet lightweight, takes shaping well, and resists damage from moisture and impact. It’s no surprise they utilized it for implements and constructions of all kinds.
Even today, the ash tree perseveres as a common landscape and backyard tree across its native region.
But with increased demand for exotic species and greater awareness of ash-threatening pests, this bountiful native wood risks being overlooked.
That’s a shame, as white ash shows off attractive grain patterns when quarter-sawn, carves and machines smoothly, and welcomes any finish from stain to paint without complaints. It also remains very competitively priced relative to import alternatives.
With sustainability and self-reliance top of mind for modern woodworkers, a renewed focus on white ash makes sense.
This article will explore its history of uses, buying and milling tips, working properties, finishing advice, and note conservation concerns. By sharing more about ash’s many attributes, we hope to inspire more people to give this all-American wood another look.
History of woodworking with ash
While many woods have risen and fallen in popularity over the centuries, white ash has enduringly served humanity through boom times and harder years alike.
flexible yet tough, it practically begged to be shaped and formed into all manner of tools and implements.
Native Americans first unlocked ash’s potential, crafting baskets, paddles, sleds and snowshoe frames that stood up to punishing use.
They knew it as a ‘woman’s wood’ suited to forming intricate details. Later settlers followed suit, making sturdy carts, wagon wheels, oars and handles for farm gear like rakes and hoes. Ash was a staple of rural life throughout the 1850s-1950s heyday of America’s heartland.
As technology progressed, ash adaptably took on new roles. It lent itself to steam-bending, becoming a material of choice for cradle-stitched wooden pipes and gutters during the Industrial Revolution.
Plane and train manufacturers also embraced its blend of stiffness and vibration-dampening. Some even experimented laminating ash and other woods to imitate advanced new metals.
By the 20th century, ash was synonymous with durability in sports. Its close, straight grain made it ideal for tool handles and hockey sticks that withstood impacts without breaking the bank.
Today it still finds fans in baseball bats, lacrosse sticks and oars used by rowing clubs worldwide. Musicians similarly prize ash for acoustic guitars affording warm tones at fair price-points.
With uses spanning centuries, ash is a testament to the ingenuity of past craftspeople. While technology progresses, the timeless properties that served our ancestors so well keep this wood relevant even now.
Its story shows how renewing an appreciation for traditional materials can inspire innovative designs for modern lives.
Choosing the Best of Ash
With any wood, sourcing quality lumber is paramount to achieving excellent results. While white ash grows abundantly, not all specimens make the cut for fine woodworking. Experienced eyes know where to look for optimal grain formation and fewer defects.
The ideal cut of ash displays a straight, consistent grain running the board’s length when rift- or quarter-sawn.
This orientation yields stable, dimensional wood less susceptible to twisting as it seasons. Look also for tight growth rings indicating slow growth in shade, versus large “ring porous” patterns signaling open exposure.
Avoid boards showing mineral streaks, often appearing chalky-white. These are caused by element deposits slowing the tree’s growth in localized areas and weakening the timber.
Also pass up wood with dramatic color variations between earlywood and latewood that make finishing more difficult.
While younger sapwood near the bark may appear off-white compared to the tree’s central heartwood, some mixes of the two are fine if character is consistent.
Just be sure the market you choose boards from sources lumber sustainably to preserve ash’s future. With careful selection, you’re sure to uncover ash exhibiting beautiful flecks and rays underneath a plain exterior.
By knowing what to look out for, discerning buyers can welcome these once-common trees’ gifts into their shops while supporting ash forestry.
With such a versatile wood, the rewards are finding hidden grains to highlight and crafting heirlooms to brighten homes for ages to come.
Mastering Ash in the Workshop
Once chosen, ash demands only minor adjustments to standard woodworking techniques. Its properties lend themselves well to both hand and power tools, though a few personality quirks must be considered.
At a density only slightly lower than red oak, ash machines smoothly but with noticeably more tearout than tighter-grained options.
Keep sharp blades to get the cleanest surfaces. Hand planing may require more effort too as ash’s occasional interlocking grain can dull irons quickly. edge tools also benefit from frequent honing.
Ash also burns more readily during operations like routing, so go light on the feed rate and adjust speeds if needed. Have a vacuum ready to capture smoke and loose fibers for a cleaner workspace.
Its open pore structure makes it more liable to splintering as well during sawing or drilling. Always pre-drill holes slightly undersized for screws or nails to minimize splitting along the grain.
As with many porous woods, ash benefits cosmetically from lots of fine-tuned sanding. Work carefully through higher grits to tame any remaining grain raising for a silky-smooth finish.
As an extra precaution, pre-drill screw and fastener holes with a bit just narrower than the shank to reduce splitting along the grain lines.
With small tweaks like sharp tools, off-speeds and pre drilling, ash gives itself over gracefully on the journey to an heirloom-quality project. Its inherent beauty comes to light through patient mastery by skilled craftspeople.
Unlocking Ash’s Natural Beauty
Once surfaced and shaped, ash showcases its character through a variety of finishing options. Its open pore structure allows most products excellent penetration for protection and looks that accentuate figuring.
Stains and dyes are beloved by ash artisans looking to warm the wood’s naturally light tone. Lean more heavily on pigments rather than dye alone to saturate the grain, especially highlighting larger earlywood pores.
Extra-fine stains also prevent lap marks. Along with testing scraps, sanding with progressively finer grits ensures smooth results.
Those preferring a “naked” wood appearance find ash receptive to penetrating oils that enrich the texture. Tung, Danish, BLO and blends of these bring out annual growth patterns. Heat-cured polyurethanes work too without overly darkening.
When high gloss isn’t a priority, oil-based polyurethanes create durability with a hand-rubbed luster.
Whatever the chosen look, know ash will gradually deepen and mellow like so many hardwoods.
It also succumbs less noticeably to aging than maple does beneath bare clear finishes that dont fully block UV rays. Shellac stands up well too while maintaining natural coloration through multiple coats.
For projects requiring robust protection against the elements, total-coverage stains like deck finishes keep ash hunting camps and outdoor accents handsome for years.
Tests will help owners discover their wood’s ideal hue under different topcoats beforehand. With the right guidance, ash’s persona shines through every step of craftsmanship.
Read Also: How to Remove Danish Oil From Wood
The Emerald Menace Threatening Ash
While ash has proven hardy against the tests of time, a modern invader now endangers its future – the emerald ash borer.
This jewel-toned beetle from Asia first arrived on US shores in 2002, and has since decimated millions of ash trees across 30 US states and 3 Canadian provinces.
The Borer’s lifecycle is devastatingly efficient. Adults lay eggs on ash bark in spring, hatching larvae that burrow into the tree to feed on its living tissues just beneath.
They leave serpentine galleries as they feed, disrupting nutrient and water transport. Within 2-3 years, infested trees show symptoms like canopy thinning, sprouting from the trunk, and bark splitting. They nearly always die.
Scientists have fought hard to get ahead of the spread. Detection methods now spot infestations earlier through visual signs or by trapping scent-lured beetles.
Removal of infested trees slows further spread which beetles accomplish by short, independent flights. However, ash stands near transport routes are most threatened.
Systemic insecticides injected into trees also show promise if administered before widespread damage occurs.
With no natural enemies controlling numbers in the US, recovery will take coordinated action. Researchers screen for borer-resistant ash genetic traits as one alternative. Biobased treatments are in development that target the insect’s weak points.
Public education aids the fight by encouraging vigilance recognizing symptoms and properly disposing of affected firewood to halt accidental transport.
Protection and selective replanting may preserve ash for future craftspeople, furniture makers and landowners. With continued research and cooperation, communities and forests may once again enjoy this storied tree’s ecological and cultural legacy for generations to come.