Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Burls and Other Unusual Woods
Nature Bulletin No. 629-A   February 19, 1977
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Wood worked by the hands of skilled craftsmen puts a wealth of quiet beauty into our daily lives. The warm glow of natural wood in different shades and forms invites the touch and a home without it seems drab and artificial. Most carpenters and amateur handy men are happy to work with straight boards with straight grain sawed from perfect logs. In contrast, the finest paneling, cabinetwork and art objects in wood are made from parts of the tree which are ordinarily discarded. The crooked grain in stumps, and logs with knots or crotches, yields fanciful patterns when turned on a lathe or cut into veneer. So does the twisted grain in trees crippled by old injuries and in the tumorous or abnormal growths called burls.

The appreciation of woods with irregular grain is not new. Very fine pieces of furniture decorated with veneer cut from rare and precious burls have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. One of the prize exhibits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is a bed taken from the tomb of the great-grandparents of King Tut's wife which is paneled with veneer of laburnum and acacia. It is not known how they sawed these thin layers or how they prepared glue that still holds after 3500 years.

Sometimes a burl is defined as an enlarged bump growing on a tree trunk and sometimes as almost any unusual woody growth. They are found occasionally on a wide variety of trees. Certain large galls or burls on oaks follow a chronic fungous infection. On other trees they seem to result from injuries, burns or continued irritation. In most cases the causes are not understood.

A smoker becomes attached to his brier pipe. He fondles it, guards it, and rubs it on his nose to bring out the grain in the wood. Ordinarily the bowls of these pipes are made from brierwood -- the gnarled roots of the tree heath, a dwarf tree that grows in France, Italy and Algeria. During the World War II, when imports of brierwood were cut off, American pipe manufacturers turned to root burls from such native members of the heath family as the mountain laurel and rhododendron of the southern Appalachians and the manzanita of California. Since then burl blocks by the millions, each large enough for one pipe bowl, have been cut from these woods.

Many kinds of trees produce the lumpy swellings called burls but those of the redwood may be six or eight feet thick and weigh thousands of pounds. Their heavy hard dark wood is figured with a fantastic grain. Like the potato with its eyes, a burl contains buds. A small one from the redwood placed in a dish of water will send up a ferny sprout. Hundreds of tons of burls from redwood, myrtlewood, madrone, and western maple are exported annually from Oregon to France and Italy. Strangely enough, much of the fine furniture veneer made from these burls is returned to the United States.

Black walnut and black cherry burls are highly prized both because of the rich colors of their woods and because of their weirdly distorted grain. This is produced by innumerable buds that failed to develop, giving a bird's-eye effect. Rare sugar maple logs -- perhaps only one in a hundred or a thousand -- shows the exceptional curly or bird's-eye pattern in the grain. It is not strictly a burl but good examples are extremely valuable and at one time was preferred above all other woods for fancy gun stocks.

Tastes in woods change like fashions in hats. Pine boards full of knots and cypress boards full of holes, once worthless, now bring high prices for paneling in dens and rumpus rooms.

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