Figure in Wood

Common terms relating to the figure of wood

Figure and Visual Characteristics of Wood

Character Oak  Larch  Wenge

What is the figure of wood? The figure of wood refers to the appearance of the wood and characteristics of wood.

The term figure refers to the characteristic, special or unusual markings that may be found on the surface of wood - typically on side-grain surfaces. Interesting figure comprises a combination of colour, grain, lustre and texture, and can be brought about by various features of that particular wood species, from the peculiarities of its normal growth structure trough to defects, abnormalities and extractives which may be present. Different types of figure may be revealed, depending on how the wood is cut. Quarter-sawn oak, for example, can reveal the beautiful ray figure known as ‘silver grain’, whereas if the same wood is flat-sawn, the resulting surface is unlikely to have such interesting figure.

What is the grain of wood? It is important not to confuse figure with grain. The grain of wood refers to the alignment of the wood elements in relation to the timber’s longitudinal axis; the contrast in density and colour between early and latewood in timbers. Grain is only one of the features that contribute to figure. Although each piece of wood is unique, there are recognised patterns of figure markings that have become accepted – many of them associated with particular woods, such as bird’s-eye figure in maple. The names of there pattern often give a good clue to their appearance. Some key terms are listed here, but specialists in figured veneers will use more.

Please click here for more about specific wood species.

See also Glossary of Wood Terms and Defects in Wood

Angel step

A staircase-like curly figure cause by cutting across the stump or butt sections of a tree; frequently found in Walnut but can also occur in Ash and Maple

Bee’s wing

A small-scale, very tight mottle figure, found in East Indian Satinwood Mahogany , Bubinga and some eucalypts. Block mottle is similar, but larger in scale.

Bird’s eye

A pattern of small, rounded, lustrous spots, found almost exclusively in hard Maple (Acer saccharum)

Blister

A figure resembling billowing clouds, or on occasion bubble-like forms; the surface looks blistered, even when perfectly smooth. An uneven contour in the growth rings can create this effect when a log is rotary – or half-round-cut for veneer.

Burr (burl)

A wart like, deformed growth, normally on the root or trunk, but sometimes on the branches. These usually form as the result of some injury to or infection under the bank or an unformed but that does not grow properly. As the tree grows the burrs can grow with it, causing the surrounding growth wood to be twisted or wavy, which results in very beautiful figure. Burr figure is often found in European Elm, Ash, Poplar, California Redwood and Walnut amongst others.

Butt

A wavy, rippled pattern caused by grain distortion where the root joins the stump. American Walnut can produce very interesting butt figure, which is exploited in stump-wood veneer.

Button

A pattern of buttons or flakes against a straight-grained background, revealed when wood with large medullary rays in quarter-sawn to expose the hard, shiny rays. Found particularly in American Sycamore, White Oak and Lacewood. See also flake.

Cathedral

A series of stacked or inverted V-shapes; this can occur in plain-sliced veneer

Cat’s paw

A variety of pippy or burr wood which looks as though a cat has walked over it and left footprints; found particularly in Oak and Cherry.

Crossfire

Any marking that goes across the grain in a rolling curl, such as in fiddleback and mottle. It can look spectacular.

Crotch

A typically Y-shaped pattern formed where a branch joins the trunk of a tree. Burning bush, feather, flame, plume and rooster-tail are all varieties of crotch figure. Mahogany and Walnut veneers are the best sources. 

Curly

Contortions in grain direction give the appearance of undulating waves as they reflect light differently. Curly figure is particularly common in Maple and Birch. A staircase-like curl is often referred to as angel steps (see above), and a rolling curl as a form of crossfire.

Fiddleback

A form of curly figure exposed by quartersawing, giving very straight grain with almost perpendicular curls from edge to edge. The name derives from the use of this figure for the backs of violins, which are traditionally made of European Sycamore. It is not common but can be found in Maple, African Mahogany, Makore, Blackbean and Koa.

Flake, fleck or ray fleck

A lustrous effect found in Lacewood, Oak and Sycamore, when the wood is cut parallel or nearly parallel to the medullary rays, thus exposing some parts of the rays.

Flame

See crotch

Flower grain

A diagonal ripple pattern, occurring in small, irregular patches, sometimes found in European Spruce

Mottle

Another type of cross-grain figure, where spiral interlocked grain combines with wavy grain to give a blotchy, wrinkled effect. The pattern can be random, or in something of a chessboard form (block mottle), and a finer, smaller form is known as bee’s wing (see above). Mottle figure can occur in Mahoganies, Sapele, Bubinga, and Koa, amongst others

Peanut shell

Some woods that are susceptible to quilted or blister figure can be rotary-cut to produce a peanut figure, which has some similarity to a quilted or pommele figure. The wood surface appears bumpy and pitted, even, when flate. Peanut-shell figure is found particularly in Japanese Ash, but can occur in other woods.

Pippy

A random scattering of numerous little spots; typical in Yew and sessile Oak

Pommele

A pattern of small circles or ovals that sometimes overlap each other; it has been likened to a puddle surface during light rain. Resembling a finer form of blister figure, it is common in some African woods such as Bubinga, African Mahogany and Sapele

Quilted

A pillow-like, three-dimensional effect caused when an uneven or wavy interlocking pattern, forming a bumpy surface on the log, is rotary- or half-round-cut. It is a larger, more emphatic form of pommele or blister figure.

Ribbon stripe

An effect resembling a slightly twisted ribbon, found in quartersawn Mahogany and Sapele

Ripple

Any figure with a ripple-like appearance, such as fiddleback (see above)

Roe or roey figure

Short, broken stripe or ribbon figure in certain quartersawn hardwoods, arising from interlocked grain.

Roll

A pattern of large rolls or twists that can run diagonally; if bookmatched, the resulting pattern is known as herringbone

Silver grain

Another name for lustrous ray fleck on quartersawn timber, especially Oak

Swirl

A gentler type of crotch figure, where the grain swirls, meanders and sometimes appears to fold in on itself; common in Cherry, Mahogany, Maple and Walnut

 Source/reference: Wood ID & Use by T. Porter - A really great book for wood reference - CLICK HERE TO BUY

Posted by Paul Hayman on Monday 26 June 2017 at 10:46