Friday, September 12, 2014

What is Burl Wood?

By Gretchen Sawatzki

Burl growth on the side of
a tree in Norfolk County,
Burl wood is a figured wood that is highly prized by artisans for its decorative and unique marbleized patterns, but did you know that its beauty comes from a cancer-like abnormality?

A "burl" also known as a "burr" (by our British buddies across the pond) is a fast-growing abnormal growth found on some trees. A rare occurrence often caused by fungal or insect attacks, burls can grow to the size of small cars, but do not impact the overall health of its host. In fact, most trees that are effected by the disease live on and often grow more burl offshoots. As each burl produces a different type of pattern, all are later harvested for the manufacture of decorative wood veneers.

Burl cross-section exposing the
irregular pattern sought by out
by artisans
Some burls produce concentric ring patterns (similar to healthy tree rings) that are less desirable, while others produce irregular patterns. To discover what pattern exists within each burl, a harvester will first remove the burl from the tree, then crack it open like an egg to reveal its pattern. The burl can then be cut in several directions producing thin strips of veneer. Burl veneer is a paper thin cut of wood sliced from a larger burl that can then be applied to the surface of furniture, clocks, music instruments and other decorative items.

A process popularized in 18th century France, burl wood veneers were so often applied to decorative items that a new artisan craft was born with the introduction of the ébéniste. An ébéniste, was a skilled craftsman and cabinetmaker entrusted with duty of building furniture using high-end woods including ebony (for which their is derived) and burl. In the later part of the 18th century, the ébéniste was responsible for the creation of marquetry and wood inlay furniture decoration.

Today, wood veneers are used in a variety of applications including furniture, countertops, floors, and decorative items, but burl wood and burl wood veneers are still primarily used by artisans in any number of crafts. In recent time, the demand for quality burl wood has been so great, that illegal poachers have maimed protected redwood forests for their valuable burls.

Front of a 19th century dresser drawer decorated with a burl walnut veneer.
Image by Gretchen Sawatzki
For the past four centuries this diseased wood has been in demand. With its growth in popularity in 18th century France, to its use in artist studios, to its black market trade, burl wood has remained a luxury good reserved for the finest of things, and to think it all started as an ugly abnormal growth.

             Buffalo Architecture and History
             SF Gate
             The J. Paul Getty Museum
             The Metropolitan Museum of Art
             The Wood Database

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