Ash has a sweetish odor, that is uniquely distinctive when you saw it or burn it. Fresh red birch has a scent that takes you back to the best root beers you’ve ever had. Cherry bark smells like tasty cough syrup. And oak has an earthy odor to it. If you work with fresh-cut timber, these are some of the sensations that the tree shares with you, and which the uninitiated remain unaware.
Love the look of mahogany, the beautiful color of cherry, or walnut? The tree didn’t add them for you. Trees live in a highly competitive environment where organisms are always attacking the tree, looking for a meal. To deter the attacks, trees deposit chemicals into their wood that inhibit insects, bacteria, and fungi. After we cut the timber, those chemicals give us the coloration and some of the wood’s durability.
Some woods are toxic to us. A wood called Pink Ivory is lovely to look at but is dangerous because of the chemicals in the wood. In use, it needs sealing before it’s safe for us to use.
Woodworkers need to be especially aware that the dust caused by sanding some species is irritating. Mahogany and teak fall into that category. Not everyone is sensitive, but wearing protective gear is an excellent way of avoiding dermatitis or respiratory issues.
Normally most of what I’ve mentioned is not too important to the average consumer. There is one area to aware of, and that is treen. Treen ( derived from the word tree) are objects like spoons, spatulas, bowls, and the like. Being that we handle food with them, the potential toxicity should be considered. In North America, woods normally considered food safe are woods like maple, fruitwoods (cherry, plum, pear, and apple) birch, and poplar. I’ve used ash for cutting boards, but not for spoons because it has alternating summer and winter woods ( ring porosity) and might absorb odors and flavors when immersed. Oak, while not toxic, is ring-porous, and can impart it’s earthy taste to foods, so I do not use it.
You might notice that I have not included walnut on my list. I am rather certain that it is food safe, but I rarely use it because there are a good number of people with walnut allergies.
Spalted wood is wood with the patterns of decay caused by fungus visible on the wood. It’s beautiful to look at, but there is a significant debate as to whether or not it is food safe. I do not work with it, in part, because there is a respiratory risk to the woodworker from the spores of the fungus. Yes, many woodworkers claim that the spores can be killed by microwaving or heating the wood. It’s just not a risk I take.
Exotic woods. I stay away from them. For many, there are question marks regarding their food safety, and being that I used to sell commercially, I had product liability to worry about.
If you have questions about any of this, write me, and I’ll try to formulate an intelligent response.