Wood of the Week: White Ash

Botanical Background:

Fraxinus americana of the family Oleaceae (the Olive Tree); also Fraxinus pennsylvanica and Fraxinus quadrangulata . There are about 70 species of Ash in the world, and it is the oil in the wood that is chemically similar to olive oil, that links this tree with the Olive family. There are only about 17 types of this tree found in North America and only 2 or 3 that have any commercial significance. When we talk about the commercially available lumber, we predominately talk about white (Fraxinus Americana) and black (Fraxinus Nigra) ash. All species look alike microscopically. The name fraxinus is the classical Latin name for ash.
COMMON NAMES: American White Ash, Biltmore Ash, Biltmore White Ash, Canadian Ash, Cane Ash, Green Ash, Ground Ash, Mountain Ash, Quebec Ash, Red Ash, Smallseed White Ash, White Ash, White River Ash, White Southern Ash


The tree is never found in pure stands, but rather is widely distributed among other species. It usually grows to 70-80 feet in height, with a diameter 2-3 feet. It occasionally attains a height of 120 feet, with a
diameter of5-6 feet. In the forest, it is usually clear of branches quite a distance from the ground, bearing a somewhat pyramidal crown. When in the open, the crown is round-topped, and may extend almost to the ground. The bark is grayish-brown or tinged with red, rather thick on older trunks, 1-3 inches thick, deeply furrowed by narrow fissures into broad flattened ridges, separating on the surface into thin appressed scales. The sapwood of ash is light brown, while the heartwood is brown to grayish brown. White ash and Oregon ash have lighter heartwood than the other commercial species. The width of the sapwood is 3 to 6 inches. It is ring porous, with the latewood being composed of parenchyma which surrounds and unites the latewood pores in tangential bands. It has no characteristic odor or taste. Ash is a hard North American hardwood with a specific gravity of .60 when dry. Tangential shrinkage is 7.8%, radial shrinkage is 4.9%, and volumetric shrinkage is 13.3%. The wood weighs: approximately 41lbs/cu.ft.

Working Characteristics:

White ash is strong and stiff with very good shock resistance and excellent bending qualities. These qualities make Ash is a great craft wood, but best known as the wood of choice for baseball bats. Other woods are stronger, but it has the best strength to weight ratio, and since most players do not want a bat greater than 32 oz. this becomes significant. For the same reason, it is used for tool handles, hockey sticks, and canoe paddles. Historically it was used for food bowls because it had no significant odor or taste. Curved components for chairs, snowshoes and boats capitalize on its wonderful bending properties. It can be used for any fine woodworking, with only your imagination as the limiting factor. The wood is straight-grained, open pored, and hard.. The wood is relatively stable with little downgrade in drying. The wood dries fairly rapidly with little degrade and medium shrinkage. It only occasionally shows interesting figure in crotch wood. It is not considered to be a durable wood when in contact with the ground. It is susceptible to fungal and beetle attack. Often the commercial lumberyards pull the sapwood out of the pile to form a more consistent white stock in the higher grades.
Finishing: Ash finishes relatively easily and takes a beautiful stain. It is ring porous, so if you are looking for a glass like finish you must use a pore filler. It can be stained to look like oak as the grain pattern of the two woods is very similar. Ash has less chatter (i.e.. the little lines) between the rows of open pores, so tends to stain a little brighter than oak. You must sand carefully to eliminate cross grain scratching, particularly if you are using a dark stain.
Machining: Ash works easily with hand and power tools, with normal wear on cutting edges. It glues well, but pre-drilling is recommended. It holds screws well. It does have a very long fibre, so splintering can be a problem when turning it on the lathe. Make sure your tools are sharp and take a finer cut. Watch the grain direction, when jointing the edges.