At Beeline Design we use a lot of native timbers. Australia is fortunate enough to have a lot of very beautiful and highly sought after native timbers. Many of these are suitable for fine cabinet and furniture making, and some of these I will talk about here.
Before we get into it, here is a bit of a lesson on the subject of wood itself.
Timber is broken up into two main groups – hardwoods and softwoods. Basically speaking, hardwoods are flowering trees, while softwoods are evergreen. Many hardwoods – especially those in the northern hemisphere – are also deciduous. In other words they drop their leaves in the winter months. In Australia, however, most of the hardwood trees tend to hang on to their leaves, regardless of the season. It seems we just do things differently down here.
Softwoods, however, keep their leaves and needles throughout the entire year. Softwoods also tend to be much faster growing than hardwoods, and they’re generally lighter in weight. As far as examples are concerned, softwoods include pines, spruces and firs. Hardwoods include gums, wattles, oaks, maples and walnuts.
I should add that you can’t really go by how hard or how soft the timber actually is when figuring out what is a hardwood and what is a softwood. For instance, a Yew tree – a nothern hemisphere tree often found on church grounds – has timber that is quite hard, yet it is classified as a softwood. On the other hand, balsa wood is an extremely soft timber used in making model airplanes and other craft work. However it is classified as a hardwood. Go figure!
Speaking of figure, this is what most people describe as ‘grain’ when they see a piece of wood. It’s essentially the pattern in the wood. This pattern is mostly made by the growth rings that are added each year as the living tree grows. The figure can vary greatly, depending on the species and how the timber is cut. Flat, or slab, sawn timber is very different looking than quarter sawn timber. Slab cut timber can be very wild and busy looking, while quarter cut timber can have a very ‘linear’ look to it.
It should also be noted that slab cut timber and quarter cut timber move very differently (see below). This can sometimes be a problem to the woodworker.
As explained above, what most people describe as ‘grain’ is not grain at all, it’s ‘figure’. The actual grain refers to the open pores that are present in the wood itself. Some native timbers are very open grained, such as Tasmanian oak, Victorian ash, jarrah and Australian blackwood. These are all timbers that we use here at Beeline Design.
Timbers with not very much grain – or at least not a lot of open grain – include myrtle beech, silky oak, brushbox and Queensland maple. Again, these are all native timbers.
It goes without saying that the colour of wood can be very different, depending on the species. Just about everyone knows that pine has a very different colour to it than, say, redgum. What is not always understood by clients, and people in general for that matter, is that colour can also vary greatly within the same species. This is important to know, as it can sometimes be quite confusing if you’re expecting your custom furniture to be one colour, when it actually turns out to be a different colour altogether!
With this in mind we’ve set up a fairly comprehensive colour chart of the timbers we use, which can be found by clicking on the link.
Hardness varies greatly between timber species. As we mentioned above, not all hardwoods are hard, and not all softwoods are soft. All woods are different. Having said that, in most cases softwoods are actually soft and most of the hardwoods are medium hard to hard. Then again, some hardwoods are extremely hard!
As an example of this, pine and spruce are generally soft – whereas Tassie oak, Australian blackwood and jarrah can vary from medium to quite hard. Cooktown ironwood and gidgee are two Australian native timbers that are extremely hard, heavy and dense. However, you don’t really get these timbers in large enough sizes that are suitable for use as furniture. They’re mainly used for decorative elements such as knobs or drawer pulls.
Wood is organic and it always moves. Without question – it moves! Sometimes a lot. Sometimes not much at all. It all depends on the actual species and how the wood has been cut and seasoned, or dried. Even within the same tree two pieces of wood can move in different ways. Back, or slab, sawn wood generally moves more than quarter sawn wood.
As far as making furniture is concerned, it really becomes a skill that a good craftsperson develops which helps them pick and choose the right timber for the right job. Other things that need to be taken into account is the method of construction used, the finish (as in oil, wax or varnish) used and the environment in which the furniture will spend the majority of its time in. After all, if wood moves it’s really up to the maker to allow for that movement, and work with it in a way which limits the negative effects. For instance things like central heating and cooling can really play havoc on furniture, so all of this information is very important for the furniture maker to know beforehand.
Native Timbers We Use
Below we’ve listed some of the wonderful native timbers that we work with. We’ve also shown several images of the woods in close-up, as there is sometimes quite a lot of variation of colour and figure within the species themselves. By showing these variations we feel that the potential client can get a much better idea of what to expect when purchasing one of our furniture pieces.
Tasmanian Oak (Eucalyptus regnans):
By far most of the timber we use is Tasmanian oak. Known by many as ‘Tassie oak’, it’s one of the most-used native timbers in Australia today. Walk into any hardware store, such as Bunnings or Mitre 10, and you will find racks full of Tassie oak boards, panels, mouldings, dowels and trimmings. It’s everywhere, and for good reason. It’s very versatile, comes in large sizes and cuts, planes, glues and sands well.
Tasmanian oak is fairly light in colour, but can sometimes have streaks of darker colours throughout. It is often open grained in nature. Most of it is relatively defect free, but some boards can have gum veins present. Sometimes there is the presence of fiddleback in a board, where the timber looks like the pattern found on the back of a violin. Other boards might have a birdseye figure in them – small round marks that resemble the eyes on birds (hence the name). Although not as common or as prominent, this birdseye figuring is similar to that found in birdseye maple, which was very popular in the 1930’s to 1950’s.
Victorian Ash (Eucalyptus regnans):
Known by many people as ‘Vic ash’ or simply hardwood, Victorian ash has been used by Australian for 150 years or so. It is the exact same species as Tasmanian oak (Eucalyptus regnans) but is grown in Victoria, rather than Tasmania. The timber is very similar in colour to the oak but, depending on where in Victoria it’s grown, can be a little lighter sometimes. Some boards can also have a slightly pinkish hue. This is important because while some people might like the look, others may not. If you’re thinking of having something made from either Vic ash or Tas oak then have a look at our timber sample colour chart page to see what colour you prefer.
Because it is the same species it has the same working properties and features as the Tassie oak.
Messmate (Eucalyptus obliqua & Eucalyptus tereticornis):
Up until around the late 1980’s or early 1990’s the older woodworkers used to joke about messmate. They would often say ‘It’s a mess, mate’, referring to the fact that there was a lot of gum pockets, defects and voids in the timber. For a long time it was really only regarded as suitable for fence palings or firewood. Not a serious native timber to make fine furniture out of.
Oh, how times have changed! Those very same ‘defects’ that once gave messmate such a bad name are now one of its main strengths. Messmate is also very stable in use, which is a quality that is great for making furniture.
Now the term ‘messmate’ can be a little confusing, as several native timbers, mostly stringybarks, often get put into this category. So parts of your messmate furniture might not actually be true messmate but, more or less, it’s classified as such.
Australian Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon):
This is the only native timber that we occasionally use that isn’t a Eucalyptus but, instead, is related to the wattle species. The wood is open pored and various shades of golden brown in colour, sometimes with darker streaks of black or brown. It can sometimes have a reddish hue as well.
Blackwood is medium hard, and is an excellent tone-wood – meaning it’s great for musical instruments such as guitars and violins. Like Victorian ash and Tasmanian oak, some boards are very highly figured in their patterning, with some containing fiddleback (5th and 6th images) or birdseye (4th image).
Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata):
Jarrah is a premier Australian native timber that is used quite a bit in fine furniture. It comes from Western Australia, where I grew up, and is one of the largest trees found in this country.
The colour of jarrah varies from dark reds and browns to lighter pinks. However some of the old-growth timber can be very dark and some is almost purple. Old growth timber may also have darker black/brown spots, or flecks, throughout the wood which is often referred to as ‘mottled’.
Sometimes karri, another native timber found in the south west of WA, can be mixed in with jarrah. Both are very similar looking, and you need to really know your stuff to pick the difference! Fortunately having grown up in the region where these trees are found, and having also used a lot of both species for making furniture, helps quite a bit.
Redgum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis):
While we don’t use a lot of redgum at Beeline Design, we have used it for custom and bespoke furniture. Like the name implies it’s basically red in colour – or at the very least dark pink. Like jarrah and karri above, redgum evokes a very warm and rich feel to it.
Some of the wood can be highly figured, as in the case of fiddleback redgum (3rd and 4th image below). Other boards may have a birdseye pattern in them. While fiddleback redgum can be quite common in this species, birdseye is not.
Contrary to popular belief, redgum is quite stable in use – however it really needs to be seasoned properly. Many custom furniture makers get into trouble because the redgum they use has either not properly dried, or they don’t allow the boards to fully acclimatise themselves to the workshop. Sometimes this can take years, and a lot of woodworkers simply don’t have this time to spare. This is a mistake though, because the wood really needs to settle in to the environment. Whether it’s in the workshop or, later on, the home or business in which the finished piece resides. Once it’s settled in, however, it will remain stable forever!
Apart from that, Redgum is a classic Australian band from the 1980’s who wrote ‘I Was Only 19’ and ‘I’ve Been To Bali Too’. You can’t get any better than that!
The Wrap Up
On that note I will leave the article here for now. At the very least it’s a quick run-down of the native timbers that we mainly use here at Beeline Design. If you would like to know more about Australian native timbers then check out the excellent book by Keith Bootle called ‘Wood In Australia’. You can find it at the National Library of Australia site here.
In the next instalment I will talk about some of the imported timbers that we use for furniture making. Stay tuned until then.
Please click the link if you would like to read about the imported timbers we use at Beeline Design.