Nontimber Forest Products: Character wood

February 9, 2009 at 2:00 pm 4 comments

By Julie Miedtke, UMN Extension Itasca County

Long winter months offer prime time opportunities for exploring forests.

Frozen soil conditions allow access to some of the more intriguing, ‘off the beaten path’ places in the woods.  It’s a great time to visit bogs & swamps, swales, and islands that may seem out of reach during much of the year.  Winter excursions can be memorable and invigorating, but most of all it will inspire greater appreciation of forests.

Photo by botheredbybees (flickr)

Photo by botheredbybees (flickr)

During winter walks, it is a little easier to examine the architecture of trees. We can train our eyes to examine their quality and think of the biology of individual plants, ecosystems and consider management activities.  The fun begins when we can search the woods for those special pieces, ‘character wood’ which are treasures from the forest.

This story reviews some of the more common types of character wood.  As you can see from the photos, these pieces can be made into a wide variety of types of furniture as well as decorative and functional pieces.


Burls are abnormal growths that provide a wonderful source for decorative wood with fanciful grain or figuring.  It is generally believed that a burl is created when there is an injury or other external stimulus which affects the growth pattern of the tree and results in a deformity.  Wood grain patterns may be wavy, swirled, marbled or feathered depending on the type of burl.

Burls may be found on many tree species: spruce, birch, black ash and northern white cedar and are prized by crafters & artisans.  Although the quality of burl is not known until you begin working with it, burlwood can be used for veneer or frequently turned to create high end products like clocks, mirrors, knife handles, wood bowls etc.

  • Basal Burls: are found at the base of the trunk and may sometimes extend down into larger roots.  Burls may have ‘eyes’ or be ‘spotted.’

    Northern white cedar basal burl turned by Mary-Celine Thouin

    Northern white cedar basal burl turned by Mary-Celine Thouin

  • Layered  Burls: initially part of the sapwood, they eventually grow into the heartwood.  These special burls are produced when there is more rapid cell production in the cambium.


    White spruce layered burl hand carved by Jon Strom

    White spruce layered burl hand carved by Jon Strom

  • Branch knots: or small burls may be found growing on branches.

Crotch wood

Crotch wood is typically harder, dense wood that frequently exhibits a beautiful grain.  It is caused by forces exerted within the tree to support a main branch where it joins the trunk.  The compression process that strengthens the tree so it can support the branch causes the wood fibers to twist and compress, creating various figures and grains that can be very beautiful. Unlike burls, crotches have grain that, while quite distorted, is basically the same grain as the other wood in the tree.


Figured crotch wood rustic table by Duane Shoop

Figured crotch wood rustic table by Duane Shoop

Diamond willow

In general, diamond willow typically grows in wetland areas. There are several species of willow that have abnormalities found along the stem.  It is commonly believed that a fungal disease damages the cambium layer, resulting in the formation of a diamond-shaped scar in the wood.  The willow continues to grow, twisting into unique shapes.  Harvesting will not kill the willow, which will readily resprout.  Willow wood is lightweight, relatively strong and it is easily carved.   Carvers and crafters create a number of products including walking sticks, cribbage boards, candlesticks, letter openers and hat racks.

Historically, people carved drinking vessels from small burls.  Voyaguers carried a noggin while canoeing.  Hand carved noggin by Jon Strom, Bearville MN.

Historically, people carved drinking vessels from small burls. Voyaguers carried a "noggin" while canoeing. Hand carved noggin by Jon Strom, Bearville MN.

Harvest considerations

In all cases be sure to ask permission prior to harvesting.  Private, local, county, state and federal all have different trespass laws and access rules.  For public agencies, visit the natural resource office closest to the area in which you wish to harvest to learn about regulations and permits.

On your land

Naturally, being able to identify character wood is the first step which will ensure that they are not mistakenly discarded or underutilized during harvest operations.  Once identified plans can be made prior to harvest, and before logs are fully processed.  Landowners can arrange to have character wood set aside, the piece may be sold to a craftsman (woodturner, etc.), or sold to the logger.

For more information on non-timber forest products read the Careful Harvest Publication (pdf).

Reprinted with permission from the September 2008 issue of the Itasca Woodlands newsletter. To learn more about the Itasca Woodlands Committee, which publishes the newsletter, call Sheila at (218) 327-7486.


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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Elma Strom  |  February 15, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    Nice article, Julie. Thanks for persevering so we got to see it!

  • 2. Jon Strom  |  February 15, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    Hi there Julie So this is where it all end up . Good info. I’m at N. House today and one of my students asked , What makes a burl. Now I can answer. Thanks Jon

  • 3. Matt Veltri  |  February 16, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Hi Julie:

    Your article was very interesting and informative. I have a question regarding a large black cherry – basal burl that I have on my property. Is there a correct way to remove the burl to bring it to market. It is too large to cut and transport in one piece. If I was going to cut it into slabs (for instance) would I cut it vertically or horizontally? I am not sure if I should mill it for veneer wood or cut into blanks, etc.


    Matt Veltri

  • 4. Julie Miedtke  |  February 17, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Hi Matt,

    You are asking some really great questions-and the answer will depend upon your land, situation and needs. I am wondering if you are only going to harvest a single tree, or will you be doing additional management activities?

    It’s been my experience that the entire burl has been sold to folks that are interested in working with character wood.
    Depending on the burl, they can be very heavy and cumbersome.
    I’d encourage you to call potential buyers in your area to gauge their interest before harvesting to work out all of the details: time of harvest, delivery and payment etc.

    Please call if you have more questions.


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