Third Wooden Mystery

I did not expect these pieces to be mysterious but they are.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

I got these as logs with circa 10-15 cm in diameter  from my neighbor. He got a permit to fell some trees on the premises of a nearby former sanatorium when there were some conservation works performed and he also got a lot of wood when trees on his property were felled during roadside renovations. So he got a jumble-mix of local species from the roadside and some imported park species from the sanatorium.

I swapped a few nice pieces of wood with him for briquettes. At the time, I thought these are just pieces of European oak (Quercus robur) and indeed I almost tossed them when I got my hands on old oak boards which are easier to work with. But I cut them into prisms anyway and I got confused.

The bark and very small and densely packed growth ring do look like oak, but there the similarity ends.

The boundary between heartwood and sapwood is very pronounced. In this regard, the wood is more similar to walnut trees, although it could be oak too.

Walnut has more chocolate-dark-brown heartwood whereas this has a purplish tint to it. And locally grown walnuts have way bigger growth rings in my experience – easily three-four times bigger in fact, even on branches. And walnuts, irrespective of the growth ring size, have a big cellular pith in the middle, whereas these had almost none (like oak).

The sapwood also seems too white for European oak, which is more yellow-brown-ish. On its own, the sapwood looks like ash, but ash does not have a differently colored heartwood and it too has much bigger growth rings, although they could be this size on branches.

The sapwood was almost completely destroyed by wood borers, even though the wood was stored in dry conditions the whole time. I did not have a lot of wood borer damage on any other wood that I was storing (except basswood, elm, and ash, none of which is this).

And all the wood borers stopped at the heartwood boundary as if by magic. I have observed this phenomenon on elm and oak trees that died standing in the forest.

The lignin rays are visible but way smaller than they are in oak. In this regard, the wood is similar to beech or sycamore. But it also could be an oak branch and not an oak trunk.

It is pretty wood, it would make nice knife handles, but I do not know what it is for sure and that is a bit of a problem. All I know for sure is that it has grown within 200 m of my house and I am about 90% sure it is not local species because most of those I can recognize at a glance. Thus by process of elimination, I think it might be Northern red oak (Quercus rubra), but I cannot be sure since I never held a piece of definitive red oak in my hand and internet search is of limited use here.

But it fits the known criteria – it is grown around here, there is a huge tree nearby, it sometimes even sprouts in random places from nuts buried by jays (I have a seedling in my garden), and it is not local species.


  1. Tethys says

    Could it be some other type of nut tree? It does look a lot like walnut at a glance, so perhaps it could be a different species of walnut such as Butternut? Chestnut has very pale sapwood and dark heartwood, and the insect damage is also consistent.

    It has very nice grain, I hope you get some lovely handles from it.

  2. says

    @Tethys, thanks for the suggestions. I never encountered chestnuts around here, although I know about maybe two or three trees in the neighboring town in a park. They can survive, but they were never able to bear fertile fruit, for the winters here are too long, even when not necessarily too cold anymore, so they never propagate. I am reasonably certain that if there was ever a chestnut tree of this size in a 200 m radius around my house, I would have known about it. There is a minuscule possibility that it could have been behind a fence on the sanatorium premises, but even so, I would probably know about it since I am able to identify most local tree species, domestic as well as imported, at a significant distance..

    I also do not know about any butternut trees in my vicinity and since butternut is of the same genus as walnut, it is reasonable to assume that it too would have a cellular pith in the center.

  3. Tethys says

    Ah, since it came from a park I assumed they could be ornamental varieties from anywhere.
    Oaks come in red oak and white oak in North America, but there are multiple species within those two subcategories. My white oak floor has far more pale wood than dark heartwood.

    Does Europe have hickory? As a member of the walnut family it has nuts, and high contrast between the sapwood and heart wood. They are slow growing trees with bark similar to oaks. If it grows here in MN it’s definitely hardy.

  4. says

    @Tethys, some species of hickory could probably survive in some warmer parts of CZ, but they are not grown around here, of that I am 100% sure.

  5. Tethys says

    I don’t think there is anywhere in Continental Europe that even comes close to Minnesotas average winter low temps or length. We hold records for such things, so I’m sure bitternut hickory’s would be perfectly hardy in CZ.

    It simply doesn’t look like oak to me, but ‘member of the Juglans family’ is the best I can do from photos. The internet is not offering any photos of European species or their lumber.

  6. Tethys says

    Perhaps it’s smell could help identify it?

    The smell of different wood when you sand or work it is often distinctive. Walnut and cherry both smell delicious, oak is merely pleasant to my nose. Maple doesn’t really smell of anything except sawdust.

  7. says

    @Tethys, you are correct about the winter hardiness. When I see the name “hickory”, to my mind immediately springs “pecan hickory”. I forgot that it is a summary name for multiple species of the genus Carya. Pecans cannot grow around here, I checked because I wanted to plant them in my garden. At best they would probably behave the same as chestnuts -- i. e. live and grow but rarely bear fruit and when it would not ripen enough. Even domestic species, like hornbeam, cannot bear fertile fruit at our elevation, although that is slowly changing due to climate change.

    Other species might fare better, but I am nearly 100% sure that there is none in my hometown. None are even in the town of Františkovy Lázně which has species-rich parks, at least there were none twenty years ago (I made my master’s dissertation work on those parks, I have probably seen every tree and bush that is there).

    As far as smell goes, that is of no use to me. I am sensitive to some smells (like sour milk), but overall I have had a very weak sense of smell since childhood. I noticed some smell when working with some woods, but not when working with this one, nor with cherry or walnut. I only smell those woods that other woodworkers would probably describe as “stinking”, like black elder or tamarisk and even there I am not sure I would be able to distinguish one from the other without conscious training.

  8. Tethys says

    I feel a bit sad that you are unable to smell the wood you work with, except for unpleasant types. Elm smells exactly like urine when you split it, but otherwise I’ve always gotten a lot of enjoyment from the various scents of different woods or just plain old sawdust.

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