figured wood pinnable photo

Figured Wood – 5 Common Types

Sarah Stahl
Sarah Stahl
Passion for transforming tired, old furniture into bold works of art. Sharing my learning with you.

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I love wood grain patterns, but when I first started refinishing furniture, I had no idea that there are common types of grain patterns.  I understood what the grain in the wood was but not the names of the patterns created by the grains. As my knowledge grew, I understood the common figures, like Bird’s Eye Maple and Burl.  But what is figured wood, how does it occur and what are the common types?

Table of Contents

What is figured wood?

Figured wood refers to unique grain patterns which differ from the standard straight or uniformly wavy grain patterns found in most woods. These grain patterns are highly sought after for the dramatic looks that they can create.

In Short, figured wood is not a type of wood but rather unique and rare grain patterns.

Figured Wood Patterns

What is figured wood used for?

Due to its rarity, these highly patterned wood is usually showcased.  Popular ways to use it is in furniture and music instruments.  This is why when working with furniture, it can be important to know if you are working with figured wood.  It automatically will add value to your piece. 

Furthermore, if you require any veneer repairs, you may want to replace figured veneer with similar patterns.

Tiger Oak or curly oak- Wood Figure

How is figured wood formed?

Growth anomalies, disease, damage, and environmental conditions can affect the grain growth as the tree develops.

As trees grow, they develop rings internally. When the tree is cut the different methods to saw wood into planks is what can result in familiar grain patterns.  However, when a tree has had its growth disturbed or any other cause which can affect the way the rings form, this will result in an abnormal grain pattern.

Wood Sustainability

When you are sourcing any type of wood, it is important to ensure that the wood is ethically sourced. Due to its high market demand, it means sustainable practices are not always followed.

While there are types of figured wood that develop among fast growing and ethically harvested wood, it’s not always the case.  It should always be checked if the wood you are purchasing is ethically sourced and is not a rare tree sort.

Furthermore, opting to use figured veneer over solid wood is already a better option.  It is often a cheaper option then purchasing solid figured wood.  

Veneer Vs Solid Figured Wood

Solid figured wood can be hard to even come by.  Due to the value of figured wood, it is often cut down into veneer. This is also a way to create a more sustainable source of wood.  Veneer being very thin cut wood, means a single tree consisting of figured wood, can be used on more furniture then if it was solid wood. Veneer is in no way less of a product then solid wood.  If used on a strong substrate, it can even be stronger than solid wood.

If you are unsure if your furniture is solid wood or veneer, consider reading this.

How to tell veneer from solid wood

Challenges of working with figured veneer.

The challenge though of veneer is that since it is thinner, working with it takes practice and patience.  It is a skill that required time and effort to learn. Figured Veneer has additional challenges over standard veneers.  Often the grain pattern is disrupted, runs in multiple directions or consists of more knots and burls which are points which can break easier than standard grain patterns.

For example, when I was applying Birds Eye Maple, the knots or “eyes” caused splits in the veneer when under pressure. When I initially tried to veneer a board with Birds Eye Maple, I had 7 huge splits in the veneer, vs the same board which I later veneered with walnut. The walnut had a simpler cathedral grain pattern.  It only resulted in 1 split in the grain.

Cathedral Figured wood pattern on teak

Wood Figure in more Details

Birds Eye

Birds Eye Maple, old and new veneer

This type of figure often occurs in maple.  Therefore, you will often only find it sold as Birds Eye Maple.  Other forms of bird’s eye is very rare. 

The cause of bird’s eye forming within a tree is still unknown.  There are theories that it may be a fungus or infection, but there is no conclusion.

Bird’s eye is recognizable by its small circular or elliptical “eyes” scattered around the wood surface.  The circular pattern is small in nature and often appears 3d in dimension and are most often darker than the surrounding wood.

These eyes are areas which should be taken into consideration when working with bird’s eye figure, as they have a tendency to split around this unique grain pattern.

Chipped birds eye veneer on stonehill drinks cabinet

Burl

Burl Figured Walnut

Also known as Burr wood.  This type of figure comes through in a variety of wood types.  Most typically in Walnut, Ash, European Elm and Poplar Trees. 

The cause of Burl figure is from a deformed, wart-like growth on a tree’s trunk or a branch. This can be caused by injury or infection.

The result is a recognizable highly unique wavy, twisted, swirling grain pattern. It’s a chaotic grain pattern.

Burled walnut cabinet

Crotch

Crotch or flamed figured mahogany

This figured wood often comes from mahogany or walnut trees and the recognizable Y pattern is created when a branch meets up with the tree Trunk.  The unique grain figure is recognizable by the different grain directions meeting up to form a Y pattern.

This figure is also referred to as flame or feathered pattern as the resulting figure can look like both.

Due to the tight grain pattern the wood can exhibit contrasting colours.

Sanding Crotch wood is more difficult due to the different grain directions intersecting.

Crotch , flame or feathered figured mahogany

Curly

Curly figured Maple wood

Not to get confusing, but curly wood figure can also be referred to as flame, fiddleback or tiger stripe figures. Curly figure is recognizable by the grain pattern which appears to ripple like water across the surface of the wood.

While it can be found in a variety of woods, it is most common in maple and oak. 

The oak variety of curly is often referred to as tiger stripe. 

The cause of curly figure is not fully understood.  There are a variety of different causes which are attributable to causing this unique figure, such as injury, gravitational stress which compresses the wood, genetic or environmental factors.

The curl can appear very tight, small waves to looser and larger pattern.  It has a 3d appearance but when touched will be smooth.

Curly figured wood

Cathedral

Cathedral grain pattern

This is probably the most common figured wood that you will come across.  It is produced by cutting lumber with the plain or flat sawn technique. When cut at a slight angle the wood grain produces “peaks”.

Cathedral figure is most recognizable by the peaks of wood grain that resemble the windows of European gothic cathedrals. This type of pattern can be found in nearly all wood types as it is created by how the wood is cut. You could argue that it is not therefore a type of figure but rather a pattern produced by the style of cutting.  Either way, it remains a widely recognizable pattern that decorates furniture.

Cathedral walnut veneer, coated with clear shellac and top coat

Final Thoughts

There are countless types of figured wood, as unique and numerous as there are people on the earth.  However, many of the types can be lumped together into groupings.  The importance of knowing the common types of wood patterns can help you in your furniture restoration and refinishing.  By understanding the patterns, how the wood grain intersects, it can improve your sanding and finishing work.

Furthermore, if repairs are required, replacing a type of figure with similar figure can ensure that the furniture you are working on does not lose it’s value.

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