A few weeks ago I stopped by The Hardwood Connection in Sycamore, Illinois. It’s a combined retail hardwood lumber dealer/woodworking store/cabinet shop/gallery. And it’s one of the best run shops I know about. Okay, I’m a little biased since I worked there for a short time in the early 1980’s when I was teaching high school woodworking in a neighboring town, but it is a cool place.
It’s always fun to stop by and see what owners Ken and Barb Burtch and their employee, Dave Smith, a former student of mine, are up to. This time Ken brought out a piece of wood and asked me to identify it. It had the coloring of walnut, but not the grain pattern or open grain. (In the photo at left, the “natural” wood is on the left and I sprayed some clear lacquer on the right side. That’s a little strip of end grain I cut off laying on top.) It looked a bit like well-aged cherry but had the grain pattern of curly maple. And it wasn’t stained or dyed as I could see the color went all the way through it. It had a slight bit of a “burnt” wood smell to it.
Roasted hardwood starts out as very dry soft maple, yellow birch, or poplar and is then heated (roasted or “carmelized”) at extremely high temperatures (440 degrees Fahrenheit) in a vacuum. It’s then rehumidified so that it’s once again dimensionally stable — and it helps create a uniform color. It was originally designed as a wood for outdoor projects since it’s very resistant to insects and rot, but it seems to me you could use it on indoor projects as well.
Apparently Australian aborigines started heat treating wood 10,000 years ago. As the story goes(?), in the 1990’s a kiln owner left some wood in the kiln and it was accidentally overheated. They were going to throw it out but someone decided to experiment with it and found it had some interesting characteristics. A French company got a patent to the process and started licensing it to North American companies in the late 1990’s. For more about the process go here.
Though roasted hardwood has the color of walnut, it’s much more consistent and predictable in color. Without any sapwood it makes grain matching easier when building up panels. And the cost is considerably less per board foot than walnut.
I got my hands on a piece of roasted soft maple (see photo) and first cut a small piece off the end to make sure the color went all the way through (it does). I’d heard that the wood is “brittle” but I didn’t notice any problems. I tried jointing and planing the piece and discovered it works just about like I would expect from soft maple. It sanded okay, but the dust was very fine and I would strongly suggest wearing some kind of dust mask or respirator. I also quickly sprayed a coat of lacquer on part of my sample board and it brought out the color, again like walnut, but perhaps a little darker. (For a larger view, double click on the photo at left.) It will be interesting to see if it will lighten over time (like walnut) or darken (like cherry). My guess is it will stay the same.
I hope to make a complete project out of roasted hardwood some day.
Ken told me that he now is selling roasted hardwood and if you would like more information and pricing, e-mail him at KBHardwood@aol.com or call him at 815-895-8733.