by George R. Walker
The barn loft was hot and dusty – and especially so after digging through piles of rough lumber for wide cherry boards at the bottom of the stack. We took a break outside for some fresh air and sat on a pile of firewood. I didn’t notice it right away, but the surface on the freshly split wood was deeply corrugated like a washboard and, to my horror, the whole woodpile was curly maple – wicked-good curly maple. The farmer seemed as disgusted as I was, but for a different reason. He held up a chunk of it and said, “This junk is a beast to split, burns good, but hardly worth the trouble.”
I’ll be the first to admit that figured maple, which includes tiger, curly, quilted and fiddleback grain, is ornery. The wavy grain and hardness is a challenge to split, carve or smooth with cutting tools. On top of that, the figure can be elusive: wild in one section of a board then suddenly going dead with no apparent reason.
Yet, if you’re willing to face off with it on its own terms, it offers some of the most spectacular beauty of any domestic hardwood. The figure can sometimes fool the eye and appear three-dimensional, swirling and shifting as you walk around it. With the addition of a dye or stain, the striped grain can pop with dramatic patterns. Curly maple is my wood of choice, and over the years I’ve gathered a few tricks to maximize its potential.
Blog: Read more from George R. Walker on his Design Matters blog.
In our store: “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design” and “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design: Moldings,” DVDs by George R. Walker (Lie-Nielsen).