Hardwoods and softwoods can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between once the wood is off the tree and in the lumber yard. That’s because whether a wood is a hardwood or a softwood has nothing to do with its hardness or its density. We’ll get to the distinguishing feature in a moment. Today we’re on to ash.
Ash was one of the most common woods used in the making of baseball bats. Many of today’s professional baseball players continue to use ash for their bats. It is flexible enough to help increase bat speed, one of the important factors in becoming a good batsman at the plate.
Ash is also a common wood used to make tool handles – axes, sledgehammers, and such. Even though Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie “Pale Rider” preferred a hickory handle, ash is the more common. Maple and bamboo are also woods used in the making of baseball bats. About 25% of all baseball bats are made of ash, though.
Today, ash is a common wood used in the making of furniture, as well as cabinets, flooring, tools (as we said), and sporting equipment like baseball bats. It is soft enough to make it easy to work with but hard and durable enough to make it a favorite for furniture.
Let’s take a harder (pun intended) look at ash from the woodworker’s perspective.
Where Does Ash Grow?
Ash trees like cold and damp growing conditions. With at least 60 different ash species in the world, it is not an uncommon tree to find in those growing environments. Not all of those species are common in the US or North America, but about a dozen and a half types of ash wood can be found here. They include:
- Green Ash. Growing to a height of about 40 – 50 feet, green ash trees produce a slightly softer wood than other ash species with a medium texture similar to oak, which makes it easy to work with in the woodworking shop. Its heartwood is a light to medium brown color, with sapwood a beige to light brown color.
- White Ash. These trees are considerably taller, growing upwards of 120 feet, and producing a lighter color, whitish to tan, than green ash trees. The wood has a coarse texture and straight grains. This article will be speaking of white ash.
- Black Ash. The shortest of the ash trees, black ash, has a darker-colored heartwood that leaves little room for lighter-colored sapwood.
- European Ash. Common in Europe and Asia and also appearing in North American forests, it is also a light to medium brown color and works easily for the woodworker.
Furniture makers use all of these ash varieties in their craft, and it’s not uncommon to see flooring of ash, also. It’s a hard and strong type of wood that lasts well in these uses.
White ash is a very common variety here in the US and North America. It can be found as far west as the eastern Rockies, across to the east coast, and from Florida north to Quebec. It’s extremely common in and native to Vermont, the next state over from us and our favorite spot for snow skiing (the snow is almost here, and we’re excited).
Ash trees are somewhat easy to spot. Their branches grow directly across from each other, uniform up the tree, and their leaves are compound (grouped joined on a stalk that connects to a woody stem, and the leaves have smooth or finely toothed edges. Their height, with white ash growing up to 120 feet, is pretty easy to see, too.
The Scandinavians held that the ash tree branches cradled the gods and were sacred. Their trunks served as a path to earth, and the roots provided passage to the underworld. They called ash trees Yggdrasil – in Norse mythology, this was a sacred tree, the Norse Tree of Life. It was central to all life and everything else that existed around it, including the “nine worlds.”
Are Ash Trees Environmentally Friendly?
Ash trees can be somewhat invasive in that they can grow almost anywhere, especially where you find colder climates part of the year and moist growing conditions. However, in recent years, ash trees have been under attack.
Sometime during the past decade, the Emerald Ash Borer snuck into the US. This wood-boring insect loves to dine on ash trees. Once infected, an ash tree will survive only a few years, and the ash population is being harmed significantly as a result.
It is not allowed now, by government quarantine, to transport ash trees out of certain parts of the US so as to limit the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer. Ash trees have become significantly endangered by this pest, and if it is not brought under control, it may be difficult to source good ash wood for furniture-making or baseball bats. Perhaps hickory will become the more commonly used wood in the MLB.
Ash Wood Grain
As we mentioned earlier, ash wood grain patterns tend to be straight and even. The grain, though, can be affected and altered by the infestation of the Emerald Ash Borer pest and become what is referred to as “figured” wood.
Spalted Ash is prized by many woodworkers for its unusual patterns and beauty. Spalted refers to the staining of wood by the growth of fungi that infects dead wood and creates veins that run through the wood. It is quite beautiful to see, especially in turnery (lathe wood), but it does affect the structural integrity of the wood.
You would not likely see any spalted ash wood furniture and no spalted ash wood flooring or baseball bats. But you would see turned pieces like bowls and boxes, items that would not need to support weight.
Hardwood or Softwood: Where Does Ash Fit?
We’ve written often about hardwoods and softwoods, and you can find the answer to which about black walnut, alder wood, mahogany wood, pine, pecan wood, and aspen wood.
Hardwoods come from angiosperm trees – trees that flower like oak and walnut. They are deciduous trees and lose their leaves in the fall and winter, only to leaf out again in the spring and summer. Appearing as pores in the trees, vessels carry water throughout the tree to nourish them. Other examples of hardwoods include beech, maple, teak, mahogany, and even balsa.
Softwoods come from gymnosperm trees, evergreen conifers like pine and spruce. They do not shed their leaves, although they will drop their cones since they contain seeds for new growth. They present no pores as hardwoods do, and instead, their fiber includes cells that conduct water throughout the trees for nourishment. Other examples of softwoods include cedar, juniper, and redwood.
Softwoods represent about 80% of the wood we use. They grow faster than hardwoods and therefore are more prevalent. Hardwoods, on the other hand, take years to grow to usefulness in woodworking endeavors. This difference makes hardwoods more expensive, generally than softwoods.
Ash trees are angiosperm trees, deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the fall and winter. Therefore, they are hardwoods.
How Does Ash Wood Compare on The Janka Scale?
The Janka Scale measures the hardness and density of wood by testing its ability to withstand denting. A half-inch steel ball is pressed into the wood being tested, and the amount of that pressure to embed the ball halfway through the wood determines its rating on the scale.
Here is how ash wood stacks up (again, pun intended) with other woods on the Janka Scale:
We included some of the softwoods we’ve written about, as well as other commonly used hardwoods by woodworkers, to give you an idea of where it stands – harder than cherry, walnut, and red oak.
Other Characteristics of Ash Wood
In addition to being a hardwood and fairly dense, it is shock resistant and stands up well to denting and scratches; it will change color over time as all woods do, with darker ash wood becoming lighter and lighter ashwood becoming darker; and it is fairly pest-resistant except for the aforementioned Emerald Ash Borer, a pest that presents a serious danger to ash trees.
For some interesting facts about ash wood and ash trees, here’s a video that tells you about the trees and how the wood was in the past, and how it is used today.
If you haven’t worked with ash, you might want to use it in a project sometime. Kitchen cabinets, bathroom cabinets, desks, or if you have a lathe, perhaps your own baseball bat or hockey stick comes to mind. It’s a beautiful wood that takes staining very well and produces a lovely appearance when finished carefully.