Decay and rot is all around us. Fungus is everywhere and just awaits the
opportunity to take advantage of the right conditions to grow and affect us in
many ways. No, I'm not starting a great novel about the social and political
conditions of our times, although
that could be my next article if this one doesn't work out. What I am
talking about is what happens to wood. Wood decays. Wood gets colored. One
of the outstanding effects, sometimes, of this wood decay and coloration is what
we call Spalt.
Spalt doesn't always occur when a tree dies and neither
does it always strike all specie of tree equally either. When it does occur, it
can be a beautiful and wonderful thing for those able to use or at least
appreciate such a thing. Spalted wood is always unique. No two pieces are
exactly the same. Now, I grant that you might not want a nicely
spalted piece of maple making up your kitchen cutting board. There's a time and
place for spalted wood.
Here's how I will be structuring this article. First,
I'll discuss what Spalt is and what causes it. Second, I'll mention a few things
about how to work with Spalted wood especially from a woodturning perspective.
Third, I'll give some tips and tricks on how to spalt your own wood. On with the
Spalt, What Is It?
As I alluded to above, spalt is a a result of wood decay. That's partly
true. Spalt is the combination of a wood decay and a wood coloration
mechanism. Brown Rot is something different with it's own fungus's and
mechanisms. With that said, let's make this really simple at this
point. Spalted wood is caused by a specific fungus. We can separate the
two major groups of fungal-created wood coloration associated with Spalt into the White Rot fungus' and
the Blue Stain fungus'. I'll keep things easier and not mess with the
fungal scientific names. If you really want them, look them up.. We'll just call the fungi by their types of decay and
coloration. I'll also not go into the other types of decay and coloration. These
are out of the scope of spalting but are very interesting in their own
right. Often, mineral stain and reactionary stain are confused with the
coloration defined as spalting. Did I mention that there are lots of
different wood colorations? Ain't nature COOL ?!
White Rot is a decay mechanism and gives those great thin, quite distinct
lines with broad lighter colored areas between them. Blue Stain does not
contribute to the decay of the wood but does give, contrary to the single-color
name, anywhere from yellow, orange, red, blue and some blacks and brown
coloration. These colors are often found near, and most often just
underneath, the bark of the tree as
opposed to nearer the heartwood. They are also not usually very widespread but
tend to be blotchy and quite vibrant. This contrasts nicely with the White Rot
type of coloration.
White Rot is caused by the wood decaying. Left to continue too long, the
White Rot decay will turn your wood into a nicely colored piece of mush and be
basically useless for woodworking much less woodturning. Sure, you can
sometimes beef up those "punky" areas that are spongy with some thin epoxy,
CA glue, common White PVA glue, or other wood stabilizers / hardeners and make them usable. Many times,
though, large enough pieces just flake off of the too-decayed wood and doesn't
even make good firewood. The key is to catch that White Rot at that stage where
it gives the greatest amount of coloring but yet isn't too soft to work
well. And how do we know when that is? See the next section for
So, what makes those fine lines? The White Rot fungi groups do
that. Those are called "zone lines" and are caused by
incompatible colonies of White Rot fungi coming together and, I guess, not
liking the togetherness. Hey, it's not just us humans that are like that! Those
zone lines are laid down by each colony as a barrier to surrounding colonies.
The slightly different coloration on either side of those zone lines are the
results of those fungi colonies moving through the wood. White rot attacks the
cellulose, lignin (although not actually "eating" it), and other
chemicals in the wood giving the wood an off-white appearance.
The cause of the Blue Stain coloration is not exactly known. We do know
that it is caused by a fungal invasion but we're not sure what the one, if there
is just one, mechanism of that invasion. Some think that the fungus enters
the wood at or near an injury area such as a bird pecking or driven nail or
whatever else that causes injury to the tree. The tree reacts to this
injury and it's that reaction along with the presence of the specific fungi that
causes this coloration. Others see the Blue Stain fungi invading simply
via a convenient entrance point, probably along with bugs or other animals, and
waiting for the right environmental conditions to begin affecting the wood.
Blue Stain generally affects the wood nearest the bark (sapwood and never the
heartwood) and spreads out much more than it runs deeper into the wood.
This means that, as a woodturner, you're likely to loose this great color in
your shavings if you're not careful. This Blue Stain color is usually a
far more vibrant color when compared to the White Rot color. Letting this Blue
Stain type of fungi grow is just fine. It's not a decay fungi and won't
harm the wood. It'll only grow larger although it often doesn't get very
widespread in one large clump.
Sycamore. Showing both White Rot and Blue Stain (the
orange & red blotch)
Same piece but showing endgrain
Now we know that Spalt is caused by fungus. We also know that what we
call Spalt is actually the combination of a decay fungus called White Rot and a
coloration-only fungus called Blue Stain that can produce more colors than just
blue. So, why do we want all of this fungus amongus? How should I work
it? What do I do with it?
Spalt: Natures Artist
Part of the appeal with artistic woodturners of this craft (errr ...Art?) is
what Nature provides us with our major material of choice ... wood. Every
piece of wood is different and thankfully so. This is no more apparent
than in the spalted wood with it's greatly unique patterning. We enjoy the
beauty and unexpected showing of burls, knots, figures, bark inclusions, and
other treasures coming from the wood that we, as woodturners, can't
control. We can control, to some degree, how those Nature's features are
displayed and used in our woodturnings though. The same holds for wood
spalt as well. We can get some small idea that spalt is contained in our
blanks and can take steps to bring out it's best effect in our turnings.
Spalted wood, by the vary nature of the decay part of it especially, behaves
differently in all phases of woodturning. Let's explore these..
The only reliable way to determine if a piece of wood is spalted is to
actually cut into it. Looking for mold and mildew growth on the outside of
the log isn't a reliable method although the presence of molds give a good
indication that the conditions are appropriate to support the growth of the
decay fungi. Mold and mildew do not cause spalting. They are a form
of fungi but typically just grow on the surface of the wood and produce a
terrible, circular, faded surface stain. You don't want to encourage mold or
mildew growth. See below...
after finish turning and a mineral oil/beeswax finish. Yuck!
It must be noted that a tree need not be laying on the ground to be spalted.
I've found many standing trees that are spalted. Look for trees with their
bark still on. Those trees are more likely to have the Blue Stain
coloration. You needn't cut too far into the log to determine if it's
spalted. Start near the base of the tree, or where the base of the tree would
have been depending on how you've gotten your log, and cut up just a couple of
inches. If there's spalting in that piece, then it'll start near the bottom and
work its way up the tree. Often, it'll continue up into the primary canopy
several dozens of feet up.
Now that we've got a piece of spalted wood, how do we make the best use of
it? This is the hard part! Unfortunately, or should I say
"fortunately" for the beauty of it, spalting isn't consistent
throughout the diameter or the length of the tree. The sporadic patterns
created by the fungi can dive deep into the piece or spread out wide and seem to
almost disappear but reappear further up the piece. About the best you can
do is look at both ends of the piece you're working and make a guess as to
whether it's going to continue through it and about where it'll run.
Trying to cut away the surface of the wood continually deeper will just waste
what color is available especially the Blue Stain coloration present, if any.
The White Rot coloration runs parallel to the grain of the wood and is not
always very deep into the heart of the tree. Therefore, spalted woodturned
pieces look better on spindles and bowls, platters, and other faceplate turnings
that run with the grain rather than against it. Say you're making a natural
edged bowl with the top of the bowl facing the bark side of the tree. Most
spalting will be running through the sides of the bowl and not along the length
of it. You won't get the most effect from the spalt that way. The spalt
will often be broken and not continuous lines that the eye can follow. Often, a
bowl with the bark side of the tree near the base of the bowl will look better
because of the way spalt tends to run from the outside of the diameter of the
log to the inside. It'll appear as if the "flames" of the spalt lines
are running up the sides of your bowl. You'll capture more of the Blue Stain
coloration this way too. The bottom of the bowls often end up with more of
the spalting than the sides. When cutting your spalted logs down the middle
(taking the pith out), keep on cutting closer and closer to the bark until you
get a good indication of spalt on that side too. Many times, you'll see
woodturned pieces with beautiful spalting on one side and then absolutely
nothing on the other side. This can be nice for the contrast but I
personally think that that piece of wood wasn't used to the best degree as it
could have been. Either something smaller should have been made from it or a
repositioning needed to be made to get that spalt as uniformly present on that
piece as possible. Again, you don't know exactly what you're going to get until
you get down to when you're nearly done. That's part of the fun of woodturning,
Spalted wood machines differently than unspalted wood. Mainly,
I'm talking about the White Rot decay right now. The Blue Stain doesn't
affect much in the way of machining or finishing. White Rot, being a decay
process, causes changes in the wood fibers and these can cause difficulties in
working it. Be aware that the normal working characteristics of a given
specie of wood gets changed by this decay process. There will be intermitent
areas that are softer and harder than normal and doesn't always follow
throughout the entire piece. You must constantly adjust to the changing
conditions even more so than normal. For woodturners, this is represented
by terrible tearout and fuzzy cuts on otherwise fine working woods. Extra care
in using a very sharp tool and light cuts helps as does wetting/filling those
areas with waxes, oils, glues, or a thinned amount of the final finish.
This will help to stabilize and stiffen those partially decayed areas enough to
cut it cleanly. Still, on very large zone lines, the woodturning gouge
will tend to bump on that much softer area and this will cause problems with
uneven and chattering cuts. Instead of "rubbing
the bevel" as is the usual process for light cuts, try "floating
the bevel" instead. This will keep the bevel of the tool from dipping
slightly into those zone lines and causing the jumping of the tool.
Sanding spalted wood has it's own problems. Much like pine and
softwoods behave when sanding, the alternating soft and hard spots caused by the
decay process especially at the zone lines cause uneven sanding. You'll
notice that there will be slight lines standing above the other areas because of
this. Those zone lines will easily wear away while sanding and leave an uneven
surface. Power sanding or hand sanding with the grain and along the length of
the zone lines will help with this. Bleeding can occur on the larger zone lines
as well. Sanding the dark lines will cause the dark color to streak across the
surface. There's not much you can do about this other than sanding by hand
parallel to the lines in those areas where it has bled to wear away the dark
Drying of spalted pieces tend to be generally easier but those zone lines
like to crack. Because of the decay process, much of the moisture is either
already released or is easily released as you turn it. This makes the drying
process easier because you don't have to worry as much about a great many cracks
or warping. This isn't to say that those issues are completely gone ... just
tend to be better with spalted wood. The one area where drying causes more
problems is with the zone lines (do we see a pattern here with the troublesome
zone lines?). Cracks, if they are going to develop, like to run along
those zone lines. It makes sense, though. Those lines are weak and are easist to
crack. Regardless of whether those lines are in the endgrain areas, seal them
with whatever method you use (wax, emulsions, paper, etc.) too.
Finishes behave a little differently with spalted wood too. Oils are great
here! What might appear as fairly bland spalting (how can spalting be
considered bland in any sense?) as you are working it, really pops out with the
use of oils. Of course, the use of oil will darken the spalted areas
greatly and can be good or bad depending on what you want. I especially like
pure Tung Oil for spalted woods. Not only does it greatly define the color and
fine lines of the spalt, it also is a drying oil (albeit slowly!) that gives the
decayed areas some strength once dried. Care must be used when using any kind of
water-based finish. Remember the bleeding caused by sanding mentioned
above? It's even worse with water-based finishes. Grain raising is also
more of a problem with spalted woods too. Because of the uneven hardness and
dryness factors of spalted woods, finishes penetrate or soak differently.
Blotchiness is the result. The use of a sanding sealer or a thinned final
finish helps a lot here. Take time to let this really soak in and then
wipe off the excess so you'll get a good base in the wood before your final
finish. This is always a good idea with any wood but especially for spalted
At this point, let me say that there's been some concern over the health
effects of working spalted wood. There's not been overwhelming evidence of
people getting sick but there has been a little. The problems seem to
arise from the spores of the fungi causing respiratory problems especially for
those with preexisting conditions such as asthma or certain allergies. This is
very much like the sickness encountered by farmers working their hay and the
fungal spores present in them. Proper drying of the wood before working it
will stop the growth and kill the fungi present in the wood BUT the spores will
still remain and could cause health problems. I strongly suggest
that you discuss the possible exposure to fungal spores with a suitable health
professional and determine if you are at unusual risk before working with
spalted wood. Regardless, I would recommend taking precautions such as
using adequate dust collection equipment and wearing a personal respirator or
mask. Protect yourself as you see fit.
Come to me, my fungal friend
Now, we know what spalting is and how to work it. How do we MAKE
it? Give it up. It's not about you this time. It's about
Nature. This is one of those rare moments the we, as woodturners,
craftspeople, artists or just wood-butchers must defer to the natural processes
of the environment, microorganisms, soil, and just plain fate. You can't
"make" wood spalt but you can "encourage" the formation of
it. I know, it's just a difference in what I think two different words
mean. Let's cut to the chase,
There are lots of "recipes" for spalting wood that can be found all
over the internet; in a few books and even from magazines touting their own secret
(how secret can it be!) recipe. Using every imaginable ingredient they can think of that
makes their daffodils grow like bamboo, these recipes appear, at least to their
creators, to take a wood that is un-spalted and make it spalt. Why would
you waste perfectly good beer on this? How much effort do you want to give
to pressure treating oak with 500 pounds of sugar? Got some leftover
MiracleGrow? Sprinkle that in! It MUST be the Argentinian Oak leaves that
they covered the logs with that made the difference. I'm sure of it.
<g> Note the sarcasm in my writing?
Spalting occurs in many species but most commonly in the birches, beeches and
maples. Buckeye, elm, basswood, sycamore, apple and the hickories spalt too, but
it is relatively unknown in red and white oak although it does occur and can be
quite dramatic (see below). Walnut spalts too but you can't see it too well because of the
dark color. Look at the light-colored sapwood in Walnut to find it there.
|Spalted White Oak
I'm not going to give you a recipe for spalting wood. There's no such
reliable method of producing spalted wood on a large scale. It's either
that or I don't want to give my commercial secrets away! The only thing
I can do is to help you "encourage" the natural formation of spalt
(White Rot and Blue Stain) in acceptable woods.
The overriding factor to help you spalt wood is to make your friend, fungus,
happy. Remember, fungus, specific fungi, cause the decay and coloration
that we call spalt. Encourage the growth of that fungus and you'll be more
apt to get spalting. Actually, the hardest part of spalting wood is not
getting it to start in most cases but it's getting it to stop before the wood is a bunch of
So, what does fungus want? Pretty much what we all want ... a nice
place to live and grow; an environment not too cold or hot, too wet or dry;
enough friends so that we can tear the place down with the party and then move
on. Oh, wait, I've gotten off track ... back to the fungus. Here are the
best growing conditions for the fungus we're trying to help grow.
White Rot: The ideal conditions for this fungi include temperatures
from 70 to 90 F; moisture content around 30%; lots of oxygen; plenty of good
wood to live in and chemicals IN that wood to eat.
Blue Stain: This fungi type needs temperatures over 60 and under
150 F to thrive; moisture content between 20 - 30%; a good oxygen supply;
nutrient rich food supply; access to bugs and other critters to bring the Blue
Stain fungi in.
The main factor for the formation of any fungi is moisture. Keep it
moist, but not waterlogged, and there will be fungal infection. The key is
to get the right kind of fungus to grow. Some areas simply won't support
spalting. Fungal spores are found almost everywhere but it's the specific type
of fungus for spalting that we're concerned with and there must be a threshold
of fungus present to kickstart the spalting process. If one area doesn't seem to
produce spalting, move the wood to another area and try again. Some areas
are better than others as well. The best I've found, without building a special structure, is in a
valley where water frequently runs in heavy rains but yet is covered with lots
of organic matter (leaves, manure, bark, etc.). Old horse corals are great too although I suspect about
any animal coral will work! Keep the logs with the bark still on and in contact
with the ground. Keep the logs with the ends in contact with the
ground. The tree's natural vascular system will transport the fungus up
and throughout the entire log section up to several dozens of feet high. It can
do this quite rapidly too so that there's little difference between the amount
of decay between the bottom (next to the soil) and the top of the log. I
regularly (several hundred logs a year) do this on logs up to 16' in length! Don't bother with storing
logs with the bark next to the ground. You'll just end up destroying the
protective bark on those sides and letting the log dry out too quickly through
the ends. It's tough to get enough moisture into the log without introducing
Brown Rot (see the beginning of the article) and destroying it all. You
can seal the top of the log to help keep moisture loss to a minimum if you
want. Keep air movement to a minimum as this decreases moisture
content. The fungus isn't going to come from the air. It'll come from the ground
matter and the bugs/animals/birds but the specific fungus has to be there in the
first place in order to cause the spalting process.
So, how will you know when the spalting is "done" ?
Take very small slices off the bottom of the log and look at it. Simple as
that. That's how I get most of my turning stock. If you do get some
good spalting on the bottom, try cutting a bowl blank out. If you have
good spalting at the top of that blank then keep going. If you notice that
the spalting tapers off or just isn't present at that level, you can simply put
the rest of the log back down onto the soil and let it continue. The time
it takes depends on the environmental conditions. In tropical climates, it
can take just a few weeks with some woods. I've found that, around the Ozarks
area, it takes about 6 weeks to spalt hard maple in optimal conditions.
Sometimes it takes 3 months or more. You just never know and must check it
every so often.
The long view (or, effects of long-term spalted wood use)
[Fill this in]
The absolute best place to find spalted wood is at a woodturning store
that stocks wood (especially by us!). <grin> You'll know what you're getting and not
have to wait around for months to maybe ... perhaps ... get something useful and
pretty. Best reason of all is that I make money selling to places like
that with my own spalted woods. <bigger grin>
I hope this has helped clarify what spalting is and given some ideas about
how to use it and help it develop. There is a lot more information on wood
decay and coloration out there. I'll add some useful links below as I find them.
Etiology of Red Stain in Boxelder
General --Wood rotters
Forest Industries Publications
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|1/17/06 1:01:50 PM ... VERY much appreciated! No junk about formulas and mystical potions indeed. Just straightforward information on spalting. Thanks it was a help
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|6/6/06 8:00:44 AM ... Outstanding information. This answered a lot of questions for me. We're looking forward to another of your demonstrations sometime early next year. - Seth
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|7/9/07 6:53:20 PM ... New to wood turning, I begged friends for donations I could practice on. As luck would have it, all three logs brought to me were beautifully spalted. Even my most basic and clumsy products are getting rave revues, due to the wood patterns! Spalting hides a multitude of sins, at least to the untrained eye! Thank you for this very informative article!
|7/9/07 6:56:55 PM ... PS: None of your links are working. I'll return in a few days with hopes of getting to your other pages.
|7/20/07 3:37:02 AM ... Great resource very informative and well presented.
|12/28/07 7:08:02 PM ... A lot of research has been undertaken as well as personal experience to produce this enlightenment into spalting for others to refer to . Well done to all who contributed
|6/22/08 11:08:26 AM ... I have heard from many woodworkers that soaking the wood in a penetrating epoxy sealer [search Internet to find] can stabilize the wood, making it easier to turn. The rot process in woodstops, so that pretty-much arrests the fungal activity. The soft spots are toughened-up, but not brittle. I have seen some of the results and they are awesome.
|6/23/08 4:22:03 PM ... The previous post suggests stabilizing some woods with products like Minwax Wood Hardener and other epoxies or even CA glue. Who has that much money to spend to soak wood in that!? And, then, you are a plastic-worker instead of a wood-worker. Develop some skills in turning instead of relying on tricks and expensive fixes. By the way, great article! I've learned more from just reading it than the instructors and demonstrators at the symposiums.
|11/24/08 7:09:19 AM ... Thanks for that, Very Informative !
|5/7/09 6:25:27 AM ... Outstanding article!
Question, though: Do you have to treat the spalt before working, and if so, how?
I am a pen turner and I came across some wildly spalted Pecan...
Mark Turcotte, Kathleen, GA
|5/9/09 9:04:18 PM ... Good question, Mark. Generally, no, it's not necessary to "treat" spalted wood before working it. However, if it's a bit too "punky" or soft to work well, you might need to harden it up so it doesn't just disintegrate or break apart. You can do this several ways … commercial wood hardeners (minwax makes a good one), just plain white or yellow glue (maybe thinned so it'll soak in better, or even just CA (super) glue.
|5/22/09 10:15:14 PM ... great article verrry interesting
|7/16/09 5:17:19 PM ... cool
|9/8/09 8:44:52 AM ... Got Spalt?? Good article.
|12/23/09 6:44:24 PM ... I have made some kitchen and bathroom cabinets out of old growth Michigan Hard maple (4 foot dia logs). Some that had black spalted lines in them and some that did not. I applied 2-4 coats of brush on polyurethane to seal. After 3-5 years, I am seeing that black lines growing and new lines showing up in previously non spalted locations. The wood was dried down to 6% before use. I have one piece of a kitchen cabinet face frame that is 50 percent black across the 2" width. I am concerned that in another 20 years I will have a bunch of black cabinets that I will have to remove and destroy. I live in Michigan where we have a high moisture content part of the year. I too, like many others, appreciate the look of the spalting, but I am now second guessing the use of it. I can't remember ever seeing antiques or old furniture made from wood that was spalted. Did the old timers not use it for a reason? I have seen forums on how to stabilize the wood, which has been on how to stabilize the wood for machining. Is there a way to stabilize or kill the bacteria? Have others experienced this continued growth where it was determental?
|12/23/09 6:44:24 PM ... Very good questions and thank you for bringing up the subject of long-term usage of spalted wood. My response is going to be far longer than a comment section will allow (and, I think it's a great addition to the article itself!) so I'll be adding that section to the article in a few days. Check back around the first of the year, 2010, and I should have some answers for you. Thank you so much!
|2/2/10 10:36:30 PM ... Very informative.
|4/12/10 1:24:40 PM ... Great information. Thanks Your article is far better than all of the other science'y and technical descriptions out there. Thanks for keeping it readable!
|10/5/10 1:16:26 PM ... I just bought a spalted sycamore bowl (lovely markings )as a wedding present and wanted to know more about it. So thanks for the very full notes on the subject.
|4/23/11 4:43:14 PM ... I have asthma. I worked for two weeks making beautiful spalted maple vases. Then I became short of breath, fell into a panic attack, was transported to the ER via paramedic and stayed in the hospital with oxygen, IV's, respiratory treatments etc. for ten days until my lungs finally gave up all the mucus formed as a result of breathing the fungal spores released by sanding. I will no longer work with spalted anything! Please use a respirator if you do!
|4/29/11 1:13:24 PM ... 'I have asthma.' What on Earth are you doing sanding (anything) without some kind of dust collection or capture devices with an impaired respiratory condition? The spalting fungus' didn't have anything to do with it. The general dust itself caused it.
|9/12/11 3:43:59 AM ... Thank you, now I know what causes it and LOVE the white oak images
|10/18/11 8:36:03 AM ... I agree but what if i'm living in a place with few forests and I can't just go chopping of trees on a wild spalt chase?
|10/19/11 4:18:24 PM ... Give it a try and see if spalting will work in your area with leaves, lawn clippings, etc. You don't need to live in a forest either. Maybe go to a forest and sack up some leaves to use at home? Worst case is to buy spalted wood. I buy buckeye burl because it doesn't grow around here. Sad, but tis a fact of life if you want it.
|8/29/12 5:47:57 AM ... A luthier friend of mine is crafting an acoustic guitar for me. It is gorgeous! Very elegant, unique, he says the sound should be outstanding. Good article here, thank you!
|9/20/12 12:39:13 PM ... No more so than laying them on their sides. Termites don't care … much like Honey Badger. ;)
|9/20/12 12:39:13 PM ... You state to stand the logs up on end on the ground. Doesn't this invite termites?
|11/26/12 11:36:37 AM ... brilliant loved it very informative
|12/6/12 2:27:26 AM ... Thanks for the guide
|2/24/13 8:42:54 PM ... Very informative, lots of helpful tips for my drum making project!
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