In the face of mounting global environmental challenges, we need to make the most of the sustainable raw materials that are available to us in considered and thoughtful ways. The woods chosen by consumers, designers and manufacturers have a direct impact on the health of our forests, which play a crucial role in mitigating climate change. In an era dominated by plastics and over-consumption, the use of hardwoods is essential because of its low impact on the environment, the fact that it can last for generations and can also be easily recycled. But also as a material with a deep history and particular tactile qualities, hardwoods can achieve distinct and beautiful results.
Into the forest
From Maine in the North to Louisiana in the South, hardwood forests cover vast areas of the American landscape. Hardwoods are not a planted resource, so what exists in the forest arose naturally. Careful selective harvesting over generations has ensured that there are trees of all sizes and ages, creating a more dynamic environment which is vital for biodiversity and carbon sequestration. The timber choices we make have a long-term impact on the health of forests, with an over-reliance on a narrow selection of wood types causing serious stress on supply chains and the environment. In the case of the American hardwood forests, maple, cherry and red oak accounts for over 40% of all the standing timber. It’s vital that they aren’t overlooked. With their net volume increasing by 63 million m3 each year, the volume of timber used to make all the pieces in the exhibition can be replaced by new growth in the time it takes to read this paragraph.
As they grow, trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. That means timbers naturally store carbon, a quality that is vital for regulation of the climate. When harvested, the carbon from this process is locked in the timber while in use. This has a positive impact on the carbon footprint of products made with wood.
American red oak (Quercus species, mainly Quercus rubra)
Warm, grainy, tough and bendy.
Reaching a height of 21m, with a trunk diameter of 1m, red oak is the most abundant species in America’s hardwood forests. Named for the colour of its leaves in the fall, this classic oak wood has a light brown sapwood, and a heartwood characterised by attractive warm reddish-pink tones. Red oak is strong, straight grained, coarse- textured and distinctive. Its porosity makes it a premium wood for bending and staining.
Find out more about American red oak
American hard maple (Acer saccharum, Acer nigrum, Acer rubrum)
Light, fine, hard and incandescent.
A close cousin of European maple and sycamore, American hard maple can reach heights of 23–27m, with a trunk diameter of 75cm. Hard maple is a cold-climate species favouring the northern states, it has a creamy white sapwood and the heartwood is light to reddish brown. It polishes to a smooth hardwearing finish making it a favourite for sports floors across the world. It is also the primary source of maple syrup.
Find out more about American hard maple
American cherry (Prunus serotina)
Rich, smooth, vibrant and flexible.
A medium-size tree, reaching a height of around 20m, cherry has a relatively short rotation, taking less time to mature than other hardwoods. The narrow sapwood is a light pinkish colour, while the heartwood varies from rich red to reddish brown, and darkens on exposure to light. American cherry had a long period of popularity in furniture making; it became less popular but is on the verge of a revival.
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American tulipwood (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Lively, creamy, stable and strong.
American tulipwood trees are huge and identified by their tulip-like flowers giving rise to the name. Commercially tulipwood is one of the most prolific hardwood species from the U.S. hardwood forests and is unique to North America, having been eliminated in Europe by the last ice age. The sapwood is creamy white whereas the heartwood can vary from pale yellow, or brown, and even green to purple in extreme cases. It has extraordinary overall strength properties relative to its weight, making it highly suitable for structural applications.
Find out more American tulipwood
With special thanks to Onesta timber for their kind donation of the timber used in the project.