I’ve always had the impression that ash is the Rodney Dangerfield of the hardwood lumber world. It just doesn’t get any respect. In fact, the most popular use for ash lumber commercially is to impersonate oak, a task that ash does quite well. This goes back a very long time in American furniture making. I’ve looked at several excellent examples of Golden Oak era antiques, only to find that the lumber was stained ash and not oak at all. Apparently, the Golden Oak era was before the truth in advertising rules.
Personally, I find ash to be a wonderful lumber to work with. It machines well, accepts stain and dye really well (if that is important to you) and is always available. I like to select my ash lumber to include both sapwood and heartwood. The light brown and creamy white colorations look great with a simple clear finish, and the interplay between the two can be strikingly beautiful.
Many folks like to stain ash lumber, and the species truly excels in this area. It can take some extreme color and still present its open grain “woody” look. For example, I once built a bathroom vanity for a couple from white ash. When I asked them what color they wanted the piece, they replied that they wanted it the color of cranberry juice. (This was not what I had expected...) A few tests with aniline dye later, we had the color and built the casework. With its black granite top and ultramodern fixtures, it was truly stunning.
Danger in the Forest
For as long as I have been woodworking, ash has been a good value, costing less than other comparable hardwoods. As Tim Knight mentions in his sidebar, this may become even more true in the near future. In 2002, the emerald ash borer was found in Michigan. It is a pest that has killed tens of millions of ash trees in Michigan alone and is spreading quickly. After Michigan, it was found in Ohio in 2003, Indiana in 2004, Illinois and Maryland in 2006, Pennsylvania and West Virgina in 2007 and Wisconsin, Missouri and Virgina in 2008. It is also found in southern Ontario, Canada. At this time, there is no means to stop the beetle other than to quarantine ash lumber from infected areas. Research continues and (expensive) single-tree treatment is newly available, but as of now, the infestation continues unabated. It is easy to understand why Tim and others fear for the survival of the Eastern ash forests.
That demise would be a truly sad event indeed. But for the short term, this situation will mean huge volumes of ash lumber entering the market, which will certainly drive prices way down. And while it may initially seem a bit cynical, I, for one, plan to take advantage of this while I can. Not just to get my hands on some wonderful lumber at really good prices, but to save a good supply for my grandchildren. As legacies go, it would be a lovely one to be remembered by.