In the early stages of a project when you're just starting to consider materials, do you ever find yourself thinking, "Hmm, I bet a nice piece of rotten maple would be just about right"? If you're a woodturner, or any woodworker who's interested in exploring the visually exotic, you might. You'd be thinking about the unique figures and patterns that occur only in "spalted" wood.
Spalted wood isn't exactly rotten, but it's on its way. Spalting occurs in an early stage of the decay process, when various colonies of fungi stake their claims to a piece of fallen wood. The characteristic blue-black lines that run through spalted wood actually represent the lines of demarcation between incompatible colonies of micro-organisms. But the specific biological facts aren't what interest most woodworkers in spalted wood, it's the fact that nothing else looks quite like it.
One way to get your hands on spalted wood – obviously – is to go on a field trip and gather your own naturally occurring specimens. You can also give Mother Nature a hand and "spalt your own". Either way, it helps to have a little background information. Fortunately, there's no shortage of information on spalted wood, how to work with it, and how to make it. Here are a few resources:
If you access to Fine Woodworking's article archives (Taunton Press charges a nominal monthly fee for access to hundreds of articles) a good place to start is with sculptor Mark Lindquist's "Spalted Wood", which appeared way back in issue #7. It's still one of the best overviews of the natural spalting process, how it plays out in various species, where to look for spalted wood, and how to prepare it for use.
"Spalting, a Fungus Amongus" by Andrew Hilton covers everything from how spalting works to working with spalted wood to making your own – and it's free.
If you don't happen to have a hardwood forest handy, you'll be glad to hear that creating your own spalted wood isn't a difficult process. Read "Intentional Spalting" from the Woodweb Knowledge Base for great discussion of various methods for encouraging and controlling the spalting process. "Producing Spalted Wood", published by the Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory, offers a good overview and includes more technical information on the types of fungus involved in the process.
Finally, if you have a beautiful piece of spalted wood, but you're wondering whether it’s gone a little too far, you'll find advice on shore it up in "Strengthening Spalted Wood", here on the Rockler Blog.