I will admit it–I am a nerd. I like to watch “educational” tv shows where I learn random tidbits of information. One such show I watched awhile back was called Filthy Riches, on the National Geographic Channel. The show chronicles a few different so-called “blue collar” workers that make their livings from harvesting natural resources. One man caught eels, one man picked wild mushrooms, and a pair of guys actually had jobs digging worms. Who knew?
Another one of the jobs they highlighted was hunting tree burls. Now up until the point of watching this show, I was familiar with the term “burled wood” and knew what it was when I saw it, but I didn’t really understand where it came from and why it was so special. I learned all about burled wood though while watching the burl hunters on Filthy Riches. I get now why it’s so prized!
So, when I say “what is burled wood,” can you picture in your mind what I am talking about?
Let me jog your memory:
Now do you remember? Burled wood is that swirly-grained wood that is often used on modern-styled pieces or as an inlay on vintage chests and dressers.
But why is it special? And why have I become convinced that I shouldn’t paint any burled wood if I don’t have to?
Why is Burled Wood Special?
Most wood used for furniture is made out of long planks cut from various types of tree trunks–oak, cherry, maple, pine, etc. The grain in these woods is linear and runs in regular, somewhat-straight patterns.
Periodically however, a tree will develop a growth on its trunk that looks pretty gnarly.
That, my friend, is a burl. A burl is created when something disrupts the regular growing pattern of the tree–that something can be a fungus, bacteria, or plant virus. The tree remains generally healthy, but in this one section the growth becomes distorted.
While the outside of a burl may look pretty unappealing, the inside can be amazing. The normally straight-running grain of the tree goes crazy inside of a burl, twisting and turning to create all sorts of irregular and complex patterns.
Some types of trees tend to produce more complex grain patters in their burls, and as you can imagine, the more complex the grain pattern, the more sought-after is the burl.
So how does one go about getting a tree burl? Well, like I learned from the show, it’s not an easy process. Removing tree burls requires heavy-lifting equipment, and cutting the burl off the tree usually damages the tree beyond the point where it will recover. You can’t just go around cutting off tree burls and killing trees–you have to get permission from the person who owns the land, and usually pay them a handsome sum of money for the right to cut down the tree.
In summary–it’s not an easy or inexpensive process.
Besides being difficult to harvest, another reason tree burls are so special is because they cannot be artificially produced. No one has figured out how to “make” a tree grow a burl, so you have to wait for the luck of nature.
Also, it takes decades for a burl to grow large enough to provide enough surface area to make it usable. Tree burls are kind of like the diamonds of the forest–you can’t force them to appear, you have to wait for them to grow, and they aren’t easy to get to.
So since burled wood is such a rare and prized resource, it typically makes its way to furniture in the form of a very thin veneer that is laid over a lesser expensive wood.
This is a chest I picked up recently off Craigslist. The tops and sides of the piece are regular wood veneer, but you can see that a burled wood veneer was added to the drawer fronts. Adding burled wood veneer to only certain parts of furniture is a common practice, since it is very costly to wrap an entire piece in it.
So now that you understand a little more about how special burled wood is, let’s move on to my personal soapbox.
Why You Shouldn’t Paint Burled Wood Veneer
The more I have learned about burled wood, the more I have come to appreciate just how special it is to find it on a piece of furniture. Like pretty much everything else being manufactured these days, the typical quality of mass market furniture is nothing to write home about. It’s all very basic and made out of average materials that often hold no special character.
Adding high quality inlays or specially veneered pieces onto regularly-produced furniture these days just doesn’t happen. Just like older homes (even the inexpensive ones) were often built with great trim-work, built-in cabinetry, and lots of beautiful, large windows, everyday furniture made in past decades was often accented with high quality materials.
Today we have builder-grade houses and builder-grade furniture. If you want a new house with big windows, crown moulding, and built-ins, you have to get it built custom or be prepared to buy in a high-end subdivision. Similarly, if you want a new piece of furniture with any burled wood on it, be prepared to have it custom made or shop at some very high-end designer store to find it.
I think we will soon see the end of burled wood. It’s not economical enough to add onto “regular folks” furniture anymore, and most of us aren’t willing to pay thousands of dollars for a chest or dresser. So if you want to enjoy this beautiful distortion of nature, your best bet is to find a vintage piece.
The Ash Dresser I painted last April was covered in a burled-wood veneer–albeit not a very complex one– but burled wood nonetheless. Most of the veneer on the top and sides of the dresser was damaged beyond repair, but I was able to salvage the veneer on the drawers (you can read more about how I fixed those scratches here).
Now I tell people all the time who are nervous about painting furniture to not worry about hurting the wood, since it’s able to refinished over and over again. If you don’t like the paint, you can take it off and go back to stained wood!
That’s not the case with burled wood veneer though. Remember I said it is usually very thin? A burled wood veneer will likely not survive the process of being stripped and sanded. Once it’s painted, it is most likely gone for good.
So that is why I say that if you come across an old piece of furniture that has some burled wood on it, try to save as much of it as you can! Sometimes, like with my Ash dresser, you may only be able to save some of it, but don’t you think that it’s worth saving? Now that you know how amazing it really is?
Burled wood may not be your style, but if you find a great burled wood piece, consider passing it along to someone who will enjoy it before you decide to cover it in paint. Look at it this way, you can become a burled wood dealer 🙂
I’m not going to come after you or anything if you paint over burled wood veneer, but I sure would like to see these pieces (that are growing rarer by the year) survive.
Later this week, you can see my makeover of this chest I showed you earlier, so please be sure to stop back by! I hope you learned something new today and that you may look at furniture a little differently from here on out.
A thank you to Joe Rankin, author of this online resource, for supplementing my information on burled wood.