Willow isn’t the most popular wood even among the most adventurous woodworkers. Although it’s hardwood, it’s extremely soft and easily succumbs to weather elements.
Willow wood items also scratch easily and are therefore difficult to maintain. Nevertheless, it has applications in furniture making and small specialty wood items.
Moreover, willow firewood is highly revered. So, let’s take a moment to better understand this wood species. What is willow wood?
What is Willow Wood?
Willows also called sallows or osiers, are hardwood trees from the genus Salix. The family comprises more than 400 species of deciduous trees and shrubs, mostly found in cold and temperature regions of the northern hemisphere.
Willow trees originate from China but are found in many moist, acidic soils of the northern hemisphere, including Europe, Asia, and North America
The trees weren’t originally popular for woodworking. Indeed, most of their application were socio-cultural rather than economical.
For instance, ancient Chinese believed that willow leaves could ward off evil spirits. So, they frequently put a few leaves on their doorways.
However, later, the plan gained medicinal applications. For instance, ancient Egyptians used willow bark and willow stems to treat wounds, fevers, and provoke urine.
The willow tree is a lightweight hardwood that grows to about 27 meters tall. The diameters typically grow to about a meter. The trees mature within 20-30 years.
The lumber has characteristic white sapwood and a pinkish heartwood, almost like poplar. The sapwood varies in size, depending on the willow species, growth conditions, and age of the tree. Older logs have growth rings.
Willow wood is generally straight-grained, with a fine, uniform texture. However, interlocked or irregular grain Most species have a density of 340 to 450 kg/cubic meter.
It’s a moderately strong wood, often compared to poplar and ashwood. For instance, it scores 570 lbf on the Janka scale whereas poplar scores 540 lbf. Of course, ashwood is much stronger.
However, willow is harder on the side grain less stiff, and more resistant to tangential splitting. Unfortunately, willow wood is not the most workable wood. First, many willows easily crack during machining because of the low density.
Additionally, preserving willow trees is a nightmare because the wood traps plenty of moisture within its grains. So, you need very sharp tools to cut it. Fortunately, it takes traditional finishes exceptionally.
Willow lumber has endless applications. Woodworking applications include furniture making, making small specialty wood items, and the manufacturer of boxes. However, it’s also used in flutes, poles, sweat lodges, wood veneers, tannin, fiber, and paper.
Of course, other parts of the willow tree have other uses. For instance, willow branches are commonly used as utility wood and make good firewood.
Willow Wood Species
There are more than 400 species of willow trees. However, many of them are rare. The most common species that you’ll find in the US are;
- White willow (Salix Alba)
- Black willow (Salix Nigra)
- Weeping willow (Salix babylonica)
- Other willows (coyote willow, red willow, and scouler’s willow)
White Willow Wood Properties
White willow, Salix alba is not very common in the US. Instead, it primarily grows in Europe and western and central Asia. Nevertheless, here’s what you need to know about it;
1. Color and texture
White willow has a tan to pinkish-brown heartwood and yellowish-white sapwood. However, the sapwood isn’t always clearly or sharply demarcated from the heartwood.
The two may overlap. It has a straight grain with a fine to medium uniform texture.
2. Physical properties
It’s a lightweight hardwood with good shock resistance. The average weight of dried white willow lumber is 400 kg/ cubic meter.
It’s also a moderately hard tree with a Janka rating of 570 lbf (2530N) and fairly strong (modulus of rapture 8150 lbf/square inch equivalent to 56.2 Mpa). White willow has a crushing strength f 3900 lbf/square inch, equivalent to 26.9 Mpa.
3. Rot and insect-resistance
White willow is rated non-durable to perishable. This tells you that it easily rots and decays. The main reason is that although it dries quickly, it traps lots of water.
So, eventually, the concealed water can cause rot and decay. White willow is also prone to insect attacks.
Read about: Is pressure treated wood rot resistant?
white willow is a low-density wood with poor machining characteristics. Although it’s soft and therefore easy to saw, its poor drying qualities often result in numerous defects that make the wood difficult to season.
Therefore, its dimensional stability is questionable. It warps and shrinks too easily. Interestingly, it finishes excellently.
White willow’s poor workability properties make it generally undesirable among woodworkers, resulting in poor prices.
Moreover, it’s not very common in the US market because alternatives, such as the Black Willow, are more popular. So, the prices are moderate.
Is White Willow Sustainable?
Yes, white willow is sustainable. There’s a large forest cover under white willow in Asia that isn’t at risk of depletion. Moreover, the demand for white willow isn’t so high as to put it under threat.
White Willow Wood Uses
White willow has many applications. It’s used in making baskets, utility wood, crates, carvings, cricket bats, furniture, and small specialty wood items.
Black Willow Wood Properties
A more popular alternative to the white willow, especially in the US, is the black willow. So, what’s the black willow?
1. Color and texture
The black willow is a reddish or graying brown hardwood, sometimes with darker streaks, that grows in the eastern US.
It has a tan to white sapwood that overlaps the heartwood and boasts interlocked or irregular grain patterns with a medium to a fine uniform texture.
2. Physical properties
Black willows are slightly denser than white willows at 415 kg/cubic meter of dried lumber. However, they’re almost 25% softer, at 430 lbf on the Janka scale.
Black willow lumber is also slightly weaker than white willow (7,800 lbf/in2 vs. 8150 lbf/in2). However, it has s higher crushing strength (4100 lbf/in2).
Like white willow, black willow lumber is highly susceptible to rotting. It’s rated non-durable to perishable, which warns you that any contact with water is a big risk.
It’s also susceptible to decay and insect attack/ Therefore, you should find ways to protect the wood before use.
Unfortunately, the low density combined with interlocked grains makes black willow rather difficult to work. For instance, machining black willow results in fuzzy surfaces and tear-out during machining.
The lumber is also characterized by numerous drying defects that make it difficult to season. The only silver lining is that it glues and finishes exceptionally well. It also steam-bends well.
Black willow is a little more common in the US than white willow and has a higher demand too.
Nevertheless, its prices are highly economical because willow generally doesn’t have a high reputation among woodworkers or in building and construction.
Is Black Willow Sustainable?
Yes, black willow is a sustainable tree species. Tree species only come under threat of extinction when they are in high demand or exist in areas with significant deforestation. Black willows don’t face threats from either source.
Black Willow Wood Uses
Black willow is mostly popular for its medicinal uses. Although many people use it for firewood, willow firewood produces tons of creosote in the pipe that can cause a fire.
Other uses of black willow include utility wood crates, furniture, carvings, and other small specialty wood items.
Weeping Willow Wood Properties
The weeping willow tree is native to extra-tropical Asia and belongs to the famous family of crack willows. It’s extremely popular because it has the most medicinal properties among willow trees. Weeping willows also bear many cultural functions.
Weeping willow lumber has a characteristic growing gray heartwood and a light, whitish sapwood. As with other willows, the demarcation between the sapwood and heartwood is often blurred.
2. Rot and pest-resistance
Unfortunately, weeping willows are prone to rotting and pest attacks. The ease of rotting is primarily because the wood dries too quickly, trapping significant moisture.
It also decays easily. Common weeping willow pests include gipsy moths, borers, and aphids. Wood treatment can slow down degradation.
The workability of weeping willows isn’t very different from other willow species, especially those in the cracking willow family.
These woods crack at the slightest hint of stress. Therefore, machining weeping willow wood is very difficult. Moreover, a low density and high moisture content make the wood difficult to preserve.
Weeping willow lumber isn’t very common in US lumber yards because not many woodworkers and construction contractors desire them in the first place.
Worse still, the poor mechanical properties make them unvalued in many sectors. So, it’s one of the cheapest wood lumber. Nevertheless, they make excellent decorative plants.
Are Weeping Willows Sustainable?
Yes, weeping willows are sustainable. They are under no threat of depletion. Moreover, the trees grow fast and replicate easily.
Weeping Willow Wood Uses
The weeping willow is used to treat mastitis, toothache, and scalds. Additionally, it’s used in furniture making and small specialty wood items.
Is willow good wood?
Unfortunately, it’s not a very good wood for woodworking. A 12% moisture content and density of just 27.1 pounds per cubic foot makes it one of the lightest and “wettest” woods. These qualities make willow lumber prone to cracking and generally difficult to preserve.
Why is willow so expensive?
Actually, standard willow lumber isn’t expensive. On the contrary, it’s one of the most affordable types of lumber in the US. However, the English willow can be a little expensive because there are limited supplies and it needs the right conditions to grow.
What is willow wood good for?
Willow wood is used in basketry, utility wood, crates, furniture, carvings, bats, and other items. Of course, many people also use willow wood for firewood. The naturally wet wood catches fire quickly. However, willow wood produces lots of creosote.
Is willow a hardwood
Yes, the willow tree is deciduous, perennial hardwood with good shock resistance. However, it’s one of the more lightweight hardwoods with a density of 340 kg/cubic meter and 450 kg/cubic meter.
What does willow wood look like?
Willow wood has white sapwood, which varies in width. Meanwhile, the heartwood is light brown to pale reddish, though some species have grayish-brown heartwood with darker streaks.
Why is willow so hard to find?
The willow tree can be hard to find because of its growth requirements. It’s a water-loving tree that mostly grows near natural water bodies. Secondly, successfully planting willow trees and maintaining them to maturing is a tough ask.
Can you burn willow wood?
Yes, you can burn willow wood in an outdoor fireplace if it is adequately cured (dried). Although it produces less heat than other woods, willow catches fire quickly and the fire rarely goes out. However, be warned that burning willow wood treated with pesticides may be harmful to your health.
Though not the strongest or most durable wood species, willow wood has many applications in woodworking. For instance, it makes beautiful furniture, crates, and wooden boxes.
Just ensure to treat it properly to protect the wood from pests and shield it from weather and other elements. Fortunately, it takes traditional finishes exceptionally.
Now, check out our article “How to apply UV protection wood finish” for expert guidance on effectively applying a wood finish that provides UV protection.