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Figured Veneers

"Figured Veneers" was written by Jim Dumas the owner of Certainly Wood. This article first appeared in the July/August 1991 issue of Fine Woodworking magazine and is reprinted with their permission.

Although many wood species are available as plain sawn or quarter sawn lumber, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the vast range of grain figures available in veneers. Part of the reason for this variety is the high degree of control the veneer mill has in the way a log is sliced. Some grain figures are revealed or enhanced by being sliced in a particular way. For example, rotary slicing bird's-eye maple creates the most round, perfect eye figure. Woodworkers aiming to add a distinguished look to their work or elevate a project's overall appearance and value often want unusually figured or exotic veneers. But they don't always know what to ask for; sometimes the trade names of special veneers can be confusing. This is more of a problem when mail ordering veneer because you can't see what you're getting before you buy it.

The illustrations of distinctively figured veneers shown in the photos below are intended to acquaint would-be veneer buyers with some of the more common trade names for some conventional veneer figures. However, the names I've given in the captions aren't necessarily universal for two reasons. First, simple names for a few common figure types are barely sufficient to cover all the possible examples of figure in any species of veneer. Every tree grows a little differently and within a single flitch, you often find an entire range of figures. Second, veneer figure nomenclature varies from country to country and is even different among veneer sellers and users in different regions. I've seen plenty of veneer sold under the "wrong" name — wrong simply because it disagrees with my own veneer vernacular. In addition to the names listed and discussed here, there are some very unusual figure names, such as pippy (looks like measles), drapé (looks like draping vines), and plum pudding (looks like elongated dark plums). Other figures include roe, rippling and finger roll. More names come up now and then, and on a few occasions, I've even had to coin a new name for a veneer figure that defied classification.
bird's eye
BIRD'S-EYE - The name itself describes it best. Once considered a defect, the best bird's-eye flitches are now expensive and in demand. These veneers are most often rotary cut or half-round sliced (in an arc) to produce the most uniform distribution of nice round eyes. Bird's-eye is most common in maple (shown), but bird's-eye does rarely occur in a few other species.
FIDDLEBACK - An estimable variation of curly figure, this figure's name is taken from its customary use for violin backs. Logs for fiddleback veneers are quarter sawn to produce very straight grain with nearly perpendicular curls running uninterrupted from edge to edge. Maple, makore (shown), anigre and English sycamore head a list of about 12 fiddleback-prone species.
CURLY - Contortions in grain direction that reflect light differently create an appearance of undulating waves known as curly grain. Many species develop this figure, but most commonly maple (shown). Stump and butt sections of trees often produce a diagonal, staircase-like curl referred to as "angel steps" and a rolling curl figure that is called "cross-fire."
MOTTLE - Wavy grain combines with spiral, inter-locked grain to produce a wrinkled, blotchy figure known as mottle. The mottled figure may be scattered randomly (broken mottle) or appear as a regular checkerboard pattern (block mottle). Members of the mahogany family, koa, sapele, bubinga and African satinwood (shown) most commonly exhibit mottled figure.
bee's wing
BEE’S WING - Smaller and more intense than mottled figure, although structurally similar, bee's-wing figure is said to resemble that insect’s appendage when magnified. (I haven't actually compared them.) East Indian satinwood (shown) is extremely well known for having this figure, and it also occurs occasionally in narra, mahogany and eucalyptus.
QUILTED - Although greatly resembling a larger and exaggerated version of pommele or blister figure, quilted figure has bulges that are elongated and closely crowded. Quilted grain looks veritably three-dimensional when seen at its billowy best. It’s most commonly found in mahogany, moabi, maple (shown), sapele and myrtle and occurs only rarely in other species.
CROTCH - Cut from the juncture of a tree's main branches and trunk, crotch figures are often sub-categorized as flame, plume, rooster tail, feather or burning bush. All of these descriptive terms serve to convey the range of this figure’s appearance. Seldom found in larger sizes, mahogany (shown) and walnut species dominate the field of crotch veneers.
BURL - Growths on trees produce some of the most prized veneers. Usually available in smallish, often defective sheets, burls feature swirling grain around clusters of dormant buds, rings or eyes. Varieties include "cluster burl" or “cat’s paw burl." Redwood, oak, ash, madrone, elm (shown) and walnut are common burl species; exotic burls include mappa, thuya and imbuya.
POMMELE - This figure resembles a puddle surface during a light rain: a dense pattern of small rings enveloping one another. Some say this has a "suede" or "furry" look. It's usually found in extremely large trees of African species like sapele (shown), bubinga and makore. Some domestic species with a sparser, larger figure are referred to as "blistered."
peanut shell
PEANUT SHELL - When certain woods exhibit a quilted or blistered figure, they are rotary cut to promote a random, wild grain pattern as well. This peanut-shell grain creates a visual illusion similar to quilted figure: the veneer appears bumpy and pitted, when in fact it's flat. Tamo (shown), also known as Japanese ash, and bubinga are the two most popular examples of this figure.
SWIRL - This figure is a visually gentler version of regular crotch figure. As the name implies, the grain meanders and swirls around, often seeming to convolute and fold in upon itself. The densest portions of the swirl show up darker or shaded compared to the lighter surrounding wood. Swirl occurs in species including walnut (shown), mahogany, cherry and maple.
BUTTON - When woods with large medullary rays are quartersawn, the harder, shinier rays are more fully exhibited and show up as "snowflakes" or buttons on a straight-grained background. Some veneer species, such as white oak, lacewood (shown) and American sycamore, are more attractive when sliced to reveal this button figure.