Sassafras

Geographical Distribution

The wood commonly referred to as Sassafras is known to botanists as Sassafras albidum. S. albidum is a tree of the eastern temperate areas of North America. More specifically, S. albidum is native to a large area of the eastern portion of the continent ranging from: southwestern Maine west to New York, extreme southern Ontario, and central Michigan; southwest in Illinois, extreme southeastern Iowa, Missouri, southeastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas; and east to central Florida. Sadly, S. albidum is now extinct in southeastern Wisconsin, although not all species maps accurately indicate this loss, but the species is extending its range into northern Illinois.

In the far northern areas of the range, S. albidum is often little more than a shrub but in other areas, particularly in the Great Smoky Mountain region of the Appalachian Mountain chain, S. albidum can achieve impressive sizes. It prefers moist and well-drained soil and S. albidum is often a “pioneer” species that retakes abandoned farmland, providing valuable forage and cover for animal species that are also recolonizing the formerly cleared area.

S. albidum wood is considered too lightweight and brittle for most commercial applications, outside of the former practice of extracting oil, about which more will be said later, so it tends to not be subject to overharvest.

Left to itself S. albidum spreads via underground suckers and in some large stands of the trees may all originate from one parent that derived from seed. This tendency can, however, cause the species to become invasive in some instances.

S. albidum should not be confused with “Blackheart Sassafras,” native to Australia and Tasmania, which is no botanical relation at all, being classified as Atherosperma moschatum. I have seen at least one vendor selling “Sassafras” that originated in Australia, which is highly unlikely to be S. albidum, instead most likely being A. moschatum.

From this point onward, for sake of simplicity and common understanding, I will refer to S. albidum simply as Sassafras.

General Characteristics

The heartwood of Sassafras is reported to be of a medium to light brown color. In some cases, the heartwood features an orange or olive hue although this is not consistent across all samples. As is so often true of colored woods, the color of Sassafras tends to darken with age and exposure to ultraviolet light, especially sunlight. This tendency can be slowed but never completely halted by keeping pieces made from Sassafras out of direct sunlight and through the use of UV-inhibiting finishes.

The sapwood of the Sassafras tree is generally a paler yellowish-brown color but the sapwood is not always clearly demarcated from the heartwood.

For woodworkers who are familiar with other domestic woods, Sassafras bears a very strong resemblance to both the various derivations of Ash in the Fraxinus spp. as well as the much rarer Chestnut of the Castanea spp..

The grain of Sassafras wood is uniformly straight. The texture of Sassafras is rather coarse and uneven.

Sassafras end-grain appears in a ring pattern and it is porous.

Sassafras, despite being a lightweight and low density wood, features excellent resistance to rot, being rated as durable to very durable. This resistance accounts for some of the common uses in which Sassafras was once employed.

Sassafras Interior

Sassafras Interior

Working Characteristics

To the delight of those woodworkers who have the opportunity to work with  Sassafras, it is quite easy to work with both hand and machine powered tools.

Sassafras, despite its relatively high oil content, also glues, stains, and finishes quite well.

Sassafras also features excellent dimensional stability once dried; pieces made from it should demonstrate long-term stability in service.

To add to its delight as a wood-working material, Sassafras has delightfully distinctive and spicy odor when being worked. Spoiler alert: Sassafras smells distinctly of the very best old-time root beer!

Pricing and Availability

Unfortunately, Sassafras trees are rarely of a size that would warrant large-scale commercial exploitation so only limited quantities in fairly small sizes are available. As might be expected of a wood that is only available in limited quantity, prices should be anticipated to be in the moderate range for a domestic hardwood.

I always recommend both West Penn Hardwoods and Bell Forest Products as excellent sources of both domestic and exotic hardwoods. I have had multiple dealings with both vendors and have always been very satisfied.

Unfortunately, neither of those favored vendors is currently offering Sassafras.

I have also recently discovered two additional vendors with whom I have had considerable dealings and I have always been satisfied. Both of these vendors specialize in the hardwoods of the southern United States and it wouldn’t have surprised me if they offered Sassafras wood.

The first vendor is NC Wood, based, as the name implies, in nearby North Carolina and the second are the gentlemen over at Got Wood? in, also nearby, South Carolina. Sadly, neither of these vendors is currently offering Sassafras wood either, but it wouldn’t hurt to check with them occasionally, or sign up for sale announcements, as the woods they offer entirely depend on what logs they receive for milling, so they could have Sassafras at some time but probably only for a limited time.

I obtained my Sassafras turning blanks from a vendor that is relatively new to me, WoodTurningz of Indiana. Despite the cutesy name, which tends to annoy me, this company does offer a decent selection of bowl blanks although the focus of their business seems to be pen making. I have found a few species from this outfit, including Sassafras, which I have not found from any other vendor. They provided me with good products and excellent service so I can certainly recommend them.

It is not uncommon for many popular hobbyist woods to be of limited commercial interest and as is the case with other hobbyist woods, most of the Sassafras that is available has been harvested by residents of its native growth areas who use the wood themselves but who also process relatively small amounts for commercial sale. Unfortunately, sources such as Ebay or Etsy are often the only available sources of such woods, although I have my reservations about such sources.

Close to home is CAG Lumber which offers dimensional lumber sizes of Sassafras at $10 per board foot. While dimensional lumber isn’t usually much good for turning, aside from pen blanks, the 8/4 they offer could be used as platter blanks.

Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for Sassafras, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms to capture all the possible listings. I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer in person to hand pick pieces at a comfortable price.

A significant problem with using Woodfinder is that many vendors are listed for woods that, upon further investigation, they do not offer. I don’t know if perhaps once they did and they didn’t update their listings or if some vendors use a standardized list of woods that include most everything conceivable with the idea that once you land on their page you will find something you want to buy even if you didn’t know it beforehand. It happens to me all the time!

Sassafras Exterior

Sassafras Exterior

Uses

In its native areas, Sassafras often serves as a utility lumber for such mundane purposes as boxes and crates. Another common utility use is as fence posts because of Sassafras’s high resistance to rot.

Sassafras has also been used, again in its native areas, in boat building and furniture manufacture.

It is also popular, and has been since pre-European times, as a kindling wood because the high natural oil content makes the wood easy to light.

Aside from the wood itself, it is the bark and the oil derived from the bark of the tree and especially from the root bark, that causes Sassafras to be so well known and loved. For the native peoples of eastern North America, the oil from the Sassafras tree was something of a panacea and this belief in its medicinal value was transmitted to the European settlers. In fact, the acquisition of Sassafras oil and wood was often a cause for contact between natives and settlers. The oil of Sassafras became popular especially as a flavoring in medicines for children to mask strong and unpleasant tastes and odors. Ultimately, Sassafras bark oil became the basis for the flavoring of a uniquely American beverage, root beer.

Another culinary use of the Sassafras tree wood is file powder, an essential ingredient in Creole cuisine of Louisiana, especially in the preparation of gumbo as it is the file powder that thickens the stew.

The oil of Sassafras was eventually identified chemically and named safrole oil. It has been used as insect and other pest repellent. Unfortunately, it is also a precursor chemical for the manufacture of the drugs MDMA (Ecstasy) and MDA, a similar compound. Because of this, the manufacture and shipment of the oil is highly regulated.

Most damaging of all to the reputation of Sassafras and it derived oil was the classification of the safrole oil as a human carcinogen, which caused most all of its traditional culinary and medicinal uses to be banned by law or voluntarily replaced, although the strictest of the laws was repealed in 1994 and safrole oil remains in use among some hobbyists brewers of root beer although commercial manufacturers use alternative flavorings.

Sustainability

Sassafras is not listed as being in any way threatened or endangered by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices nor does it appear on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Sassafras is not subject to special restrictions by any United States government agency.

I realize that inherent in working with wood is the killing of a part of the natural world that may be slow to return and if I become deeply concerned about this fact, I will have to find a new hobby. I hope that such a time does not come to pass or at least not any time soon. I am also very confident that the vendor from whom I purchased my stocks of Sassafras sourced their material legally and responsibly. In part because I am concerned about legally and responsibly obtained wood, I am reluctant to buy from sellers outside of well-established and known vendors. I am highly unlikely, for example, to purchase exotic wood from auction sites, such as Ebay, because of uncertain sourcing and documentation, as well as the potential, even likelihood, of material being misidentified in order to achieve a higher selling price.

However, due to the commercial scarcity of some domestic woods, resorting to auction sites such as Ebay or Etsy may be the only way to obtain some desirable domestic, or in some cases exotic imported, species that are not routinely commercially harvested. The potential risks of buying in these marketplaces have to be balanced against the desire to work with a specific species of wood. That is inherently an individual decision.

I also realize that many, if not most, wood workers do not have endangered species lists memorized, therefore I think it worthwhile and important to do even a small amount of research before purchasing any lumber, domestic as well as imported, to be certain of the potential impact you are having, even in a small way, on threatened or endangered populations. This information is easy to come by and takes only minutes to locate through any Internet search engine, including those you can access on your phone as you are standing in the lumber yard or store. Unfortunately, you simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered.

Health Hazards

Severe negative health consequences associated with exposure to Sassafras are rare, but the wood has been reported to act as a sensitizer in some individuals. The most commonly reported negative health effects include nausea and respiratory irritation.

The potential for cancer development, although a weak association, has been previously noted in relation to the derived oil but this is not a known or suspected side effect of working with the wood itself, only with the ingestion of large quantities of the derived oil, safrole.

In addition, the long-term negative effects of exposure to sawdust of any species are well documented.

Appropriate protective equipment is always recommended when working with this, or any other, wood, exotic or domestic, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it.

Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database. Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.

Fortunately, I experienced no negative side effects when working with Sassafras.

My Personal Experiences

My piece of Sassafras was relatively small for a bowl blank, measuring about 6”x6”x3”. It was fairly pale and rough in appearance, frankly not highly promising to start with. But once I cut it round on the band saw and smelled the delicious and distinctive odor, I was pleased to proceed.

The wood was lightweight and soft, being about half the hardness of Red Oak. However, unlike some softer woods, it cut quite nicely and very cleanly to reveal a delightfully swirling figure highlighted by the fairly coarse texture of the wood.  My Easy Wood Tools worked wonderfully well with Sassafras.

Because the Sassafras was soft it finish-sanded quite easily. The delightful smell is most pronounced during sanding, and I would imagine that the smell is even more powerful if the blank were to be green; mine was quite dry.

Once the final sanding was completed I applied my standard “go-to” finish, Shellawax, in this case the liquid version since the piece was relatively small, and I was quite pleased as usual with the results.

The Sassafras piece is very smooth to the touch, very light-weight for its size, and has a nice consistent pale coloration that is only slightly yellow. As noted before, it is highly reminiscent of Ash, which I have also worked with before.

I honestly enjoyed working with my small piece of Sassafras and I am quite pleased with the results I achieved with this relatively unusual, at least in the wood-turning shop, species of native North American hardwood. If I should come across a supply of Sassafras at a reasonable price I would be happy to work with it again in the future.

As always, I wish all my readers a great experience in whatever their wood working interests happen to be and to those who like working with lathes especially, do a good turn today!