The wood commonly known as Box Elder may also be known by other names, including but certainly not limited to: Ash Maple, Ash-leaf Maple, Black Ash, California Boxelder, Boxelder Maple, Cutleaf Maple, Cut-leaved Maple, Manitoba Maple, Negundo Maple, Red River Maple, Stinking Ash, Sugar Ash, Three-leaved Maple, and Western Boxelder. In Russia it is known as American Maple.
The reason for the profusion of names is because the tree that yields Box Elder wood is widely distributed across large areas of the North American continent, and therefore was widely encountered and used by various people over time, many of whom named the tree and the wood without realizing that others had already named it something else.
The common names do give us some hints about the scientific identity of the wood and also some clues about its potential uses and characteristics. The common names that involve “maple” are quite accurate. Common names that include “maple” most likely came about because the wood, being pale, resembles true “maple” species, and in fact, Box Elder is scientifically classified as a “true maple” being of the Acer genus, which those familiar with botanical names for trees and woods will immediately recognize as the Maple genus. The specific identity of the wood commonly called Box Elder is Acer negundo.
The specific term “box elder” came about because the whitish wood resembles that from true Box trees, which are actually Eucalyptus sp., and the elder part of the name refers to a similarity between the leaves of the A. negundo and true elder, or elderberry, bushes and trees. The leaves of A. negundo are quite different from any other species within the Acer genus.
A. negundo has a much wider distribution across North America than that achieved by other Acer species. A. negundo can be found ranging from as far north as the southern Canadian prairies to as far south as Guatemala. A. negundo is especially common throughout the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys while also ranging throughout that Appalachian region as far south as the panhandle of Florida. In addition, more isolated populations can be found in the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Very small stands exist in parts of Nevada and more sizable amounts may be found in northern California, particularly along the Sacramento River valley, including, perhaps, in Chico.
A. negundo was commonly planted as a shade and park tree, although it is relatively short lived and tends to develop multiple trunks; neither characteristic is favorable in a shade tree, but A. negundo will grow, and even thrive, in climactic conditions, including drought, that other Acer species cannot tolerate. This widespread planting would prove to become problematic when it was discovered that the airborne seeds of A. negundo readily self-propagate. In some areas of North America, as well as in parts of Germany, the Czech Republic, and even Australia, A. negundo has become a pest invasive species. Some populations have also been established in China.
Due to both natural spread as well as human intervention in the form of transplantation, A. negundo, while native to North America, is now a global tree species.
For the sake of simplicity, I will from here forward refer to A. negundo as Box Elder.
The sapwood of the Box Elder is usually a pale white, but on occasion yellowish and greenish hues are present. In those cases, Box Elder can resemble Yellow Poplar. The heartwood of the Box Elder is almost always a grayish to yellowish brown. Frequently, both the sapwood and the heartwood will feature red or pink streaks. This red stain, which greatly increases the desirability of the wood, is produced by the tree’s natural defenses when wounded. The most commonly accepted theory is that this compound is meant to inhibit the growth of a fungus, Fusarium solani, which commonly colonizes the tree. Much of the reddish coloring becomes a more subdued pink or brown/gray upon drying.
It is important to note that this particular fungal colonization is not destructive or deadly to the Box Elder tree, rather it represents a symbiotic relationship. However, other fungal infections in other tree species can certainly prove quite fatal. It is also interesting to note that other types of “damaged” woods generate excitement and increased price in the timber market. Examples include spalted wood, Ambrosia Maple, Rainbow Poplar, and blue colored wood damaged by the beetles (Dendroctonus rufipennis) that are devastating the forests of North America.
The grain of the Box Elder wood tends to be straight, the texture is fine, and the growth rings are most always faint and non-distinct. The endgrain of the Box Elder contains medium pores in no specific arrangement. Mineral deposits are occasionally present.
Box Elder, while classified as a hardwood, is quite soft. It is easily one of the softest of the Acer species trees. This softness limits it use to mostly utility purposes.
As a side note, the terms “hardwood” and “softwood” have no necessary relation to the measured hardness of the wood. Instead the terms refer simply to deciduous versus evergreen. Deciduous trees are all classified as “hardwood” and evergreen trees are “softwood.” Balsawood, for example, is technically a tropical hardwood.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Box Elder exhibits poor durability against rot and is rated non-durable or outright perishable. In addition, the heartwood is subject to heart rot and insect, including termite, attack.
In most respects, Box Elder is easy to work with both hand and power tools. This is not surprising due to its softness. You wouldn’t expect a dulling effect on tools or end grain tear-out with a soft wood with a straight grain. However, that said, as is the case with any particularly soft wood, it can be challenging to achieve clean cuts because the wood will tend to “fuzz” due to the softness of the wood. This tendency usually requires a great deal of detailed sanding to overcome.
Box Elder does turn nicely. It also glues and finishes quite well.
Some users report a distinctly unpleasant scent when the wood is wet, but this effect mostly subsides once the wood is dry.
Box Elder is not widely available in either turning blank sizes or as lumber. You are most likely to find it in pen blank format, especially if the reddish “flame” pattern is present. It is also common to find Box Elder Burl available in pen blank sizes as well as in whole burls, or substantial pieces of the burl.
Many times, Box Elder burl wood is “stabilized” which means it is treated under pressure with resins to harden the wood and make it easier to work with. This resin is frequently vividly colored to counter the generally plain coloration of Box Elder. These stabilized blanks are widely available from wood turning supply vendors such as Woodcraft, Penn State Industries, Craft Supply USA and many others.
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. In addition, I am pleased to also recommend both NC Wood and Got Wood? as excellent sources of domestic hardwoods.
Unfortunately, none of the above dealers currently offer any Box Elder in any size or format. I was able to locate quite nice pen blanks from Griffin Exotic Woods out of Colorado. Cook Woods in Oregon is selling several large pieces of burl in its natural state. Also, although I tend to not like using the service, Ebay frequently has sellers offering Box Elder turning blanks at various prices both for immediate sale as well as through auction.
More often than not, Box Elder is directly harvested by hobbyists who wish to work with the wood, provided they live in areas in which the trees grow wild on public land. If you live in one of the many areas in which Box Elder is found, a great source might well be tree service providers who may on occasion trim or even remove Box Elder trees once planted as decorative specimens. Box Elder may also become available when wooded land is cleared for construction. It always pays to remember that wood is available from sources other than wood dealers.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for Hickory, 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 near their home in person to hand pick nice pieces at a comfortable price.
The uses in which Box Elder is commonly employed are all ones in which its relative softness and lack of durability are not impediments. Box Elder that displays the reddish streaks termed “flame box elder” are often employed in turned objects such as pens and small bowls. Box Elder may also be used to make other small ornamental objects, frequently through carving because the wood is soft. Other common uses are much more utilitarian and include, but are not limited to: wood pulp, charcoal, boxes, and crates.
Box Elder is not listed with the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices nor is it listed with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
I 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.
Box Elder, along with other maples in the Acer genus, has been reported to cause skin irritation, runny nose, and asthma-like respiratory effects. In addition, there are also the risks associated with long-term exposure to any type of wood dust.
Appropriate protective equipment is recommended, as always, when working with this, or any other, wood, unless you have worked with the wood before and are certain you are not sensitive to it. Standard precautions should always be taken to reduce excessive exposure to wood dust.
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 Box Elder.
My Personal Experiences
This was my first time working with Box Elder in bowl blank sizes. I had worked with Box Elder burl on several occasions in pen blank format, but those were the stabilized types and that doesn’t allow for any real experience of what it is like to work with the actual wood because in those cases it is mostly the resin that is being worked.
I certainly did find the Box Elder to be quite soft. This made it easy to rapidly cut through it, but that would leave quite rough areas, especially along the end-grain. I tried to use feather light cuts, removing vanishingly thin shavings, but even with that careful treatment, I still had to make a concerted effort to achieve a smooth finish with multiple grits of sandpaper, working down to 800 grit ultimately. Granted the wood sands easily and quickly because it is so soft, and yet, the amount of sanding required, easy though it might have been, was increased because the wood was so soft. So, easy to sand but sanding would have been minimized had the wood, and therefore the sanding as well, been harder.
I was quite happy though with the finished appearance of the wood. Of course, I especially enjoyed the pieces with the pronounced reddish streaking, but I also enjoyed the pieces that were not as colorful because they had significantly attractive grain swirls and patterns that were nicely visible, as well as the occasional coloration, aside from red, that included gray and black areas, most likely formerly reddish areas that had aged.
The Box Elder took a pure shellac finish quite nicely and I think it enhanced, rather than obscured, the natural coloration of the wood. I realize that Box Elder is commonly referred to as “plain” and while it isn’t highly colored, I don’t think that means the wood is without interest. I think the Box Elder looks quite nice with a simple finish that allows the natural beauty, color, and figure of the wood to shine through.
In fact, I so enjoyed the experience and the end results of working with the Box Elder bowl blanks that I am actively seeking out additional examples to work with in the future. I think anyone with an interest in turning wood could do much worse things than give Box Elder a try in the near 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!