The tree that produces the wood commonly known as White Ash is properly known as Fraxinus americana. The genus Fraxinus, which is in the larger Olive tree family, is quite a large one that includes some 45 to 65 named species, depending on which authority you refer to the number can vary quite widely.
Within North America, mostly in the north and eastern parts of the continent there are at least six species known, however, it must be noted that one of the those species, F. latifolia, commonly known as Oregon Ash, is native the north-western areas of the North American continent, the only Fraxinus species to be found there.
At least one common species of Fraxinus, F. excelsior, is native to Europe while yet another species, F. mandshurica (sometimes spelled mandschurica), hails from north-eastern Asia, including areas of China, Korea, Russia, and Japan.
Fraxinus is clearly a genus of global distribution and importance, although the vast majority of the species with Fraxinus are not commercially harvested.
The species we are most concerned with here, F. americana, like most of the North American Fraxinus species, is native to the northeastern areas of the continent but with quite a wide distribution to the south and the west. F. americana can be found from as far north as Quebec, Ontario, and far eastern Nova Scotia on Cape Breton Island, to as far south as northern Florida. The species can also be found as far east as Minnesota and southward to eastern Texas. There are some extremely isolated populations to be found in western Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. F. americana is also naturalized from garden specimens in Hawaii where it could be considered an invasive species.
While commonly referred to as Mountain, or Victorian, Ash, Eucalyptus regnans, native to southeastern Australia, where it is also grown on plantations, is clearly not a true Ash as it does not belong to the Fraxinus genus. There are no native Fraxinus genus trees in Australia nor in Africa. That there are none in Antarctica goes without saying, although I cannot speak to the possibility that a relative might once have grown there when the continent was warm and green.
For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to F. americana from this point forward as White Ash.
The heartwood of the White Ash ranges in color from a light to a medium brown. The sapwood, which can be very wide and not always clearly demarcated from the heartwood, tends to be beige or light brown. This color similarity between the heartwood and the sapwood is part of the reason that demarcation is not always clear. It also isn’t highly relevant as both the heartwood and the sapwood are utilized for the most common applications of White Ash.
White Ash features a medium to coarse texture that is very similar to the commercially important Quercus (Oak) species.
The grain of White Ash is almost always straight and regular, which heightens the appeal of the wood for utility purposes requiring strength, although on rare occasion moderately curly or otherwise figured boards can be found.
The end-grain of the White Ash features quite large pores, which coupled with the coarse texture, can make it difficult to achieve finely finished surfaces, which for most applications of White Ash doesn’t factor in any event.
Despite being quite dense and hard, slightly harder than Red Oak (Quercus rubra) in fact, the heartwood of the White Ash is rated as perishable to only slightly durable in its ability to resist rot. White Ash is also not resistant to insect attack. For these reasons, White Ash is either used strictly indoors or in outdoor applications where long-term structural integrity is not important.
White Ash is reported to work very well with both hand and machine powered tools. This is in large part due to the almost uniformly straight grain which reduces the problems associated with twisted grain, especially tear-out during plane operations.
For specialty applications, especially bow making, White Ash responds well to steam bending procedures.
Of relevance for most all wood working operations, White Ash glues, stains, and finishes easily with excellent results, provided that good technique and materials are employed consistently.
When stained, ash can look very similar to oak (Quercus spp.), although oaks have much wider rays, which are visible on all wood surfaces, even on flatsawn surfaces, where they appear as short, thin brown lines between the growth rings. Ashes, including White Ash, lack these conspicuous rays, so a well-informed observer will not be fooled regardless of how well stained and disguised the White Ash material happens to be.
Of course, every silver cloud has to have a downside lining somewhere, White Ash is said to have distinct and “moderately unpleasant” scent when being worked. I quote the “moderately unpleasant” as a terrific example of a euphemism. Honestly, just having made a bowl with White Ash, I can only describe the smell as being distinctly reminiscent of cat urine that has been allowed to ferment for a month or so. This isn’t “moderately unpleasant,” no my friend, White Ash smells simply rank and foul! I can only imagine how much worse it has to be when the wood is green.
White Ash is essentially the ultimate utility hardwood, hardly ever used for its appearance or in glamourous functions. White Ash commonly finds use as: a flooring material, in millwork, construction of boxes and crates, baseball bats, and other turned objects such as tool handles.
White Ash has excellent shock resistance, and along with hickory (Carya spp.), it is one of the most commonly used hardwoods for tool handles in North America. White Ash is especially prized for making the handles of shovels and hammers, an application where toughness and impact resistance is of extreme importance.
White Ash is among the least expensive utility hardwoods available domestically. As such it should compare similarly to oak in terms of price.
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.
I have also recently discovered and have had fantastic experiences with two vendors selling strictly, or mostly, domestic woods native to the Southeastern United States. Those vendors are NC Wood and TurningBlanks.net (Got Wood?) of North and South Carolina respectively.
Bell Forest Products was the supplier of my 8”x8”x3” turning blanks. These fully dried blanks retail for only $14 each. The largest and most expensive White Ash blank Bell Forest Products is selling is a whopping 10”x10”x3” for only $22. Other smaller sizes of turning blanks, as well as lumber and spindle blanks are available, all for prices mostly in the single digits.
West Penn Hardwoods sells White Ash for as little as $2.95 per board foot for dimensional lumber. They also sell spindle turning blanks, with none selling for more than $11.82 for a three foot length, with all other sizes being considerably less. West Penn Hardwoods is also selling guitar sets and bat dowels in White Ash as well as some limited supplies of Curly Ash lumber. Note that West Penn Hardwoods does not specify which species of Ash they are selling, so it could be any of the commercially harvested species, although the exact species is not likely to matter as most all Ash has similar properties.
NCWood often sells White Ash but they are currently out of stock. TurningBlanks.net does not routinely offer White Ash, but it is always worth a check as the species they sell sometimes varies according to availability in their local area, South Carolina.
While the four dealers above are personal favorites, White Ash is likely to be readily obtainable from other hardwood dealers, probably including one near you if you live in the eastern United States or Canada. If you don’t have a favorite supplier that you have worked with extensively in the past, by all means shop around for the best prices and the best selection to meet your particular wood working needs.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for White Ash, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms, including just plain “Ash” 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.
I did a quick check of Woodfinder and they list 91 dealers that claim to have White Ash in stock, however, in my experience, some dealers list woods on Woodfinder that they may have had in stock at one time, but no longer carry, having failed to keep their listings entirely up to date. It is always a hit and miss search process, but it is at least a place to start.
Whenever possible, obtain photos of the actual piece you will be buying or better yet, pick your blanks in person. This is especially sage advice when in the market for especially pricey pieces of turning wood, although this shouldn’t be an issue with White Ash.
White Ash 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 Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
White Ash is not subject to special restrictions by any United States government agency.
That said, most all Ash species are in grave danger from the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis), also commonly known by the acronym EAB, which is a green beetle native to Asia.
In North America the emerald ash borer is an invasive species, highly destructive to ash trees in its introduced range. The damage of this insect rivals that of the better known Chestnut blight and Dutch Elm Disease. To put its damage in perspective, the number of chestnuts killed by the Chestnut blight was around 3.5 billion chestnut trees while there are 3.5 billion ash trees in Ohio alone. Dutch Elm Disease killed only 200 million elm trees while EAB threatens 7.5 billion ash trees in the United States. The insect threatens the entire North American genus Fraxinus, while past invasive tree pests have only threatened a single species within a genus. Since its accidental introduction into the United States and Canada in the 1990s, and its subsequent detection in 2002, it has spread to eleven states and adjacent parts of Canada. It has killed at least 50 million ash trees so far and threatens to kill most of the ash trees throughout North America. The Green Ash and the Black Ash trees are most affected. White Ash is also killed rapidly, but usually only after Green and Black ash trees are eliminated. Blue Ash displays some resistance to the EAB by forming callous tissue around EAB galleries; however, they are usually ultimately killed as well. White Ash has been less affected by EAB due to its small population compared to Green Ash, which was planted in huge numbers as an ornamental. White Ash is not as commonly cultivated as an ornamental, therefore there are overall fewer of that species available for infestation.
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 White Ash 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.
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.
Multiple woods in the Fraxinus genus has been reported to cause skin irritation and a decrease in lung function. In addition, the standard risks posed by prolonged and repeated exposure to dust from any wood species also exists with White Ash and steps should be taken to avoid prolonged dust exposure. In addition, 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 White Ash aside from the ghastly smell.
My Personal Experiences
I decided to purchase some White Ash when it was on sale, not that it is expensive, comparatively speaking, even when it isn’t, because I had never worked with it before although I had heard of it. I knew that it was relatively hard and plain, but other than that, I had no idea what to expect.
My White Ash blanks certainly were hard but they cut quite nicely and easily with my Easy Wood Tools with freshly exposed carbide cutters. However, unlike some other hard and dense woods, it was difficult to get a truly clean cut, especially on the end-grain sections, even with light cuts and even after using different cutter head shapes. The large pores and the open texture make White Ash difficult to work down to an extremely fine finish, which typically doesn’t matter much in its mostly utility applications.
However, if you are determined and are patient, as well as willing to use some quite harsh sandpaper in the beginning, I used as low as 60 grit, you can work the White Ash down to a quite reasonable finish with time and effort. Ultimately, I resorted to using a sanding attachment on a drill driver to fully eliminate the end-grain pores and tear-out, but it did work.
For a plain wood, I was pleasantly surprised once I worked the White Ash through progressive sanding grits, down to 800 ultimately. While I wouldn’t say that the White Ash was ever silky or glossy in its natural and unfinished state, it nonetheless demonstrated more character and figure than I would have initially thought possible, especially for a wood mostly relegated to utility purposes such as tool handles. In fact, with a bit of imagination, I can detect a face in the bottom of the bowl I turned with White Ash.
Overall, I found White Ash to be acceptable to work with although it isn’t likely to ever be a super-star of the wood turning world. However, I do think it really shows the possibilities that do exist with a wood that is not extremely high priced and which isn’t often recognized for its inherent natural beauty and appearance. Perhaps White Ash is akin to a diamond in the rough that only shows it real worth and attractiveness to those willing to invest a fair amount of effort and work into revealing what is there to be found.
At the end of the day, the smell aside, I would certainly be willing to work with White Ash again. In future experiments, perhaps I will try different methods of coloration, such as dyes, that might serve to enhance the appearance of the otherwise relatively plain wood, or maybe I will just let the natural attractiveness stand on its own. Only time will tell what I might decide to do with my next piece of White Ash, so stay tuned to find out.
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!