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Why Burlwood is on Every Designers’ Radar

Discover what the buzz for this wood is all about.
Roxanne Robinson Apr 28, 2021
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Finding beauty in imperfection is a universal focus. The Japanese, for example, find peace and calm in the imperfect through the practice of Wabi-Sabi. This Eastern aesthetic and philosophy translates as “nature” and “chill.” It’s about embracing imperfection, especially in the natural world. The mood of this concept could explain the current fascination with burlwood. This natural aberration of wood is experiencing a buzz in design. Here, Nest Casa uncovers what it's all about.

What is Burlwood?

Have you ever seen a strange growth on the side of a tree and wondered, “What is that?” This mass is most likely a burl. Burlwood is not a species of tree but an abnormality in the growth of wood grain. The deformity generally manifests as bark-covered protrusions on the tree—usually, on the base of the trunk or on branches. They can also grow underground at the roots. Burls form from in response to a cut or break in the tree, like a scab on human skin. Sometimes, this callus tissue is standard and symmetrical in shape. However, when it doesn’t develop in a regulated manner and is irregular in condition, it becomes a burl.

Some causes for these growths include fungal or viral infections as well as trauma. Trees are interconnected organisms that come to one another’s rescue in times of stress, whether natural or man-made. But even a sophisticated system of communication can’t prevent these growths. 

Burls are especially prominent on certain types of trees, including cherry, oak, walnut, ash, elm, and maple. These swirling formations are most common and most coveted on the gigantic redwoods and sequoias of the California coast. The exceptional occurrence of burls on these majestic trees is a gift from nature. But, one that puts them in danger of being poached.

Why is Burlwood Poached?

Because of their size, redwoods and sequoias produce large burls. This allows for more significant pieces of furniture to be made from their wood. Burls as large as 26 feet that encircle the entire trunk have been recorded on these giants. If moisture is present, the burls can even grow a new tree through sprouting (the most dominant form of propagation). This process is necessary to ensure the coastal redwood and sequoia population, which has been depleted by 95 percent in the last 150 years. Thus poaching interferes with the lifecycle and growth of the sequoia trees.

This wood is considered exotic and one of the priciest on the market because of its markings. The bigger the slab, the more regular and consistent the burls appear. This increases the value. Poachers use chainsaws which are dangerously invasive to the trees. The acts of vandalism were so prevalent in the Redwood National and State Parks that rangers closed roads in order to thwart efforts to steal.

That said, plenty of burlwood is responsibly harvested when trees on private land are cleared for new development. Some lumber companies have salvage permits. Obtaining information about the wood’s provenance in pieces made from burlwood is vital to make sound, environmentally friendly purchases.

Jeffrey Forrest of Stacklab (the Toronto-based art and design studio) has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as a sustainable harvester. He discovered and reclaimed some redwood logs at a decommissioned lumber mill. His team preserved the ancient burls before adding a smoke resin to create a unique tabletop.

Working with Burlwood

It takes skilled artisans to create beautiful pieces out of burlwood. This is due to the tricky nature of working with it. It can be temperamental because of the twisted and interlocked grains, which makes it prone to chipping and shattering. Once carved, it is highly dense and resists splitting. It's desirable for making bowls, decorative statue art, and woodworking tools such as mallets.

Woodworkers generally use burlwood veneers, which are much more fragile—the result of being a mere slice. It’s endless what can be done with the thin layers when applied to a modern desk or table or used to create musical instruments or automobile or boat interiors. As its beauty lies in its natural imperfections, a live-edge table is also a popular choice for burlwood.

Popular Burlwood Designs

Today’s styles may evoke 1970s designs, when this wood first peaked in popularity. Designer George Nakashima was renowned for his work with burlwood and his vintage pieces fetch hefty sums on sites like 1stDibs.com. Other designers and brands that excelled in creating burlwood include Jonathan Charles, Grilli, and Century Furniture. Century Furniture’s Chin Hua collection features stained burlwood, which resembles malachite with its rich, green hue.

Retro styles from Bungalow 5 and duVisst exude smooth, Seventies cool while an intricate drinks table from Bunny Williams Home combines brass with burlwood for a Deco-inspired look. Alexandra Llewellyn and AERIN have both applied this precious wood to high-end board  games like backgammon and chess.

Burlwood is also found more affordably in accessories from retailers like CB2, Williams-Sonoma, and Anthropologie—which offers a delightful round coffee table from Lemieux et Cie.

Editor’s Picks: Burlwood

Now that you know all about this fascinating wood surface, discover styles to incorporate into any space. These are a few of Nest Casa founder Sara Colombo’s favorites.

Roxanne Robinson
Roxanne Robinson is an award-winning Paris-based American journalist covering luxury and fashion industries with over 25 years of experience. I spent over 18 years at WWD, covering sportswear, accessories and fine jewelry. My career witnessed the shift from print media to the digital age. I gained expert knowledge of the design world, wholesale and retail markets as well as the marketing that supports them. I met endless creatives and business people who create luxury from inception to POS with the consumer. My work has appeared in Forbes.com, BoF, The Hollywood Reporter, CRFashionbook.com, The Jewelry Journal as well in-house publications and websites at Bally, Pomellato, Au Depart and Editorialist.com among others.
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