Woods To Know: Sassafras

Woods To Know: Sassafras

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

by Peter MacSween

Trees are nature’s manufacturing factories: producing all sorts of unique biochemical compounds form sunlight, carbon dioxide, and nutrients extracted from the soil. Sassafras is exceptional in this regard, producing oils that give it a distinct spicy aroma that permeates all parts of the tree. Humans have utilized sassafras for medicinal, culinary, and aromatic purposes since the First Peoples of North America discovered it.
 
The historical properties attributed to Sassafras derive from the unique oils produced by the tree. The root, stems, leaves, and flowers have all been used to produce various teas, infusions, tinctures, and poultices. Conditions as diverse as cough, fever, malaria, worms, burns, and arthritis have all been treated with sassafras products.

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The leaves have been used to flavour various soups and stews similar to the way we use bay leaves today. The leaves are also ground to a fine powder to produce file. File is the hallmark spice of Cajun and Creole gumbos. The original root beer was made from sassafras roots and is responsible for its distinctive taste. The unique scent of sassafras has found its way into soaps and candles. 
 
Sassafras was harvested primarily to provide sassafras oil for commercial applications. The oil was distilled from the roots. Sassafras oil is no longer permitted in foods and medicines. Today it is primarily used as an aromatic additive. 
 
Sassafras is a small tree native to eastern North America from southern Ontario to the Gulf of Mexico. Typically, it is fifty to sixty feet tall with two to three foot diameters. It rarely exceeds 100 feet in height. Sassafras’ diminutive height limited its use as a commercial lumber species. However, it should be considered undervalued as lumber - perhaps a hidden gem. Considered a pioneer species, Sassafras prefers disturbed habitats. It can grow in a variety of soil types, especially sandy conditions. Their unique lobed shaped leaves give it a distinctive appearance. In the fall, the foliage will turn a brilliant orange red. These characteristics make it a popular ornamental. 
 
Sassafras is a light but surprisingly strong wood. It is straight grained with a coarse even texture. It planes and machines extremely well. However, it can split near the edges so pre-drilling is necessary for successful nailing and screwing. It glues well and will take all finishes well. Being ring porous, it is a good candidate for staining. It dries without degrading and is a very stable wood.
 
The heart is a tan to medium brown. There can be small orange burls and swirls present. The sapwood is a paler yellow colour and is not sharply demarcated from the heartwood. Sassafras resembles brown ash and in particular American chestnut. Given the rarity of chestnut, woodworkers should be pleased that there is a readily available substitute.

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Sassafras end grain
 
Historically, Sassafras lumber was often used in furniture making. Bedsteads were made of sassafras since it was believed the distinctive odour would ward off bedbugs. It was believed that Sassafras flooring would repel termites and other pests. Being a very durable wood, it can be used in boat building, especially canoes. It is also found in interior and exterior mouldings, millwork, cooperage, fencing and posts. 
 
I particularly like its use in drawer making. By leaving the inside of the drawer unfinished, the lovely odours of Sassafras are available whenever the drawer is opened. 
 
Sassafras can be found in the inventory of most specialty wood dealers. It’s inexpensive and nice clean material is readily available. Undervalued perhaps, but Sassafras is an excellent candidate for a wide range of woodworking projects. 
 
 
Average Dried Weight31 lbs/ft³A measure of its weight at 12% moisture and an ambient temperature of 70°F.
Specific Gravity.50A measure of the ratio of its density compared to water (at 12% MC)
ShrinkageRadial: 4.0
Tangential: 6.2
Volumetric: 10.3
Radial (the amount of crosswise shrinkage);
Tangential (the amount of lengthwise shrinkage);
Volumetric (the total amount of shrinkage.)
T/R Ratio1.6A measure of the uniformity of tangential to radial shrinkage.
Janka Hardness630 lbfA measure of resistance to denting and abrasion.
Crushing Strength 6,600 lbf/in²A measure of compression strength parallel to the grain.
ColourHeartwood is a medium to light brown, sometimes with an orange or olive hue. Color tends to darken with age. Sapwood is a paler yellowish brown, though it isn’t always clearly demarcated from the heartwood. Overall, Sassafras bears a strong resemblance to ash (Fraxinus spp.) and chestnut (Castanea spp.).
GrainStraight.
TextureCoarse, uneven.
Workability
Easy to work with both hand and machine tools. Sassafras also has good dimensional stability once dry. Glues, stains, and finishes well.
Uses
Furniture, boatbuilding, utility lumber, and fencing.
Price$5.50/bf
 
  
Photos and Specifications Courtesy of: The Wood Database