The apple is one of the most popular fruits cultivated by man, with over 58 million tons produced in 2018. Despite this abundance of trees, apple wood rarely makes it into the workshops of most craftspeople. Our preference for the fruit is behind this disparity. Favoring trees for apple production limits their ability to produce lumber
Thousands of years ago we learned how to domesticate the wild apple and we altered how the tree grew. Trees were cropped to keep them low to the ground to aid in harvesting the fruit. Pruning also directed the trees’ energy into fruit production. The modern apple orchard is a testament to this process, rows upon rows of short squat trees.
Eventually, mature apple trees will show decline and these trees are removed from fruit production. Most of the apple-lumber woodworkers will encounter will come from trees no longer involved in fruit production. While apple does grow in the wild, decent size trees are rare and are rarely harvested commercially.
The small size of orchard trees places size limits on the wood that can be produced. Lumber, if available is typically short and narrow. Quite often the trunks are sawn into turning blanks and other solid shapes. Apple wood can be knotty, difficult to dry and prone to defects. Once dry, it is not very stable. Consequently, woodworkers should expect a very high waste factor.
Apple is worth all of these inconveniences as the wood can be quite spectacular in appearance. The colour of the heartwood ranges from a light red to a deeper reddish brown. Sometimes there are dark and light streaks flowing through the heart reminiscent of another fruitwood, Olive. The sapwood is a creamy white, sharply demarcated from the heart.
The grain is usually straight but is often irregular and occasionally wild. This can give the wood a distinctive look but tearout when machining or shaping can occur. Sharp tools are a must and low cutting angles or skewing your hand tools may make it easier to handle squirrelly grain. Apple wood has very fine texture like domestic Cherry and can be polished to a high luster.
Apple is considered a dense wood. Woodworkers should watch cutter speeds and feed rates as it will burn when being machined. Nails and screws will require predrilling. There should be no issues with gluing apple, and it takes all finishes well. Personally, a good quality oil finish would be my choice to accentuate apple’s colour and figure.
Apple has occasionally been used in furniture and flooring, but it’s very difficult to consistently find lumber in sizes conducive to furniture making. Apple truly shines as a wood for turnery and decorative objects. Bowls, plates and serving platters are perfect destinations for apple’s distinctive charms. It is also used for tool handles, knife scales, carved objects and musical instruments. There are some industrial applications such as gear teeth and weaving shuttles and it is also sliced into veneer.
Apple is also one of those trees which tends to produce burls. This adds the unique figuring of the burl on top of the distinctive colouring of the apple wood. The possibility to turn bowls and other objects from the burls is hard to resist. While the origins of burls are unclear, I’ve often wondered if the process of grafting is involved, since all orchard trees are grafted which allows the tree to produce fruit of a specific variety.
Apple wood is expensive due to its rarity and the high waste factor in processing the logs. Figured and burled wood will command a premium price. Specialty lumber dealers are your best bet for sourcing this wood. Turners often source their wood from farmers culling aged and diseased trees.
Apple farmers are switching to dwarf apples for cultivation. Dwarf apple trees branch closer to the ground and have smaller trunks. While this may make sense for the farmer, it will limit the amount of wood available to the future woodworker. So next time you see some apple for sale, pick it up as a future investment. You won’t regret it.
Peter MacSween - [email protected]
Peter's woodworking journey began with a career in carpentry followed by a decade buying and selling veneer. His spare time is spent abusing his guitars and exploring the great outdoors.