Figuring out figure—bird's-eye
Bird's-eye is the name for a figure pattern most often associated with hard maple (acer saccharum), but I have found it in many other species, including koa, black walnut, cherry, Tasmanian blackwood, and a few rosewoods. The size of the "eyes" varies from small salt granular sizes to large ostrich skin eyes. The density of the patterns varies from an occasional eye to a rich galaxy of eyes a mile deep.
The highest incidence of figured bird's-eye maple occurs in regions with severe winters and short growing seasons, including Maine, the eastern peninsula of Michigan, plus Canada and a few other areas.
Sawyers in these regions tell me they find bird's-eye figure most often on the north side of a dense woodlot. If at some point these woodlots are thinned, they usually stop producing bird's-eye. This leads me to conclude that the eye is a form of epicormic budding, or dormant buds that, when exposed to light, will grow a new branch.
The eye figure shows up only on a flat-sawn board or veneer; therefore, these veneers are produced on a rotary slicer. The grain is very complicated, so it takes a skilled craftsman to work with it using hand tools and high-quality sharp power tools to avoid tear-out.
About the author:
Rick Hearne, owner of Hearne Hardwoods, Inc., in Oxford, Pennsylvania, has been in the specialty lumber business for more than 25 years. Hearne Hardwoods carries an inventory of 1 million board feet of lumber in 120 different species, including at least 100,000 board feet of variously figured maple.