Mostly shrub-sized, but occasionally growing to a respectable 35' tall, the common North American sumac has a remarkable family history. For centuries, the Japanese have extracted the sap from an Oriental variety to make a porcelainlike lacquer. And, we can thank a South American sumac cousin for providing the world's nibblers with delicious cashew nuts.
In America, though, the sumac never got much respect, only producing twigs that the early settlers hollowed out for stems on their corncob pipes. Even today, most woodworkers dismiss sumac as small and insignificant. However, those who know the wood marvel at its novel qualities.
Yes, the lowly sumac, only recognized for its bright autumn colors, creates a most intriguingly beautiful wood. Alternating green and gold annual rings create an astonishing hue.
Figure also makes sumac stand apart. Quarter-sawed, the stock resembles zebrawood. Flat-sawed, it has a swirling, eddylike character.
Carvers take advantage of sumac's distinctive grain to produce projects with the look of multi-layered laminations. As a bonus, they've learned that the wood even can be carved green, with little worry about checking (cracking or splitting) during seasoning. And, under black light, their carvings take on new character as the luminous wood glows with almost supernatural brilliance in shades of lavender, yellow, chartreuse, and pale blue!
Illustration: Jim Stevenson