The conifer that changes with the seasons
From the northern reaches of Alberta across the continent to Nova Scotia and Maine, you'll find a tree that most everyone calls tamarack. As a conifer (softwood), it's memorable because in the fall, it turns gold, then drops its needles as do hardwood trees.
A larger version grows in the mountains of Idaho, Montana, and the Pacific Northwest, but there it's commonly named western larch. Different in name as well as size, the tamarack and the western larch may be North America's most unappreciated species.
Knowing woodsmen of the far north harvested tamarack for long-lasting boat parts and pier pilings. Yet, the lumbermen generally passed it by in favor of white pine.
In the West, lodgepole and ponderosa pine, along with Douglas fir, drew the loggers' attention because they are prone to grow in thick stands. The occasional lonely western larch, although large, was a heavyweight and hard to move. Today, the forest products industry makes greater utilization of the forest. That's especially true in the West, where the larch has earned a distinctive place
- The hardness of larch varies considerably from earlywood to latewood. This means that the wood won't take detail without chipping or splintering.
- For sculptural carvings, pin knots and the cathedral figure from the growth rings add great visual interest.
The tree you may know as tamarack, hackmatack, or eastern larch is the species Larix laricina. It grows from the Yukon east to Newfoundland and south to Wisconsin and New York.
The tamarack shares all the physical characteristics, except great size, of its commercially important cousin, western larch (Larix occidentalis), which is the focus here. Western larch primarily grows in the mountains.
In prime growing conditions, the western larch can attain a 200' height and a 7' diameter. Such a tree might have 100' of branchless trunk.
The western larch has fine, feathery, flexible needles that occur in clusters on the branches. Cones are about 1?" long. Each autumn, the needles turn yellow, then fall. Come spring, new needles appear carrying a bright shade of green. Larch's distinctive bark helps in identification, too. A dull cinnamon brown color, the bark grows in many small, irregularly rounded plates, sometimes nearly 6" thick.
The wood of the larch ranks as one of the strongest among softwoods. And at 39 pounds per cubic foot air-dry, it's as heavy as many hardwoods. The hard, reddish brown wood has straight, uniform grain with tough fibers and a fine texture. Its extractives and resin make it durable.
- Larch sawn into thick stock blanks could contain resin pockets. If the pitch is still runny, droplets of it will appear on the surface of freshly turned wood. Let them harden before scraping off, then finish the wood.
Uses in woodworking
From a prime material for posts, railroad ties, and mining timber, larch has risen to find its way into boats, interior trim, cabinets, and furniture. It works well for outdoor projects.
Any exceptions-and special tips pertaining to this issue's featured wood species-appear under other headings on this page.
- For more stability in use, always try to work wood with a maximum moisture content of 8-9 percent.
- Feed straight-grained wood into planer knives at a 90 will do), and take shallow cuts of no more than 1/32".
- For clean cuts, rip with a rip-profile blade having 24-32 teeth. Smooth crosscutting requires at least a 40-tooth blade.
- Avoid using twist drills. They tend to wander in the wood and cause breakout. Use brad-point bits and a backing board under the workpiece to reduce tearout.
- Drill pilot holes for screws.
- Rout with sharp, preferably carbide-tipped, bits and take shallow passes to avoid burning.
- Carving softwoods means fairly steep gouge bevels-20° or more-and deeper cuts.
Larch from the West is regularly marketed as lumber throughout the U.S., but it may be mixed with Douglas fir. For furniture and cabinets, you'll want boards graded B & BTR., C SELECT, or D SELECT. Expect to pay about $2.50 per board foot. Tamarack lumber may be locally available at sawmills or from dealers specializing in boatbuilding stock.
The industry looks on larch as a resinous wood. However, kiln-dried appearance grades will have less resin than construction grades. Remember, though, that western mills don't kiln-dry softwoods to the 8 percent moisture content you normally associate with kiln-dried hardwood boards. The larch you buy may have as much as 12-15 percent moisture content. And that's perfectly fine, if you let the wood acclimate in your home for a week or so to stabilize it before you start building. But prior to working your larch, read the following tips.
Larch is a softwood, yet it is about the hardest of all softwoods. That characteristic means you can successfully work it with hand or power tools, if you keep all tool cutting edges sharp.
- Like many other softwoods, the resin or pitch in larch will build up on your saw blade. To avoid the burning and blade wander that accompany this buildup, always use a Teflon-coated blade or every so often stop and clean the blade with steel wool dampened with acetone.
- Larch's straight grain, plus its hardness, gives it a tendency to splinter. A backing board reduces this when you rout cross-grain.
- The hardness of larch requires drilling pilot holes for all nails and screws before assembly.
- Except for the very highest appearance grades, larch boards will contain small, tight knots. These tend to blunt cutting edges, so use only carbide-tipped cutters and blades. You'll also want to seal the knots with shellac before applying a clear finish to prevent bleed-through.
- The resin in larch reacts unfavorably with paint, unless you first seal the wood with diluted shellac or conditioner. Stain and clear finishes work well.