Abundant, blond, and splinter-free
Aspen, due to sheer quantity alone, supports much of the logging industry across the Great Lakes states and Canada. Abundant because it propagates and grows rapidly in areas cleared by fire or harvest, aspen has many commercial uses. You'll find it in furniture, toothpicks, matchsticks, boxes and crates, paneling, and chipboard. And, this plentiful tree has been a popular source for paper pulp since the late 1940s.
Beavers love aspen bark and consider it a staple food. These busy creatures, forever dam-building, also favor the wood for construction. They'll often gnaw down trees a half-mile or more from their damsite, and then drag or float them home. Grouse, too, cherish aspen, but for its succulent seeds--so small that it takes more than two million to make a pound.
Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), so-called because its leaves flutter in the slightest breeze, has an unbelievably wide growing range. It grows in a mostly northern belt stretching from Labrador and Newfoundland to Alaska's Yukon River. But, you can even find it in Mexico and Tennessee. Bigtooth (or large-tooth) aspen (Populus grandidentata), which also quakes, prefers the Great Lakes states and New England.
Kin to willow and cottonwood, aspen rarely exceeds 60' heights and diameters of 20". In their first 20 to 30 years it grows rapidly, and quickly renews a forest.
Bark on young trees may be white or greenish white, with dark gray or black welts and ridges. On older trees the bark can be 2" thick, black near the base, and deeply fissured. If you confuse aspen's bark with that of white birch, the leaves provide identification. Both aspen have oval-shaped leaves with toothed edges and stems flattened on the sides.
Sapwood comprises the majority of wood in aspen. It has the whiteness of holly or poplar. The small heartwood core produces light brown wood, often streaked and discolored. It weighs 25 pounds per cubic foot.
Fine-grained, straight, and uniform in texture, aspen generally lacks distinct pattern. Occasional mottle- and stripe-figured logs become veneers.
Aspen doesn't contain resin, and has toughness as well as exceptional stiffness. The wood resists splitting when nailing or screwing, yet you can work it easily with hand tools because of its softness. It also glues well.
Due to the tendency for aspen's wood fibers to fuzz when worked, you need to use tools with sharp blades and cutters. While this wood takes paint readily, it blotches when stained unless you first apply a sealer.
You'll find aspen a stable wood that wears without splintering. However, in conditions favoring decay, it deteriorates.
For carving, aspen makes a first-rate substitute for basswood. You also can fashion it into light-duty furniture, solid paneling, and millwork.
Aspen has no odor and imparts no taste to food-stuffs, so it's ideal for baskets, bowls, and containers. Children's toys made from aspen remain splinter-free.
Across the southern reaches of the nation, aspen lumber may be hard to find. Where sold, however, the boards will be high quality, but generally neither unusually wide nor thicker than 1". Expect to pay about $1.15 per board foot for lumber and around 50 cents per square foot for mottle- and stripe-figured veneer.
Illustration: Steve Schindler Photographs: Bob Calmer