The home run hardwood

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On the Baltic Sea's northern shores, where ash once grew thick and tall, ancient Scandinavians called the tree Yggdrasil. Its branches were said to hold the gods, its trunk their path to earth, and its roots the way to the underworld.

American Indians pounded "basket ash" to soften it for peeling into weaving strips. Canoe paddles were made from it, as well as tomahawk handles and spear shafts.

Today, the handles of many picks, shovels, rakes, and axes are made of ash. It also may be the most sporting wood around, the mainstay in laminated-wood tennis racquets, hockey sticks, and skis. Baseball bats always have been made of ash because of its ability to absorb shock, bend without breaking, and add heft without unwieldiness.

These uses, combined with its popularity with furnituremakers, place ash among the commercial hardwood leaders.

Botanically a member of the olive family, ash grows throughout the northern Hemisphere and numbers nearly 60 species. In North America, there are 18 species of ash. However, only a few provide commercial hardwood timber.

Foremost among them is white ash (Fraxinus americana), which grows from Nova Scotia and Maine west to Minnesota and south to Texas and Florida. Green ash (Fraxinus lanceolata) and red ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), both smaller trees than white ash, duplicate its range and are sold under its name. Black ash (Fraxinus nigra), the Indians' basket tree, is marketed as brown ash. It likes northern climes.

Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia), grows on the Pacific Northwest coast from Washington through northern California. Equal in size to white ash, Oregon ash stands as one of the few commercial hardwoods in its region.

You can spot ash by the telltale gray bark with deep fissures in a diamond pattern. White ash, with its oval crown, may rise to 120' in the wild. Other ash species normally approach 60' to 80' tall.

Ash yields straight, close-grained wood that often displays a wavy figure. Its color ranges from creamy white to tan, but brown ash, as its name implies, is distinctly darker and brown in color. For the most interesting grain and figure, brown ash gets the nod.

Dry white ash weighs about 42 pounds per cubic foot. Brown ash is slightly lighter in weight.

Despite ash's strength and toughness, you still can work it readily with either hand or power tools. When steam-bent, it holds its shape admirably.

The wood's close grain gives it high nail- and screw-holding power. Gluing poses no problems, nor does sanding and finishing. Ash works to a beautiful natural or stained finish. Darkened, it imitates oak.

The same abuse-resistant properties that make ash the commercial choice for tool handles make it ideal for chairs and other furniture. Because it doesn't impart any taste, ash is also perfect for food containers and cutting boards.

And don't overlook ash when it comes to lathe work. It turns exceptionally well.

You can buy ash lumber and plywood nationwide at about the same price as red oak. Brown ash, when available, costs less.

You may see Japanese ash, or sen, sold as plywood. It costs less than American ash, but doesn't take stain as readily.

You'll find ash veneers available both flat and quartersawn.

Illustration: Steve Schindler