Tree for Life – Ash


Tree for Life – Ash:
We look at a tree that is more universally useful than any other tree on the planet – the versatile ash tree.

An ash tree in a typical landscape setting

The ash tree is unique like all other species, but it’s uniqueness almost knows no bounds in terms of usability. It can be sawn, riven, it can form massive structures and be steam-bent; it can be safely used for cooking utensils and has a natural beauty both as a standing tree and as a cabinetmaking timber. 

European or common ash
The common ash – Latin (Fraxinus excelsior) – ‘excelsior’ translates as high, elevated, lofty. This could be said about many mature trees and, although found everywhere, as is the utility of its timber, it seems unkind to call it common but more certainly ‘excelsior’ on account of its importance to the environment and mankind.    It is a large deciduous tree, typically growing up to 18 metres in height and two metres diameter, but exceptionally as high as 43 metres tall and 3.5metres in diameter with a tall, narrow ‘crown’. The bark is smooth and pale, the leaves have an oval form with ‘leaflets’ which have serrated margins. The tree generally has male or female wind pollinated flowers, although sometimes they may have both. A tree can have male flowers one year and female the next, or vice versa. The fruit are, of course, the dreaded ‘ash keys’ designed to fly and land anywhere and everywhere, making the ash a ‘pioneer’ species self seeding. Unintended young seedlings can be found growing in the corners of many a garden, often near a building and need to  be removed promptly if they are not to cause problems later on.

Ash keys and leaves

The ash flowers

A close up view of the bark

Typical uses
Ash is or has been used for car and bus body framing (Morgan Cars still do!), the DeHavilland Mosquito in WWII, for sleighs, toboggans, snow shoes and sports equipment, cooking implements and bowls, hand tool handles – including axes. It is frequently used in solid or veneer for furniture, its ability to be cold bent and laminated in thin layers or larger components to be steam bent, is well known. Unlike other steam bent timber it will retain its shape indefinitely. Young trees mature early and have been felled in the past for hop poles, ladders, carts and carriage shafts, walking sticks, hoops, hurdles and crates, and for mediaeval arrows and some bows. 

The DeHavilland Mosquito – ‘The Wooden Wonder’

An ash vase with an ebonised finish

The battle of Crécy in August 1346, where Edward III and his men were being chased by King Philip VI and his army, was the first battle where the longbow demonstrated its superiority against both cavalry and crossbows and a much larger enemy. This was only possibly because many Englishmen were required to train in using longbows as a matter of course. Thus a trained archer using a weapon with a longer range than the French had, could loose off between 10–12 ash-shafted arrows in a minute, creating what appeared to the enemy as a frightening ‘snowstorm’ of arrows. War longbows used yew (Taxus baccata) as the wood, ash bows would have been reserved for practice or hunting, but ash could be cleft and shaped to form perfectly straight arrows that didn’t deflect under the enormous load of tensioning a longbow. Landowners were expected to plant sufficient ash to supply the enormous number of war arrows – 51,350 sheaves equalling 1,232,000 arrows at this time. 

Ash is the perfect fire wood

Food and medicine
The bark and root have astringent properties and have been used to treat fevers, while the dried leaves have been used as a diuretic or purgative treatment. The freshly fallen leaves have been used as animal feed for sheep and cattle; in a few parts of eastern Europe this is still common practice.

The Emerald Ash Borer is a highly invasive species of beetle in North America, but not yet found in the UK, however the Forestry Commission have emergency plans ready in case it should be discovered in the UK. Chalara Ash Dieback, which is caused by a fungus, is slowly devastating ash trees in the UK. There is evidence that some trees may be resistant, apart from felling diseased trees, it may be that planting apparently resistant examples may be the only practical way to save this valuable species.  

Make your own discoveries
Why not visit your nearest arboretum, stately home or urban park and see which unusual trees you can identify?

Timber conversion
Freshly sawn ash has a slightly pinky hue, the colour when dried is a creamy white – except where there is dark or olive heart wood present. Although ash cleaves well as young trees, in practice mature trees are sawn ‘through and through’. This reveals a ‘crown’ on some outer boards which is considered attractive. This also shows when cut as veneers. 

Choosing the timber
Ash is less wasteful on conversion than oak, but if it is to be used for steam bent components, wider spacing between annual rings indicates a more flexible timber that will withstand compression bending without damage. Olive hearted wood may be chosen where the added colour might suit the end use. 

Working characteristics
● Ash is a tough wood, but responds well to hand or machine working.
● You can’t beat really sharp edge tools if you want a good trouble-free finish without too much effort.
●Always respect the grain direction so you don’t tear angled grain.
● When routing, burning can occur so make a final lighter cut to remove the evidence.
● Where oak often looks better with bevelled edges, ash can suit both that or rounded-over profiles.
● Wirebrushing the grain can help to emphasise the noticeable pore structure.
● Unfinished ash can stain badly if continuously damp or wet.
● Ash will take a good polish due to its smooth surface when planed.

The steam bending process at Ercol, Princes Risborough

Steam bent hoopbacks (Ercol)

Ash finished and unfinished

Did you know?
Hurling is an ancient Gaelic game native to Eire, but also played around the world by the Irish diaspora, its origins going back about 3000 years. A wooden ash stick called a ‘hurley’ is used to hit a small ball called a ‘sliotar’. The game has been used as symbol of Irish nationalism with attempts under the British occupation to supress it unsuccessfully.

Fascinating facts
The writer John Evelyn said of the ash in his book Sylva (1662) ‘so useful and profitable is this tree (next to the oak) that every prudent lord of a manor, should employ one acre of ground, to every 20 acres of other land’.
Many place names and even peoples names have ash in them, examples of place names are: Ash, Ash Vale, Ashworth, Ashington, Ashwell, Ashton-under-Lyne, Ashton-in-Makerfield, Ashcombe, Walters Ash and many more, all indicating the presence of ash trees as markers in the landscape. Ash tree and names indicating their existence appear elsewhere in the world too. 


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