Elm and Ash, both big broadleaved trees that produce big woodgrain in boards.
One of these beautiful timbers is robust and tough and one is too sweet and gentle for it’s own good. Guess which is which?
Botanically speaking our Fraxinus excelsior & Ulnus glabra trees and timber have much in common.
If you’re a chair maker, a cabinetmaker or a kitchen maker you might look at these two grand dames of the hardwood timber family with their glorious grain on a grand scale and find it hard to choose between them.
Both have the potential to produce wide and long boards from trees that grew well past their centenary year. Both have homegrown sources, native to our small cluster of islands. Both produce hard, strong wood with a long history of use in buildings, joinery and furniture making and either will give you the potential for flooring, furniture, wood turning, staircases and interior joinery.
These are some of the characteristics Elm and Ash wood have in common, however they can also depart from each other in dramatic and significant ways.
Common vs Rare
Ash trees can be found thriving across the British Isles, throughout Europe, North American and into Asia. Our homegrown Ash, although currently under threat from Ash dieback disease, is a widely available log being sawn in good quantities right across the grade spectrum serving all requirements. For this reason, Ash timber prices are stable, very reasonable and make it a really economical choice for any interior use.
The same cannot be said for Elm.
Elm timber is much more rare due to the Dutch Elm disease suffered in the last 100 years. By the late 70’s, early 80’s Britain’s Elm were decimated leaving very few trees standing and now healthy trees can only be found in the border regions and in Scotland. Research and experimentation is being done to find resistant strains of Ulnus and foresters remain hopeful. In the meantime Elm trees are only felled once their health, or the health of trees around them is threatened, thus, Elm is a rare timber and as such is highly prized and highly valued.
Delicate vs Rich
When it comes to aesthetics Ash is definitely the more understated of the two timbers whereas Elm wants to suck you in with some drama. Yes, they both display glorious grain, but it’s hard to mistake one for the other.
Classic Elm boards come across strong with their rich, darking red-browns, murky green-greys set in swirls forewarning the pips and clusters of catspaw and burr. These rarified hardwood boards are fixing to test the mettle of even the most tenacious maker.
Ash, on the other hand will work with you quietly, complying with demands and living up to it’s delicate demeanour. The only perturbations are likely to be a bit of neediness (prepare for repetative de-nibbing) and some surprise colour* once a surface gets planed away. The reward for choosing the humble Ash are flexibility and lightness** and a choice of plain pale creams or tonal olives and tan colours.
Perishable vs Durable
This is a departure that needs to be noted. You’ve probably figured out by now which of these timbers needs molly-coddling and which is tough as old boots.
Yup, the Ash has delicate sensibilities and needs to be kept indoors for it’s own protection to stop it’s sweet temperament from triggering it’s perishability. It’s not the end of the world if it does get wet or is kept outdoors. It will stain (black fungi down the grain usually) and yes, it won’t last as long as a timber with a BS durability classification but it won’t shrivel up and die. It just won’t stay as pristine as it once was and it won’t last forever.
Elm wood on the other hand might well be around for the next ice age if it’s cared for correctly. It’s a timber species gifted with superpowers of durability and can tough it out in the great outdoors as cladding, garden furniture or exterior joinery. It’s relative rareness means it’s unlikely to be offered for cladding or structural works but there are many aged timber buildings benefiting from those traditional specifications.
So there you are, two superb wood species to choose from.
If Oak isn’t doing it for you right now have a think about these two for your next project.
Chris and the sales team will gladly quote you in either species as options against a cutting list, or you can do your own timber selection online by making a basket or a picking list.
If you prefer to select in person – just book an appointment with James or Nick and they’ll be glad to assist.
Happy woodworking dear woodfans.
As always, thanks so much for taking the time to read.
MORE ABOUT ASH & ELM
Watch our Wood Knowledge videos about ELM
Watch our Wood Knowledge videos on ASH
Search our ELM TIMBER STOCK
Search our ASH TIMBER STOCK
THE ASH VERSUS ELM GALLERY
* BTW if that happens to you… don’t plane it away… park that board to one side for machining up another day. Sods law = when you want colour it’s all pale and white, when you want pale and uninteresting every board’s got some colour!
**Katie Walker’s classic design, the Ash ribbon rocking chair, is the ultimate embodiment of these qualities