Wood furniture is a staple for a reason—it’s sturdy, it’s long-lasting, and it’s never gone out of style. Sure, there are different versions of wood furniture, like the clean midcentury lines of the 1950s, the intricately turned legs of American colonial pieces, or the utilitarian Shaker sensibilities, but the time-tested material remains one of the best ways to make quality furniture pieces.
With different eras and styles also come different kinds of wood finishes—Scandinavian pieces often lean into the light, natural tones of beech, while the midcentury era was dominated by the warm tones of teak. Almost entirely different from regular wood grain patterns, burl wood offers a uniquely distinctive look on a piece of furniture.
A burl is actually something you’ve probably already seen. It’s the big, knobby-looking growth on the sides of trees that emerges as a result of some kind of stress. Injury, fungus, virus, or insects are all factors that can cause a tree stress, and the burl is its attempt to grow a sapling outside of itself—so in case the main tree dies, the sapling can still take hold and continue to grow. When I talked to my dad (former cabinet-maker and current woodworker), he provided the perfect analogy: “It’s kind of like an oyster making a pearl.”
As a result of this natural phenomenon, the tree develops an unusual grain pattern which is sought after to make sheets of veneer (thin slices of wood which are adhered to furniture to create the look of a solid piece of wood) or turned into small bowls or vessels. When I asked him about the process of creating burl wood veneer, my dad explained, “Think of it this way: the burl is like turkey breast before they put it on the slicer. Then they slice it as thin as it can still be handled and worked.” So, the piece of “burl wood” is only as big as the burl itself, and therefore not ordinarily used to create solid wood pieces themselves.
Similar to slabs of natural stone like marble, no two burl patterns are alike, and the different stressors, age, and type of tree all contribute to the beauty of each piece. They also take years (like, 50) to produce, and they’re naturally occurring, not farmed.
I asked Sarah Lyon, Home52 writer and lover of burl wood, why she thinks it’s so popular lately, and she said it’s likely because it’s “such a classic material but can be styled to look totally modern and on-trend.” She has multiple burl wood pieces in her own home, and remarks that “I'm generally drawn toward lighter-colored burl, as I think it looks more contemporary, and as soon as I saw this petite console table from CB2 for sale, I knew I had to have it. I used this piece in the entryway of my previous apartment and have received endless compliments!”
Burl wood has seen popularity in waves, with art deco and through the '70s, securing itself as a classic material. “I think people love its 'traditional with a twist' style and versatility,” says Lyon, and “whether your style leans 'grandmillennial' or modern, you can certainly incorporate a burl wood piece into your home.”