The common ash or European ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is native to Europe and as far east as Turkey. It is a deciduous tree attaining a height of 20-30 metres (65-100 feet).
The seventeenth-century diarist, John Evelyn had this to say of the ash:
Some Ash is curiously cambleted and veined ; I say, so differently from other timber, that our skilful cabinet-makers prize it equally with Ebony, and give it the name of Green Ebony, which their customers pay well for; and when our woodmen light upon it, they make what money they will of it : But to bring it to that curious lustre, so as it is hardly to be distinguished from the most curiously diapered Olive, they varnish their work with the China varnish, hereafter described, which infinitely excels the linseed oil that Cardan so commends when speaking of this root.
The truth is, the Bruscum or Molluscum, to be frequently found in this wood, is nothing inferior to that of Maple,… being altogether as exquisitely diapered, and waved like the lines of the Agate.
The use of Ash is (next to that of Oak itself) one of the most universal: It serves the soldier – et Fraxinus utilis hastis – and heretofore the scholar, who made use of the inner bark to write on, before the invention of paper. The carpenter, wheelwright, and cartwright find it excellent for ploughs, axle-trees, wheel-rings, harrows, bulls ; it makes good oars, blocks for pullies, and sheffs, as seamen name them : For drying herrings no wood is like it, and the bark is good for the tanning of nets ; and, like the Elm, (for the same property of not being apt to split and scale,) is excellent for tenons and mortises ; also for the cooper, turner, and thatcher ; nothing is like it for our garden palisade hedges, hop-yards, poles, and spars, handles and stocks for tools, spade-trees, &c.
In sum, the husbandman cannot be without the Ash for his carts, ladders, and other tackling, from the pike, spear, and bow, to the plough ; for of Ash were they formerly made, and therefore reckoned amongst those woods which, after long tension, have a natural spring, and recover their position ; so as in peace and war it is a wood in highest request : In short, so useful and profitable is this tree, next to the Oak, that every prudent Lord of a Manor should employ one acre of ground with Ash to every twenty acres of other land…[i]
Ash found favour as a furniture timber in rural areas from early times, but was rarely employed for fine cabinet work in the solid. I’m not entirely sure what the reason was for this because it possesses beautiful figure, is of pleasant colour, works wonderfully, is easy to glue and polishes well. Ash can move a little until it finds its equilibrium, but is normally stable thereafter. The wood can be prone to attack from furniture beetle, but no more so than beech and sycamore, of which furniture sort, much still survives.
Ash was one of several species used selectively in veneer form for ‘mulberry‘ furniture in the early eighteenth-century, but doesn’t appear to have been used much in other circumstances.
Other than the many sticks of seventeenth and eighteenth-century rustic ash furniture that still abound, one of the few pieces of fine cabinet work executed in solid ash that I have encountered was this glorious fitted bureau which I sold through the shop in the mid nineties.
Ash did find its way into many homes in the form of Windsor chair legs and spindles etc. It is an elastic timber and turns well when green, so it quickly found favour with turners for chair components.