Wood is remarkable stuff. Before it’s cut down, it’s a living material not unlike flesh. It’s incredibly strong but at the same time it’s flexible. It can be extremely dense and hard, for example Quebracho, named for the Spanish quebrar hacha, which means axe breaker. Or incredibly soft and light like balsa wood, so insubstantial it’s used to make simple toy aeroplanes that actually fly, powered by nothing more sophisticated than a rubber band.
We use wood to make paper, one of the human race’s most ephemeral yet game-changing materials. Wood can be carved into intricate and delicate patterns. It can be steamed, pressed and bent into unlikely shapes for unexpected uses. Without it the human race would probably not have developed the way it did, and we’ve used it to build shelters and tools since we first stood on two feet, millions of years ago.
In the intervening millennia we’ve discovered other handy substances like metals and plastics. But wood still stands firm at the heart of human culture and probably always will.
Wonderful wood still rules the roost
Through history and pre-history we’ve sailed vast and mysterious distances in wooden boats, worshipped trees and made forests sacred, lived in trees themselves, and we’ve built and made an extraordinary variety of useful and beautiful things from wood. We’ve even used wood to create deadly weapons of war – witness the horrific machines of war and torture created by the Romans and the Spanish Inquisition respectively.
We’re still at it today, using wood to make a vast and often eccentric variety of useful, beautiful and highly functional objects and artworks. Here’s to wonderful wood and all the amazing things we can do with it. And here are 8 of the weirdest, most eccentric and – oddly – often wholly practical items made from it.
More precious than gold – It’s African art
Despite the fact that it’s everywhere, growing all around us, wood isn’t always a cheap material. Take Africa, famous for its huge variety of exotic hardwoods, which tribes have used since the dawn of time to create physical representations of gods, people, animals and the world around them.
African art is highly symbolic and rich in meaning, and every tribe has its own unique style. And these days it’s extremely collectable and highly desirable, especially tribal pieces, which cost more than carvings made for and sold to the tourist industry.
Some pieces of African art are so rare and valuable they’re museum-quality and sell for an absolute fortune. Take the infamous Senufo Female Statue, carved by an artist from the Cote d’Ivoire. It sold for a monster $12 million at Sotheby’s in New York a few years ago. Which just goes to show, wood can be equally as precious or even more precious than gold, gram for gram.
Gottlieb Daimler’s brilliant wooden motorbike
In comparison, a wooden bicycle is a piece of cake. Bring automation into the equation and building a working wooden machine is a whole lot more complex. But Gottlieb Daimler – who must have been a very interesting man indeed – did exactly that way back in 1895, creating a bike made almost exclusively from wood.
The wooden Vespa – A quirky take on a design classic
Amazing as it might seem, Daimler’s 1895 wooden masterpiece isn’t the only wooden motorbike on the planet. Any self-respecting Mod will adore this beautiful wooden Vespa scooter, a particularly gorgeous version of the quirky, affordable, simple little Italian runabout.
The Vespa was a world-changer. Thanks to its invention after WW2, thousands of young people who couldn’t afford a car could enjoy their very own two-wheeled transport for the first time. The Mod movement wouldn’t have been the same without it and the classic Mod movie, Quadrophenia, probably wouldn’t have existed.
Barend Hemmes’ remarkable wooden lightbulb
The things we’ve looked at so far are unique, one-offs. But this little beauty is available to buy. How about a laser-cut plywood lamp in the shape of a light bulb? It’s just one of a growing range of unusual and often very beautiful items laser cut from wood which, before laser tech came along, would have been impossible to make by hand, far too complex to be financially viable in a commercial context. Designed by the talented Barend Hemmes, it’s available from Suck UK and features the technology’s typical and very attractive crisp, burned edge.
Stunning speakers made of wood
If you love music you’ll fall for this stunning item, a wooden speaker that doubles as a cool, minimalist work of art on your wall. It’s the JMC Soundboard and it’s a real, functioning loudspeaker made from ‘Tonewood’, which is actually old spruce. Combining 350 year old spruce wood with traditional luthier techniques – usually used to make guitars – and cutting edge audio tech, the results are apparently ‘exceptional’.
Interestingly, spruce wood has long been valued for its resonant properties, used by luthiers for centuries to create the lovely true and clear sound you only get from a seriously good hand-made instrument. Because the sound waves the wood creates are omni-directional you only need a single speaker, which throws the sound around the entire space.
Wooden cars to die for
Are you a dedicated petrol head? If you think a wooden car would be, by nature, a bit clunky and silly, there’s a treat in store for you. Some of them are just as classy, shiny and stylish as any mainstream sporty metal, carbon fibre or fibreglass model. The finish is quite simply superb, a masterpiece in the woodworker’s art and a triumph in top class artisan skills.
More fantastic and unusual wood items
As you can see, there’s a lot more to wood than meets the eye. What’s the most unusual wooden item you’ve come across? Let us know by leaving a comment – we’d love to share it.