American Chestnut Log Identification

      The Woodweb detective team tries to determine if one of the group has found a large American Chestnut log in a firewood pile. March 9, 2010

I was cross cutting firewood at a friend's house the other day after an unknown log truck driver dropped off a load of logs for him. As I was cutting through the load I came across an unusual log, and I pulled it out and took it to my sawmill.

I believe this is a genuine American chestnut measuring some 8' long and about 14" to 18" in diameter. It does not have the bark of a horse chestnut, and I am almost positive that it is not a Chinese chestnut because it is not as dense as the last Chinese one that I cut a few years ago. The bark seems to match perfectly, same with the density, and the wood color. I resawed about 500 board feet of American chestnut last year and I am familiar with its characteristics, but this is the first time I have found an actual log.

Can anybody direct me to some bark, end grain, and face grain images with clarity? I did some quick image searches and I had a hard time finding what I am looking for.

It's a long shot, but I do believe I have something special here. If it is what I am hoping for, it's a major shame that somebody cut it down.

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From contributor G:
An American chestnut that big may have blight resistance. On the chance that it does turn out to out to be American chestnut, you need to find out where the stump of the tree is as soon as possible so that if it's still there, folks from the American Chestnut Foundation can check it out. Just because the tree was cut down doesn't mean it is dead. If it sprouts from the stump it can be identified from the leaves/twig. Scientists can also use tissue culture to propagate American chestnut so you don't even need a sprout, just live tissue. If you haven't already, go to the ACF website. They have resources that may be of help to you.

The end grain cell pattern of American chestnut is like that of oaks, but you can't see the ray cells in American chestnut like you can in oaks.

From contributor W:
Chestnut has an oak-like grain, no visible large rays, and the early wood pores will have tyloses. is a site with some very good pictures.

From contributor S:
I have some 130 year old flooring that I thought was American chestnut that turned out to be elm, clearly identified by the pattern of the end grain.

From contributor C:
If the log is still fresh, you might be able to get it to leaf out. Keep it wet and the ends sealed, but give it some sunshine. If you can get a few leaves to sprout, you can make a 100% positive ID, whatever it is. Does the log show any signs of canker or better still, any healed wounds from the canker?

From the original questioner:
The log does not have any cankers, or unusual things at all. Very healthy specimen, and the end grain looks identical to white oak without the medullary rays. I am not sure of the correct term but in the summer growth on the end grain there are small flame or squiggly lines just like white oak.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
In wood ID class, if it looks like white oak but does not have the rays, then we suggest it is American chestnut.

From the original questioner:
I just ended the night with leaving this log on the mill for the morning. Please let me know what you think of the pictures!

Click here for higher quality, full size image

Click here for higher quality, full size image

It has a white oak like smell, similar but somewhat... I'm not quite sure how to describe it.

Thank you very much for the mention of hobbithouse. I am amazed that hornbeam and hop hornbeam are listed, and blown away by the fact that serviceberry is listed. I would love to have a conversation with this guy! I have sawn all three of these ironwoods and have not found any clear information about any of them; one more reason I would love to write a book someday, but not in the near future!

From contributor W:
It sure looks dense from the picture. Is there any chance that it might be black locust? Was there a narrow band (one or two growth rings only) of light colored sapwood with all the rest heartwood?

From the original questioner:
I am positive that this is not black locust. Black locust is one of the unusual species that I deal with. We probably processed over 25,000 board feet of it last year, so I am familiar with its characteristics from many soil and site conditions.

This wood is somewhat dense, but the picture does seem to exaggerate it. The sapwood is a creamy white, and about 1/4" thick with 3 or 4 growth rings. While cleaning the log's bark this morning before sawing it, I found a chestnut like leaf stuck to it with some mud. The leaf clearly shows some saw tooth edges, but is kind of chewed up from being dragged and grappled many times.

From contributor P:
Looks like elm to me.

From contributor W:
It is not elm since elm would have very distinctive wavy bands of latewood pores. Take some pictures of the lumber. I would love to see the wood. The only chestnut I have dealt with were old fallen logs in the Chattahoochee National Forest in North GA. I collected a few pieces to carve with. That is a real treasure that you have, so do something special with it!

From contributor Z:
A woodworker with whom I work suggested sassafras. Often when folks replace chestnut in their homes, they'll use sassafras. It does look a whole lot like chestnut when put up. But a sample will help nail down the ID.

From contributor P:
Yup, I forgot that the elm has a wavy characteristic in the summerwood and large visible pores in the springwood. Sassafras would be very aromatic. Got my old wood tech book from 1958. The description sounds like chestnut. The leaf sure sounds like a clue. Had a nice chestnut tree across from my former address which I watched for about ten years. It got to 14" and died.

From the original questioner:
This is most definitely not sassafras, from my experience. I currently have about 1,500 board feet of large diameter sassafras ranging from 14" to 24" in diameter on my log deck. I have not sawn much of it before, but I have processed many small low grade ones into firewood and turned a few green pieces on my lathe. I will compare sassafras end grain to the supposed American chestnut end grain to see what I can notice by the naked eye. I have always noticed sassafras to have a root beer kind of smell and the bark to have an orange/reddish tone. This log I have found does not have either one of these characteristics.

If I could compare it to anything, it would be a smell something (but not quite) like white oak and maybe asparagus, an open grain like white oak (but lacking medullary rays), and a bark something like white ash. To the naked eye, and in the correct angle of light, I can barely see medullary rays present, and at a distance of even 3-6" they are invisible. The colors of fresh cut log ends seem to turn a bit yellowish after a few hours, and after a few days the yellow seems to lighten up.

I also need to add that the end grain sample I provided is very fresh and wet cut. That exact end grain sample has now lightened up considerably.

I have called the ACF, Penn State University, and Rutgers University. After seeing the pictures on this website they all say it seems to be American chestnut, but I have to wait for them to receive the samples I sent in the mail for an exact confirmation.

I took a couple pieces back from the firewood yard today that are anywhere from 6" to 12" in diameter (upper limbs of the same tree, and still unsplit) and I am planning to cut them up into anything usable down to some small pen blanks.

Before I do this, is it possible to bury some chunks and have a sapling form from the cambium or bark? The bark is still white and wet in areas.

From the original questioner:
I just did some more research on the hobbithouse wood ID website, and found that there are no pictures of sweet chestnut, Chinese chestnut, or Japanese chestnut. Anybody have pictures of these three species? I do need to dig out the Chinese chestnut board and deeply compare it to what I have, but I have not considered the possibilities of the sweet or Japanese varieties. I am trying to prove myself wrong here, but am still hoping I have the real thing.

From contributor W:
You need a leaf to definitively rule out Chinese chestnut. I am not familiar with Japanese chestnut.

From contributor K:
The Chinese chestnut normally forks low to the ground, at least when growing in the open.

I paneled a den back in 1978 with wormy American chestnut. It seems like it was much less dense than oak. I am trying to remember the smell, but I don't recall it being very distinct. Maybe like cardboard.

Of course the smell of sassafras is spicy. My first guess after seeing the photos was black locust as someone above suggested. I would have looked for the thin sapwood also.

From contributor C:
Based on your photos, I'm almost 100% sure it's American chestnut, though I certainly hope that it is not. Do you have some photos of the boards? I would definitely like to see what the log turned out.

From the original questioner:

Click here for higher quality, full size image

Click here for higher quality, full size image

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor C:
Excellent photos! Be sure when you sell the lumber to let people know you culled it from a pile of logs destined for the burn pile. Otherwise, some folks might think you cut it down without any regard for preservation.

Here's a nice photo of the recently discovered chestnut near Lake Erie.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor F:
I was pleased to find the discussion about American chestnut because it seemed to touch on many characteristics of a tree/wood I am trying to identify. I live in Northern Vermont and have a piece of property I am preparing to build on. Forty years ago it was mostly open sheep pasture but now is primarily ash and red maple, all growing very densely, straight and limbless for 30' to 40'. Among this growth I noticed some trees and shrubs that were dead and barkless. The shrubs I eventually realized were sumacs that had been killed off by the taller canopy, since sumac likes open land.

There were also some trees, much larger, that were noticeable because there was not a scrap of bark on the trunks or limbs. They were sound when I rapped them with a stick or axe handle, so I figured when I eventually got to them they might yield good firewood. However, I couldn't identify them. I thought perhaps they were ash but standing dead ash usually is not barkless and is not rot resistant.

Also in the neighborhood were some trees that I thought might be black walnut. I have found a few scattered trees around town (identified by the fruit) and it was a toss-up between black walnut and butternut, which also can be found here. Butternut is not a hardy tree, however, and I have never seen one standing completely barkless.

When I finally cut down the largest of the dead trees, about 20" at its base, I finally got to see inside the trunk. The wood was completely sound; sort of brown, coffee-with-cream color; no apparent sapwood; and, when I cut a piece off, not very heavy.

I took a piece home and dressed it and it was harder than butternut. I have built quite a bit of furniture and cabinets from butternut and I have always gotten a slight tearout where there is grain direction change. My new piece planed well. It is not black walnut; I have built stairs and handrails from black walnut and it is not as dark or dense.

Recently I cut a smaller tree and split some of it for firewood and, while it split well, the fibers were somewhat interlocked. Once again, I was struck by the light weight of the wood.

A friend came by, who cuts a lot of firewood, and I asked him what he thought it was and just by looking, he said "ironwood", but agreed it wasn't when he picked it up. He, and our wives, said it had an unpleasant smell, sort of like elm. (Having breathed too much black walnut and mahogany dust, I can't smell anything.) I know it is not elm, having split enough of that when younger.

Looking at the end grain, the rings are evident but not in great contrast. I considered black ash at one time but black ash is a lowland tree, growing in damp to wet areas. The mystery tree grows in high, rocky terrain. Because of its apparent rot resistance and color I think of chestnut, although I have never handled chestnut before. In this conversation, someone mentioned that a lack of sapwood might indicate locust, and I know locust is rot resistant. I am stymied. Not having any bark to look at is hampering the identification and twigs and small branches are also gone. Does anyone have a thought?

From contributor C:
Look at a smooth slice of the end grain. If it looks like white oak, but does not have the rays (looks like radial lines), it may be chestnut. Also, look closely in the area around the dead trees. Root suckers will often come up around a dead chestnut, as the root system is not damaged by the blight.

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