Dr. Sara C. Robinson: A.K.A. - Dr. Spalting
We all love a good piece of spalted material. I know it’s caused by fungi, but I just can’t resist the contrast demonstrated by those black zone lines against a paler grain. Or even better, a nice splash of color. As it turns out, all these effects are different colonies of different types of fungi.
It is actually a microcosm of warring tribes, protecting their borders and resources. In the wild, only the strongest survive and history is written by the winners. That’s why, material collected from the forest is a roll of the dice.
We’ve all cut into a piece of material (with a beautiful finished product already in mind) only to find… white rot fungus. You know, the soft white, punky stuff that turns to dust on a lathe. If you had only caught it a bit sooner in its process.
It’s too bad we couldn’t control the spalting process, to grab the material at its optimum working condition.
Now you can.
Enter Dr. Sara C. Robinson, Professor of Wood Anatomy at Oregon State University;
I think there are far too few pioneers these days. Sometimes it seems like there is nothing left to explore. Then you come across someone like Dr. Spalting, who has found a way to innovate something that has been around for millennia and used in art since at least the 1500’s.
I call it innovation, but she may have invented a new artform. Organic graffiti? She calls herself a “ Bio-Artist” and believes that neither science nor art can exist without the other.It seems that she strives for the balance of the two.
Imagine the possibilities.
Dr. Robinsons’ website, www.northernspalting.com, currently sells a number of fungi that are unfortunately only available within the state of Oregon although they are found naturally throughout the United States. Your first plate of fungi will cost $100, with each additional plate of the same type of fungi only $20 each. These are live cultures, so if handled properly and kept alive, you only need the one purchase.
The zone line fungi ( white rot fungi ) are the fastest. You can spalt wood in a tote in about twelve weeks. In case you were wondering, no guys, pouring beer on it won’t help. The pigmenting fungi are slower but with spectacular results. She currently sells four primary colors. “ Pink fungus” produces results ranging through blue, red orange and purple. Results can vary. “ Yellow fungus” can also be grass green and brown. Then there is a “blue-green fungus” and a ” blue fungus” which can produce grays and black.
Different types of fungi travel through the wood in different ways. The white rot fungi tend to grow laterally through the wood as they decay. That’s what gives us those great zone lines that seem to follow the grain. Pigmenting fungi tend to travel radially, probably part of the reason they travel a bit slower. These growth patterns make the effects less predictable in burl material, which doesn’t generally have a distinct grain direction.
The zone lines are melanin deposits that the fungi use as borders to protect from other fungi. So if you spalt your material with this first, then dry it out to make them go dormant, you can then introduce a pigmenting fungus that will naturally recognize the zone lines as boundaries. Then dry it out before introducing the next color. Patience is a virtue, but with this method you can, naturally, produce something that you would be hard pressed to find in the wild.
Although the idea greatly intrigues me, the public has yet to embrace working with live fungi. Dr. Robinson says that fungi like these, once dried out are completely dormant and with a decent finish are foodsafe. She also says though, that you should wear an approved mask when doing any woodworking ( especially sanding) and recommends wearing goggles when wood working as well, not just with spalted material. Generally though, these type of fungi are designed to decay wood and are not nearly as dangerous to us as airborne surface molds. These are found on all woods externally and occasionally in that forgotten leftover container.
That’s why her new process extracts the pigment from the fungi but has no live fungi in it. This dye uses natural mechanisms to stain the wood, it works very fast and unlike most dyes or stains isn’t petroleum based and is light stable. They’ve also been working with it on textiles and unlike our current methods for that, because this is a closed system it doesn’t produce quantities of contaminated waste water.
Dr. Robinson is currently fundraising to take her project to the next level. They are preparing to make the extracted pigments market ready and hope to make them useable for pressure treating applications. This is the ground floor. I am amazed that some large commercial entity has not yet sponsored this research. Lucky for us Dr. Spaltings’ heart seems to still reside with the woodworking community and she’s giving us the first shot. All the monies they make go right back into research.
I have no doubts that Dr. Robinsons work will someday be major industry. It is fascinating, beautiful and loaded with possibilities. The question I ask is why hasn’t someone bought this yet? It is an all natural way to stain/dye things, that could replace a lot of current methods that are wasteful and polluting.
Dr. Robinsons’ website is run as an extension of the Stem Physiology Lab at Oregon State University’ Wood Science and Engineering Department. They are currently $600 into a fundraising goal of $10,000. For my part I think I’d like to try some of the white rot fungus on a material of my own choosing, any piece I want. That is an awesome new opportunity. Well worth the money if you ask me
I have tried to summarize 30 years of research into a couple pages of laymens terms, it was an insurmountable task and I knew from the start that I would fall short. If this information interests you then I encourage you to go to Dr. Spaltings website: