Jugo Ilic spent 36 years working at CSIRO studying and researching wood quality in addition to specialising in wood identification. Now he works as R & D Projects Officer at Forest and Wood Products Australia (FWPA), writes technical articles for AWR and also runs a wood identification service called Knowyourwood. Jugo Ilic’s first article for AWR appeared in AWR#50, March 2006.
Q: You have spent decades studying wood—how did you get so involved with this natural material?
A: Yes! Three and half decades to be exact. When I was a somewhat younger man and having applied for two jobs as junior technical assistant at CSIRO in Forest Products and one in the Division of Applied Chemistry I asked my year 12 chemistry teacher (matric. in those days) which of the two jobs would be better? He replied ‘You don’t want to be chopping trees all your life’, so I didn’t listen and I actually took the job at Forest Products. There I learned about wood with the aid of the second largest collection of wood specimens in the world.
Q: What have the main areas of your work and research focussed on?
A: The main areas of my work centred less around the appearance or beauty but rather it was more about cataloging and describing the structure to enable me to identify unknown specimens. My teacher was Bob Ingle who had an uncanny ability to identify most samples on sight but often he would use a microscope. The intriguing thing was the incredible structural variation of the different groups of species. I quickly learned that the microscope was a young wood anatomist’s best friend.
Q: What is the best thing about wood in your opinion?
A: The best thing about wood was its variability. No two pieces looked alike and yet there was something magical about it. Generally the depth and warmth of colour, the lustre and the grain that all contribute to its figure. The other thing is its utility. When you think about it at one time even aeroplanes were made of wood—it is and was used for everything from agricultural implements and vehicles to boats (the British navy used to grow oak forests for its ships), boxes, cooperage, matches and toothpicks; fine furniture and cabinetry, flooring, turning, carving/sculpture, veneer and plywood for dyes, scientific, professional, and musical instruments, patterns, sporting goods, tool handles…
Q: What is the most common misconception people have about working with wood?
A: We forget that it is not uniform and that it moves.
Q: What is the most common mistake people make with regard to identifying wood?
A: That it can always be identified to a species.
Q: How has the digital age impacted on our understanding of wood?
A: It has brought together a multitude of readily accessible information about wood for almost everyone and it has more than ever before enabled experience to be shared.
Q: From a wood science point of view what is the biggest mistake woodworkers make?
A: Remarkably few. They usually know what works, when it will works and usually how it is going to turn out—but maybe they don’t always know why.
Q: What are your favourite timber species?
A: Favourite species are many; I like African mahogany because it has a beautiful reddish colour, lustre and stripe figure. Close behind would be Australian blackwood for its richness of colour, lustre and figure. Of the pale woods, true fir with its delicate resin smell, narrow growth rings and tiny knots and also coachwood because it has a beautiful tracery of figure from the soft tissue, as well as a gentle harmonious colour and a smell of caramels when worked.
Q: Have you ever done any woodwork?
A: No—that would be like asking a house painter if he has ever painted the Mona Lisa.
Q: The thing I would most like to change about wood is…
A: Absolutely nothing other than to impart properties quickly similar to those gained by storage in a basement over many years.
Q: The thing I would most like to change about woodworkers is…
A: Maybe expose them to a greater variety of timbers and teach them about the unique characteristics that work for them and against them.
Q: My final word on woodwork is…
A: I would hate to live in a world devoid of the Trojan horse, the Golden Hind, the Steinway sound board, a Stradivarius or small wooden toys made from fir or a skillfully turned bowl turned from walnut or olive…