By Daniel L. Cassens and Lenny Farlee

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum (nutt.) Nees.) ranges throughout the eastern United States. The tree is intolerant to shade and it is frequently found colonizing abandon fields, road sides, dry slopes, and old fence rows. On these sites the species develops as a small usually poorly formed tree. It is also found as an occasional tree on rich woodland soils.  On these sites, sassafras develops into small to medium sized trees that are harvested. Young trees are noted for having elliptical mitten-shaped or three lobbed leaves.

As a member of the Lauraceae family, the wood has a distinctive odor due to the presence of oil cells in the wood rays.

The largest reported tree is about 7 feet in diameter at 4 ½ feet above the ground.

Sassafras needs full sunlight to maintain good growth rates and good quality soils and growing sites to produce marketable logs, as mentioned earlier. In young stands on good soils, individual sassafras with good stem form and healthy crowns could be released from lower quality competing trees that threaten to crowd or overtop the crown. Sassafras could be regenerated using small group openings or larger cuts that provide full sunlight to the forest floor. Maintain high stem density for 8 to 10 years to encourage development of straight clean stems, then begin thinning as needed to maintain a full crown and growing position in full sunlight from above.

Wood Color and TextureVariation in quality of sassafras boards from best (left) to poorest (right).

The sapwood is light yellow and narrow; the heartwood is light to dark brown, occasionally with cinnamon red swirls about ¼ to ½ inch in diameter.  The wood is ring porous, making the growth rings very distinct, and the wood is similar to black ash, chestnut or catalpa. The early wood pores are easily seen with the naked eye. The wood, when freshly cut, has the distinctive odor of sassafras. The wood tends to darken with exposure to light.


The wood has excellent machining characteristics and is a favorite for home wood working projects.


At 8 percent moisture content, the wood weighs 31 pounds per cubic foot making it an intermediate to light weight wood. The mechanical properties are relatively low (Table 1).

Steam Bending

No information is available on how well the wood bends using steam.  Given the low mechanical properties and “brashness” of the species experienced by the author, it would probably not be a good wood for bending.


The wood can be dried with a moderate kiln schedule.


The total volumetric shrinkage from green to oven-dry conditions is 10.3 percent or one of the lowest for any hardwoods. Once dried to the appropriate moisture content, the wood will move very little (Table 1).

Decay Resistance

Sassafras lumber is reported to be resistant to decay, but standing trees often contain pockets of rot.

Commercial Use, Grading, Value

Sassafras is an attractive, light weight, easily worked, durable wood. Where it is available locally, it is often used for small woodworking projects. It is used in the millwork industry and for paneling. In the past, it was preferred for split rails and even posts. It is available as flat sliced veneer. If larger quantities were available, it undoubtedly would be in demand for large scale commercial applications.

The wood is graded standard by the NHLA rules.

Conversations with the industry indicate that the lumber is valued somewhat less than red oak and that the upper grades are exported to Italy. Larger mills and concentration yards are capable of shipping semi-load quantities, while smaller amounts are often available from local saw mills.

Sassafras (Colored photos can be seen at A CD titled “Lumber from Hardwood Trees” covering 35 species is available for $20.00 from or 888-398-4636.

Sassafras has a coarse grain pattern much like oak or ash. The trees are usually relatively small resulting in narrow lumber as seen here. The light brown color of the freshly cut heartwood tends to darken with age.

Boards 1 and 2 (left) are characteristic of the best the species has to offer. Note the small cinnamon red burls that are unique to the species.

Boards 3, 4, 5, and 6 show characteristics open and tight knots and characteristic grain patterns. 

Board 4 is lighter in color but very characteristic of the species.

Boards 7 and 8 represent low grade material. Board 7 shows the characteristic discoloration and soft wood that results from decay in standing trees. This decay is fairly common. Board 8 is cut from the heart of the log and shows a small section of pith, numerous defects, and a quartered grain pattern.


Daniel L. Cassens is a Professor and Extension Wood Products Specialist with the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University. Lenny Farlee is an Extension Forester with the Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center located at Purdue University.


Table 1. Common physical and mechanical properties for selected woods. (Source - Forest Products Laboratory.  Wood Handbook:  Wood as an Engineering Material.  General Technical Reprint FPL-GTR-190.2010


Total Shrinkage


Mechanical Properties2/


Radial         Tangential









  million psi
















Northern Red Oak










1/   Eight percent moisture content

2/   Twelve percent moisture content

3/   MOR is the modulus of rupture or the upper limit at which a wood beam will break in bending.

4/   MOE is the modulus of elasticity and it is a measure of how much a wood beam (or shelf, for example) will deflect   along its length when a load is applied.

5/   Shear strength is a measure of the force which is required for wood to break or slip along the grain in the longitudinal direction.