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The fungi that unite art, craft and science

White rot fungi took Seri Robinson from being a bored high school student, only finding solace in the woodturning workshop, to being a professor in wood science at Oregon State University. Now these amazing fungi are showing promise in a surprising array of applications in wood products and beyond. 

The fungi cause a highly decorative effect called spalting in wood, particularly hardwoods. The fungi create dark zone lines in the wood at the points where competing fungi meet. Although the zone lines look black, they are often a dark blue pigment and the wood around them takes on unusual colourful shading with blue, pink, grey or multicoloured streaks. Woodturning brings out this effect in a dramatic fashion. 

Spalted wood is highly sought after by artisans, designers and builders using decorative timber in housing. 

“Wild” spalting can be a lengthy and unpredictable process – and can result in attractive, but unusable rotted wood. 

Dr Robinson, or Dr Spalting as she is colloquially known, has been building up a catalogue of fungi and their spalting effects, as well as experimenting with controlling their growth in wood under laboratory conditions and stabilising it before the wood deteriorates. The pigments can also be extracted and used for other purposes.

Dr Robinson’s work with other applications for the spalting fungi includes using them to make the thin films which cover solar cells and producing pigments for decking finishes which provide UV protection. 

Because the fungal pigments are extremely colour-fast – to the extent some of the spalted wooden artefacts dating from the 13th century still retain their vibrant colours – Dr Robinson is also experimenting with producing dyes for textiles like polyester which is notoriously difficult to dye colour-fast.

Although continuing to push the boundaries of wood science, Dr Robinson still considers herself primarily an artist. The wooden bowl illustrated here is one of her works.

In addition to her academic publications, she is the author of the spalters’ bible “The Spalted Wood: The History, Science, and Art of a Unique Material” and one of the stars, along with wood-turning pioneer and artist Mark Lindquist, of the documentary “Spalted Wood: The Movie”.

Posted Date: April 11, 2019

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