Cross between quilt & flame

Go Figure! The Mystery of Figured Maple
By Mike Slubowski

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As Les Paul aficionados, we are in love with the sound AND the beauty of our guitars. And at the Les Paul Forum, a lot of the conversation and photos posted relate to the beauty of the figured maple tops on our beloved instruments. But do we know much about how the “figure” in figured maple originates? I “figured” you didn’t!
There are many members of the Les Paul Forum, some of which are luthiers, woodworkers, foresters, botanists, and self-proclaimed experts on wood. I am a neophyte when it comes to the study of wood, but was curious enough to review several articles and to liberally paraphrase them and “borrow with pride.” So think of this article as a “CliffsNotes” version of what I’ve reviewed for your convenience, sprinkled with a few pieces of eye candy.



Figured wood has been sought and worshipped for its beauty for centuries. Any design, pattern, or distinctive mark that appears on the surfaces of wood may be described as figure, and it results from combinations of color, luster, texture, and grain.
Even though it has been studied for a long time, very little is known about why figure develops in wood. There are a lot of contradictory theories, and the ultimate causes are largely unknown. Ecological factors have been studied to see if they have an affect on figure, but there are no studies that have shown a definitive correlation of factors like geographic location, climate, soil, bark, foliage, rate of growth, etc. on figure. Most of the best figured wood develops in well formed, straight, healthy trees. All figured wood types occur in almost every part of the world where figure is recognized, although certain areas appear to produce more figured trees than other areas.


Categories of Figure

There are three broad types of figure, including “normal figure” (texture variation showing growth layers, knots, etc.), “pigment figure,” and “specific figure,” which results from the non-vertical alignment of longitudinal fibers in the wood. Specific figure can be hidden or enhanced by cutting methods, such as quarter sawn, flat (plain) sawn, etc.

  A. Transverse
B. Radial
C. Tangential
 Figure occurs in living trees primarily as variations or distortions in the vertical alignment of grain in either radial or tangential directions that result in common figure types known as stripe, blister, curl, wavy, and several other variations. Commercially usable figure is seldom found in trees less than ten inches in diameter. Once it starts, it becomes more pronounced in subsequent growth rings. Wavy grain is quite common near limbs and roots, where it is localized in small areas.

The kind of wood we Les Paul lovers like the best is from “undulating growth.” Some is wavy in the radial plane while some is wavy in the tangential plane. The cause of undulating growth is traced to the method of cell division and enlargement. Undulating growth appears to the viewer as an optical illusion of movable stripes or contrasting patches of light and dark areas resulting from the fibrous structure. Figure caused by undulating grain in wood is similar to striations formed in certain gemstones. Figure is also a result, in part, of an interference pattern produced by light rays striking the fine, undulating fibrous elements contained within figured wood.

When the radial surface of wood exhibits wavy growth or grain, the tangential face is smooth and the wavy or undulating grain can be observed, but is not evident to the touch. When a wood section with curly grain is split, it separates along the rays and along the wavy grain and is exhibited as a corrugated surface that can be seen and felt on the radial surface. Undulating growth is the result of elongation of individual cells that are initiated at the same time which are somewhat delayed, resulting in some that are longer than others.


Curly Maple Top
1999 Aged Murphy R9
Quartersawn Fiddleback Top
1980 One-off Les Paul

Curly Maple Top
1998 LP '58 Historic

Curly/Fiddleback Maple

Wavy grain is called “curly” when waves can be measured in terms of numbers per foot and “fiddleback” when waves are measured in numbers per inch. True fiddleback is restricted to uniform, straight-grained wood of high quality; curly woods frequently exhibit sloping grain. Trees are tested for evidence of curly/fiddleback grain by chipping away the bark and examining the inner wood.

Wood with curly or fiddleback figure commonly is cut in a manner to display a radial surface, which would be corrugated if the wood had been split. Appearing on smooth surfaces in place of waves are series of alternately bright and dark stripes that shade into one another and produce an illusion of actual waves. Change in brightness result from differential light reflection. Relatively high absorption by exposed fiber ends produces dark bands; reflection and diffraction from fiber walls cause bright bands. Because the fiber walls are curved sharply and act as concave or convex reflecting surfaces, any change in angle or view or incident light makes the apparent waves seem to shift.

When cut on the true quarter, fiddleback figure will show as a series of straight, evenly spaced, horizontal or slightly canted stripes. When cut slightly off true quarter, these stripes may appear wavy or branched.



Quilted Top
1980 Jimmy Wallace
One Piece Quilted Top
1983 One-off

Quilted Top
1982 Standard 82
Quilted Maple

For quilted figure, the grain affects the tangential surface instead of the radial surface of the wood. To develop quilted figure, lumber must be flat sawn, and veneer rotary cut, because the figure occurs on the tangential face. Both lumber and veneer with quilted figure differ from other figure types in that the front, or outside face, shows an apparent series of mounds (convex areas) where the back face shows a similar series of concave or depressed areas. Well- developed quilted and curly figures seldom occur in the same tree.


 Birdseye Maple  

When trees exhibit reduced growth in localized circular areas that continue year after year in the same location, it results in circular depressions, or indented growth rings. When these identations create less numerous localized, conical depressions that are large and deep, the wood is called “birdseye.” Birdseye was previously thought to be associated with suppression or some type of mechanical damage to the tree, but this has been proven to be incorrect.


Well, that’s it! I hope that this summary is helpful to LPF members as they admire the beautiful maple tops on their guitars. We are blessed to have the gift of nature and the gorgeous wood it has bestowed upon us!

NOTE: As a member of the Les Paul Forum, I am always interested in learning new things about the details and history of Gibson Guitars. Thus, I appreciate any additional information or questions that readers may have about wood or any other Gibson model. Please contact me at

Credit is given for the extensive number of direct references from “Figure in Wood: An Illustrated Review” by Harold O. Beals and Terry C. Davis, Auburn University, January 1977, and other Internet search references on figure in wood.

Mike Slubowski is a Gibson enthusiast, collector, player, and author, with a special passion for Les Pauls.

This article and photos are property of Mike Slubowski. No part of this article may be reproduced without the expressed written permission of the author.