The Unanswerable Question: Answered.

Do you have one of these? A slightly obscure question which should have an answer, but for some unknown reason all of the planets have aligned in such a way so that you are more likely to get struck by lightning than to know why every time you cut through a knot in a piece of lumber it smells like turpentine.

So I’ve had one for about five years, which, as you may have guessed, is why every time I cut through a knot in a piece of lumber it smells like turpentine?

I actually posted this question on this website two years ago…

Question About Wood (and Smells)

Have any of the rest of you out there who regularly work with wood (pine specifically) noticed that it smells different when you cut through a knot? It’s an almost turpentine-like smell. Every time I’m carving a broomstick I notice this and wonder why it is… and then by the time I get back to the computer I forget to look it up. Until today, at which point I thought I would find an interesting but easy answer without much trouble. Except I can’t find an explanation, and I can find nearly anything online.

The best educated guess I can make is that there are certain resins in wood knots that aren’t in the rest of the wood, and that these account for the different smell. But it could, in fact, have to do with little microscopic aliens that build wooden spaceships for all I know. Someone somewhere has to know the answer to this. Please share. There is nothing I hate worse than an unanswered question.

And the internet did not come through with a satisfactory answer. And I pondered for a while if I was, in fact, crazier that I had previously suspected.

But no, people, because while I was thawing out and perusing the chapter on painting (and wallpaper) in Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life I read this passage:

It wasn’t until someone discovered that adding turpentine, a natural thinner distilled from the sap of pine trees…

Did you see that? Turpentine, distilled from the sap of pine trees.

It’s not a huge mental leap to assume that a wood knot would have a higher sap content than the rest of the wood, and can I tell you, I’m going to sleep way better for the rest of my life, knowing the answer to that question.

4 Responses

  1. That’s crazy. Glad you got an answer.
    Two related tidbits, the west side of NYC would smell like maple syrup at random times. People got so intrigued and wigged out by it, that they Mayor finally launched an investigation. The culprit? A fenugreek processing plant in New Jersey. (Totally makes sense to me now, because fenugreek aids lactation, so lactation consultants tell patients to take fenugreek until they smell lightly of maple syrup.)

    My related question: I worked in center-city Philadelphia near the water. It always smelled the burnt toast in the morning. Very strong, like there was a factory nearby burning toast. I’ve always wondered what that was. I going to google it now. 🙂

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