A Piece of Wood Aged 200 Million Years… What is a Xylotheque and Why Is It a National Treasure?
The xylotheque created several years ago at Belarusian State Technological University is the Eastern Europe largest collection of wood samples. The wood library is one of the most phenomenal achievements of academic research and has every right to be recognized as a national treasure.
“Wood seems to be an archaic material; however, its worldwide uses are growing amazingly rapidly at 3% every year,” says Vyacheslav Zvyagintsev, the xylotheque founder, associate professor of BSTU Department of Forest Protection and Wood Science, PhD (Biology).
“Added value wood processing is boosting. You won’t believe that the last-gen polymer I am holding in my hands was an ordinary piece of wood recently”, goes on Zvyagintsev.
To appreciate the xylotheque at its true value you must come and see it with your own eyes. When Andrei Ivanets, Belarusian Minister of Education was visiting the wood library, he enthusiastically supported the idea that it should be awarded the national treasure status.
Vyacheslav Zvyagintsev says each sample has its own unparalleled history.
“You may get an impression that the collection is only for the show. In fact, it serves as a unique bank of reference samples for dedicated scholars, students, industry and forensic experts”.
A fifth-year student makes a start…
The wood collection dates back to 1930 when Andrei Petrusha, a fifth-year student of Leningrad Forest Engineering Academy was sent to the newly-established Forest Institute (now BSTU) in Gomel. He then became the first-of-its-kind PhD researcher in the subject field of wood science. In 1939 he defended his PhD thesis and became an associate professor in 1940.
Andrei Petrusha was the first to start collecting reference samples of wood in the BSSR. Even then, those were not occasional pieces of wood but samples of high scientific value.
During World War II the Forest Institute was evacuated to the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg, Russia). Andrei Petrusha made sure the collection travelled to Sverdlovsk and returned back home in its entirety and good condition.
Reference samples are arranged in the order that can be understood only by a wood expert
“Many generations of university professors worked on replenishing the collection with new samples. Those were stored in drawers in their teachers’ rooms,” says Vyacheslav Zvyagintsev who knows all about the ‘hunt’ for rare collector’s items.
not mere pieces of wood but reference samples
Owing to the many efforts of students and professors the wood collection had greatly expanded by 2017. It was granted the ‘xylotheque’ status and given its own ‘home’ at the university campus. The room where the samples are stored has a perfect microclimate that ensures their long life.
“The original collection counted several hundreds of samples,” says Zvyagintsev. “When they were stored in drawers we thought those were enormously numerous. But when we arranged them on the shelves, most cells remained empty”.
Now the number of reference samples exceeds 3,000 pieces. Like a living tree, the xylotheque is growing and is about to ‘reach’ the upper shelves.
Right: a hundred-year-old wood testing machine (still in a good working order)
“When my luggage is checked at the customs, the customs officers stare at me and ask if Belarus has a deficit of fuelwood”.
It would be naïve to think that the samples can be collected during a stroll in the forest. Of course, some of them come from the forest, but a real paradise for a ‘wood collector’ are urban parks and botanical gardens that house a lot of so-called ‘introduced’ plant species, e.g., Siberian larch or Japanese walnut brought to Belarus by our national poets Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas.
“Now we believe that chestnut, green ash and large-leafed linden are domestic trees. Indeed, all of these were introduced from other geographic locations,” surprises Vyacheslav Zvyagintsev. “When you have samples, you can analyze how trees of the same species grow in different climates. Sometimes you find out that wood grown here differs from that in its native habitat and has a completely different density or texture”.
Tropical plants fail to grow in our climate as they need all-year-round summer, even greenhouses do not help. Tropical wood is imported to Belarus as timber. The wood library maintains collaboration with furniture and parquet floor manufacturers who can supplement the collection with imported wood. After thorough analysis the wood is shaped into reference samples that can later be used for benchmarking of imported timber.
Valuable samples can be collected during expedition trips or by exchange with other scholars and enthusiasts. Some of them come as presents.
Zvyagintsev recalls a funny case that happened during his trip to the Far East.
“I was carrying about 40 logs collected from the forest in my check-in luggage. The customs officer stared at me in an apparent gaze and asked whether Belarus suffered from fuelwood shortage.”
The researchers have been to Northern Caucasus, Cambodia, Indonesia.
“We turn to local botany experts for better understanding of the diveristy of their native flora,” explains Zvyagintsev. “Sometimes we take a picture of a tree in its natural habitat or try to take some leaves of fruits for more accurate identification of the samples.”
Alexey Chuikov, PhD (Engineering) (the right of the photo) thinks that import substitution must rely on domestic timber
Similar to medical diagnostics, identification of wood samples needs cutting-edge equipment – microscopes, spectrographs, as well as the most recent professional literature and reference books. Experience and ‘scientific intuition’ of the scholar are every bit as important. When there is any vestige of doubt, the sample is put aside. After collecting the most recent knowledge, it goes back to work.
zebrawood, kingwood and merbau
Just see the difference: Belarusian forests have 28 species of canopy woody plants while there are 4.5 thousand of them in Australian forests and 90 thousand in global forests, including shrubs and lianas.
“We do not aim to collect all globally available reference samples, it is hardly possible “, adds the scholar. “We mainly focus on commercial species used by the economy sectors on the domestic and neighbouring markets”.
Among the commonly used wood species are redwood, blackwood and ironwood. However, each of these names embraces a wide variety of species greatly differing in their consumer performance and price. Our scholars and industrial engineers must be able to feel well familiar with all of the species and tell one from another.
“Here, at BSTU, we snatch at every opportunity to replenish our wood library collection”.
“During his recent visit to Zimbabwe, our rector was able to acquire some valuable wood samples, including three eucalyptus species”, tells Vyacheslav Zvyagintsev.
Interestingly, the pine sample coming from Zimbabwe turned out to be of Mexican origin. The Mexican pine perfectly adapts to Zimbabwean climate conditions and is able to produce commercial timber over 10-15 years of growth. Owing to the efforts made by the scholars at the xylotheque, such rapidly maturing trees may eventually adapt to the Belarusian climate as well.
May 12, 2023 – Rectors of Zimbabwean universities explore the xylotheque
“We actively exchange wood samples with our likeminded colleagues from other countries. Last year we got a small collection from Germany that contained a really treasurable sample of kingwood. This wood is one of the most beautiful and pricey species in the world. Its scrubby trees grow only in Brazilian wildlife sanctuaries and produce extremely heavy wood which is hard to work and immediately goes under water without floating. Its rich colour palette varies from dark-purple to burgundy and yellow. Historically, it was widely used for inlaid work for the decoration of royal furniture, which put it into the category of endangered species. Now it is a red listed wood species and one of the rarest in the world.
Another Dalbergia, black rosewood suffered the same fate as it is highly suitable for violin fretboards and xylophone bars.”
Vyacheslav proudly shows his favourite redwoods – mahogany, swietenia, merbau. However, his all-time favourite is zebrawood, yellow-black striped wood used for the decoration of premium-class furniture.
Thanks to the wide international network of our scholars, many of these rarest wood samples came to the xylotheque by exchange with foreign experts, colleagues and friends.
From a beam piece to fossil
Teachers and students of the university queue up for a guided tour of the wood library. Schoolchildren are equally enthusiastic, they listen to Vyacheslav Zvyagintsev with wide eyes and open mouth.
The xylotheque contains a lot of curiosities which somehow found their way to the collection. There is a piece of oak beam of the 1780 forest service house in Grodno district, two pieces of ebony wood, including a key of the XVIII-century piano from Germany, a root of bald cypress from Louisiana.But a true rarity is a fossil piece of araucaria (monkey puzzle) tree aged about 200 (!) million years. Molecular analysis of the piece made it possible not only to estimate its age, but also to have insight into its cell structure and annual rings.
The wood library possesses an unparalleled collection of bog oak. This is oak wood that has been buried in water for hundreds of years gradually turning into a kind of fossil. The age of the samples ranges from 300 to 11,000 years.
“The samples allow you to ‘track’ the fossilization process,” explains Zvyagintsev. “Being underwater, the oak wood turns into a black, strong and heavy material which is highly valued on the global timber market.”
It has been estimated that bog oak reserves in Belarus amount to 500 thousand m3 while other European countries ran out of the material long time ago. The bog oak could be defined as a national brand of the republic. However, it is highly difficult to extract. The university scholars and students team up to improve exploration and extraction technology and to promote the sought-after material on domestic and foreign markets.
from research to practical uses
“Students are doing a great deal of work in the xylotheque, they assist in collecting samples in their natural habitat, their sanding, finishing and identification,” says Vyacheslav Zvyagintsev.
Such activities are done within the ‘University 3.0’ project which provides for the integration of training, research and practice.
Young people get inspired by the practical applications of the wood library which are many and diverse.
Archeologists come to the xylotheque when they need to determine the age and the species of their wooden findings. The characteristics can give a clue to the origin of the items.
For example, the boxwood comb makes it evident that our ancestors traded with Mediterranean countries. The XII-XIII century-old charred spoon found at the Vitebsk citadel archeological site proved to be made of birch wood. The ancient bow made of oak, the furniture made of maple wood…
“In Soviet times it was hardly possible to identify the wood species of which the dug-out items had been made,” says Leonid Koledinskiy, a prominent archeologist, PhD (History). “Now the xylotheque makes it easy”.
According to Anna Khokh, Head of the Laboratory of Material, Substance and Product Analysis of the Applied Research Centre under the State Forensic Examination Council, the wood library is highly demanded by forensic experts.
Forensic-botanical examination has been done in Belarus since 2015.
“We have to work with the whole range of flora objects and can’t do without academic research,” states Anna.
“Vyacheslav Zvyagintsev has been with us right from the start. He is our chief counselling expert in wood diagnostics. He has made a special sample board that looks like a piano fingerboard. The board has 18 samples that are most commonly found in forensic practice.”
A portable NIR spectrometer ‘equipped’ with a digital reference bank allows forensic analysts to identify wood species of analyzed material. Zvyagintsev and Khokh have developed a special method that is now widely used by forensic experts.
The collection of reference microscope slides available at the BSTU xylotheque is also helpful for wood diagnostics.
“Typically, we study tiny particles through the microscope, many of them are almost rotten, burnt or melt,” explains Anna. “A splinter extracted from the wound and invisible to the naked eye can give a clue to an instrument of crime.”
Microscopic analysis is indispensable for expert evaluation of fire-burnt sites containing charred wood. The microscope shows the remaining cell structure which can be compared against the reference slides.
Unauthorized forest cuts can also be ‘cracked’ using the techniques. The suspect may say the timber has been cut at an authorized site and even show a felling license but expert evaluation will subject everything to the glare of truth.
It is not seldom that cheap timber is fraudulently claimed to be commercially valuable product.
“Just imagine, you get a batch of imported Karelian birch and you have to determine its identity by veining pattern,” exemplifies Anna. “The thing is that Karelian birch is of the same species as common birch. They differ in smallest details of their texture and in price, of course”.
Anna Khokh analyzes not only wood, but also pollen of plants that can give a clue to the origin of timber, fruit and vegetables.
After the xylotheque had acquired reference samples of composite materials, commodity experts became regular guests of Vyacheslav Zvyagintsev.
“It is hard to tell plywood from MDF boards if you have no appropriate knowledge of biology,” says Anna Khokh. “Come to think that the market of these products is extremely diverse.”
The huge expertise and competence of wood library researchers can be useful for the industry, in particular, when it involves import substitution.
Alexey Chuikov, PhD (Engineering), Head of BSTU Department of Technology and Design of Wooden Articles believes that import substitution must rely upon domestically available materials. “As a first step we must thoroughly study the competitors’ products and the wood we are planning to use in our industry.”
The expert evaluation helps to determine not only wood species but also specific features of material composition. Tree species coming from different regions of the country may greatly differ in their physical and mechanical properties.
“The future holds great promise,” points Vyacheslav Zvyagintsev. “Given the national treasure status, we can increasingly promote composite materials which are a good asset to import substitution.”
DNA for gene synthesis
Vyacheslav Zvyagintsev has a dream to set up a laboratory for reference sample making.
“We do sanding, finishing and cutting in various conditions and environments, sometimes in a garage or summer house,” smilingly says Zvyagintsev. “The process of sample making is quite complicated and involves cutting, drying, sanding, calibrating, etc.”
Reference samples of BSTU xylotheque serve as a helping hand for experts
The xylotheque was exhibited at the recent Science and Technology Exhibition “Intellectual Belarus” under the label “Concept of National Xylotheque of Belarus”.
"Given the national treasure status, we can increasingly promote composite materials which are a good asset to import substitution"
The future holds a lot of new challenges. For instance, the diverse collection of wood samples could serve as a source of DNA material for gene synthesis. Molecular and genetic study of the reference samples may help us to understand which genes carry the most important qualities of wood. Thus we will be able to create species with best possible properties.
Was Andrei Petrusha, the pioneer wood scientist, thinking about the future of his work when he was evacuating the first wood samples from Gomel to Sverdlovsk? What we know for sure is that work carefully pursued by several generations of researchers has yielded outstanding results and the best is yet to come.