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In most large civilizations on Earth, wood has been a fairly plentiful resource, so we've used it for all sorts of things: Houses, boats, carts, spears, arrows, bows, shields, barrels, firewood, paper and more.

In my fantasy world, wood is more scarce and expensive. Partly because forests are dangerous, partly because many of the trees are cycads which, as far as I can tell, don't yield good planks.

They do have bamboo, though, which can substitute for wood in many cases. Carts and barrels can be bamboo.

I'm not sure about wheels. They might need to be metal with bamboo spokes...

Houses can also be built of stone, mud bricks or clay bricks.

Paper might be replaced with papyrus or parchment.

Small boats and rafts can be bamboo. I am not sure whether you can make large ships out of bamboo.

My core question is this: What things might you need or prefer the expensive wood for?

EDIT: The reason why forests are dangerous is described in this Reddit post. I first thought it was unimportant for this purpose, but here it is.

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    – L.Dutch
    Jun 14 at 6:03

12 Answers 12

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Display of wealth.

Any hard to acquire material can be used to show either how strong/brave you are or how rich you are to pay other strong/brave people to get it for you.

Sure you could build your house out of bamboo like those common poor people, but imagine the sight (in you society) to see a house made of wood. Then you make all your furniture out of wood. Even things that make no sense to be made of wood, would be, to show just how wealthy you are.

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    $\begingroup$ I would have said "objects d' art" but that falls into this category. Wood carvings. $\endgroup$
    – Arluin
    Jun 15 at 16:20
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Bamboo fills most "wood" niches.

Bamboo makes perfectly good charcoal, it just requires more processing of the plant compared to wood charcoal.

Bamboo makes great structural material, beating wood by quite a good margin for small and medium projects. Only for something like a large oceangoing ship is bamboo less that ideal, it does not scale up as well as monolithic wooden beams for strong structural usage.

Most of the small doodads that wood is traditionally used for can be made as well or better out of bamboo plus pottery. Or better, by plant fiber composite materials, which just about every civilization discovered, but rarely used because it requires a lot more effort than wood, not because the end product is in any way inferior.

Before good steel is available, wood is by far the best material for a load-bearing vehicle or machine axle. Bamboo is useless for the role, even iron or brass are just not as well suited to making a wagon or watermill axle. Ditto for a ship mast, where a balance of strength, minimal but nonzero flexibility, and immense durability is required. Without wood this will be very hard, and they may very well need to violate those scary/sacred forests to source ship masts and machine/vehicle axles.

But mostly... We used wood because it was the most common, cheap, available structural and fuel material available. Bamboo is almost just as good, and can usually be substituted 1-for-1.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that not all woods are good for masts. Oak was the standard wood for ships in Britain, but you had to build the masts from imported conifers, because oaks was too heavy. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Jun 12 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Mary too heavy, maybe. not straight enough, for sure. Main reason they had to import to Britain was because they had used up all the local trees that were suitable. So they started sourcing masts from america, especially Maine. Mind you, they had also used up all the local good oak, and started getting oak from america too. (and Teak, from india) $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Jun 12 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ Note:Bamboo does NOT make good charcoal. Using primitive processes it turns to ash instead of charcoal. I'm a filipino and my parents are farmers who regularly make charcoal in the old style of stacking wood into a pile, burying it and burning it slowly. Bamboo does not work. Most is ash, and the few pieces that do turn into charcoal are not dense at all. A brick will burn in a minute or less. Its much better to just burn old dried bamboo (of which there will be plenty from old worn out bamboo products) $\endgroup$ Jun 13 at 1:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Hippeus_Lancer I wrote that to make charcoal from bamboo needs additional processing steps. You cannot charcoal it by the simple process of smothered burning that works for harder wood, it simply is not dense enough. You need to crush the bamboo, then compress the pulp into bricks which you need to dry, then you smoulder those bricks to make charcoal. The resultant charcoal is of quite good quality. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamboo_charcoal $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Jun 13 at 6:52
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we can look at real world examples from deserts, islands, where tree wood is very rare and cultures were bamboo is extremely common.

what is wood used for.

Ships, you can make a raft out of bamboo but you can't make a large water tight ship out of it without modern composite technology.

Axles, hubs, and bearing, even in places where bamboo is common and most of a wagon would be made of bamboo, axles and wheels were made of wood since bamboo could not be carved properly and still survive the high wear. Note for smaller hand carts bamboo will work OK and bamboo might still be part of a wheel, like spokes on larger wagons.

tools, The unsuitability of bamboo also extends to bearings for certain tools, like on lathes where they need to surround a spinning a shaft with a wide contact surface. Or pulley wheels, or vises, basically any large thick three dimensional shape that must be solid. The more technological the society and the more complexly carved a tool needs to be the less suitable bamboo is and the more wood for machine parts they will need, right up until the use of metals for such things can become common.

Plows, because of how bamboo is shaped, and how weak it becomes if you cross fit it, it is unsuitable for certain parts of plows.

on the upside these are all places were the wood can be used for decades before it wears out, so a little wood goes a long way. Expect them to favor hardwoods or rot resistant wood for harvesting, if it is dangerous to get they will want wood that last a long time when they do get it.

Bamboo can be used for basically everything else wood is used for bows, arrows, fuel, charcoal, construction, ect/ bamboo is actually better for some things, it makes ready made pipes and containers easily which is not true of timber.

Just to be clear you can get wood from cycads, they just grow very slow so wood is still valuable and not abundant. It is similar to palm wood so they might be able to make canoes out of it.

Also as others have mentioned pre-industrial paper is as more linen and cloth scraps than wood pulp. So your society still has plenty of paper. Modern paper making switched to wood pulp because it is cheaper, not because it is better.

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    $\begingroup$ I suspect given enough motivation by cost (especially since the OP indicated the wood available sounded poorly suited for shipbuilding) they would come up with some sort of weave/clinker-style construction with bamboo for ships (or ships would be smaller/lighter). Could you make a ship from bronze (ignoring cost)? Good point about axels, though. A lot of these things could be metal/metal-augmented (I've certainly seen old all-metal antique plows, but admittedly usually part-wood). $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jun 12 at 16:57
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    $\begingroup$ @DWKraus its not the plating that you need wood for it is the keel and other framing elements, bamboo just is not strong enough. and yes you can make all metal plows which is why I asked for a clarification of the tech level, you need large scale cast iron. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 12 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ I just read a book about the Hudson Bay Fur Trading Company. They had forts far enough north there wasn't much good wood, and exactly as you say: canoes and carts. $\endgroup$ Jun 13 at 0:21
  • $\begingroup$ "the more wood for machine parts they will need, right up until the use of metals can become common.".... The OP does not posit a scenario with a lack of both wood and metal, so there is no reason to worry about making lathes, vices, bearing and similar tools. You would just use metal! Most cultures developed the use of metal a long, long, loooooooooooong time before they started building lathes. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Jun 13 at 7:00
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    $\begingroup$ @PcMan use of metal and using metal to make axles and bearings are different things. for a comparison the first metal lathe in this world was built in the 19th century. It is hard to make truly round things out of metal. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 13 at 12:45
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For some historical perspective, ancient Greece is known to have suffered from serious shortages of wood. The rocky terrain of Greece didn't really grow anything but squiggly olive trees which are more like shrubs anyway. That didn't really match with its seafaring ambitions, and it had to import wood for that reason. They had far-reaching trading networks but it was still a big deal in a time when trade primarily made sense for higher added-value products like olive oil; shipping heavy bulk commodities like lumber around wasn't considered a lot of fun.

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    $\begingroup$ So those cultures who have comparatively better access to wood are more likely to become major sea powers. Good point! $\endgroup$ Jun 12 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ @d-b Sweden never was a big naval power? The Norsemen (which very much includes Sweden) did become a major sea power. Ever heard of vikings? Ever wonder why about 30% of the genetic heritage of the UK is Scandinavian? Sea power allowed raids and conquest for hundreds of years, with the viking being virtually unopposed on the ocean. That pretty much is the definition of being a "major sea power". $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Jun 13 at 7:09
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    $\begingroup$ @PcMan As a Swede I know my history pretty well. Denmark (with little available wood) was the big naval power among the Scandinavian countries, Sweden (with vast forests) was a continental power with focus on the army. $\endgroup$
    – d-b
    Jun 13 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ There is no hard correlation between Naval power and wood availability. The Ancient Egyptian Navy would be a good example: "While the Egyptians were often a land based population, they quickly proved to master the art of seafaring as they learned its benefits. It can be said that without the successful efficiency of the Egyptian navy, the Egyptian army would not have been able to campaign as long as it wished, and therefore, Egypt's influence over the Levantine region would have been drastically reduced." $\endgroup$
    – Codosaur
    Jun 13 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ Rome isnt in greece... in roman times greece was arguably considered just another province and not really 'far away'; and romans were used to shipping all kinds of bulk commodities around the Mediterranean. In ancient greek times however, the world was a fair bit smaller still. People did cross the Mediterranean but it was still a rather heroic rather than routine affair, and they certainly wouldn't have considered the entire Mediterranean their lumber yard, for any practical intents or purposes. $\endgroup$ Jun 13 at 13:26
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Nothing:

In our world, wood is easy to obtain, easy to carve, easy to burn. But cultures without wood do okay for themselves with workarounds. THIS question goes into some of the options, and with bamboo available, I doubt there would be a practical imperative to use a rare commodity for anything essential.

What I suspect is that wood would be a rare substitute for the things ordinary people use other materials for. The commoners use coal and peat and grass and bamboo and dung, etc., but it's a sign of wealth to burn actual wood. Think of it like ivory, where small pieces are inlayed to be decorative, emphasizing the grain of it. jewelry would be a good example of a use - it's light, easy to carve and rare. A noble with a gnarled wooden walking stick would be making a statement of wealth.

Now wood is a renewable resource. As you get people valuing it as a rarity, there will be pressure to grow more wood, train wood to be straighter, and even breed trees to be increasingly tree-like. You may find that as the generations go by, wood becomes more common and used. Or, it could be so rare people wipe it out from over-harvesting. That's up to your story. But I suspect wood will be valued mostly for being valuable.

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    $\begingroup$ To this point: I'd expect the scarcity to create enormous pressure to cultivate good timber in some place where it is safe to log. Wild forest may be dangerous, but McCoy's Tree Farm sits on well-lit cleared land surrounded by a high stone wall that is patrolled as regularly as any city wall. Wealthy families might practice some form of bonsai on small individual trees that they can harvest for very small scraps to be used in jewelry or other luxuries. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jun 12 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ About the renewable resource point: It could also go the opposite way. People valuing the wood so much they overharvest it and ruin the ecosystem. The ancient Scots cut down all of their forests which became the treeless highlands. There are many such examples. $\endgroup$ Jun 13 at 1:37
  • $\begingroup$ In the far future, nothing of importance, +1 (prior to that, go read a book about Britain). - In Blade Runner II, there's some toys made out of wood from a Noah's Ark nativity set... that's it. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jun 13 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ I feel this is the rue answer addressing the OP's actual question $\endgroup$ Jun 14 at 14:14
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Musical instruments. I can't really give a logical reason why, but that's the way it works in the real world. The same optimal woods (and materials in general) continue to be used despite being endangered, even when it is just aesthetic and not functional, because there's no substitute for subjective quality.

Ivory is one of the few traditional materials I can think of in instruments that has outright been replaced at all quality levels, in spite of performance, due to rarity, and that took international laws. Pretty much everything else is just a more abundant substitute for a superior material for use on less expensive instruments.

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One potential use is for the production of iron. Before the 1700s, when coke was discovered, ironmaking furnaces exclusively used charcoal in production. This charcoal is generally produced by burning wood in a low oxygen environment. While in principle you could use bamboo or other organic sources to produce the charcoal, given the strategic importance of iron it may be that there simply isn't enough bamboo production to meet iron needs (charcoal production for iron was a significant source of deforestation in the US according to here- depending on your settings requirement they may face similar shortages)

.

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  • $\begingroup$ There's a previous question similar to this, which discusses peat as an alternative hurstwic.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/bog_iron.htm $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jun 12 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ @DWKrausc lovely article, but the only mentions of peat in it are "Where streams run from nearby mountains through a peat bog, bog iron can almost always be found." and "When a layer of peat in the bog is cut and pulled back using turf knives (right), pea sized nodules of bog iron can be found and harvested".. The actual smelting was one with charcoal "the bore of the furnace was filled with charcoal" $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Jun 12 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ Somehow combinations have not been tried out so much? 30 percent bamboo, 20 percent pultuded plastic 35 percent wood, 10 percet fiberglas epoxy 5 percent steel could make many structurally sound composites products eg fishing trawlers, boats, homes and home furniture, ladders etc ... $\endgroup$
    – Narasimham
    Jun 13 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ Bamboo is a grass. One of the world's fastest growing grasses at that. Some species grow about 1mm every 90 seconds. So it grows far faster than wood, plus it isn't killed by cutting. There simply aren't a lot of scenarios where concerns about being able to keep up with production needs would favor wood over it. $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 15 at 18:09
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Incense

frankincesnse

Depicted: the frankincense tree.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/frankincense-trees-declining-overtapping

Trees are the source of many types of amazing incense. Frankincense and myrrh (also from a tree) have been valued since ancient times and there are many more - sandalwood, palo santo, rosewood etc.

In your world, wood of various types is most prized for its aroma when burned as incense. Grasses cannot compete.

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Orkney (a group of islands off Scotland rich in prehistory) always suffered a severe shortage of wood. They got by pretty well with stone, whale-bone, and antlers: and they used driftwood that found its way onto the beach from distant lands. But I suspect the biggest problem they faced without wood was boat-building.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding Michael, we invite you to take our tour and refer to our help center as and when, in order to get the hang of our ways. Nice first post, informative, I'd totally forgotten about whalebone. $\endgroup$ Jun 14 at 22:01
  • $\begingroup$ On reflection, it doesn't address the main point of the question specifically , but by inference it would seem that boats are going to be important to an isolated island. I'm now suddenly remembering coracles made with thin flexible wood with animal skin stretched over, maybe the same could be done with whalebone and sealskin - perhaps on a bigger scale making proper boats, just a thought. $\endgroup$ Jun 14 at 22:12
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As another answer said, the "display of wealth" option seems to be the most striking one. But it might be interesting to have it used in more ways, not just the most oblivious ones.

  • Furniture is definitely a great idea that must be kept. It's often the most striking wealth factor after the house itself.
  • Jewelry : If your wood is particularly hard to carve, imagine the status of those who can actually work it well enough to obtain beautiful objects, and even more those who have enough money to buy such luxurious items. It's a more subtle way to show social rank, one that maybe only the rich and powerful will notice.
  • High-end food products : Smoked meat's taste is awesome (that's up to personal preference but it can be very rich and flavorful), and it varies depending on which wood you use for the smoke. Now imagine the bark of your trees gives the meat a deep, strong taste, but it must be of prime freshness. Only the wealthy elite will be crazy enough to hire people to gather the needed resource to prepare this fine dish.
  • Drugs (of any kind): Plants have always been used to create remedies, but also drugs. Maybe using dried roots from your trees can send someone on a trip, or any other effect (energy boost, deep contemplation, etc). I personnally love using rare plants for drugs that artists use (in my worldbuilding projects), because it feels natural for someone who seeks artistic enlightenment, and also happens to have a high status and a lot of money, to use those.

The display of wealth seems to be the best option according to me, but it can be interesting to go further than the prime use of the wood, being building tools and furniture. You can do pretty much anything with plants as long as it sticks to the general context and ambiance of your work, so it's definitely a good idea to enlarge the field of possibilities.

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  • $\begingroup$ Absolutely, had this been posted sooner I could see it as the top answer. Welcome to Worldbuilding Why. Sorry to abbreviate your name, but I've no idea how to underscore on this keyboard without invoking unicode. $\endgroup$ Jun 15 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ @ARogueAnt. thank you ! Creating lore revolving around the wealthy elite and it's relation to high-end products, and how they use them, has always been my favorite part of worldbuilding. Most of my started-but-never-finished works are based around this concept. $\endgroup$
    – Why_Lxx
    Jun 15 at 20:39
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Magic.

Trees have an innate ability to collect or focus magical energy, and because they grow slowly over a long time and stay in one place, their wood becomes inherently more conductive to magical energies. Specific kinds of wood could have affinities for specific kinds of magic. Items made from wood conduct or enhance magic in ways that improve the quality or power. Wood is used in rituals, to build magical structures, and to create magical weapons and armor.

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Look at countries that didn't have ready access to wood. Greece, northern Africa, the middle east, west coast of South America, the American Southwest.

The Anasazi (cliff dwellers) moved roof timbers tens of kilometers.

During the British colonization of North America, certain trees were blazed with the king's broad arrow, marking them as owned by the king, and reserved for naval masts.

Broadly speaking:

Cheap Wood Wood is used for fuel

Low cost wood Wood is used for temporary construction.

Moderate cost wood Wood is used for permanent construction.

High cost wood Wood is used for critical construction (e.g. roof support) and furniture.

As the cost goes up the earlier elements vanish. No one uses black walnut to heat their home. Indeed, a black walnut "peeler log" is worth thousands. Mills lathe off 4 or 8 foot wide strips 1/100" thick to veneer onto plywood.

As the cost goes up, so does the engineering effort. Plywood can be made stronger than dimension lumber. Engineered trusses use less wood than conventional rafters.

As costs go up, efforts to use other materials increase. Coal replaced wood for heat during industrial age England. Steel coming down in price to the point ships were made of it. (Compare to the price of iron anything in Roman times) In recent times Bamboo flooring and countertops. Hardwood floors become engineered wood floors with the expensive hardwood just one layer. Engineered floors becoming laminate floors.

A woodless society would be wizards with stone, masters of the arch. Grass would be bred/gene spliced to make bamboo analogs for every climate. Plants like yucca would be bred to have longer, wider leaves and faster growth. (Even now I bet you could make good oriented strand board out of yucca leaves.) There would be some intense engineering of how to work with adobe.

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