EXPERT ON EXOTIC WOOD
A Variety of Different Artisan
By artisan: Ed Schroeder
A master woodworker has a keen eye for fine wood. From finely figured domestic woods like maple to exotic hardwoods like Ziricote. Experience is needed to produce truly outstanding heirloom pieces. Each wood requires specific knowledge to pick out the best wood and how to work them safely and skillfully.
One of the most dramatic member of the Cordia genus and stands apart from other exotic woods due to it’s unique grain lines that frequently depict spider webbing, marbled swirls, cloud bursts, mountains, valleys and other captivating patterns. The heartwood is reddish brown with irregular chocolate or black streaks that tend to form abstract art within itself. These color tones contrast nicely with the sapwood which ranges from creamy vanilla to golden tan. Artisan craftsmen are fond of incorporating this sapwood into their projects to maximize the final visual impact. It is a stunning combination indeed!
With a density higher than rosewood, Ziricote turns very well. It is able to take a very smooth finish and a high polish. Ziricote is slightly brittle but also known as a good steam bending candidate and is proven to hold nails and screws well. This exotic hardwood is easy to work by hand or machine and is stable in use. Ziricote wood has a medium to fine texture and a straight to slightly interlocking grain. It has a tendency to develop end and surface checks during drying, but is stable afterwards. Quartersawn surfaces will sometimes display ray or flake patterns similar to Hard Maple. The highly figured spider web grain is similar to what can be found in Brazilian Rosewood only more complex. The surface has a natural waxy appearance and takes on a satin finish with simple sanding.
Tree leaves alternate, simple, wide elliptic, margins toothed, upper surface very rough (scabrous); inflorescence terminal; flowers orange-red, funnel-like, with numerous lobes; fruit egg-shaped, yellow at maturity, edible. The wood is hard, heavy, and beautifully figured, dark brown with streaks of yellow; it is used for general construction, furniture, and cabinetwork. An interesting point; The leaves can be used for their abrasive quality, as a substitute for sandpaper. Fruits can be consumed fresh or cooked. Listed as an important source of pollen and/or nectar for bees.
Common names: Ziricote
Specific gravity: .8 – .97
Density: 50 – 60 lbs./cu.ft.
Tangential movement: 7.4%
Radial movement: 4%
Volumetric shrinkage: 11.6%
Durability: Very good
Source: Guatamala to southern Mexico, primarily Belize
Pink Ivory Wood
Procuring Pink Ivory wood (Rhamnus zeyheri) these days is a lot easier than it used to be.
Known as the “royal wood” of the Zulus, only full-fledged members of the Zulu Kingdom’s royal family were officially allowed to possess it back in the 1800s. To drive home the idea of this exclusivity — as well as to increase demand abroad — some unknown, 19th-century marketing guru spread the rumor that any non-royal entity (foreigners included) found in possession of Pink Ivory would face the death penalty. Naturally, the wood has been highly sought after by woodworkers around the world ever since. (Nothing sells like the threat of capital punishment!)
Pink Ivory is especially favored nowadays by wood carvers and turners, and is typically used to make smaller-sized items such as bowls, pool cue butts, chess pieces, golf putters, knife handles, DWF pens and game calls; it is also popular for inlay and marquetry work. Pink Ivory blanks are usually on the narrower side because the trees — found predominantly in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique — rarely produce trunks wider than a foot in diameter (the trees reach heights of about 20 to 40 feet). Exotic Wood Group’s stock comes primarily from South Africa, where special permits are required to harvest the wood.
The startling color of Pink Ivory is produced by bands of tissue in the wood’s growth rings. The heartwood ranges in color from a faint, light pink to a vibrant, almost red. The sapwood is yellowish.
It should be noted that, like many beautiful things in life, the attractiveness of Pink Ivory can be somewhat fleeting. Over time, the pink color tends to become a duller, brownish shade. How long this process takes depends on the particular piece of wood and how much it’s exposed to sunlight.
With an average specific gravity of about 0.90. It carves and turns well, although sharp tools are essential. The wood also polishes beautifully.
Cocobolo a tropical hardwood of the tree “Dalbergia retusa” from Central America. Only the heartwood is used: this is typically orange or reddish-brown in color, often with a figuring of darker irregular traces weaving through the wood. The sapwood (not often used) is a creamy yellow, with a sharp boundary with the heartwood. The heartwood is known to change color after being cut, lending to its appeal.
Cocobolo is oily in look and feel. This oil lends a strong, unmistakable floral odor even to well seasoned wood and occasionally stains the hands with prolonged exposure. Standing up well to repeated handling and exposure to water, a common use is in gun grips and knife handles. It is very hard, fine textured and dense, but is easily machined, although due to the abundance of natural oils, the wood tends to clog abrasives and fine-toothed saw blades, like other very hard, very dense tropical woods. Due to its density and hardness, even a large block of the cut wood will produce a clear musical tone if struck. Cocobolo can be polished to a lustrous, glassy finish. The high natural oil content of the wood makes it difficult to achieve a strong glue joint, and can inhibit the curing of some varnishes, particularly oil based finishes.
Just recently Cocobolo is no longer available in Canada.
Care must be used when cutting cocobolo, as the wood’s oils can induce allergic reactions if inhaled or exposed to unprotected skin and eyes. A dust collection system, coupled with the use of personal protective equipment such as respirators, is highly recommended when machining this wood.
Woods with an oily content, such as cocobolo, can achieve better gluing strength by wiping the surface of both pieces being glued with acetone first. After the acetone has dried, the piece is glued as normal.
MAPLE TYPES QUILTED MAPLE
Is not actually a species, but simply a description of a figure in the grain. Quilted maple occurs most often in soft maples, but is also seen in hard maples. (The highest grade quilted maple is most commonly seen in big leaf maples.)
Quilted maple is so named for its resemblance to patchwork patterns seen on fabric quilts. Much like birds-eye maple the figure on quilted maple becomes most pronounced when the board has been flatsawn which is the opposite of curly maple which becomes most prominent when quartersawn. Alternate names and sub-categories for this type of figuring include blistered, curly-quilt, sausage-quilt, tubular-quilt, and angel-step.
There are varying grades of quilted maple, based upon the perceived depth of the quilt, as well as the purity of color of the wood itself (with a pure and uniform white being the most valuable). Quilted maple billets are often sold for extremely high prices for use as tops of electric guitars. They are frequently dyed in outlandish colors such as blue, green, or purple to give an “electric” effect to the grain pattern. One technique that is used to further enhance the grain pattern is to initially dye the wood a very dark brown or black, and then sand back almost to raw wood, leaving just a residue of black dye remaining in the low spots of the grain’s figure, and then reapply a dye of the final color. The result will be accented and shadowed by the darker dye that was left in the low portions of the grain, while the primary color is brought out in the body of the wood.
African Padauk : Bright red or orange in color, deepening in time to a very deep red. Usually fairly dense and heavy, coarse textured, with prominent open pores. Density varies as a result of growing conditions, generally machines well regardless of density, but the fine dust can be irritating.
Padauk wood is obtained from several species of Pterocarpus. All padauks are of African or Asian origin. Padauks are valued for their toughness, stability in use, and decorativeness, most having a reddish wood. Most Pterocarpus woods contain either water- or alcohol-soluble substances and can be used as dyes.
The padauk found most often in the timber trade is African Padauk from Pterocarpus soyauxii which, when freshly cut, is a very bright red but when exposed to sunlight fades over time to a warm brown. Its colour makes it a favourite among woodworkers. Burmese Padauk is Pterocarpus macrocarpus while Andaman Padauk is Pterocarpus dalbergioides.
DARK WOOD AFRICAN PADAUK
Padauks can be confused with rosewoods to which they are somewhat related, but as a general rule padauks are coarser and less decorative in figure. Some padauks, e.g. P. soyauxii, are used as a herbal medicine, for example to treat skin parasites and fungal infections.
Common names: African padauk
Specific gravity: .55 – .67
Density: 42 – 51 lbs./cu.ft.
Tangential movement: 5.2%
Radial movement: 3.3%
Volumetric shrinkage: 7.6%
Source: Nigeria, Cameroons and the Congos
AFRICAN WOODS ZEBRAWOOD
The wood of Microberlinia (also known as Zebrano) is imported from central Africa, (Gabon, Cameroon, and Congo). The heartwood is a pale golden yellow, distinct from the very pale color of the sapwood and features narrow streaks of dark brown to black. Zebrawood can also be a pale brown with regular or irregular marks of dark brown in varying widths. It is almost always quartersawn to get the exciting alternating color pattern.
It is a heavy, hard wood with a somewhat coarse texture, often with an interlocked or wavy grain. The interlocked grain of this wood, like that of many tropical woods, can make it difficult to work. It is also a decorative exotic wood, used in a limited way for veneer, wall paneling, custom furniture, furniture trim, inlay bandings, marquetry, specialty items and of coarse dons Boxes and Pens. It is also sometimes seen as stocks of handguns or in exotic guitars. In the past, it was used in Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz automobiles. Because of its hardness, it can also be used for skis and tool handles.
Curly Maple is not actually a species, but simply a description of a figure in the grain—it occurs most often in soft maples, but is also seen in hard maples. It is so called because the ripples in the grain pattern create a three dimensional effect that appears as if the grain has “curled” along the length of the board. Other names for this phenomenon are: tiger maple, fiddleback maple, (in reference to curly maple’s historic use for the backs and sides of violins), or flamed maple. Unlike quilted maple, curly maple is most pronounced when the board is quartersawn, and the curls usually become much less pronounced or absent in flatsawn boards. Hence, on wide boards where the grain tends to be close to vertical (quartersawn) near the edges and horizontal (flatsawn) in the center, the curly pattern will be most evident on the edges of the board, with the figure diminishing in the center.
STABLE CURLY MAPLE
It is not completely clear what environmental conditions (if any) cause this phenomenon, but there are different grades of curly maple, which greatly effect its price. Ideally, the criteria for determining value are based upon: color (both uniformity and lightness—whiter is preferred), frequency of the curls (tight, closely-spaced curls are preferred), and intensity (more depth is preferred). Prices can range from just slightly more expensive than regular soft maple for lower grades of curly maple, to triple, quadruple, or higher for prices of the highest grades. But in general, higher grades of curly maple tend to be less expensive than quilted maple, and offer an economical solution for a “figured” hardwood.
HARD & SOFT
Maples are generally divided into two groups: the hard maples, such as sugar maple and black maple, and the soft maples, such as the silver maple, red maple, and box elder. Soft maples grow more rapidly than hard maples, but are brittle and often break in high winds and in ice storms. For this reason the stronger and longer-lived hard maples are preferable as shade trees. Maple wood is used principally for lumber, distilled products, veneer, cross ties, and pulpwood. Most of the lumber is used for flooring, furniture, crates, and interior finishing. A certain amount of maple wood is crushed or chipped and distilled to produce acetic acid and alcohol and used in a wide range of construction, often possessing attractive fiddle back, curly, burl, wormy, bird’s-eye or Tiger stripe. Other uses include turning, sports equipment, musical instruments and butcher’s blocks. Maple trees are found all over Canada and the United States.
Burls are hard to come by and have to be searched out for they are in demand and expensive.
Snakewood comes from a smallish, relatively rare tree found in the forests of Central and South America and is reportedly is somewhat brittle and difficult to work, but worth the effort. It is very rare in general and fully figured pieces are even rarer and very expensive. It is also available in subfigure form, usually at a greatly reduced price. There is generally a problem with pith checking (that is, the centers of the logs tend to have long voids and splits after drying). Typically only 25% of a log will have the famous snakeskin figure and this, combined with the frequent pith checks make it a popular wood for vendors to sell in log form by the pound because that way they put the onus on the buyer of finding out the typically bad news about what’s inside the log. The color, which can be quite bright on first exposure, and have a lot of red, darkens with age to a solid brown. Both figured and unfigured sections are prone to extremely thin cracks that sometimes cannot be seen until after the wood is fully worked and a finish is applied.
Piratinera guianensis (syn. Brosimum guianensis) of the family Moraceae
Called “snakewood” because of the fairly obvious snake-skin look of the figured portions. In England it’s called “letterwood” because the figure was interpreted as looking somewhat like hieroglyphics.
Birds-eye Maple: This figure is reportedly caused by unfavorable growing conditions for the tree. The Sugar Maple attempts to start numerous new buds to get more sunlight, but with poor growing conditions the new shoots are aborted, and afterward a number of tiny knots remain.
Birdseye Maple is frequently sold in veneer form, but solid lumber is available as well. Being tiny knots, the birdseye figure is most noticeable and pronounced on flatsawn pieces of lumber.
Australian Rosewood: This eastern coast rain forest tree has been banned from being logged in New South Wales state forests due to past over cutting. Some timber though is occasionally available on the market which would either have come from private land or from trees which have either fallen down in a state forest or have had to be removed because of some extenuating circumstance. It is beautiful amber / red timber, although somewhat brittle, which has a distinctive rose-like aroma from which it gets its common name. With some pieces of timber it is very hard to get a good finish as an oleo-resin can persistently seep through making the surface very sticky. This resin can be removed with methylated spirits.
Botanical Name: Dysoxylum Fraseranum (A. Jess) Benth
Where I found it: I found this rose wood in Salmon Arm B.C. There is a retired furniture maker who still had a few thousand board feet left over in his shop that he wanted to sell. He told me that he brought over a whole container full from Australia many years ago.
Height: to 40 m.
Diameter: to: 1.5 m. Wood
Colour: Deep red-brown heartwood, sapwood much
Texture: Uniform texture sometimes with an interlocked grain.