E is for Exotic wood

For my other posts about woodworking tools, follow this link. And don't miss the #FridayFlash story based on this post is "Exotic Wood"
 E is for Exotic wood

Nothing can match solid hardwoods for beauty and purity of grain. Take a fine piece of twisted old cherry, birdseye maple, or burled walnut, burnish it and give it three or four coats of a slow-setting polyurethane finish. Flames will dance in that wood, as warm as a kiss and as deep as a goblet of rare wine.

The wood pictured here is bubinga, a dark hardwood from Africa. Its grain is so dense, the wood almost sinks in water, like ironwood. Bubinga has a fascinating double-check end grain. When cut on an angle to the grain line, these make waving lines in the wood, like the frozen traces of a seismograph during a world-ending event. After finishing, the color of bubinga is reddish brown, like a piece of hot, heavily buttered toast on which someone has poured WAY too much cinnamon sugar.

Sadly, though, such woods are expensive as hell. As you can see from the picture, I paid $3.80 for that one 18" piece of bubinga, and that was several years ago. What is a lover of woodgrain beauty to do if he or she must construct furniture on a budget? And if using sustainably harvested wood is as important as the grain pattern?

I say unto thee: veneer plywood. And yet again I say unto thee: veneer plywood.

Label me a heretic if you will, or (even worse) a woodgrain apostate. The reality is that the difference between a $40 piece of wood and a $400 piece of wood is $360. That marginal cost would buy daddy a lot of Happy Meals, if you know what I mean. So, we bend our expectations to match the limitations of reality.

Please understand, I'm not talking about knotty, construction grade plywood. A 4' x 8' sheet of top quality hardwood plywood with a veneer of cherry, red oak, white oak or maple will give you some very nice results if you're careful with it. The grain pattern is never as nice as with solid wood, but the color and flame is there.

The secret is that you don't have to be entirely in one camp. With a bit of judicious craftsmanship, you can artistically incorporate solid wood elements into your plywood construction pieces. Accents, trim, panels and inserts will have such interesting grain that they draw the eye and fool the casual observer into thinking that the entire piece has interesting grain. You may find this hard to believe, but I've seen it done brilliantly. I've even done it myself.

I use the bubinga here to make slips, plugs and inserts that dress up my larger pieces. I also have blocks of red maple, pin oak, American holly and other dense-grained woods for the same purpose. In addition to the regular plywood, pine 2" x 4"s, etc., my reserve wood storage area has lots of odd chunks and pieces of exotica, some of which are split but still have the bark on.

All of these woods shine with unborrowed light. I save them so they can lend their beauty to the pieces in which they find a home.
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The #FridayFlash story based on this post is "Exotic Wood"

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  1. I think there are local craftsmen around here who make furniture with locally-sourced hardwoods like red oak or walnut (the latter being the pricey pricey stuff). Or hell, if you want wicker-like furniture, you can go gather all the kudzu you want and people will about pay you to take it. :-D

    Next time I check out a fancy piece of woodwork, I'll go looking for that plywood+trim trick. ;-)

    1. You don't even have to get terribly roccoco about it, either. Just a few touches of something interesting is enough to change the entire look of a piece. Some people use stains to similar effect, but stains won't change an oak grain to a cherry. The ray parenchyma in the ring patterns are too distinctive.

  2. I have a friend who makes spoons. He lives far away. I am going to forward this to him because he just got a shipment of wood and he will be fascinated by your entry!
    Jean Yates A to Z

  3. I've seen knitting needles made of exotic wood. The woodworker layers leftover strips of wood together and then shapes it into needles. I haven't tried them, but they're supposed to be amazing.

  4. My eye goes to texture and color right away, and exotic wood seems analogous to the gold smalti I use in mosaics. It is sold by the ounce, but a little bit can be enough to catch the eye.


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