Identifying Some Mysterious Wood: Can You Guess?

Last fall while camping with some friends in the Florida panhandle, I came across some firewood that had been left at an adjacent campsite.  There were five logs, all about 6″ in diameter and about 18″ long.  Perfect firewood, I thought, if I could split it up.

No chance.  The bit of my hatchet stuck into the end of one of the logs and refused to go any further.  I attempted to drive the hatchet in with a hammer, and still no luck.  The log seemed impossible to split.  Resigned, I tossed one of the logs onto the campfire.  As I suspected, it was too wet to burn well.  But the wood had me curious.  Why was it so hard to split?  I took the other logs home with me and set them aside.

Recently I dug the logs out of a pile of scraps expecting the ends to be badly checked.  To my surprise, there were no checks in any of the logs, even after sitting for three months.  This stuff must be REALLY hard to split, I thought to myself.  So I fired up the bandsaw and sawed the logs open.

Even with a fresh resaw blade, my little bandsaw struggled with this wood.  It was easier to resaw pecan in the same thickness.  Must be a hard, tough wood, I thought.

The wood is quite fine grained, tending toward diffuse-porous, and generally cream colored with a lot of dark streaks.  It hand-planes very smooth.

I knew at a glance that, whatever it was, I had never worked with this species before.  It was not maple or pecan or sweet gum or poplar.  Because of where I found the wood, I suspected it had grown in the South, and probably on the Gulf Coast, but I couldn’t be sure.  I posted pictures to a couple of woodworking forums, and guesses were all over the place, though many agreed that it might be persimmon.  I even took a sample to one of the science profs at my university, and despite his familiarity with local trees, he couldn’t place it.

Finally, a fellow WoodNet member named Justin Tyson, who is something of a local wood ID expert, offered to identify the wood if I would ship him some samples.

Within a few days, Justin got back to me with a firm answer.  The wood was…

Chinese tallow tree.

Justin was able to take a close look at a section of end-grain and compare it with a known sample, which happened to come from a limb he cut off a Chinese tallow tree growing in his neighbor’s yard.  (Justin assures me he got permission to cut off the limb.)  Here are his pictures:

End grain sample of my wood

End grain sample from a known Chinese tallow tree








The color, the texture, and the pattern of pores are all perfect matches.  Thanks, Justin!

As the name implies, the Chinese tallow tree, or “popcorn tree,”  is an Asian tree that was brought to the USA as an ornamental tree.  It is widely planted across the South and has brilliant fall foliage.  It is, however, something of a nuisance, being an invasive species, so it is not as widely planted as it used to be.  As it turns out, there is a whole row of them in a median not a block from my house.  Every time I drove by, I wondered what kind of trees they were, since they did not appear in any of my tree-identification guides.  Now I know.

The working properties of this wood surprised me a little.  Contrary to my initial impression, the wood is actually quite soft.  It was difficult to saw because it was wet, not because it was hard. In fact, the wood is about as soft as some poplar I have used.  As I worked with a sample, I found that it was indeed hard to split, but for a curious reason.  The wood compresses easily, so you have to drive a wedge in very deep before the wedge will stop merely compressing the wood and actually force it apart.

I did manage to get the rest of the logs sawn up, and the wood is now drying.  I don’t yet know what it will be most suitable for, but I’m sure I will think of something.

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2 Responses to Identifying Some Mysterious Wood: Can You Guess?

  1. Grumpy Badger says:

    This post makes me think: Thank goodness for the internet. I found this “detective story” riveting… and I learned plenty. Never heard of that tree before (and I used to work at a woodworking store that sold a huge variety of interesting species.) Never thought about compressibility of wood having that effect.

    So why do I love the internet? Where else could I geek out about this kind of stuff! I don’t know a single other hand tool woodworker or wood nut in my area. And my family is sick to death of hearing me ramble on about this kind of stuff. A common problem, I’m sure. I’m glad to interact with like minded folks, whatever the medium.

    Great job with your blog, I really enjoy it :0)

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