Working with Weird, Local Woods (part 1)

I live in one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world–the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in southern Alabama. That means I have access to a very wide variety of tree species to work with. Many are non-native species, and most have no commercial uses, so when I want to know what the wood from a weird, local tree will be like, I can’t just Google it. I have to cut it open and start working it.

What follows is an account of my experience with several different woods that are fairly common where I live but that might be less familiar (or completely new) to readers in other regions. If you live in the Deep South, you may find some interesting new species to work with. But if you live elsewhere, I hope this inspires you to try working with some of the species that are local to you.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I make more spoons than anything else, so for practically every wood I list, I’ll show utensils I’ve made from it. That’s because making a spoon is an excellent way to really get in touch with the working properties of a wood that is new to me. I get to see how well it splits (or doesn’t), how it saws and planes, how well it holds carved detail, and how smooth it is when sanded, as well as how it behaves as it dries (does it check? does it twist?). Once I’ve made a few spoons from a particular wood, I’ve got a very good sense of how it works and what else it might be good for.

In this post, I’ll talk about two local woods for which there is some detailed information online at The Wood Database, which is my go-to source for technical specs on woods of all kinds. Then, in the next post, I’ll talk about a few woods that are so obscure that they aren’t listed there.

Southern Magnolia

A ubiquitous yard tree in the Deep South, the southern magnolia produces huge, fragrant blossoms each year. It is a truly iconic tree. (Our neighboring state of Mississippi is “The Magnolia State.”) Everybody in the South knows what they look like–on the outside. But what do they look like on the inside?

When first cut, the wood is a milky white with visible growth rings. But it will soon turn a greenish-gray color that, personally, I find mildly repulsive.

But I find the trees themselves repulsive. Their dense canopy casts a deep shade that prevents anything–even grass–from growing underneath. They branch very early, and unless lower branches are removed as a tree grows, the shape of the tree will be similar to that of a spruce tree–branches all the way to the ground. Magnolias are are evergreen. The leaves are big and leathery, and difficult to clean up; they take forever to decompose. A southern gardening book whose title I have long since forgotten put it best: the southern magnolia is a beautiful tree–in someone else’s yard.

But I digress.

The wood is a little harder than black cherry and walnut, and the hardness of the wood makes for a durable utensil especially, and it wouldn’t be bad as a secondary wood in other applications, such as drawer sides. Basically, I think anything you can’t see regularly is a good candidate for magnolia wood.

I do have a chopping block made from a section of a magnolia tree, and it holds up well in that application. Fortunately, after a few minutes of use all chopping blocks look pretty much the same. Magnolia would also make a fine cutting board. And if you do like the color (you psychopath), there’s no reason not to use it just like you would use any other domestic hardwood.

Unlike the other woods I’ll be discussing here, the magnolia is sometimes harvested and sold commercially in the South, and you can read about its technical properties here.

Crepe Myrtle (Pyinma)

These ornamental trees are everywhere here. Often planted along avenues or in borders, they produce lovely blossoms all summer long. They are usually pruned ruthlessly in order to produce maximum blooms, often to the detriment of the tree itself (a practice that some locals refer to as “crepe murder”). Because the tree grows very straight, the trimmings make great walking sticks.

Left to themselves, a crepe myrtle can grow to a medium height with a big trunk. Yet in landscapes they are almost never left to themselves. That’s why, even after living in the South for nearly twenty years, I had never tried working crepe myrtle. I never found any pieces big enough to work!

That changed when my friend had a crepe myrtle tree blow over in her yard during a storm.

After an hour with the chainsaw, the yard was cleared and I had a three-foot section of the trunk sticking out of the trunk of my car. I split the log into sections and set them aside for an opportune moment. It took me about a year to get back to them, but I’m very glad I did.

Crepe myrtle is hard but workable. The grain is fine and the pores are small. The sapwood is creamy white, while the heartwood is a nice brown–with just a hint of green. When freshly cut, the wood has a distinct vinegary odor, but that fades quickly. You can read more about its properties here.

Evidently, crepe myrtle has curly figure more often than not, though this particular log has pretty straight grain (except where it grew around some big knots). Once dry, it can be sanded exceptionally smooth. It would make a very nice accent wood. I found the wood very nice to work, and I’d be happy to get more in larger sections. Utensils made out of it have sold well at craft markets so far.

In my next post, you’ll get to hear about the properties of more obscure woods, all of which come from invasive ornamentals: waxy privet, Chinese tallow tree, and mimosa.

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1 Response to Working with Weird, Local Woods (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Working with Weird, Local Woods (part 2) | The Literary Workshop Blog

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