Working with Weird, Local Woods (part 2)

In my last post, I described some of the working properties of two local woods that I have harvested over the last couple years: southern magnolia and crepe myrtle. In this post, I’ll describe three more species that have no presence on the commercial lumber market: waxy (or Chinese) privet, Chinese tallow tree (or popcorn tree), and mimosa. All are non-native invasive species that were planted as ornamentals. All are typically regarded as pests, so I hope this post will give some of my readers a reason to cut a few down and turn them into something useful.

Waxy Privet (Chinese Privet)

As a tree, this one is pretty in its own way, with glossy leaves and inedible fruit that looks a bit like bunches of purple grapes. Waxy privet doesn’t grow very big, and it often produces multiple smaller trunks from one root. If there’s only one trunk, it branches early, meaning you can’t get large sections.

During one of the 2020 hurricanes, a mature specimen was blown down right across from out house, blocking the street for the evening. Early the next morning, I fired up my chainsaw and cut it up, leaving the sections as long as I could. I had never worked it before and was curious about how it might behave.

I’m very pleased I did. For a spoon carver, shorter sections with a bit of curve to them are perfect. (I have an idea that some of the curved sections might make fine crest rails for chairs, but that remains to be seen.) Other sections were straight enough that I could saw out some short boards on the bandsaw.

The wood itself is fairly hard, diffuse-porous, and milky white. It reminds me of hard maple, both in its color and its texture, although the color is somewhat variegated throughout the log (see above). It’s not as springy as hard maple, but it is quite tough when try, so if you decide to carve a spoon from it, carve it green if you can. It makes a fine spoon, and I suspect if would also make an excellent cutting board–if you could find pieces big enough, or wanted to laminate several thinner pieces to form a wide board.

Like maple, it seems to attract bugs pretty quickly, so you’ll want to cut it up promptly. Treat it with an insecticide (like a Borax solution) if you intend to set it aside to dry for a while. I suspect it would spalt well, though I haven’t tried it yet.

I will definitely be on the lookout for more mature trees that might yield some straight, clear pieces.

Chinese Tallow Tree (Popcorn Tree)

The Chinese tallow tree, which locals call the “popcorn tree” due to its popcorn-like flowers, is a particularly aggressive invasive species. This understory tree propagates easily and grows quickly.

The tree on the right is a “popcorn” or Chinese tallow tree. The trunk is unusually straight. The multi-trunked tree on the left is waxy (Chinese) privet in bloom.

It seldom gets very big, although individual specimens can have trunks over 18″ in diameter, plenty enough to saw into boards. The trees tend to follow the sunlight, however, so the wood is nearly always twisted–sometimes severely so. Take a close look at the bark of a living tree, and you’ll see how much it spirals as it grows.

The wood itself is diffuse-porous, very fine textured, and creamy white to yellow when freshly cut, though it can darken to a grayish brown fairly quickly from what seems like spalting. I understand that it was commonly used in China to make printing blocks, since it is dense and holds fine detail. It is also nearly impossible to split, so it needs to be sawn into usable pieces. Don’t try to rive it.

I have not found it to be a particularly nice spoon wood. It’s not that it makes a bad spoon–it’s just that the twisted grain means you will always be fighting the grain as you work. I don’t care for that.

However, it does make a fine bowl or trough–if you work the wood green. It is quite hard once dry.

In bowls, the wood’s resistance to splitting is a boon. For the same reason, it makes a very fine chopping block. Just saw out a short section of the log, drill holes for legs (or screw them on), and you’ll have a chopping block that will never split apart.

I suspect that the wood will also be very good for stools and maybe even chair seats, for much the same reason. I’ve got some short slabs from a big tree set aside to dry. So the Chinese tallow tree can be a useful wood in the right applications.

Mimosa

A mimosa isn’t just a brunch cocktail–it’s also an ornamental tree that’s become an invasive species. It’s immediately recognizable in bloom, and you often see it growing along roadsides in the South, showing off its distinctive, power-puff pink blossoms in the summer.

Its growth pattern is curious. It nearly always grows at an angle, not straight up and down, seemingly to get the best sunlight. It won’t grow in the shade. The trunk will grow dead-straight for three or four feet, but at an angle. Then it branches into a two or three straight sections, which will eventually branch again in the same way. The result is a lot of short sections that are quite straight.

The wood itself is also curious. It is ring-porous, lightweight, stringy, and somewhat brittle. It works very easily, but it’s best to let it dry a little bit before planing or shaping it, or you’ll have no end of stringy, fuzzy tear-out.

But it’s the color of the wood that’s super-weird. When you first cut open the wet log, you’ll be stunned by the shimmering color of the fresh wood.

The sapwood is a creamy yellow, and the heartwood is a beautiful, variegated bown that alternates between tan and chocolate tones. It glistens in the light.

The above picture is a trough carved out of a freshly-cut mimosa log. Pretty colors, aren’t they?

And then you will be even more stunned when those vibrant colors completely disappear as the wood starts to dry.

The knife on top of the bowl above is also mimosa, which has now dried and has been sitting for a few months. The heartwood has turned a plain brown with little visual interest.

At a certain point, you will barely be able to tell the difference between the sapwood and the heartwood anymore, and the vibrant browns will have all but disappeared.

Such a disappointment!

But wait. The color change doesn’t stop there! If you let the wood age for a year or so, most of the colors will eventually come back! The sapwood regains its vibrant yellow that will remind you of a highlighter marker, and the heartwood turns a lovely brown again. Some of the color variations will become visible once more. It’s not as striking as the freshly-cut color, but it’s nevertheless quite attractive.

Above is the same bowl, now fully seasoned and finished with a bit of oil.

I have seen other woods whose colors change drastically as it ages, but I have never seen a wood that changes color and then changes back. I hope that someday some botanist will explain to me what’s going on. Should you ever get the chance to work some mimosa, I recommend it just for the experience of the color changes over time.

So take a look around your own neighborhood and see what trees and even large shrubs you might be able to harvest for the wood. You really never know what the wood will be like until you try it.

This entry was posted in Wood and Woodwork. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Working with Weird, Local Woods (part 2)

  1. Joe says:

    Thanks for sharing. I find there to be much joy in working with new woods and I enjoy reading about them. In front of my house on the law there is an ornamental pear tree and in the back there are two ornamental cherry trees. They are healthy. Should I ever need to cut them down, I will for sure get some lumber as well as spoon blanks.

  2. Melvin Kemp says:

    I have really enjoyed the discussion about using your local trees and I hope you take the time to tell us about any other locals you have used. I also try and use local trees when I can, just for the experience. Though here in Tucson, my selection is somewhat different. 🙂

  3. Jesse Griggs says:

    we had a weeping mulberry tree in our yard that i accidently killed with herbicide over spray. it had about a 5 foot section of straight trunk. only about 6-8″ diameter. but, i cut it down and ran it through my band saw as an experiment. the fresh cut wood looked very similar to the mimosa. it’s been drying about 2 years. now you’ve got me wanting to do something with it.

    • Mulberry is another great under-used wood. Like mimosa, the brilliant color does fade pretty quickly, but it’s a good, solid hardwood. Definitely worth making something with it!

Join the Conversation:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.