Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cocobolo, Purpleheart & Other Exotic Woods

After a visit to Clark's Hardwood Lumber Company here in Houston, during which I scribbled down names of woods I'd never heard of before, I just had to do some research on their exotic origins and qualities. Their names were pure poetry: cocobolo, purpleheart, bubinga, zebrawood and lignum vitae.

The Cocobolo wood really caught my eye. It looked like slabs of marble halvah, having broad contrasting bands of dark brown and cream. Rare and expensive, it is used for making such things as musical instruments and cue sticks.

Purpleheart (species Peltogyne), also known as violetwood, has to be seen to be believed. It looks as if it has been soaked in a vat of purple tint or stain, but indeed the color is natural. There are some twenty-odd species of Peltogyne, grown in tropical Central and South America. It is very dense, easily takes on a high natural polish, and is well suited for inlay work. I found myself wanting to buy a small piece of it but decided to wait until I have some idea of what I might do with it.

Bubinga, bubinga - now there's a word that makes me smile. Luthiers use this African wood to make harps, and it is also used for making drums and archery bows. Applied as veneer, it can have a wild swirly pattern something like curly maple, but with colors in the orange or red-brown spectrum.

As you might expect from its name, Zebrawood, also known as zebrano, has dark stripes on a lighter background. It comes from Central Africa, and much like the endangered animals it is named for, is considered a threatened species. Its use is mainly for fine inlay or marquetry woodwork involving such items as guitars and handgun stocks. In order to manifest the unique stripes, it is usually quarter-sawn.

Lignum Vitae, from the Latin for "wood of life", also known as greenheart or palo santo, is said to be the absolute hardest wood; it even sinks in water. It is used to make cricket balls, croquet mallets and mortars and pestles, among other things. I was interested to see that it is considered an ironwood. Back in the 1970s, I made a mirror frame from an ironwood slab I harvested in upstate New York, but now I realize that ironwood is not one wood but a group of very dense woods. Another threatened species, lignum vitae has seen a fall in demand due to alternate use of alloys, polymers and various composite materials.

Well I hope reading this has not been too much like scanning a child's school report. I get excited by Mother Nature's beautiful raw materials, and never knew I had such access to them so close by. My cabinetmaker husband has a workshop full of less exotic woods such as oak and pine. We have enough scraps from leftover projects to build a small barn, so I don't think we'll be buying any great amount of exotic woods soon, but visiting Clark's Lumber Company is a fun, hands-on field trip I highly recommend for artists, craftsmen and all other curiosity-seekers.

photo: Ironwood and Crochet Mirror by KAO

No comments: