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Learning about buying and crafting exotics

Jennifer Hicks

Jennifer Hicks

Recently, my daughter and her boyfriend, both 19, approached me with a question. “Mom, what is the most expensive wood?” Under pressure to provide the best response without consulting the internet, I was a deer in the headlights. I racked my brain but honestly, I wasn’t sure.

I blurted out snakewood, because a lumber source told me that once, and it truly is quite pricey. Then I listed more common exotics such as mahogany and purpleheart and rambled about different factors that contribute to price including origin, rarity, availability, log size, character, grading and more. The kids were satisfied just hearing mahogany, their original guess. But I pressed on. This became a mission to educate them on the fascinating world of hardwoods.

I consulted Lou Irion of Irion Lumber in Wellsboro, Pa., who noted that koa, ebony and rosewood were certainly ‘up there’ in price. I checked with other sources and researched The Wood Database website.

We also looked at furniture online that incorporated prized woods. We found an amazing Monkey pod slab table selling for around $8,000 on Etsy. My pupils thought it was gorgeous and were equally stunned by the price.

With their interest piqued, I brought out my “Veneers in Presentation” sample books purchased from Certainly Wood in East Aurora, N.Y. We examined dozens of slices of imported and domestic species, from Macassar ebony and quilted lacewood to Ambrosia maple and fiddleback redwood. We held them to the light, felt them, smelled them, and had pure fun just looking at the different colors, textures, patterns, figuring and other identifying features. We even joked about making a patchwork design using all the samples and what finish we might use on the project. The masterpiece I envisioned was analogous to the car in Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time”.

Hands down, this exercise was more educational to them than knowing the actual top-priced wood on a global scale. Sure, most of us like nice expensive things, but to a craftsperson, “the most expensive wood” doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. The meaning, learning, and passion behind a project are really its true worth.

Phil Cohen, an owner of this month’s featured shop, knows this philosophy well. Early in his career, he learned something called the ‘heart of a craftsman’ from a mentor. This means that a great craftsman can build something beautiful out of whatever he has because his skills are in his heart and in his hands.

Cohen, who made his first sale on a porch swing he crafted in a neighbor’s pigpen, took his heart of a craftsman ideals to an entirely different level in the decades to follow. His company, Cohen Architectural Woodworking of St. James, Mo. has won numerous awards. A few include the SBA’s Small Business Person of the Year, induction into the St. Louis Small Business Hall of Fame, Forbes Small Giants Award, and six Awards of Excellence from the Architectural Woodwork Institute.

While humbled by these honors, Phil’s even more proud of his company’s culture and attitude within. He’s endured some hardships and has quite a story to tell. 

This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue.

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