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Pacific madrone is fine for furniture

The farther one lives from the growing range of Pacific madrone, the less likely it is the person will buy, use or even know about the West Coast wood. Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) is also known as madrone and arbuti, and it grows in the coastal regions of southwestern British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. It is sold as dimensional lumber, burl and burl veneer, and used for furniture, cabinetry and flooring.

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“It’s off the radar here,” explains Ben Barrett of Berkshire Veneer Co. in Great Barrington, Mass. “Those of us on the East Coast don’t really know about it except in burl form. It’s pretty common in burl form and it’s a sweetheart for the woodworker because it is usually really user-friendly. It is flat, and it doesn’t have a tremendous amount of holes in it so it’s a great burl for professional and amateur woodworkers.”

Pacific madrone is an evergreen tree, which generally reaches heights of 60' to 80' with diameters of 2' to 3'. Some huge trees, up to 120' with diameters of 4' to 5', can be found in the redwood forests along the Oregon and California border. The heartwood of Pacific madrone ranges from a light pink to a reddish-brown with occasional darker spots. The sapwood is a creamy white, and the tree is easily recognized by its peeling bark, which leaves a shiny red appearance. The species has been referred to by some as “the poor man’s Swiss pearwood.”

“The look of madrone is like steamed European pear,” says John Keppinger of Klamath Falls, Ore., who has been a madrone dealer for more than 30 years. “It’s a real beautiful wood and it oxidizes a rich chocolate brown with a pinkish color to it. As it ages, it just gets prettier and prettier, just like cherry does.”

“The majority is sold as lumber, mostly it goes into furniture and cabinetmaking,” says Myles Gilmer, of Gilmer Wood Co., in Portland, Ore. “The Krenovian guys like it because it is sort of a domestic sustainable species that has the characteristic and colors of pear, which they like. It’s a pretty fast-growing tree and there are large amounts of it, and it doesn’t seem like it is threatened by any forest pests.”

The lumber is usually steamed for six to eight hours and then cooled rapidly before the drying process starts since it is prone to warp and check. Steaming the wood diminishes the possibility of cellular collapse in the middle of the boards. It also provides for a more consistent color throughout the wood.

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“Madrone should be cured out and it’s a steaming process,” Keppinger says. “We put it in a pressure cooker, just like your home pressure cooker if you’re canning beef or canning tomatoes or whatever. It is 4' in diameter and 22' long, and then we have another one that’s 6' in diameter and 70' long.

“What it does is it causes the wood to not shrink as much and it releases the inner-cellular water out into the free water. When it goes to shrinking or drying, it literally shrinks about one-third. Normal volumetric shrinkage in air-dried, kiln-dried madrone is about 14 to 16 percent, and our shrinkage is about 5 to 6 percent, which is about the same as pine dries and shrinks.”

The drying process for 4/4 and 5/4 takes about three or four months and can be done from spring to fall; for heavier stock such as 6/8 and 8/4 it takes about a year.

“In lumber it is mostly 4" to 10" wide, but it is not unusual to get material that’s up to 24" to 30" wide,” Gilmer says. “So there are table slabs that are available. There’s a lot of figure in it, you get a lot of big curl that is about as wide as your finger in it, that’s pretty common. The real tight figure you hardly ever see. I think it should all be quartersawn for stability’s sake, because flatsawn boards are a little bit squirrelly.”

“Our customers have been pretty receptive. They like it; it has a lot of character to it, and they like the transitions in it,” says Gary Michael of The Joinery, a custom furniture business in Portland, Ore. “A lot of it tends to have some figure in it, some highlights that you don’t see until it is finished. We use an oil product on all of our stuff, so as soon as it is finished that figure tends to pop a little bit, has a shimmer to it. But really, the biggest attribute is the color range of it.”

Madrone has a fine texture, is moderately dense, and has an average reported specific gravity of .58. Once properly dried, the wood accepts stains and displays an exceptional finish.

“As far as milling goes, it’s real dense, it will dull your knives out,” adds Michael. “If you have wide belt sanders, you need to incrementally take a little bit less off, it won’t machine as fast. But the finish on it is really nice.”

Madrone burls are common and are relatively inexpensive compared to imported burls. They often exhibit a fiddleback, curly figure that is sometimes called “rivers and valleys,” because from a distance the burl looks like a topographical map of rivers and valleys.

“It’s a low- to moderate-priced burl,” Barrett says. “A lot of the burls brought into this country are bought in Europe, and we have to pay for them in euros. So between the freight and the euro, it can be expensive. With madrone, we can avoid a lot of those costs. Sometimes they can come in some pretty monster sizes because they’re peeled. You can get them 18" x 36", 20" x 40".”

Madrone lumber retails between $6 and $10/bf, while curly madrone ranges from $18 to $20/bf. Piles of 3" to 4" burl lumber were quoted at $5/lb. Burl is also sold by the board foot, ranging from $10 to $22/bf depending on the intensity of the burl. Burl veneer is priced at $3 to $4/sq. ft.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.

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