When explorers first passed through the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys, they found trees unlike any they had seen before, with large heart-shaped leaves, a shower of white, springtime flowers, and long beanlike seeds in the fall and winter. Cherokee Indians called them catalpa. The wood's low density contributes to exceptionally small rates of shrinkage and warping. Catalpa also resists cracking. A cross- section of a catalpa log is virtually all heartwood.
It's relatively soft and lightweight, comparable to butternut in these respects, and a poor choice for projects that will see a lot of use, or as structural components. But for applications where extra durability isn't critical, catalpa, with its wavy open grain and subtle tan coloring, can be quite attractive.
Carvers love catalpa because it's easy to cut and shape, and it holds details well. Its outstanding decay resistance makes it the perfect choice for outdoor sculpture, and it can attain diameters and heights large enough to carve full-size human figures. The wood is ring-porous, and the variations in ring hardness make sanding tricky. It's possible to sand away the softer, porous rings if care is not taken, creating an uneven surface. Staining and finishing catalpa produces excellent results, thanks in part to the wood's porous open grain.
Wood grain images provided by HobbitHouseInc.com