Not Your Typical Woods for Turning

Not Your Typical Woods for Turning

In the last issue, Rob asked about your thoughts and experiences with common (i.e., not exotic), but nontypical, hardwoods that have been better for woodturning than for flat work. Here’s a few thoughts from readers on a variety of species. – Editor

“Two which can be found occasionally, which I really enjoy, are apple and rhododendron. Both turn well and you will find both grain and color not common to other woods.” – Chris Byers

“How about Osage orange (Maclura pomifera).” – Jim Morvay

“My absolute favorite is Platanus racemosa, the California sycamore or Western sycamore. White to cream, a wonder to work and fantastic graining. Turns well and can be turned green to thin wall with the usual care of not letting it dry too fast.” – Riley Grotts

“Try mesquite! It, too, has a dark center with lighter sapwood. Very hard, accepts finishing well and is very colorful when turned and finished with friction polish. Readily available here in Arizona.” – Wayne J. Germain

“Recently, I turned some sassafras. It’s not ideal for anything. It’s very open grained, and I charred it and featured the grain with liming wax, producing a rather nice hollow form. Point is, almost anything can be turned to produce an attractive piece.” – Barry Saltsberg

“Although I have not turned any dogwood, it is a beautiful hardwood that I have used for drawer fronts in some small casework. It has light pink and maple coloring, and the grain looks very much like hard maple.” – Dave Smith

“Bradford pear is one that I find pleasing.” – Mark Nelon

“In India, we turn the wood which gives good effect and also is easy to turn and give good finish: ash, beech, teak, Valsadi teak. These four woods make wonders. Valsadi teak is produced in Valsad city, Gujarat state, in the country of India. It is a premium and costly wood.” – Dhwani Shah

We also heard from someone who had tips for Rob on the elm he was working with. – Editor

“[Elm], when wet, smells like wet dog and shavings can stain clothes. When dry, can be turned, but need very sharp tools. Wavy grain can look good in some cuts and completely different in others. My elm pieces were salvaged years ago from the local village next to a free woodchip pile. Sanding may be uneven between early and late wood bands. Not sure if a scraper might be a better alternative.” – Edward Keating

And this reader seems to have a lot of experience with turning a wide variety of woods. – Editor

“I’ve turned most of the species native and invasive to Pennsylvania. Among those that I have turned that would not show up in flat work:
“Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica): Difficult to split (although I tend to saw out blanks). When turned, the wood often moves some and is prone to drying cracks. Having said that, it can have interesting colors from browns and tans to nearly black (might be rot-related).

“Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana): Often a relatively small understory tree; however, I have found it approaching 12 inches in diameter. Because it grows slowly and tends to retain branches for a relatively long time, there are often lumps and bumps along the stem. These often contain interesting flame grain patterns as well as, occasionally, black flecking. Ostrya is in in the Betulaceae (birch) family.

“Black birch (Betula lenta), also called sweet birch: This is the second most common tree in Pennsylvania. It can attain relatively large sizes and is quite dense. It often has an interesting red heartwood, which finishes nicely. I’ve often found interesting wood patterns in crotches and in the lower part of the stump. Smells wonderful when turning green.

“Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis): This tree is in the same family as Elm (Ulmaceae) and therefore has the ring porous grain pattern. The wood, at least initially, is creamy white, but picks up interesting stains (blues and greens). It is also stringy and is known to bend well.

“Mazzard cherry (Prunus avium): This is a sweet cherry from Europe. It is particularly common in southeast Pennsylvania, but shows up in woodlands across the ridge and valley parts of the state. The heartwood color, when it ages, is a deeper red/purple than is found in black cherry (P. serotine). The wood, when turned, is very sweet smelling (a favorite of some turners in our club). It often has very wide growth rings, but holds together well. This cherry is often found in Lancaster County cherry furniture from the mid-1800s and later. It is not as dense as our native cherry.

“Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida): Not generally a large tree (8 to 12 inches in diameter is big). It is a diffuse, porous wood with very even grain. It turns very well. Great for small pieces. The wood can vary from white to dark purple-brown.

“Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis): I suppose this is a relatively common tree in many places, and it shows up in drawer sides and whatnot. In flatwood, I’ve found it likes to twist until dry; hence, its role in interior stock. With careful selection, it displays amazing ray flecks that can seem to jump out of the wood. I’ve turned bowls from it, and not been particularly impressed; however, I did have some that spalted and made interesting pieces. When it spalts, the grain nearly disappears. I recently turned some rolling pins from it and loved the end product. It was commonly used in butcherblocks because it does not split easily when dry and does not transfer any ‘tastes.’

“Sycamore maple (Acer psuedoplantanus); Known by Europeans as ‘sycamore.’ It is a maple. Again, I’ve only had one opportunity to have this wood. I was particularly happy to have it as it had interesting response to internal decay with spectacular colors and grain patters. It cut much as red maple (Acer rubrum).

“Box elder (Acer negundo): Not sure I’ve ever seen it sawn, although it can be very large. The wood is relatively light in weight. I believe it often sold as ambrosia maple because it tends to be prone to rot and insect infestation (Ambrosia beetles), which tend to introduce brownish strains. The red colosr often found in box elder are not a result of ambrosia beetles; rather, there is some agreement that it is other rotting fungi. The red color is ephemeral and, to retain it in turnings, it is best to keep them out of light. It might be useful to use a UV-reducing finish.

“Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos): Ring porous with a color of yellow to brownish. I turned only a bit of it and found it moved quite a bit. Was not interested in turning much more.

“American holly (Ilex opaca): shows up in furniture (stringing); I have turned some small bowls. It is diffuse porous and very even grained, allowing that you can turn it thin. One of my favorite turnings is a small flared rim bowl, which is kind of vase-shaped.

“Apple (Malus sp.): Apple is dense and, until dry, it moves and cracks some to a lot. Turning it green, it is really wet. I like the final outcome and color, but will in the future hold it for finials and small pieces.

“Bradford or Callery pear (Pyrus sp): Commonly planted street and yard trees from Japan and China. Increasingly, this is being recognized as a hardy, nasty, invasive tree species. The wood can be quite white. In my experience, it can have interesting grain flame as it tends to have many branches. The one I turned was stored in the fencerow for a year or so. It developed an interesting rich brown color. We should find good uses to take this out of the landscape!

“Norway maple (Acer plantanoides): Another invasive tree species often planted as yard and street trees. It develops a deep crown and casts heavy shade, which allows it to dominate in a forest. I go out of my way to find Norway maple. The wood tends to be very white and will have amazing feather grain. It turns very well.

“Red mulberry (Morus rubra): Fun wood with a great yellow color when first turned. Turns a deep brown.

“Osage orange (Maclura pomifera): Another great yellow color, which again turns brown. I’ve seen splits, but never sawn.” – Jim Finley

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