Working and turning Pacific Madrone

Working and turning Pacific Madrone

Dale Larson

Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) is an evergreen broad leaf tree that grows along the Pacific coast from California to British Columbia.  Its primary use has been for firewood. This beautiful reddish colored wood has traditionally not been used in woodworking because the wood warps and cracks as it dries.

In 1995 a friend called up and said a neighbor had taken down a Madrone tree. He asked if I would like some of the wood. Knowing the wood was unstable I hesitated then asked him to bring some of the Madrone over.

I had read about a man down on the Oregon coast that cooked Madrone logs in big veneer boiling vats to stabilize the wood. I got my mom’s old pressure cooker out. I then roughed turned the Madrone into bowl blanks. I put the bowl blanks in the pressure cooker and covered them with water. I cooked the wood under pressure for two hours. I let the bowls cool in the water (if you take them out too quick the water inside the blanks will boil off and the blank will crack). I then dried the blanks like any other wood.

I waited a few months and then finished turned the bowls. What a wonderful wood. It is moderately hard but not brittle at all. My description is that it cuts like butter. It does not dull the tool edge. I was able to get very smooth cuts with my tools. I could shear scrape the bowl to the point I just about didn’t have to sand it. It is not a dusty wood at all. The color goes from pale tan to deep red.

Since that time my dad has removed several Madrone trees and stumps. The prettiest wood is in the stump burls. That is also where the rocks and dirt are. We learned to spend a lot of time sharpening our saws. Madrone has a wide and deep crotch pattern. The crotch is generally bark free. Some of the prettiest bowls come from the crotch area. It is some of the deepest red wood. Madrone seems to hold its red color over a long period of time. I have a burl bowl I turned in 1999. It is still deep red in color.

In 1998 I had my brother weld up a stainless steel tank. (An iron tank could cause a reaction with the tannic acid in the wood and discolor the wood). I now rough turn the bowls and put them in the tank. I cover the bowls with water and start a fire using my scrap wood. I boil the blanks for 2 to 3 hours and let them cool in the water. This process is much easier and safer than the pressure cooker. I can do bigger bowls and I’m not dealing with steam pressure. The water that comes out of the cooker is deep red and will stain anything it touches.

Drying the bowls takes some extra care. I do not wax the end grains on bowls I have boiled. The wet blanks want to spault. The spaulting is a dull brown color and not desirable in my opinion. Once out of the boiler I use dry stickers to stack the bowls on the floor of my shop. If you allow wet wood to touch each other it will spault. I will check the bowl blanks almost daily for a couple of weeks and then less frequently after that. Because the time of the year varies and where you are varies, here is how I gauge the drying rate: If the bowls start to mold, they are drying too slowly. If I see mold starting to form on the surface, I spray it with a mixture of 50/50 water/household bleach. The bleach will kill the mold but it will not discolor the wood below the surface. I put them in a heated and dehumidified room for a few hours. I may repeat this move several times over a few days. I watch until the surface of the wood is dry. It generally will not spault after the surface is dry.

If the bowl blank starts to crack it means the wood is drying too fast. I put thin CA glue on the crack. Then I put the bowl in a plastic bag with dry chips for a few days. The bowl wants to crack because the wood has un-equalized moisture content between the surface wood and the interior wood. Putting it in the plastic bags allows the bowl blank to re-equalize its moisture content. A bowl that wants to crack may go in and out of the bag several times. Some trees want to crack, some don’t. I have not figured out this answer.

It takes about 6 weeks for the rough Madrone bowls to become stable. They are not dry but they will not crack after this. I then put them up on a shelf and forget about them. In 6-8 months they will dry down to 12-14% moisture content in my unheated shop. I then move them to my drying room, which I keep at 70 degrees (Fahrenheit) and dehumidified year round. They dry down to 6-8%. At this point they are ready to finish turn.

You have to be willing to spend a little extra time watching and handling Madrone. I have learned that once Madrone is cooked it behaves like other woods. The cooking must take the stress out of the wood. It may crush the cell walls or affect the lignin. If I was more of a scientist I would find out why it works and experiment with boiling times. I simply know that it works for me. I have found that this boiling method also works to successfully dry bowl blanks of fruit cherry wood. Especially cherry blanks with sapwood in them. I have also been successful with apple wood blanks. (Boiled cherry blanks are more likely to spault.)

The bowls turned from dried Madrone are beautiful and have remained stable over time. It has been fun to learn how to work with this fine Pacific coast hardwood.