When botanist Archibald Menzies first spotted what came to be called madrone at Port Discovery, California, in the spring of 1792, he was impressed. He dubbed the tree an ornament of the otherwise dark conifer forest that "will at all times attract the notice of the most superficial observer." Later, naturalist John Muir likened the standout madrone to a lost wanderer from the magnolia groves of the South. Both observers were accurate. Madrone-with its smooth, orangish bark, green leathery, magnolia-like leaves, and spreading countenance, appears quite dissimilar from its towering neighbors. And its wood stands alone, too. Woodworkers familiar with madrone cringe at the thought that the wood once was sought solely as the most suitable source for charcoal to produce gunpowder. That's because madrone proves to be a handsome, fine-textured furniture- and cabinet-class stock that produces a luster few woods can match. To the joy of woodturners, madrone readily burls when it grows in areas that give it the opportunity for its branches to spread.
Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) is sometimes called madrona or madrono, and scientifically is always preceded by the word Pacific. That's because there's a Texas version of the species, and a Mexican one, too. But most of the madrone you see as woodworking stock and veneer comes from a range that extends from southern British Columbia down to California's central coast.In that coastal band, you can find madrone everywhere there's a forest, and in nearly any size. In rugged mountain terrain madrone may only reach shrub size. In rich soil among the redwoods, the tree may attain 100-foot heights and diameters of 2-4'. Just like the early explorers of the Pacific Coast, you won’t have difficulty picking out madrone from the other forest trees. Unless you discover a very old, graying tree, its bark will be smooth and orange-colored. In May and June, clusters of white flowers hang amidst the leathery dark-green leaves (that only fall when new ones grow, so the tree always appears green). Later, the flowers turn to orange-red, berrylike fruits, presenting a colorful show. Madrone's heartwood is a pale reddish brown, somewhat resembling apple wood, while its sapwood appears cream-colored. The fine-textured, dense, hard, and heavy wood (about the same as maple) has an irregular pattern of growth rings that presents an attractive pattern.
Uses in woodworking
Because of its texture and frequent burls, madrone has become the woodturner's darling for everything from bowls to lamps and novelty items. It was once used for the bowls of smoking pipes, too. The wood rates as a first-class furniture stock, also. Veneer manufacturers like madrone's exquisitely figured burls. Their product becomes inlays and marquetry.
Unfortunately, madrone in lumber form is a rare commodity unless you live on the Pacific Coast, where its cost may rival the $4 or more per board foot of walnut. Figured boards may cost four times that. Veneer suppliers normally carry burled madrone at about $2.25 per square foot. Mail-order sources catering to woodturners often carry turning blanks and blocks of madrone burl. If you harvest your own wood for woodworking stock-and live where madrone grows-air-dry this species slowly before any kiln-drying. If you don't, it warps and checks. Once dry, however, madrone becomes one of the stablest of woods. And, if you take the following advice, you shouldn't have any trouble working it.
- Madrone's hardness and density dull cutting edges, so use carbide-tipped blades and bits.
- Figured boards require a very slow feed into the planer, but never plane to exact thickness. Leave a little for sanding. If you don't, some tearout may occur.
- Madrone has fine texture and straight grain, and although it's not likely to burn easily, it is somewhat stubborn in parting. That means using a rip-profile blade with 28 teeth or less on your tablesaw or radial-arm to avoid tearout. If you still have difficulty, leave about 1⁄32 " extra wood for a jointing pass to clean up the edge, especially if you're machining figured boards.
- Crosscut and dado madrone with the help of a backing board.
- Twist drill bits will surely wander on hard madrone, so always drill with bradpoints or spurred bits for a clean hole. Provide for a backing board to lessen tearout.
- To rout this wood cleanly, take shallow passes with sharp bits. For cross-grained routing, rely on the backing board again.
- You can sand madrone to mirrorlike smoothness, but be sure to use progressively finer paper and don't skip a grit or you'll develop finite scratches.
- Madrone's density definitely means predrilling for screws, then lubricating them with beeswax before driving.
- The wood's density also means special treatment when gluing to avoid joint slippage. Use a dark-shaded glue so that any squeezeout won't show, and make sure that it has a long open time. Doing this allows you to put down a lighter coat, then briefly join the pieces before pulling them apart. Let the glue set up, then reassemble the parts.
- Select any stain and clear finish you prefer. Madrone accepts them all well.
- You won't have problems turning madrone, as long as you keep your gouges sharp.
- Madrone discourages hand-tool carvers. Power carvers with carbide-tipped cutters generally shouldn't have any trouble.
- Beware the switching grain direction of figured madrone because it tears out. Best bet: Start with medium-cut burs, then change to finer ones.
Any exceptions-and special tips pertaining to this issue's featured wood species-appear under other headings on this page.
- For stability in use, always work wood with a maximum moisture content of 8 percent.
- Feed straight-grained wood into planer knives at a 90° angle. To avoid tearing, feed figured or twisted grain at a slight angle (about 15°), and take shallow cuts of about 1⁄32 ".
- For clean cuts, rip with a rip-profile blade with 24-32 teeth. Smooth crosscutting requires at least a 40-tooth.
- Avoid using twist drills. They tend to wander off in the wood and cause breakout. Use a backing board under the workpiece to reduce tearout.
- Drill pilot holes for screws.
- Rout with sharp, preferably carbide-tipped, bits and take shallow passes to avoid burning.
- Carving hardwoods means fairly shallow gouge bevels-15° to 20°-and shallow cuts.