Great plains' guidepost.

Westward-bound wagonmasters of the mid-1800s scanned the horizon for the cottonwood because its presence always signaled water. That's how groves of cottonwood became gathering places for weary travelers.

Pioneer homesteaders planted the fast-growing trees as windbreaks, cut them for fence posts and firewood, and worked the wood into baskets and boxes. Hollowed-out logs even served as canoes and cargo vessels.

To the Mohave Indians, the cottonwood was also a primary resource. They ate the tree's raw catkins, consumed its inner bark as medicine, and wove baskets from its green twigs. The Hopi and Pueblo kachina dolls could only be carved from cottonwood roots--where good spirits lived.

Cottonwood claims 25 species around the world, from the Himalayan Mountains to the plateaus of Chile. The U.S. alone has 11 species. However, only two cottonwoods have commercial importance: Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), native from the Midwest to the Atlantic, and black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), which grows in the valleys of the Pacific Northwest.

Cottonwood favors moist, well-drained soil along waterways. There, it quickly sprouts from tiny seeds, cut stumps, roots, and even branch cuttings. In these conditions, cottonwood can average 5' in growth per year for its first 25 years. During a tree's 125-year lifespan, it may rise to a height of 150' with a diameter ranging from 7' to 8'. You'll recognize cottonwood by its thick, deeply fissured gray bark. But, perhaps more familiar will be its large, heart-shaped leaves and summertime tails of fluffy down, the "cotton" for which it was named.

The close-grained heartwood of cottonwood has a tan to brownish tone with gray or purple mineral streaks. Its thin sapwood is creamy white.

Due to cottonwood's light weight, lack of odor and taste, colorlessness, and nail-holding ability, about half of all the wood harvested becomes boxes and crates. The wood also holds printing inks better than most wood, making it ideal for shipping labels and logos. Although some cottonwood becomes commercial veneer for utility and low-priced furniture, most ends up as fruit and berry baskets or boxes.

All of cottonwood's commercial qualities add up to make it perfect for children's toys and games. Thin stock also adapts well to painted or stenciled scrollsaw projects. And, with qualities similar to basswood, cottonwood fulfills carvers' needs.

More often sold as carving blocks than lumber, cottonwood costs less than basswood. Where available as lumber (sometimes in 18 " thickness for drawer backs and bottoms), expect to pay about $1 per board foot. Veneer isn't usually retailed because demand is low.

When woodworkers shun cottonwood—either from unfamiliarity or rumors of instability—they miss out on a good wood at a great price. It's soft for a hardwood, but surprisingly strong, and it works easily with hand or power tools. The only fault cottonwood has is fuzzing. That is, hairlike wood fibers tend to lift--sometimes during machining, and always in finishing. Here's how to make the best of this overlooked wood:

  • Start with well-seasoned boards. Thick (more than 1") stock should be examined and felt for spot dampness coming from water pockets that result when processors rush the seasoning. Avoid these. And, for best results, bring all cottonwood indoors before working so that it can equalize with house humidity.
  • Plane cottonwood at high speed with sharp knives to lessen fuzzing (or at a high feed rate). Its tight, straight grain poses no jointing problems.
  • Unlike many hardwoods, cottonwood won't tear out or chip when crosscutting. Due to the wood's density, however, ripping requires a rip-set blade with no more than 24 teeth.
  • Although cottonwood doesn't burn easily against a router bit in cuts with or across the grain, it will fuzz, especially with dull bits.
  • Because this lightweight wood (at 28 pounds per cubic foot about a third lighter than walnut) doesn't split easily, it's not necessary to predrill for screws. And, all glues perform well.
  • Sanding creates surface fuzz, too. So, for the best results, apply a sanding sealer after you've given the wood its first once-over. Then, sand again.
  • Some cottonwood boards may have blueish-gray streaks. Under a clear finish, the streaks can look attractive. However, a pigmented stain will turn the streaks into a dark, unsightly discoloration. Note, too, that some cottonwood won't accept stain evenly without first applying a wood conditioner.

Heavier, but of about the same softness as basswood, cottonwood usually carves with little effort. Some pieces, probably depending on where the wood grew or how it was dried, will be tougher. Its grain does not lend itself well to fine detail. Some advice:

  • Cottonwood's tendency to fuzz translates to stringiness in carving. That is, unless you keep your cutting edges sharp, cuts won't be clean. Yet, a knife or gouge won't stray in the grain.
  • Because the wood has little color or figure, and lacks the luster that even basswood displays under the blade, carvings made from it usually require paint or stain.

Approved by the FDA for food containers, cottonwood works well for bowls. However, only shearing cuts with sharp tools defeat fuzzing.

  • Any exceptions, and special tips pertaining to the issue's featured wood species, appear under headings elsewere 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 wood with figured or twisted grain at a slight angle (about 15°), and take shallow cuts of about 132 ".
  • For clean cuts, rip with a rip-profile blade with 24-32 teeth. Smooth crosscutting requires about a 40-tooth blade.
  • Avoid drilling with twist drills. They tend to wander and cause breakout. Use a backing board under the workpiece.
  • Drill pilot holes for screws.
  • Rout with sharp, preferably carbide-tipped, bits and take shallow passes to avoid burning.
  • Carving hardwoods generally means shallow gouge bevels—15° to 20°—and shallow cuts.