In the eyes of Native Americans, the mesquite tree of the Southwest represented both shade and sustenance. The tree's sugar-rich bean pods fur nished food and drink. Its sap became black dye, gum, and medicine. And sewing needles were made from its sharp thorns. The tribes relied on mesquite wood, too, for fuel, arrows, lodge frames, and even plowshares. Later, pioneer hands worked mesquite into timbers, railroad ties, fence posts, wagon wheels, and sturdy rustic furniture. In the late 1800s, citizens of San Antonio paved the streets leading to their Texas shrine, the Alamo, with mesquite slabs. In testament to mesquite's durability, remnants of the wood still surface from the activity of street maintenance. While most 20th-century craftsmen equate mesquite with only the barbecue grill, bands of aficionados promote the wood as furniture-class stock. Their efforts have lifted the wood's reputation out of its native land.
Seven species of mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa, P. juliflora, P. pubescens, and others) cover some 54 million acres of Texas, and parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Mexico. Wherever it grows, it's hardy and persistent. In the arid part of its range, you'll see mesquite as more of a shrub than a tree. But in favorable conditions it grows to 50' with a single, but crooked, trunk up to 3' in diameter. Chocolate-colored, furrowed, and scaly bark make mesquite easy to identify. Its wide, spreading canopy made of twisted branches and long, thin leaves may be the only silhouette on an otherwise featureless landscape. Spring through fall, yellowish white flowers appear, followed by bean pods up to 8" long. Sharp thorns are everpresent. The wood of mesquite can vary in color from dark brown with wavy, blackish lines to camel tan. Whatever its color, the grain is straight to wavy, medium to coarse in texture, and tightly interlocked. Weighing 45 pounds per cubic foot dry, it's as heavy as hickory and as strong, but even harder. And the wood rates as stable in use, indoors and out.
Uses in woodworking
Mesquite can be made into furniture, especially long-wearing tables and chairs. It also becomes carvings, turnings, hardworking flooring, premium gunstocks, and knife handles.
Mesquite may never reach great commercial importance for woodworking outside its regional range because of a relatively small size and commonly bent and twisted trunk. However, many small companies throughout the Southwest (especially Texas) offer the wood as turning squares, blocks, and in board form. Sawn veneer is some times available, too. Expect to pay up to $10 per board foot for premium stock. For a free, soft-cover directory of mesquite suppliers (some selling by mail order) and users, send a request to Mesquite Industry Directory, Texas Forest Products Laboratory, P.O. Box 310, Lufkin, TX 75901. Or telephone 409/639-8180. Also use this address to contact the two active promotional groups for this cabinet-class woodworking stock, Los Amigos del the Mesquite (Friends of the Mesquite) and the Texas Mesquite Association. Mesquite seasons exceptionally well, with little checking, shrinkage, or warp. However, the hard wood has a high extractive content which tends to overheat cutting blades. Use carbide-tipped blades and cutters for your power tools, and follow these tips to work mesquite.
- Mesquite's hardness and interlocking grain often equate to chipping and tearout when planing. To lessen the problem, feed the wood at a slight angle and take light passes that only remove about 1⁄32 " at a time.
- Feed mesquite slowly against the blade when ripping, giving the gullets plenty of time to clear themselves of sawdust.
- Selecting the correct grain direction when feeding the jointer should pose little problem, but chipping can occur. Start by setting the table height for a 1⁄16 " cut. If there's no tearout, increase the cut to 1⁄8 ".
- Use only spurred bits and slower drill-press speeds for mesquite. Clear the bit frequently in thick stock to avoid burnishing the hole sides (glue won't be absorbed).
- Reducing tearout and chipping when routing means shallow passes rather than a heavy one, and a consistent feed rate. Use a backing board to rout end grain.
- Cross-grain sanding on mesquite produces scratches. Where grains meet at right angles, clean up with a cabinet scraper or random- orbit sander. And do not skip grits when sanding this wood.
- When gluing mesquite, use an adhesive with a longer open time. This allows you to lay down a light coat of glue, briefly join the pieces, then pull them apart to allow the adhesive to partially set up before rejoining.
- Always predrill mesquite for nails and screws because of its hardness and density.
- Mesquite poses few problems when staIning. Yet, it's best to let the beautiful character of the wood show through a clear finish or penetrating oil. The amount of figure your wood displays should guide your choice.
- Mesquite, unlike most woods, can be carved green because it checks very little as it dries. You will need power-carving burs, though, starting with less aggressive ones to remove material without tearout.
- The wood is excellent for turning. Use sharp tools, hone them regularly, and avoid scratches by sanding with the grain while the lathe is off.
Any exceptions, and special tips pertaining to this featured wood species, appear elsewhere on this page.
- For stability in use indoors, always work wood with a maximum moisture content of 6-7 percent. Wood for outdoor projects can have 12 percent moisture.
- Feed straight-grained wood into planer knives at a 90° angle. To avoid tearing, feed figured wood or that with interlocking grain at a slight angle of 15°, and take shallow cuts of about 1⁄32 ".
- For clean cuts, rip with a rip-profile blade that has 24-32 teeth. For crosscutting, use a blade with about 40 teeth.
- Avoid drilling with twist drills. They tend to wander from the start hole and cause breakout. Use a backing board under the workpiece when drilling.
- 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.