The wood of kings, railroad trains, and many names

King Solomon, proverbial for his wisdom in governing the Israelites during the 10th century B.C., must have really known his wood, too. He chose stalwart padauk for the pillars of his temple.

French Kings Louis XV and Louis XVI were separated from Solomon by thousands of years. Yet, these 17th-century rulers also favored a red-orange padauk they called narra. With it, royal woodworkers crafted kingly cups and chalices. Because water placed in these vessels turned yellow, royalty believed the "potion" had medicinal properties.

A century later, the colorful wood of Solomon and the Louis attracted even wider acclaim. As a veneer named amboyna, padauk was featured in Empire-style furniture.

Far removed from European pomp and furniture fashion of the 1800s, convicts sent to British penal colonies in the Andaman islands off Burma labored to supply the padauk sought by world craftsmen. In fact, Chicago's Pullman Company imported much of this exotically beautiful and durable "Andaman" padauk to panel railroad passenger cars.

All seven species we recognize as padauk belong to the genus Pterocarpus. African padauk (P. soyauxi), sometimes referred to as vermillion, is the only padauk species readily available today. Others occasionally sold include Andaman padauk (P. dalbergioides), Angola padauk or muniga, kiaat (P. angolensis), Burmese padauk (P. macrocarpus), narra (P. indicus), and sandalwood padauk (P. santalinus).

Padauk grows in tropical climates, although the geography changes from rain forest to dry, nearly treeless plains with each species. You'll find padauk in India, Indochina, the South Pacific, West Africa, and even southern Florida.

Except for squatty African muninga, most padauk trees look like elms, with large, spreading crowns reaching to a height of 120'. Averaging 7' in girth, their slightly irregular, fluted trunks have smooth, yellow-tinted bark. Trunks often have no branches for the first 65'.

The leaves of some padauk species provide protein in human diets as a substitute for green vegetables. All padauks bear distinctive, round, inedible fruit banded by a flat wing that gives them a flying saucer-like appearance. In fact, pterocarpus means "winged fruit."

Depending on the species, padauk's coarse-grained heartwood varies in color from a lustrous purple-red to orange-red. With age and exposure to sunlight, it turns deep maroon. Quartersawn wood features a pronounced ribbon stripe. Sapwood never reaches market.

About as heavy, but strongr than oak, padauk generally works exceptionally well with either hand or power tools. You'll have no trouble gluing padauk, and screws remain secure.

The wood sands easily, but for a glass-smooth finish, we recommend a paste wood filler or sealer to even out its open grain. Clear finishes should contain an ultraviolet inhibitor to reduce padauk's tendency to darken. Sanding dust may stain your hands and clothes, and may even irritate your nose. And, padauk's bright dust can discolor adjacent unfinished stock if it's of a lighter shade.

A first-class furniture and cabinet wood, padauk also makes fine turnings, carvings, and musical instruments. Because it has a high resistance to abrasion has great strength, and it doesn't readily decay, it adapts well to cutting board stock. Seaworthy boats have even been made of padauk.

Due to freight costs, padauk prices run higher inland than on the East, West, and southern coasts. Except for Amboyna burl and vermillion, little padauk becomes veneer.

African padauk costs about the same as top-grade black walnut. Other padauks demand higher prices, as do veneers.

Illustration:Steve Schindler