According to the scribes of ancient Rome, woodworkers considered precious the wood thuya (Tetraclinis articulata). Even in 100 B.C., Marcus Tulius Cicero, a noted Roman statesman, paid 300,000 denarii (about $60,000) for a table made from this native wood of Morocco and Algeria's Atlas Mountains.
However, thuya's premium price was no doubt attributable to Solomon, who ruled Israel about 800 years before Cicero lived. To augment the Lebanese cedar in his new temple, Solomon sent axmen to Northwest Africa to seek exciting wall material. There they discovered the greatly figured and fragrant thuya, or thyine wood, as it's called in the Bible. Solomon's laborers cut great quantities, setting thuya's popularity—and demand—for the following centuries.
Thuya, a type of cypress, never grows very large. At best, it attains a 50' height and develops a 1' -diameter trunk that's very often twisted. Its yellowish brown to red heartwood, though, always has desirable figure and works easily to a smooth finish.
Today, little thuya wood leaves its native land in board form. Instead, workers dig beneath the ground to retrieve the tree's root burls. These are sliced into thin, bird's-eye figured veneers for marquetry and custom furniture. It seems that the root of the thuya tree has a tendency to copice (develop new sprouts) under-ground. Where these sprouts die off, a beautiful burl always forms.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson