Branching out: 4 substitute wood products you should try
The holy-grail quest of the lumber world has long been to find an inexpensive and sustainable alternative to genuine mahogany. The various African and South American substitutes that rise to the challenge often become increasingly unavailable and pricey as they gain prominence.
In steps Lyptus. A eucalyptus hybrid grown in sustainable-growth plantations in Brazil, Lyptus is distributed by Weyerhaeuser (800-320-9720) and sold by retailers. such as Floors 'N Floors. Lyptus reaches maturity in about 15 years—2 to 4 times faster than similar hardwoods in colder climates—keeping its price low and its availability high.
WHY YOU SHOULD TRY IT: The color of Lyptus ranges from light pink to a deep cherry tone, and it finishes easily. While Lyptus's hardness, durability, and price are on par with hard maple, its fine grain resembles genuine mahogany. You can even find Lyptus plywood in a variety of thicknesses, colors and core options.
WATCH OUT FOR: Splintering. Lyptus splinters easily, so back up your routing, cutting, and drilling with scrap. (Some woodworkers choose to wear gloves when handling Lyptus to avoid the small splinters.) Like hard maple, Lyptus can be tough on your tools. Use carbide-tipped blades and bits and make sure that they are sharp to reduce splintering and tear-out. When routing, make multiple passes, removing no more than 1⁄8 " of material at a time.
Sheet Goods: Combination Core
As manufacturers continue to reduce the thickness of veneer on sheet goods, it becomes easier to accidentally sand through that thin outer skin. And while hardwood-veneered sheets of medium-density fiberboard (MDF-core) give you smoothness, they're not suitable for applications where rigidity and strength count. Our advice: Take a look at combination-core sheet goods. Marketed variously as Combi Core, Armor Core, Classic Core, and Pro Core, combination-core sheet goods sandwich softwood plies between MDF layers, which are then faced with hardwood veneer.
WHY YOU SHOULD TRY IT: Combination-core sheet goods blend the best qualities of plywood and MDF. The plywood core provides rigidity and holding power for screws while keeping the weight to a more manageable level than MDF-core sheets. The MDF layers ensure that the imperfect plies don't telegraph through the top layer of veneer, giving you a smoother surface and a void-free substrate. These sheet goods are perfect for desktops or other surfaces that need a high-gloss finish where surface irregularities might otherwise stand out. Check with your local lumber supplier for availability.
WATCH OUT FOR: Price. You'll pay 5%–20% more for combination-core than for veneer- and MDF-core sheet goods. But that's not nearly as much as replacing the plywood you ruined while sanding out surface irregularities.
Outdoor Projects: Ipe
Looking for the ultimate, insect-repellent, rot-resistant wood for your next outdoor project? Take a look at ipe (pronounced EE-pay). Ipe's rich color and unmatched durability have made it the darling of deck construction for several years. Lumber retailers increasingly stock ipe as dimensioned hardwood. When finished properly, ipe makes a striking choice for outdoor furniture, planters, arbors, and footbridges.
WHY YOU SHOULD TRY IT: Ipe's durability seems almost magical. Naturally resistant to decay, moisture, insects—even fire—it's so dense that it actually sinks in water. And, though its price runs about twice that of cypress or cedar, with proper treatment, outdoor projects made from ipe will long outlive these less-durable woods and may very well outlive you.
WATCH OUT FOR: Construction considerations. Ipe's hardness is rough on cutters. Be sure to use sharp, carbide-tipped blades and bits. To avoid surface checking, immediately treat the ends of ipe with a wax-based end-grain sealer after cutting it. To maintain a rich walnut color, apply an annual treatment of a penetrating oil finish containing UV inhibitors such as Penofin (800-736-6346).
No longer limited to a dietary staple for pandas, bamboo is actually a grass with some pretty amazing qualities. It grows to harvestable size in 3–5 years and regrows after cutting. Its stalks can be cut into strips and laminated to form a surprisingly hard and stable woodlike material. Bamboo is making its way into all types of applications, from flooring and kitchen countertops to sheet goods and decorative banding.
WHY YOU SHOULD TRY IT: Manufacturers, such as Totally Bamboo (760-471-6600), manipulate the distinct yet subtle grain patterns and color, to produce a nearly endless variety of patterns. As the even-toned, knot-free looks of bamboo become more and more popular, watch for an increasing number of products and materials made out of this versatile and affordable plant.
WATCH OUT FOR: Shredding. Use fine grits when sanding and shallow cuts when routing to avoid shredding bamboo's fibers. Also, bamboo's porous end grain quickly absorbs all liquids. Seal surfaces against moisture with an oil finish or polyurethane to avoid warping and swelling.