Bamboo basics

Q:

I make bases for trophies and backs for clocks using laminated bamboo, which I purchase as kitchen cutting boards about 1" thick. I find it very attractive and inexpensive. Is it available in lumber form from wood suppliers, and in what thicknesses and widths? Also, can you tell me more about its properties and recommended finishes? 
—Ron Whiteley, Port Credit, Ont.

A:

Bamboo—not really a wood, but a fast-growing grass—can be laminated to make everything from veneers to ply panels and dimensional stock comparable to sawn lumber, Ron. Bamboo strips cut from the stalk are laminated one of two ways, shown above: horizontally (also called “flat”) or vertically. The horizontal pattern uses strips resting flat on their faces, showing the nodes from the stalk. Uniformly spaced lines indicate a vertical lamination. Bamboo comes in its natural pale blond color or with a light brown tint formed when the strips become caramelized during the lamination process. 

Your biggest obstacle may be finding bamboo in sizes large enough for your projects. A good source for bamboo “boards” may be your local flooring dealer. For panels and wider stock, try a mail-order supplier. The samples shown here came from Northwest Bamboo (503/695-3283 or nwbamboo.com), which provides solid laminations up to 12×96×1116 " for stair treads, veneers in 4×8' sheets, and a variety of cross-laminated ply panels in 34 " and three-ply panels 14 " thick.

Bamboo machines much like moderately dense hardwoods, but the long, thin fibers tend to break off easily at the ends when crosscut. Back up all of your cuts, and lay a sacrificial piece of scrap on top of the line when you make crosscuts to help reduce tear-out. Though not heavy, bamboo is hard enough that it needs to be routed using quick passes to avoid burns. Sanding up to 180-grit levels the many thin, hard fibers to produce a smooth surface. Watch out for bamboo’s small, sharp splinters.

Oil-based stains can be used on bamboo without blotching, although the texture traps stain pigments to create a busy but even pattern. For more uniform color, use a water-based dye. All film finishes are suitable for bamboo.

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