The ready availability of exotic hardwoods for weekend and hobbyist woodworking is a trend that has happened within my lifetime. This is not to say that the lumber was not around or being used by various woodworkers in the early and middle 20th century — it certainly was. But it was not very easy for the average Joe or Jane to get their hands on it. And even that statement has to be qualified: as a young man, I regularly used superlative quality Honduras mahogany and exceptional teak and ebony lumber from halfway around the world, but I did not even know what aniegre was, or cocobolo, goncalo alves, jarrah, kiaat, lacewood, purpleheart, redheart, sapele or zircote...to name just a few. So, while I may have pined away for some Indian rosewood, I gave nary a thought to coveting a billet of highly figured bubinga. I simply did not know it even existed.
Times have certainly changed. Now, I not only know what narra is, but I’ve handled and used it. In terms of exotic lumber available to us average Joes and Josephines, there has never been a better time than right now. But the significant increase in the availability of these exotic options raises a couple of other problems that we did not need to deal with in days of yore (aka — my youth). Much like going to a restaurant that has a huge menu filled with delicious food, the wide variety makes our choices more complicated than ever. I don’t know about you, but I have not even used all the domestic hardwoods available (like the persimmon lumber sitting in my shop), much less doped out all these new exotic species. So much wood, so little time!
A Confluence of Interests
Although I have long had a general knowledge of international lumber trade, a unique opportunity to get a better understanding of the inner workings of the process presented itself recently, unbidden but welcome. Late in 2007, a fortunate coincidence occurred that eventually blended together to benefit a wood merchant, a hardwood lumber retailer, hobbyist woodworkers, this magazine and the country of Cameroon, where this whole story begins. Let me explain.
Rocky Mehta, the owner and driving force behind West Penn Hardwoods (www.westpennhardwoods.com), was traveling in Africa looking for hardwood when he heard of a remarkable — a once-in-a-lifetime — tree that had recently been harvested. There were four 20'-long sections of the tree remaining to be sold, and the question put to him was if he had an interest in purchasing one or more of those sections.
What was so special about this particular tree and its potential lumber? The answer was “just about everything.” While bubinga is not exactly rare, it is not considered common by any kind of measurement. Adding to this general scarcity was the size of this particular tree. It was huge: both in girth and in height. But as soon as this felled giant was sectioned up, it became clear that this tree was even more special...its figure, or grain, was exceedingly dramatic — Rocky describes it as a “waterfall” pattern.
One look at the log and Rocky knew he wanted U.S. woodworkers to get a chance at this lumber, but the scope of the project made him think that it would be wise to add a partner to this task. So he contacted Rick White, who, in addition to being a contributing editor for Woodworker’s Journal, is also the lumber buying guru for Rockler Woodworking and Hardware.
As Rocky moved a log section to Germany for processing and kiln drying, Rockler joined in the partnership, with the lumber reckoned to be valued at nearly $200,000.
Looking to the Future
With the decision to bring this special hardwood back to the U.S.A., Rockler’s V.P. of Marketing, Scott Ekman, and CEO, Ann Rockler Jackson, decided that while it was important to get this product into the hands of their customers, it would also be appropriate to take some of the money earned from its sale and invest it to support the world’s forests. Rockler achieved this goal by creating a plan to donate 10 percent of the profits from their bubinga lumber to the Nature Conservancy’s Adopt an Acre program.
The Nature Conservancy works in Africa, South America and in many other rainforests of the world. The Adopt an Acre program is a way of significantly protecting habitat so that in another 400 or 500 years, there can be a tree as impressive and special as the one that is providing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to woodworkers.
Join in the Fun and Support a Forest
One thing is for sure, this is a story that you can choose to participate in. If you would like to build something using lumber from this remarkable tree, it is now available from Rockler Woodworking and Hardware. I know that I am going to get my hands on some and build...something! It likely won’t be something really big — but I will take the time to be sure it is beautiful.