WoodSense: Canarywood

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This article is from Issue 95 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Birds of a feather. About the only thing consistent with canarywood is the inconsistency of its coloration, which can range from a tawny yellow to a rich reddish brown, often across the same board.

Singing the praises of a lesser-known species

By Ken Burton

You don’t have to see a lot of canarywood to know where it got its name. The brightly streaked yellowish/orangeish/reddish /brownish heartwood is reminiscent of many Springtime birds. And like birds whose feathers lose those bright colors in the fall, canarywood tends to darken to a rich, reddish-brown as the wood ages. The canarywood we see in the US comes from several species of the genus Centrolobium. The wood—which is marketed under a variety of names, including tarara amarilla, putumuju, and porcupinewood—reflects subtle variations in color and texture, depending on the particular species. 

Something to tweet about. Heavy, but not too hard, and with striking coloration, canarywood has a lot to offer the adventurous woodworker.

Where the wood comes from

The trees grow throughout South America and can reach over 100 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter, although those cut for lumber are typically 40-60' tall and about 16" in diameter. As of this writing, none of the species are designated on either the CITES list or the IUCN Red List as being endangered, and the lumber is widely available through exotic wood dealers.

History in woodworking

Canarywood hasn’t enjoyed the same furniture-grade pedigree as rosewood and other better known rainforest woods. It is more likely found in older South American buildings, where it was used as a construction timber, or outdoors, where it has served as railroad ties. However, due to increased trade in exotic timbers, you’ll now likely find canarywood used in boxes and other gift items at your local craft gallery as well as in musical instruments.

Selecting the best stock

As you can see from the photos above, canarywood varies a lot in color and grain pattern. If you intend to edge-glue boards to make up a wider panel, you may want to purchase extra stock for better grain matching. For the most part, the lumber available in the United States is sawn to 4 /4 thickness, although a few online sources carry heavier stock. You can also purchase turning blanks, ranging from pen-sized pieces on up through fairly large bowl stock. Prices are in the $10-15 / bd. ft. range.

Working and finishing

Canarywood is quite stable and works well with both hand and power tools. The lumber that’s imported tends to be knot-free and straight-grained, so it machines cleanly with minimal tearout. No special precautions are necessary when gluing. The wood also holds fasteners well, although drilling pilot holes is definitely recommended. Likewise, finishing with either water or oil-based products is generally problem-free.

Canarywood Uses

  • Furniture
  • Cabinetry
  • Turnings
  • Flooring
  • Musical instruments
  • Construction timber
  • Railroad ties

Perched canarywood. This carved bird on its turned perch show off the color variation offered by canarywood. Both pieces came from the same chunk of wood, and are finished with Danish oil.

Canarywood Working Notes

I find that when getting to know the character of a particular wood species, nothing provides better feedback than a chisel in the hands. So, for this month’s column, I opted to do a little carving and turning with my canarywood blanks. The subject matter was a no-brainer, as it seemed to me I had a bird in hand and can rarely resist a pun. I’ve been making stylized avians for years though normally I make them from cherry. (Watch for my article in our next issue on how to make your own!) 

I wasn’t sure what to expect when carving canarywood. By the numbers, the two species are quite different. Canarywood is about 50% heavier (52 vs 35 lbs./cubic foot) and about 50% harder (1520 on the janka scale vs 950). However, carving the two woods turned out to be very similar, largely due to the tight grain structure of both. Canarywood cuts beautifully with sharp carving knives and chisels and holds detail well. It also sands quickly, although it did tend to load the sandpaper just a bit. 

As a bonus, the sanding dust emits a pleasant scent. Turning the base “log” was an equal pleasure. A roughing gouge sheared the blank nicely to a cylinder and a couple of follow-up passes with a skew yielded a surface that required very little sanding. To finish things up, I hand-planed a flat on the bottom. 

Even this simple maneuver of peeling away a clean shaving was delightful. All in all, I find canarywood to be much easier to work with than its weight and density would imply. 

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