WoodSense: Cypress

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This article is from Issue 100 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The supporting cast. “Exotic” cypress is available as sinker (left), salvaged from century-old sunken logs, and pecky (center), which was attacked by fungus. Rarer still is ancient buried cypress (right), reclaimed from trees that grew in the distant past. 

The main characters. When you buy kiln-dried cypress, you have two basic choices: select or common. Select boards (top) are nearly knot-free and typically straight-grained. Common, or #2, cypress (bottom) may contain knots and other minor defects.

A durable Southern Belle

What does cypress have in common with bourbon, barbeque, and the blues? They’re all products with southern roots. Cypress (sometimes called bald cypress) lumber is well known throughout the southern U.S. where the trees are prolific, but less so the farther north and west you go. Cypress trees (Taxodium distichum) are conifers, which makes cypress lumber a softwood. However, the trees are also deciduous in that their needles turn brown and drop in the fall. 

Where the wood comes from

Bald cypress trees grow throughout the southeastern United States and into the Midwest as far north as southern Illinois, and along the eastern seaboard as far north as Delaware. They typically grow in wetlands, but are not uncommon in forested areas. Cousin to the California Redwood, cypress is among the longest living North American trees, and the largest growing east of the Mississippi. At maturity, a cypress can top 150' tall and 15' in diameter. Sadly, few of these old growth giants remain standing. Most were cut for timber in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

The trees are not designated as endangered on either the CITES list or the IUCN Red List, and the supply of both select and #2 cypress is ample. Rarer are two other “grades” of cypress: pecky and sinker. Pecky cypress is wood that has been attacked by a fungus that leaves behind small holes and discoloration, although the wood is generally sound. Sinker cypress comes from long-submerged, old-growth logs salvaged from swamps and rivers. Some companies also reclaim old-growth timbers from demolished buildings. You may also come across cypress knees. These are “bumps” that project up from the roots of bald cypress trees, particularly in swampy areas. The exact biological function of these growths isn’t fully understood, but you can find knees sold for carving blanks. (Note that cutting cypress knees on public land is illegal in many areas.)

History in woodworking

Cypress wood has long enjoyed a solid reputation for being strong, durable, and friendly to work. The immensity of the old-growth trees made them well-worth harvesting. Some stands could yield as much as 100,000 board feet per acre. Impressive, especially compared to today’s average yield of about one tenth that amount. It has been used extensively for construction throughout the south as well as for boatbuilding, docks, and outdoor projects. Indoors, the pale, reddish-yellow wood makes beautiful trim, cabinetry, and paneling that darkens with time to a rich honey tan. 

Availability

Being a softwood, kiln-dried cypress is available in standard construction lumber sizes: 1×4s, 1×6s, 1×8s, etc. along with 2× stock. Appearance may vary regionally. For instance, lumber from gulf coast swamps tends to be somewhat redder that that from other areas. You can also find heavy timbers, though they are usually sold green. The trick is finding a place to purchase it. If you live in the south, this isn’t a problem. Some of the big box stores even list cypress on their websites (although my inquiry at such a place in eastern Pennsylvania just drew a blank look). The few places online that specialize in cypress generally cater to builders purchasing hundreds, if not thousands, of board feet at a time. That said, there are a few dealers that cater to small-scale users. Pricing starts at about $5-7 per board foot.

Working and finishing

Cypress is comparable to both cedar and redwood in its weather resistance, but it is slightly harder and stronger. It works well with both hand and power tools, but is somewhat splintery. Because of this, take care to back up cuts, particularly when cross-cutting. Cypress sands quickly, though it does tend to load up abrasives. Freshly cut surfaces have a slightly greasy feel to them, but this does not interfere with paint or finish. Cypress glues with normal adhesives and holds fasteners well. While not downright toxic, cypress is noted as a sensitizer, so appropriate dust control and protection is warranted.

Cypress Uses

  • Outdoor projects
  • Interior paneling
  • Flooring
  • Decking
  • Boat building
  • Docks
  • Cabinetry
  • Trim

What a difference a century or four makes. the pale yellow of the new-growth cypress wall shelf makes a striking contrast with the mellow olive/tan of the sinker cypress plate and ancient cypress vessel.

Something old, something new…  

The story of cypress became even more interesting to me after I connected with Jimmy Krantz of Krantz Recovered Woods in Austin TX. In discussing the cypress industry, he mentioned that he had reclaimed some ancient trees from a Louisiana swamp. In addition to milling and drying the lumber, Krantz had it carbon dated, finding that his discoveries ranged from 1,500 to 2,700 years old. After that conversation, I found myself in possession of a piece of log BC004-A. It came from a tree that grew from about AD 300 to AD 550 making it approximately 1,700 years old. 

While contemplating the ancient wood, I made this small wall shelf from some boards of select, new-growth cypress. About the only “problem”

I encountered was when rounding over the fronts of the shelves on the router table. The profiles were a little on the rough side right off the bit, but cypress sands so readily it didn’t take much to put things right. By the time I had rubbed wiping varnish on this new wood, I had a design in mind that I hoped would do justice to the ancient stuff. 

As you can see, I turned a small lidded vessel. I wasn’t sure what to expect as my gouge began finding the shape, but the wood was really no different to work than the small sinker cypress plate I had turned earlier. Both cut cleanly and the aroma was surprisingly pleasant given the wood’s swampy origins. The colors proved to be outstanding and I am fascinated by how tight the growth rings are, being less than 1⁄64" in some cases. In all, it made for a great day in the shop.



Ancient Cypress 

For more about ancient buried cypress, as well as other reclaimed lumber, visit the products and prices section of www.krantzrecoveredwoods.com.

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