WoodSense: Padauk

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This article is from Issue 99 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The many shades of red. Freshly cut padauk can range a lot in color. The board at the left exhibits a more subdued red hue reminiscent of bubinga, while those to the right are more in the orange-red spectrum. 

When seeing red isn’t a bad thing

There’s redwood, which grows in California, and then there’s RED wood. If it’s the color you’re after, definitely consider padauk. Much of this imported lumber has such a bright red/orange hue that it is commonly called vermillion. Although the spectacular color does darken and lose some of its vibrancy over time, padauk is a lovely wood that’s reasonably pleasant to work. 

Padauk joints

Better bring your A-game. While padauk works well, it is one of the harder species. If you’re hand-cutting joints, your cuts need to be spot-on to get those joints to fit.

Where the wood comes from

While as many as seven species yield lumber marketed as padauk worldwide, the wood we see in the US is almost all African padauk (Pterocarpus soyauxi).

It comes from the tropical forests of central and western Africa. Size-wise, the trees are similar to many mature hardwoods in the eastern U.S., growing 100' or so tall and 2-4' in in diameter with wide, spreading crowns similar to those of elms. The trees are not designated on either the CITES list or the IUCN Red List as being endangered, and their harvest offers economic opportunity to their home countries. 

History in woodworking

As woods go, padauk has a pretty long pedigree. Legend has it that the pillars of King Solomon’s temple were made of padauk about 3,000 years ago. Flash- forward a few millennia and you’ll find royalty in the palaces of 17th century France drinking from chalices made from padauk. Apparently tannins that leached from the wood turned the water a yellowish color, giving it “medicinal” qualities. And in the early part of the twentieth century, the Chicago-based Pullman Company used the wood extensively for paneling in their rail cars. These days, you’ll find it used for a wide variety of woodcrafts ranging from cutting boards and pens to fine furniture, flooring, and tool handles. 

Padauk box

Aging gracefully. This 35-year-old padauk box with black wenge accents shows how the red wood deepens over time to a rich, reddish brown. The creamy sapwood on the lid darkened very little.

Selecting the best stock

Padauk is available both as solid stock and veneer. The most common thicknesses are 4/4 and 8/4, but a lot of online sources sell precut turning blanks and other smaller “craft-sized” pieces. Boards are commonly available in widths from 4-10" and lengths from 8-12', although boards up to 15" wide and 16' long are also obtainable. As exotics go, padauk is one of the more moderately priced species, typically selling for $10-14 per board foot. As you can see from the photos, the wood is typically a bright red-orange, though it can vary into more muted tones. Very few of the imported boards contain sapwood, which is a creamy white. As the wood ages, it darkens to a rich, reddish brown. One interesting side note: padauk fluoresces orange/yellow when viewed under a black (UV) light. 

Working and finishing

Padauk’s bright color sometimes eclipses its other fine qualities. It is comparable to white oak in strength, weight, and hardness, but it's much more stable. Padauk is also highly resistant to decay and insect attack, making it an excellent choice for outdoor use. In the shop, it is generally a pleasure to work with using hand tools, and it machines well, although some pieces may contain interlocked grain that can tear when run through a planer. Unlike many other exotic species, padauk glues readily without any special preparation. It also accepts both oil and water-based finishes well. It does have a relatively coarse grain structure, so if you are looking for a glass-smooth surface, you may need to employ a paste wood filler beneath your top coats.

Uses

Padauk Uses

  • Furniture
  • Cabinetry
  • Interior paneling
  • Turnings
  • Musical instruments
  • Flooring
Padauk Lazy Susan top

Red with Black Highlights. The black streaks running through the plainsawn boards make for a strikingly handsome Lazy Susan top.

Orange is the new gold

Despite padauk’s red coloration, its dust is a bright orange and is remarkably pervasive and clingy. When I finished turning the Lazy Susan shown here, my shiny gold Powermatic lathe looked like a new offering from a certain orange-themed tool company. As for me, I looked like I’d been for a spray tan with my clothes on. Aside from that, the wood turned exceptionally well, cutting cleanly with no tearout, even on the end grain. It also sanded surprisingly quickly considering its hardness. Its grain is coarse enough that after 80 grit, I was tempted to stop, as the surfaces looked nearly ready for finish. I persevered, however, working my way up to 400 grit before spinning on several coats of wiping varnish. The finish was a little disappointing in that the wood’s open grain structure doesn’t lend itself to a nice, burnished surface. Next time I’ll use a paste wood filler first. Dovetailing the piece for the photo on the facing page wasn’t as easy as turning. While the wood sawed readily, it tended to crumble in the tight spots when fitting the pieces together. One other observation is that the wood has a distinctive, spicy aroma that is generally pleasant. After burning a crosscut, however, I noticed an undertone similar to burnt hair that somewhat spoiled the olfactory experience. 

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