Woodsense: Spotlight on Mesquite

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Mesquite

Ask any East Coast woodworker about their experience with mesquite (Prosopis julifora), and it’s likely to involve a grill and a choice cut of meat. On the other hand, furnituremakers and turners throughout the Southwest know that within this small, twisted, thorny tree lies more than a potential pile of chips.

Mesquite’s multi-chromatic heartwood—often accentuated with dramatic figure resulting from its harsh growing environment—puts this wood on par with the most coveted exotics. However, such beauty doesn’t come without a fight, as the hardness and interlocking grain of this “Texas Ironwood” will put your hand tools and machinery to the test. In addition, the tree’s diminutive size and low yield of usable stock hinders its use in large projects.­ That said, if you’re up to its challenges, mesquite can add a bold new flavor to your woodworking. Read on to learn how to select the best stock and make the most of it in your shop.

Where the wood comes from

Most commercially available mesquite lumber comes from Texas. However, the trees are a common sight across much of the American Southwest and Mexico, where the growing range spans nearly 100 million acres. Unfortunately for woodworkers, this doesn’t translate to an abundance of lumber. Although the trees are hardy once established, and propagate quickly, they’re slow growing and seldom surpass a 20-foot height. In particularly arid regions, they remain shrub-like, but along creeks and river bottoms, they may reach heights of 50 feet.

History in woodworking

In addition to its nationally recognized value in grilling, mesquite has enjoyed a wide range of utilitarian applications on its home turf. ­There, this hard, heavy wood has been employed for railroad ties, fence posts, pilings, and structural timbers. In fact, in the late 1800s, San Antonio paved the streets leading to the Alamo with mesquite slabs. In more recent history, the wood has found favor in furnituremaking, flooring, and decorative turnings.

How to select the best stock

Don’t expect to find long, clear mesquite boards, as the trees start to twist and turn when young, due in part to the harsh growing environment. Consequently, small boards and turning blanks are plentiful, if pricey. Figure on paying $10-14 per board foot. Highly figured stock and larger slabs can cost 2 to 3 times that amount.

Mesquite’s heartwood is a swirling palette of yellows, reds, and browns, and the lumber is often accentuated with mineral streaks, knots, and ingrown bark. But these flaws tend to contribute to mesquite’s appeal, standing in testimony to its hardscrabble life. ­Therefore, minor defects can be leftalone for visual interest or filled with black epoxy. Larger knots, ring shakes, resin pockets, and wide bands of sapwood, however, should be avoided.

If you have access to freshly sawn wood, be warned: Although the heartwood is durable, mesquite’s sapwood is susceptible to attack by bugs, including termites and powder post beetles. To protect 



Mesquite

Working mesquite in the shop

Tooling this dense, heavy lumber that is roughly twice as hard as oak and hard maple might seem more akin to working brass than wood. In addition to its hardness, mesquite’s figure and interlocking grain pose a real challenge for chisels and planes, although the wood scrapes well. When power jointing and thicknessing, monitor the edges of steel knives because mesquite will quickly dull them, inviting chipping and tearout. It’s wise to stop shy of your final pass and then scrape or sand to final dimension. Be aware that sanding mesquite produces a fine dust that can trigger an allergic reaction. To be safe, equip your machinery with dust collection and wear a dust mask.

Interestingly, despite its hardness when dry, the wood can be easily bent when green, contributing to its use by chair makers and bowyers. Freshly sawn or air-dried mesquite also offers advantages to turners and carvers because it’s easier to work and its dimensional stability makes it far less likely to distort or crack as the stock acclimates.

Finishing

With patience and good stores of sandpaper, mesquite can be brought to a high pre-finish polish. However, this dense wood tends to retain scratches, so don’t skip grits, and try to avoid cross grain sanding. Mesquite is resistant to some surface finishes, but it readily accepts shellac, oils, and waxes. Of course it’s always smart to test any finish on scrap first. Finally, expect the wood to darken as it ages.

Mesquite

One man’s trash…

Considered by many to be an invasive species, mesquite used to be free for the asking and hauling. Ranchers have spent millions trying to eradicate it from cattle land, burning it, spraying it, and snapping trunks with chains dragged between a pair of bulldozes. Ironically, these attempts often encouraged fresh growth in the newly cleared spaces. As for burning, well, it just produced trees more tenacious than their forbears.

Moisture matters. Turning dry mesquite is dusty and tough on tools. Seek out freshly sawn wood for a more pleasant turning experience.

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