Woodsense: Spotlight Padauk

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Spotlight on Paudauk


Ironically, the chemical cocktail that makes African Padauk (Pterocarpus soyauxii) distasteful to insects and fungi contributes to the color that makes it practically irresistible to woodworkers. One of the most strikingly colorful woods, padauk is widely esteemed for its bold red-and-orange heartwood. Although these vibrant hues eventually mellow to a rich reddish brown, purple, or even near-black, padauk’s enduring stability and workability remain intact, contributing to this a­ ordable wood’s popularity.

Although famous for the color hidden within the trunk, the tree was named for its fruit. All trees in this genus bear round, inedible fruit banded by a flat wing, giving it a flying saucerlike appearance. (Pterocarpus means “winged fruit.”)

Where the wood comes from

Padauk trees thrive in tropical climates including India, Indochina, the South Pacific, and even southern Florida. However, most commercially available stock comes from Africa.

History in woodworking

Centuries ago, padauk was reserved for royalty, but today hobby and commercial shops regularly employ it as an accent wood in inlay or intarsia, or as a primary wood for small projects like knife scales and jewelry boxes. Padauk’s ability to hold fine detail also makes it well suited for delicate turnings and carvings.

The availability of wide, straight grained boards makes it ideal for furniture and cabinetry, as well as paneling, flooring, and other architectural woodwork. Additionally, many luthiers consider African Padauk to be a suitable and ecologically responsible substitute for endangered rosewood, although the former’s bold color makes it less popular. On its home turf, this stable, rot resistant wood is sometimes used for boat frames.

How to select the best stock

Wide, straight-grained boards sawn from large trees can be kiln-dried without difficulty, so good padauk lumber is generally easy to find at hardwood dealers. Once dry, the lumber is exceptionally stable.

Board and turning blank prices vary depending on supplier and quantity purchased, but 4/4 and 8/4 stock typically costs around $10 per board foot—roughly the same as walnut. Curly, quilted, and other figured stock is sometimes available, but for a premium price.

Padauk’s pale sapwood contrasts sharply with its rich heartwood. On freshly cut boards, the sapwood is white, but in time it will turn yellow or greyish brown. Fortunately, because sapwood is usually considered a defect, it’s normally cut away during commercial processing.

Working padauk in the shop

Although slightly harder than red oak, African Padauk is still a nice wood to work with using hand and power tools, although you can expect a slight blunting e­ffect on cutting edges. When turning, it’s possible to get a fine finish straight o­ff the tool, requiring very little sanding. Interlocking grain can cause some tearout, but in those instances, you’ll find that the wood scrapes well. Padauk accepts glue without difficulty, but it tends to split when nailing or screwing, so pre-boring is advisable.

 One problem working this wood is the fine, peppery, oily dust that tends to stick to everything it touches. In addition to staining clothes and skin, the dust can cause health problems for some folks, including swelling of the eyelids and itchy skin. Good dust collection can help prevent some of the mess and minimize allergic distress, but to be safe, wear a NIOSH-approved dust mask, and toss your dusty clothes in the wash as soon as possible.

To prevent color contamination of lighter-colored woods, vacuum away dust after finish sanding or, better yet, outfit your sander with a vacuum system. If the dust stains an adjacent lighter wood, you can undo the damage with a few swipes from a well-tuned scraper.


Because padauk’s pigment is alcoholsoluble, brushing or wiping on shellac can cause the color to bleed or smear onto adjacent lighter woods. To avoid problems, spray on a few light coats of shellac to seal the color before using a brush or rag to apply subsequent shellac coats. Alternatively, use lacquer or varnish.

The wood’s natural oils have been known to retard the drying times of oil-based varnishes, but don’t seem to a­ffect water-based finishes. (Wiping the wood with acetone can help by removing some of the surface oils, but test the wood before you commit to a particular finish.) Oil-based penetrating oils or wiping varnishes are generally a good choice, although they tend to darken the wood more than water-based finishes.

Retaining padauk’s vibrant red color remains one of woodworking’s holy grails. A surface finish with a UV inhibitor (some woodworkers have even incorporated sunscreen) can slow down color loss, but eventually Mother Nature will win (see photos).

Padauk Music Box

Padauk Music Box

This Sweetheart Music Box first appeared in Issue #21 (Feb/Mar 2008). Originally a rich ruby red, over nine Valentine’s Days, the project has mellowed to a darker brown. If you’re interested in building this project for a special someone, the plans can be downloaded by going to woodcraftmagazine.com and clicking on onlineEXTRAS.


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