Three Shades of Eucalyptus.
Red Grandis (left) could easily be mistaken for luaun while Yellow Gum (center) is reminiscent of cherry. Jarrah (right), is a bit of a ringer for bubinga.
A look at lumber from down under
Buying eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp) lumber in the United States is not as straightforward as you might expect. While many exotic lumber dealers list eucalyptus among their offerings, exactly what you’re purchasing isn’t always clear. This is because the name “eucalyptus” refers to a genus of trees rather than a specific species, and there are at least 15 different species that are cut and sold as eucalyptus (or under their
own name). Some of the more common species you’ll find include Blue Gum (Eucalyptus globulus),Yellow Gum (Eucalyptus leucoxylon), Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata), Lyptus (Eucalyptus urograndis), and Red Grandis (aka Rose Gum) (Eucalyptus grandis). These last two species with their trademarked names are of note because they are frequently grown on plantations and are certifiably sustainable. The first two are nearly identical in appearance and are often sold interchangeably.
Where the wood comes from
In broad terms, most species of eucalyptus are native to Australia, but the trees have been introduced elsewhere. Blue gum, for example, was brought to California in the late nineteenth century, and has thrived there. However, the wood from these non-native residents has a dubious reputation for twisting, splitting, and checking badly as it dries. The Red Grandis and Lyptus lumber that finds its way here is grown on plantations in South America. While it lacks some of the character of forest-grown wood, it compensates with its very consistent grain and availability in a wide variety of thicknesses, widths, and lengths.
History in woodworking
Again, it depends on the species. The Crate and Barrel chain has been using a lot of Red Grandis in its line of sustainably sourced furniture. The wood is being touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to reddish, even-grained woods such as mahogany and sapele. Blue gum, another fast-growing tree, is frequently cultivated for use as pulp and fuel. Jarrah, on the other hand, is sought after for use as high-end flooring and for musical instrument making. Its dark red color, hardness, and figure make it one of the more expensive eucalyptus varieties—if you can find it. Jarrah has become increasingly difficult to source in the U.S.
Selecting the best stock
If you’re looking for individual pieces, especially with figure, your best bet is to select them in person or via photographs online. However, if you’re purchasing a quantity of plantation-grown lumber—say 30 or 40 board feet for a cabinet job—you can confidently order the pieces by size alone, as the stock is remarkably consistent. As a cultivated “crop,” the trees are pruned and tended as they grow, so the resulting lumber is quite straight-grained and uniform. Expect to pay about $9-10 per board foot for Red Grandis, and upwards of $25/bf for figured Jarrah.
Working and finishing
Red Grandis works well with both hand and power tools. Its grain is frequently interlocked, which can be troublesome when surfacing, particularly with hand planes. With such a board, try using a sharp scraper instead. The wood is soft enough that it sands quickly, so that is also a good alternative. It holds nails and screws well, accepts glue readily, and finishes nicely with both water- and oil-based stains and topcoats.
- Interior millwork
- Musical instruments
Sycamore Working Notes
Upon unwrapping the Red Grandis boards I purchased for this story, I’ll admit I was a little underwhelmed. They were fine—wide, clear, and straight—but so visually uniform and consistent that I wasn’t immediately drawn to them. However, after making the pieces in the photo below, the material has grown on me. Some observations:
Red Grandis is relatively soft—similar to poplar and just as prone to denting. Hand planing the wood is a losing battle at best: The 1⁄8"-wide, tightly rowed bands of surly grain tore out even as I ran my freshly sharpened block plane down the slopes on the shelf’s back. Scraping worked better, although the surface seemed to fuzz, so I ended up simply sanding everything. I had to be especially careful when sanding the routed chamfers. The wood is soft enough that is was easy to dub over the profile, muddying its crispness.
Red Grandis turned well, although I had a little trouble cutting clean shoulders with a parting tool, again due to the soft wood’s tendency to tear. Wiping varnish didn’t exactly make the grain “pop,” but it did add a nice glow to the reddish color of the wood.
I also received a turning blank of jarrah, from which I made the bowl sitting on the shelf in the photo. Despite its wild figure, the wood turned very well, with virtually no tearout. What little there was sanded out easily with 80 grit. After proceeding on up through 600 grit, this time the grain really did “pop” when I spun on the finish. I’ll be on the lookout for more jarrah to turn.