WoodSense: Persimmon

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is the only true member of the ebony family that grows in North America. But unlike its tropical counterpart and many other trees, the vast majority of persimmon lumber consists of cream-colored sapwood, with only a tiny portion of dark heartwood. Surprisingly, though, its sapwood is more highly prized and utilized. Persimmon trees can reach a height of 60 to 80 feet, with a diameter of up to two feet. The tree has a rating of 2300 on the Janka hardness scale, equal to Caribbean rosewood and far greater than hickory’s score of 1820. Persimmon has a significant initial shrinkage rate, accounting for cracks in dried boards and blanks. In addition, the wood can exhibit substantial movement due to seasonal changes in moisture content, even in properly finished projects.

With its density, close grain, and small semi-ring-porous structure, persimmon is a good wood for kitchen utensils such as cutting and charcuterie boards, rolling pins, spatulas, spoons, and similar items. With its added virtue of shock resistance, it is a good candidate for mallets as well as handles for hammers and turning tools.

Persimmon’s hardness made it ideal for weaving shuttles, billiard cues, and shoe lasts, which are the forms for shaping footwear. Later in its history, persimmon gained probably its greatest popular fame as the head of golf drivers. As early as 1900, club manufacturers in golf’s birthplace of Scotland began importing wood from America to make clubs with persimmon heads and hickory shafts.

Drum roll, please…

Another popular use for persimmon wood is for musicians’ drumsticks, which are available in a positively mind-boggling variety. First, it depends on whether you play in a garage band, a symphony orchestra, or a musical style somewhere in between. Then you need to choose the material of the tip (wood or plastic) and the desired tonality of the sticks. Although turning drumsticks would seem to be an appealing home shop project, woodworking is only the first part of the process. Next, you need to roll out sophisticated electronic test gear to match each pair of sticks acoustically. In summary: turning is tempting, but tuning is tough.

Persimmon to the doorstep

To try my hand at persimmon, I placed an order for some 4 / 4 lumber with an online supplier. I initially wanted thicker stock, but that is much more difficult to find, and often only as undried but waxed turning squares or bowl blanks. My shipment had one unpleasant surprise—a significantly cupped board—but a rip cut gave me narrower pieces that flattened smoothly at the joiner and thickness planer. The wood is typically bland in figure and color, though occasional dark streaks add either interest or problems, depending on your viewpoint. Holes from boring insects, such as the powderpost beetle, are fairly common because the sapwood lacks tannin and other chemical extractives that typically make heartwood less appetizing to invaders. But there weren’t an undue number of holes, and they were mostly along the edges, so I easily avoided them.

One very pleasant surprise in the shipment was some spalting on several boards, forming patterns that mimic intricately penned designs. And while spalting in maple and other woods often produces punky areas, that wasn’t the case with this batch. Although some suppliers charge a considerable premium for spalted persimmon, this seller included the boards at the base price.

The persimmon boards ripped cleanly and quickly at my 3 hp table saw, but at the mitersaw, I could feel the motor slow slightly because of the wood’s density. Despite that, the cut was burn-free. When I glued up the blank for my mallet (left), I applied Titebond III to each pair of surfaces and rubbed the boards together until the joint grabbed. This step discourages the wood from excessive slippage when tightening the clamps. I always know when I’ve used enough clamps—when I can’t fit another one on the assembly. And even though I used only moderate pressure on each clamp, the joints are virtually invisible.

I initially shaped the blank with a 1/8" blade at the bandsaw with zero problems. On the lathe, the mallet responded well to both gouges and scrapers. After that, I cleaned up the spinning surface with progressive grits of sandpaper, using a hard rubber block to maintain flatness. The dust was no more problematic than usual, causing no respiratory or skin reactions. With no bulge in the handle’s shape, I can easily choose a wide range of grips: “choking up” for control or moving toward the knob for more power.

I applied a coat of Watco natural oil finish over two successive days and am pleased with the low-luster sheen. By the way, I don’t understand the slick finishes on many manufactured mallets, but that’s a topic for another day.

Hard-hitting facts

By many other names. Persimmon has as many nicknames as you’d find in a frat house. They include white ebony, American ebony, fruit of the gods, Jove’s fire, bara-bara, boa wood, possum wood, and sugar plum.

The story behind storied North American rays. Persimmon and yellow buckeye (Aeschulus octandra) are the only commercially used species grown in a temperate climate exhibiting storied rays, a rippled grain pattern. This feature is far more common in tropical hardwoods such as sapele, Honduras mahogany, and many rosewoods.

Driving ambition lands persimmon in the rough. In 1979, Gary Adams had the idea of completely replacing wood by making golf drivers from steel. He founded TaylorMade, initially offering only one product he named Pittsburgh Persimmon, combining the name of the Steel City with the traditional material.

Going for a vintage driver. There are a few companies that still make golf clubs from persimmon. One claims that the process requires over 200 manufacturing steps during a six-week period to make each club.

Southeast coverage. This species of persimmon lives in both moist valleys and dry uplands, spread by mammals and birds that enjoy the fruit.

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