Chris Schwarz's Blog

Beware of Australians Bearing Softwoods

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Among us old-school newspaper cronies, we have a saying: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. Meaning: Don’t believe a word anyone tells you.

So when I arrived in Australia earlier this month I inoculated myself against some of the most common Australian practical jokes. (Out of respect for this beautiful country, I’ll say no more on this topic.) However, the Australians are clever and persistent when it comes to having a good laugh, as you will soon see.

Today at the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking we began building the Schoolbox from “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.” It’s a smallish dovetailed chest. All of the students received a stack of parts for their chests that were New Guinea rosewood.

However, the owner of the school brought a stack of parts for me to use that was a different species – white cedar.

I thanked Alastair Boell, who owns the school, and then started teaching the students how to plane and dovetail their rosewood components, knowing that my boards would be a bit easier to deal with.

If you are from Australia, you can stop laughing now.

White cedar in Australia (Melia azedarach) is not the white cedar of North America. Here, white cedar is a dang-tough hardwood – somewhat harder than white oak. So as soon as I started dressing my boards I got into the weeds because the wood fought back.

I got all my boards surfaced and then it came time to do some dovetailing demonstrations. Every time I started sawing, the wood grabbed the sawplate. The stock was quite dry, but it just wouldn’t behave when sawn or planed.

After a few hours into the class, Alastair mentioned that the wood I was using was cut from branches from a white cedar street tree. Yup. Reaction wood. Hard reaction wood.

I laughed and laughed. Then I started in on making this schoolbox as perfect as possible with this nice firewood.

Results to come.

— Christopher Schwarz

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10 thoughts on “Beware of Australians Bearing Softwoods

  1. Bertblog

    Sounds like that Boell fella didn’t have a clue what he was doing to me. Why would you give a guest instructor who is supposed to be teaching a group of eager students, some crappy old branch wood from a street tree on which to demonstrate? What a buffoon.

  2. Barquester

    I cut some china berry wood and stacked it up for firewood. After a while you could hear the wood borers from four feet away. When I picked up a piece it was light as a feather, most of the wood had been consumed. Looked the same though. Ours might be a different species as the wood was nearly white.

  3. GregMiller

    In southern Western Australia we call it Cape Lilac. It is a feral tree here, a bit of a pest because of the way it spreads by suckering as well as by seed. It can be very hard to kill! If you have one of these trees in the neighbourhood, your timber racks and stacks will be overrun by hairy caterpillars and their cocoons.
    All that aside, it is quite nice timber. My father years ago made some nice furniture from it.
    It is a member of the mahogany family, if that helps!
    Make sure you have no sapwood in your schoolbox as it is susceptible to Lictus borer.

    Giving you the reaction wood was a nice touch. I had to chuckle…
    Welcome to Australia, Chris.

  4. navy1

    Back in the early ’60s I was in the USN, and we had occasion to go on joint manuevers with the Aussie Navy. We also went on liberty with them, and I never met a more fun bunch of guys. They like their beer, they enjoy a good fist fight, and I am happy that they are our friends. And you are correct, they all enjoy a good laugh, or practical joke.

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