Once a true specialty wood with specific applications, the Palm woods are seeing a resurgence in use. New approaches to harvesting and manufacturing have seen the development of new products, many designed for the furniture maker.
It’s best to begin with the Black Palm, the first palmwood of significance to woodworkers. Palms are monocots, a distinct grouping of plants that includes the grasses and bamboo. As a result, the anatomy of the palms is distinctly different from the wood produced from trees. The wood of the palms is made up of strong fibers resembling quills placed within a softer plant matrix. The fibers are densest at the outer circumference of palm trunk and their numbers decrease as you approach the center of the trunk.
This arrangement of fibers is common to all palms but visually is most striking in the Black Palm. The end grain shows a series of dark black dots of the fibers against a tan to brown back drop. The face and adjacent surfaces will show the dark fibers arranged longitudinally against the same contrasting background. Unlike the wood from trees, palms have no longitudinal cells, no rays and no growth rings. This difference in anatomy means that palm wood has different working characteristics when compared to the wood of trees.
Woodworkers utilised the distinct appearance of Black palm, especially the end grain, in bandings and inlays. Other uses included knife handles, canes, tool handles, small boxes and decorative turned articles. The use of Black Palm was limited by the small size of the source material. While palms may grow to 100 feet in height and have diameters of 2 to 3 feet, useable lumber comes only from the outer circumference where the fibers are densest. Palm wood is usually found in 1-inch thicknesses and short lengths.
Today, we have immense plantations of Coconut and Oil Palms grown to produce those products. Oil Palms usually see a decline in production after 20-30 years with Coconut Palms maturing around 70 years. Typically, once production declined, the palms were cut down and were either left to rot or were chipped.
Recognising the waste this practised produced, industry began manufacturing wood products from these felled palms. Once dried, the fiber rich outer circumference was sawn into billets. These were machined, squared and glued up into larger lumber sized material. Now we have material for furniture, core stock, flooring and veneer.
These palms share the same structure as Black Palm, but their appearance is tamer. The fibers of the Oil and Coconut Palm and their respective background material are close in colour tone. Consequently, they lack the visual drama of the Black Palm, but their appearance is still distinct from what woodworkers usually work with.
Working with palmwood can be difficult. The contrasting densities between the fibers and the background matrix can result in rough cuts and fibers being torn. The wood is often gritty, dulling tools quickly. Reports from industry suggest special bevel angles are required on your edge tools for the best results.
Finishing palm woods can also be tricky. Different areas of density can produce a scalloped surface when sanding. If you sand by hand, make sure you back your sandpaper with a flat surface. The density issue can also produce a blotchy finish. Shellac or sanding sealer applied before your final finish may help prevent this problem.
For me, the issue is palmwoods environmental providence. Every year thousands of acres of rainforest are cut down to produce plantations for palms, mostly Oil Palm. While utilising mature cut palms to preserve their carbon sequestering is laudable; do these forests need to be cut down in the first place?
Ultimately the choice is yours. If you want to work with palm wood, Black Palm is your first and environmentally best choice. There doesn’t appear to be any concerns regarding the harvest of Black Palm. The other palms have environmental concerns that every woodworker should consider before using them. In the end though, its distinct and unique appearance will probably be the major factor that determines if you want to work with palmwood.
Peter MacSween - [email protected]
Peter's woodworking journey began with a career in carpentry followed by a decade buying and selling veneer. His spare time is spent abusing his guitars and exploring the great outdoors.