The great forests of western North America are primarily dominated by softwood trees. Nestled among the Douglas Firs and the Pines is one of the few hardwoods found in the west: the Pacific Madrone. A member of the mixed evergreen forest, it is often associated with the Douglas Fir. It ranges from Vancouver Island south to California, usually on the western slopes of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges.
Older specimens can grow to heights of 120 feet with reported diameters of up to 8 feet. Individuals harvested today are typically 30-90 feet tall with 2-4 foot diameters. Species grown in forest stands tend to grow straight. Madrone has a tendency to grows toward the light, so often the trunks are curved as a result. Individual trees growing in less than ideal conditions can have multiple stems emerging from the roots.
Madrone is a tree with a distinctive appearance. The bark is an orange-red, which in mature trees peels away in papery pieces revealing a greenish-silver colour underneath. The leaves are a contrasting waxy green, and in the fall, the trees produce dark red berries which are an important food source for many species of animals.
Madrone has a unique relationship with fire because it requires periodic forest fires to maintain the population. Mature trees can survive fire and will regenerate quicker than their neighbours by taking advantage of holes in the canopy in two different ways. First, it produces a large number of seeds which sprout after the fire passes over. And secondly, it can reproduce by producing vegetative sprouts which emerge from the root collar. In fact, this is its primary mode of reproduction. The wood produced by Madrone is hard, heavy and dense. The sapwood is a creamy-pinkish white with a reddish-tan heartwood. The heartwood often has darker patches scattered throughout. It is often referred to as ‘the poor man’s Swiss Pear.’ Expect a fine even texture. It is often figured with a large finger-sized rolling curl.
Madrone is difficult to dry and has a tendency to warp. The wood is often steamed before drying to prevent kiln collapse. Steaming also helps produce an even colour. The surface is prone to oxidative staining during drying. This is not evident in rough sawn material but can show up when the wood is dressed. To avoid this staining, the wood should be dried shortly after cutting. Also since Madrone doesn’t always grow straight, it can contain a large amount of reaction wood which can result in differential shrinkage. Woodworkers should consider using quartersawn material which is more stable. Designs using flatsawn material should take into consideration its potential for warping.
Tooling should be sharp enough to handle this dense wood. Feed rates should be slow and steady to avoid burning and tearout. Nails and screws will require pre-drilling; brad point drill bits are helpful to avoid ‘skating’ on the work piece. Care should be taken when sanding as this dense wood will show cross grain scratches. It glues and bonds well; clamp pressure should be monitored to avoid squeeze out and subsequent starved joints.
Madrone is a joy to finish. It will age well with its colouration darkening over time. It does not need to have the grain filled. Dyes and transparent colours work best. Pigmented stains can give a muddy appearance. It ebonises well due to its high tannin content. Early Native Americans used this tree for medicinal purposes. Today, woodworkers utilise it in furniture, cabinetry and turned objects. It makes a fine floor due to its high density; however, it is difficult to carve. Power carving may be necessary Madrone turns extremely well if tools are kept sharp. The wood is not durable limiting it to interior uses. Madrone is a species that produces burls. Decorative and functional objects such as bowls can be produced from these burls. Sliced as a veneer it can be used as inlays and for marquetry. Madone burls are often dense with ‘eyes’ and can be surprisingly free of defect.
Little is known of Madrone in Eastern North America. That’s a shame since many woodworkers consider it to be the most beautiful and exotic of the North American hardwoods. It can be expensive, but this trees unique appearance and many interesting characteristics is waiting to be discovered.
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.