Anutter Paulownia Panorama
I think I first heard about the Royal Paulownia tree by reading articles in the newspaper about these trees being stolen out of people’s yards. This was back in the late 1980’s or so. At the time, there was a lot of demand for Paulownia wood from Japanese buyers. Paulownia is highly valued in Japan and the wood is used for numerous traditional objects, especially for building hope chests, because the wood is resistant to rot and fire.
In Japan and other parts of Asia where the Paulownia tree is a native species, a blight killed off most of the native trees, forcing buyers to look elsewhere for their wood. This created, for a time, a strange black market in the Eastern US for Paulownia logs. “Legend” has it that Japanese buyers would rent helicopters and fly over the Blue Ridge mountains during blooming season hunting for Paulownia trees. When I first heard about the tree, “legend” had it that people were paying $10,000 – $20,000 per log for Paulownia of a size suitable for milling.
This tidbit of information was certainly intriguing, but I became curious about the wood more from a woodworker’s perspective. I thought that if people were paying such high prices for it, maybe it would be worth finding out why the wood was so valued. So, I started looking for some of the wood to work with in my shop.
It wasn’t particularly hard to find Paulownia trees, they grow all over the place around here, having come to this country many years ago in shipments of goods from China. Before styrofoam packing peanuts were invented, Paulownia seeds, which are very fluffy and “cottony,” were used to pad shipments of china from China! These shipments found their way to Washington, D.C. and onto rail cars for distribution up and down the eastern seaboard. During transit, seeds found their way out of packing crates and into the environment. Today you can find Paulownia Trees growing all over the place, but they are especially concentrated around railroad tracks.
So, I didn’t have to look far to find the wood, but it was a bit challenging to obtain it legally. I wasn’t about to go onto somebody’s yard and cut down a tree while they were at work (which was the scenario told in the newspaper articles I had been reading), so I started locating trees and “stalking” them. A lot of the trees were growing in transitional areas, and I obtained most of my trees by purchasing them from developers who were about to cut them down anyway, as part of their land clearing operations.
Today, I have a pretty decent stockpile of Paulownia lumber for my personal use. It is a wonderful wood to work with. It air dries rapidly, is easy on the tools and may be the most stable wood I’ve ever worked with. It also has very interesting tonal properties. When you hold a piece of Paulownia stock at a “nodal” point and strike the wood, it rings like some of the best tonewood. I have already constructed a Balifon (sort of like a Marimba) using Paulownia, and I hope to eventually use the wood in guitar construction.
I’m glad to have my stockpile of Paulownia wood. The commercial market for Paulownia is in flux. Owing to the high demand from Japan and the quick growing capablility of the wood, I believe enough growers have entered the market to meet the current demand. Though I don’t have much direct evidence, I think the price has fallen as supply has increased. But this wood has definitely not entered the commercial mainstream. It is not easy to find this wood for sale. But there are a number of forward thinking growers out there who have planted Paulownia as a commercial crop. The pictures above show a Paulownia tree farm located in Amelia County, Virginia. These trees look like they’ll be ready for market in about 10 years. I would not be surprised to see Paulownia enter the mainstream market here in the near future, maybe even as a logical and superior replacement for the crappy 2×4’s and siding lumber currently available at home supply stores and marketed as “SPF,” or “Spruce-Pine-Fir,” because they don’t really know what the hell it is.
Meanwhile, I continue to stalk Paulownia trees and look for more legal opportunities to obtain this wood. I have my eye on a beautiful tree right now in south Richmond. It has a very straight trunk, about 20 inches in diameter, that would be a handy size for guitar building. It is in a neighborhood that is being re-developed. Maybe this will be my next Paulownia prize.