Sunday, January 9, 2011

Rosewood is Interesting Stuff and Sometimes it Comes with a Story

Rosewood may be the most intriguing wood that I have the opportunity to work. I was lucky enough some years ago to acquire on some very old log segments of this material. Quite honestly I don't really know which category of rosewood this material would be a part of. One of the log segments had markings on it that indicated that it had passed thru the Panama Canal on the trip that ultimately ended at the door of my shop. South America is a big country so this still gave no clue to it's identity. Quite frankly I don't care what kind of Rosewood it is because one thing I do know, it's really dense beautiful material.

The other aspect that I really enjoy when working this wood is that it's very unpredictable. I don't mean that it's not stable, what I'm making reference to is the fact that you can cut infill blanks from a 20" section of this material and the first 10 inches may look completely different than the second 10 inches and the color can vary widely in just this much length. The growth rings aren't nearly as consistent as in most woods and sometimes a swirl occurs in the growth rings.

Let me tell you the story of how I came to acquire this very old and wonderful wood. I was at the annual meeting of the Midwest Tool Collectors Association in Madison, Georgia. This event is called the Peach Meet because of it's location in the Peach growing belt of the Piedmont area of our state. I brought along one of my infill smoothing planes and a gentleman from Athens, GA whose name was ironically "Brent Wood", became quite enamored with the mahogany infilled plane.

The next week Brent sent me an email proposing a trade. He explained that he had this quite old rosewood log and would be willing to trade it at some value against the price of the plane. Brent also went on to tell me a rather elaborate story about how this particular log segment had come into his possession.

During the 1950s it seems an artist from Elberton, Georgia had gone to Europe to study with Picasso. This artist, whose name I do not know, carved sculptures from exotic woods. Upon his return from Europe he purchased several rosewood and ebony log segments from Carlton McClendons Rare Woods in Atlanta, Georgia. This gentleman set forth in his career determined to make a name for himself as a full time working artist. Well as the story goes the fact that he had studied with Picasso did not seem to impress many people and this gentleman became the proverbial starving artist.

He rented a farm house and on the premises was a barn that housed his studio. His work was not selling and he was terribly behind on his rent. He had often touted to his landlord as to the value of the log segments that were his chosen medium. The landlord was devising a way to regain his back rents when the time came that he would ultimately have to evict his tenant. The landlord decided when he evicted the artist that he would seize the logs and then sell them in order to recover at least some of what was owed.

The artist caught wind of the landlords intentions and moved one night under the cover of darkness taking with him all but a few of the log segments. He stored the log segments in an abandoned building until he could figure out how to get himself re-situated and back to work. However just a few weeks later the abandoned building caught fire. The building and the contents went up in flames. ( I literally cringed when I was told this part of the story) The remaining log segments were sold back to Carlton McClendon and this is where Brent had purchased the log segment that he traded for the plane.

Well........, you could probably imagine that I thought this was a pretty elaborate story that could have well been made up by someone wishing to improve his bargaining position in this trade. On the other hand it also sounded a little too involved to be a made up tale, so I called Carlton McClendon's Rare Woods the next day and the gentleman with whom I spoke, patiently listened to my re-telling of the story and when I had finished he said, "every detail of this story is absolutely true" and he also stated that Mr. Carlton had recounted this story to him on several occasions before he passed on. He also informed me of how Carlton had come into possession of the log segments in the late 1940s but that's a story for another time. As I began to recount this story to others this wood acquired a nick name, "Picasso Rosewood".

The great result of this story is there were several more log segments of this material in a dark corner of the basement of this wood selling establishment. They were stuck into a dark hole beside an ancient veneer press. The next day I went to Carlton McClendon's. Myself and the proprietor, with some toll of effort, extracted the logs from the hole where they had resided for several decades. I'd like to believe that these pieces of this extraordinary wood had just been patiently waiting for me all those years. I was born in 1953 so these pieces of rosewood had been there waiting for me to grow up, get a education and then go off into the world to learn and absorb all the things I would need to know and accomplish to eventually become a full time furniture maker and eventually a plane maker, and then one day to make the acquaintance of Brent Wood and as they say "The Rest is History."

As I was recently completing the 875-250 plane in the pictures that begin and follow this story it set me to thinking about the day I met Brent Wood and all this was set into motion. The 875 plane is a version of the Norris number 13 smoothing plane. I've observed several versions of this tool made by other plane makers and I have to say it's one of my favorite forms of a smoothing plane. The sweeping curves of the brass sides in contrast with the steel sole and the color of the rosewood infill are just a very compelling thing to me.

Next week this plane will make it's way to Greenwich Village, NY and a piece of a story that started when the log segments came into the U.S.A. sometime in the 1940s will continue it's journey and possibly the beginnings of a new story will be inspired by the legacy of woodworks made with the use of this tool created in the first month of this New Year 2011.


An added note: If you have infill planes with dense hardwood infills you need to stay aware of the moisture content in your shop or the area where you store these tools especially during the dry winter months. Humidity levels of below 25 percent for extended periods of time can cause these woods to check. If you have a location in your home or shop where the humidity is controlled then just store the plane or planes in this location during the winter months. Another remedy is to place the plane in a large ziplock plastic bag along with a wad of damp paper towel. Stick the wad of damp paper towel in the very corner of the bag making sure the paper towel doesn't contact any part of the plane. Take the usual precautions for protecting the metal bits from rust and periodically replenish the moisture in the bit of paper towel.

If you discover a check don't try to repair it while the environment is dry. Just bide your time until the humidity returns to a more moderate level and you may well discover that the check will resolve on it's own.


  1. Great story. It's funny how life's little moments often become big moments later on.

  2. I enjoyed the story.Now I have some history about my planes I can share.
    R. Tysen

  3. You're right Richard, you have a few pieces of that story as well. I'm still noodling on your suggestion of the even smaller plane.


  4. Beautiful plane, Ron. Great story, too. Thanks for sharing it with us.