My introduction to the world of exotic woods began early. I had to stack and sort through piles of different woods at my mentor’s studio. Of course, Warburton would never be my master, and I’d never become his apprentice. But he took mentorship seriously while treating me a bit like an apprentice. So when I was in Baltimore, I’d go off to his studio and work as directed.
Sometimes this meant moving and stacking woods that he used, that I never imagined existed. Afrormosia, Agba. Iroko, Lacewood, Genipapo, and Satinwood. Some made me itch, others made me sneeze, and a few gave me a rash where they rubbed on my arm. Warburton’s generosity turned this into a lesson on wood toxicity that I’ve never forgotten. Trees deposit materials into their wood to stabilize structures, resist rot, fire, and insects.
We admire these woods because the added compounds affect the look and feel of the wood. But many of these are toxic to us, to one degree or another. For example, Pink Ivory wood can be very poisonous. A barrier coat of varnish is needed to seal it. Mahogany and teak woods commonly used in furniture have irritating qualities when sanded.
Finishing can be tricky as well. Varnishing teak successfully requires some prep work. It’s an oily wood, and the oils make it hard for finishes to adhere to the surface of the wood. The trick to avoiding a botched job is to wipe the surface off first, with alcohol or acetone. This technique only takes a minute but differentiates between finishes that endure or fail.
Most of my current work is in native North American species that are not commonly known for irritating toxicity: cherry, pine, ash, and maple. The added benefit of these is that most are sustainably harvested and available locally. So, for example, much of my cherry comes to me covered in bark and moss directly from the local woods.
However, just because they are generally accepted as safe doesn’t mean I get a free pass. Dust from cutting and sanding is an inhalation hazard in the woodshop, no matter how non-toxic the material is.