Spanish Cedar was first “discovered” during the early days of European contact with the tropical Americas. Explorers recognized its utilitarian properties, and since then the tree has been propagated in plantations in such diverse locations as South Africa, the Samoan Islands, and South East Asia. Local populations have used it whenever a light, strong, easy-working wood was required.
Spanish cedar end-grain
The tree itself can grow to heights averaging 65-100 ft. with diameters approaching 5 feet. The wood is straight-grained with a medium texture and a subdued luster. The grain is often interlocked giving it an overall nondescript appearance. When first cut the heartwood is a pale creamy colour, turning to a pinkish brown upon exposure to light and air.
Spanish Cedar produces a gum-like substance that can be found in random pockets of various sizes distributed throughout the tree. This substance contains volatile oils, which is a clue to the wood’s durability and distinctive odour. Spanish Cedar is classified as moderate to highly durable, resistant to termite attack and possessing excellent weathering characteristics.
Since it grows over a wide geographical region, it can vary widely in density, colour, and oil content. Wood coming from trees grown with abundant moisture is lighter in colour, less dense and lower in oil content. Fast growing plantation trees are often less durable than their old growth relatives. The wood seasons easily by either air or kiln drying.
It is Spanish Cedar’s distinctive oils and unique scent that is of interest to woodworkers. It has been the wood of choice for cigar humidors of all sizes since the 1800s when cigar manufacturers began using it for packing cigars.
Air dried boards can literally glue themselves together if stacked. The content of the volatile oils can be reduced by using a special kiln drying schedule that drives the oils to the surface allowing them to be removed during dressing of the rough lumber.
There are a few applications that are counter-indicated. The oil can stain objects that come in close contact with it, and air dried material is not recommended for clock cases and other related equipment. The volatile oils can condense on metal parts, gumming up the works.
Spanish Cedar is worked easily with hand and machine tools, but the interlocked grain can ‘fuzz’ when worked, so tools should be sharp. Extra sanding with progressively finer grits may be needed to remove this fuzz. It glues and screws well, and it can be turned with great success. However, drilling holes can produce rough surfaces. Large amounts of sap and oils can make finishing difficult and unfinished pieces can continue to bleed sap for some time. It can also clog saw blades and other tooling. The oils can produce a reaction in some woodworkers; therefore, dust masks are advisable.
Careful selection can yield a useful wood. It is used in classical and flamenco guitars, boats and all sorts of decorative guitars. It is often used in veneer and plywood production since it can be sliced cold. Being a member of the Mahogany family, it is often used as a substitute for the rarer and more costly genuine Mahogany. Builders often use it for exterior applications taking advantage of its high durability and weathering characteristics. And, lets not forget about its use in cigar humidors.
Do to over-harvesting, Spanish Cedar is classified as a vulnerable wood and as result is on the CITES list. Supplies from plantations should help meet demand while allowing natural stocks to regenerate. For the woodworker looking for a unique specie that won’t empty the wallet, Spanish Cedar may be it.