#82: Chinaberry

Bird number: 115
Date: November 18, 2012
Wood: Chinaberry (Melia azedarach)
Source: Neighbor’s tree

I’d been wanting to get hold of some Chinaberry, but it proved elusive. One problem was that I didn’t know what the tree looks like, so I couldn’t find likely candidates. That is, I didn’t know what it looked like until about a month ago when the bright yellow berries started appearing. Then those Chinaberry trees seemed to be everywhere. One neighbor’s tree lost a huge limb, but it seemed like nobody was ever home. Then we had a wind storm that took down another neighbor’s tree. When I knocked on the door and asked, she said, “You can take as much of that tree as you want.”

I took about three feet of the trunk, which is between six and eight inches in diameter. The thicker part is a bit too large for my bandsaw, but I managed to get some good wood from the thinner part of the trunk. It’s a bit rotten in the center, but the usable wood is still thick enough to get a two-inch bird blank.

I love that red streak in the wood. I’m glad I got a good sized chunk of this stuff. It’s much better looking than you can see in the pictures. This wood will be perfect for a particular stylized carving that I have in mind. The wood carves easily with power, sands well, and takes a nice finish. And did I mention the red streaks?

Most surprising to me is how quickly the wood dried. The tree was alive when the wind took it down last month. I cut it a few days later, roughed out some blocks, sealed the ends with wax, and let it dry in the garage for maybe six weeks. When I cut the bird blank out over the weekend, the wood was quite dry. And it didn’t crack at all after I’d carved it. Contrast that with the white birch (not yet posted), which had been drying for several months and was noticeably damp when I carved it.

A member of the Mahogany family, chinaberry is native to Pakistan, India, Indochina, Southeast Asia, and Australia. It was introduced as an ornamental in South Carolina and Georgia around 1830, and widely planted throughout the southern states. It’s since become naturalized to tropical and warm temperate regions, and is considered an invasive species by some. Nevertheless, nurseries still sell it and seeds are widely available. Around here, it’s a trashy tree. We don’t have too much trouble with berries, though, as the birds typically get them before they fall.

Probably the most important thing to know about Chinaberry is that the fruits are poisonous to humans, in sufficient quantity, and the leaves also are very poisonous. I don’t know exactly what “sufficient quantity” is, but I have heard reports of somebody eating “a handful of berries from the tree” and dying the next day from the toxicity. As far as I’m concerned, one berry would be too many. The leaves make a great natural insecticide, but you have to be careful not to ingest them.

As with most Meliaceae species, Chinaberry has a high quality timber that is medium density and pleasing in color. Boards dry quickly with little warping or splitting, and are resistant to fungal infection. Unlike other Mahogany species, though, Chinaberry is under-utilized. There doesn’t appear to be any effort to grow it on plantations, and there has been no serious effort to harvest the many large stands of wild trees.

Chinaberry is not what I’d call a hugely popular carving wood, but it’s not exactly uncommon. A Google Images search reveals quite a number of lovely pieces.

All things considered, I’d rate it a good carving wood. And I can get as much of it as I want, for free, from neighbors. I just have to spot the cut limbs and trunks before they’re hauled away or burned.