Is Catalpa Wood Good for Anything? (5 Facts with Pictures)

Catalpa Wood

Catalpa is a flowering soft hardwood tree variety. It is native to North America, the Caribbean, and East Asia. Catalpa is often an underrated hardwood. The wood is very soft and may dent if mishandled and hence rarely seen in its lumber form.

But is catalpa wood good for anything?

Due to its smooth texture, it’s a pretty decent carving wood. It is harder than bass and tends to follow the grain hence needs no painting to remain spectacular. Moreover, it is strong, rot-resistant, and very stable with low shrinkage rates. Catalpa wood is also used for utility wood, cabinetry, railings, fence post, and starting fires as it burns up quickly. 

During WW1, it was used to make airframes due to its strength. Catalpa is also often used as a tonewood and top wood in guitars and ukulele as it is very resonant. In short, catalpa is a very excellent and durable wood type with many uses.

If you have any questions about the catalpa wood, this is the right place for you. Below are some quick facts about catalpa wood:

5 Facts that you should Know About Catalpa Wood

1. Easy to Work With

While Catalpa is not generally grown for lumber but for decorative purposes. If you have it growing in the backyard for a long time, there comes a time you have to harvest it.

Having one growing in the backyard, I was keen to make beautiful artifacts because its brown color resembles butternut and ash. 

I found it a little bit soft but very stable to work on. It is pretty versatile that you can use it with power and hand tools. It was easy to carve off spoons with little effort.

The wood carves easily and holds a crisp edge. I have often seen turners create exciting patterns with catalpa grain.

2. Great for Different Types of Furniture

Catalpa is a woodworker’s delight resembling ash and oak yet lightweight. Almost the entire tree is heartwood with a tan and golden brown. Wood pores can take on an iridescent shimmer when filled with the finish.

Once the wood is dry, it is dimensionally stable. Catalpa is rot hardy even with contact on the ground, making it an excellent choice for long-lasting outdoor furniture. It does not require excess stain and looks very beautiful from the onset. 

They are, however, adaptable and robust for fence posts and other small furniture and carvings. The wood can create the furniture’s decorative parts due to its great looks.

Catalpa can, however, be very hard to finish as it is fine-pored and absorbs less finish compared to some other wood varieties. 

When a finish is applied around the external of the wood, it often creates a dappled appearance due to the uneven absorption. However, we can remedy this problem by using a wood conditioner or a few light coats of shellac. 

Complete the treatment with several coats of oil finish to bring out the catalpa’s orange/yellow tone and natural shimmer.

While staining isn’t generally recommended as it muddies the wood’s appearance, a light appearance stain can work well immediately once you condition the wood surface.

3. Burns Fast when Dry

Catalpa is the only tree native to the North of the United States and grows very fast to 100 feet. It has been traditionally used for fencing, carving, furniture, and railing. Its abundance has made it a preferred fuel source for wood burning. 

Catalpa is often suitable for wood burning when dry. It is often preferred for starting fires as it lights faster and produces a lot of heat. You need an extra stash of wood to maintain burns for extended periods. 

Hiss sounds are common when burning wet catalpa wood because they have high moisture content. You can use catalpa wood in wood-burning stoves and fire pits comfortably.

Comparing Catalpa wood to hardwood shows that all types of wood produce the same kind of wood heat per pound, whether hardwood or softwood. 

Individual pieces of catalpa of wood give off as much heat as similarly-sized hardwoods like oak or maple. It is perfect for wood burning in spring when you do not want to overheat the home.

You can also use it over winter to heat the house, but you need to have larger quantities of catalpa. 

Additionally, catalpa is easy to split with a small hand ax. Do not use pieces that have been painted or treated wood since they release toxic or harmful chemicals into the air.

4. Malleable and Easy to Carve

Catalpa is a beautiful piece of wood with a grayish/greenish tint when freshly cut but turns to a pleasant brown shade as it ages. Besides its beautiful color, it has a relatively soft ring that works well when used with dry foods but may not work well with salads.

It is easy to work with Catalpa wood as it can be handcrafted or used with power tools without damage or loss in shape. 

While carving wood pipes from Catalpa is easy, it is generally not recommended as it can easily catch fire if not treated well.

It cuts easily as butternut and can be transformed virtually into any shape. The wood is excellent for carving spoons, plates, masks, and furniture. 

The wood’s malleability has made it an excellent choice of wood for a piece that can carve after it is turned. Artifacts made from catalpa last long and often experience a minimal color change with aging due to heat from the UV light. 

5. Great for Fencing Companion

Catalpa trees have unique properties as hardy and fast-growing that have endeared them to homeowners and other open spaces in the country. The tree was a great source of fence posts during the settlement era. 

It is perfect and very economical since it’s fast-growing and robust and can be used to secure your home from wild animals.

Like any fast-growing tree, it has a few shortcomings that make it unsuitable for general lumber and may not be used to make large furniture. While catalpa wood is generally soft, some have reported the wood dulling the implements after using it for many hours. 

The durability and quality of the wood products like the spoons I made from Catalpa are out of the question as they last longer and do not break even when very thin.

Final Thoughts

The history of catalpa wood is as great as the history of the US, having been part of its growth. It was used in the settlement era for fencing and as airframes for the airplanes in the first world war. 

Catalpa wood continues to bring value to people of all walks of life all over the country and beyond. It has very few shortages that are negligible when working to produce different articles from Catalpa.


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