Bamboo grows on every continent, except of course Antarctica, but it is considered a native of southeastern Asia from which it has been carried and planted for various reasons, including decorative ones, by people. That said, most of the Bamboo used to make woodworking materials comes from south Asia.
Contrary to my usual practice, I cannot with certainty declare the scientific designation of the Bamboo used in this case, but I can say that most Bamboo used in timber applications is from either the Phyllostachys or Bambusa genera, potentially from multiple species therein. What may be more interesting and relevant is that these genera are both members of the family Poaceae, otherwise known as the grass family. In other words, as I suspect everyone reading this will already know, Bamboo is not a tree or a wood at all, but rather a very large and dense grass.
For the sake of keeping it simple, I will call the material Bamboo regardless of its actual botanical designation, which I have no way of determining in any event.
While there can be great variations amongst the many species of Bamboo, those used for wood-replacement purposes are most often a uniform and pale yellow color which can be so light as to become almost white. Live bamboo that has been left standing too long frequently develops fungal decay, discoloring the wood with brown or black streaks and patches. In wood, we would call this “spalting” although it is not usually seen in live wood, although other factors, such as beetle infestations in the case of Ambrosia Maple, can cause discolorations that some find appealing in live wood.
Because Bamboo is a monocot of the grass family there is no heartwood or sapwood, nor are there any growth rings either. The texture tends to be very uniform and ranges from medium to fine depending on the density of the material.
When used in outdoor conditions, Bamboo is perishable and will deteriorate over the course of a few years. This perishable nature mirrors that of Bamboo in the wild in that many species reach full maturity in a matter of a few years and then are subsequently attacked by mold and fungi, often collapsing completely within a few years after reaching maturity.
Bamboos is also readily attacked and destroyed by powder-post beetles, termites, and marine borers.
In comparison to other true woods, it first has to be said that working with Bamboo is simply different because it isn’t a wood to begin with.
Bamboo isn’t necessarily difficult to work with, but depending on the species, it may require special care and experience to be most successful. Bamboo fibers tend to split and pull out when being cross-cut, so the use of tape to hold the fibers down may be helpful.
Also, Bamboo is very high in silica, from 0.5% to a whopping 4% is found almost entirely in the outer layer of the stem. Because of this, care must be taken when processing Bamboo to avoid the destruction of cutting tools. Carbide tools are highly recommended for strength and ease of replacing the cutters as opposed to continuously sharpening high-speed steel, which could simply be destroyed by the high silica content of Bamboo. Carbide is also likely to yield a higher quality cut surface as compared to steel. Instead of attempting to plane Bamboo, sanding should be used exclusively to reduce thicknesses.
Once cut, Bamboo glues, stains, and finishes well.
If giant bamboo species are used for turning applications, tools will dull quite quickly and tear-out along the end-grain is common. However, the tear-out areas tend to be shallow and, unlike most any wood, the end-grain sands almost as easily as the face-grain, so an overall smooth finish can be achieved with minimal effort in most cases.
Bamboo has a distinctive “earthy” scent when freshly cut or turned.
The most popular and common wood substitute use for Bamboo in Europe and North America, at least, is for flooring. Other uses can include, but are most certainly not limited to: veneers, paper, furniture, window blinds, carving, turned items, and small novelty items.
In areas in which Bamboo is native, it is commonly employed in very utilitarian fashion for fishing rods, ladders, and scaffolding. It is often referred to as “poor man’s timber.” While low-cost and availability are significant factors promoting utility uses in native areas, Bamboo also possess some of the best stiffness/strength characteristics and strength-to-weight ratios of any woody material on the planet.
A niche use of Bamboo is in the manufacture of musical instruments such as flutes, woodwinds, and chimes.
Bamboo is typically available in three forms: hollow turning-blank sizes from giant bamboo species; in glued-up boards and sheets made from many smaller strips; and in paper-backed veneer.
Although bamboo is a very abundant natural resource, and prices for raw material tend to be low, prices can be much higher for the energy-intensive, processed and glued-up imported products, in fact often exceeding the cost of domestic hardwoods.
Bamboo pen blank-sized pieces sell for about the same as other mid-range priced pen blanks cut from many domestic and imported hardwoods. Multi-color laminates or dyed pieces may cost a bit more due to the extra processing and handling required.
At this time, Bamboo is only rarely sold in bowl blank sizes and it is not generally sold by dealers in domestic or imported hardwoods. It is sold, however, by specialty sellers of turning supplies, pen kits, and the like. Penn State Industries, while not my favorite vendor, is selling Bamboo pen blanks as are a number of other, mostly smaller scale, vendors that are easily located through an Internet search for “bamboo turning blanks.”
Bamboo is not listed as being in any way threatened or endangered by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices nor does it appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
Bamboo is not subject to special restrictions by any United States government agency.
Bamboo is widely touted as being a “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” alternative to using wood. And yes, Bamboo is readily replaced, with some species growing as much as three feet a day, and it will quickly perish in the wild over the course of a handful of years if not harvested anyway. Trees take a considerably longer time to regenerate.
However, while Bamboo in its native state may be readily replaced after harvest, what North American consumers are actually buying is something quite different from native Bamboo. The Bamboo wood replacement products sold in stores for flooring or for craft use are heavily manufactured with the bamboo being mechanically split into long fibers that are then reconstituted into useable size “lumber” through the use of massive amounts of adhesives, usually epoxies. The processing required and the chemical adhesives used contribute both to gasses associated with global warming through the use of fossil fuels to operate machinery as well as to toxic waste accumulations associated with epoxies and other adhesives as well as other chemical treatments. The truly ecologically friendly nature of Bamboo “timber” is highly debatable, and if it is in fact ecologically friendly, it certainly isn’t “natural” in its finished state.
If the look and durability of Bamboo appeal, that is an excellent reason to use it but don’t kid yourself that the use of Bamboo will save the planet or the forests that remain.
Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, Bamboo has been reported to cause skin irritation. It is unclear whether the Bamboo itself actually causes the irritation, or if it is due to the decay fungi commonly present in the material. Appropriate protective equipment is always recommended when working with this, or any other, wood, exotic or domestic, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database. Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.
Fortunately, I experienced no negative side effects when working with Bamboo.
My Personal Experiences
This was my first time working with Bamboo and I only had two small segment pieces designed for pen making. This inherently limited my experience with the material. However, within that limitation I found the Bamboo to be reasonably easy to drill. It responded to glue no differently than any other wood I have worked with. In the turning process though, the Bamboo was different. I found that even with very light cuts, which I was careful to make because I had seen that there were voids left in the laminating process that I was concerned might catch, the Bamboo shattered quite easily, almost as easily as some acrylic materials do, and that somewhat surprised me. The Bamboo is clearly fibrous and is composed of many strands of fiber bonded together so it does not have the same stability as a solid piece of wood. However, I was lucky in that the pieces that shattered out were relatively shallow which meant that I would have cut that material off anyway in the turning process. But, the voids created by the breakage made it slightly more difficult to turn the remainder of the blank. When it came time for sanding, I could tell that the Bamboo was quite hard and dense, potentially more due to the epoxy than the material itself, so it sanded quite slowly. However slowly it proceeded it did yield a nice smooth finish in the end.
I didn’t hate working with the Bamboo blank but I wasn’t enthralled by it either. I found it to be a worthwhile experiment but I think I will prefer to stick with regular wood in the future, which means that this razor and stand are likely to be quite unique in coming from my shop as I don’t readily expect to work with Bamboo again.
As always, I wish all my readers a great experience in whatever their wood working interests happen to be and to those who like working with lathes especially, do a good turn today!