I have written about working with Hollywood Juniper previously, however, that post was about working with bowls that had already been started, varnished, and set aside to dry. In this case, I started with a slab of Hollywood Juniper, cut a round that included some natural edge, and proceeded to make a bowl from start to finish. I will attempt to provide the usual information although much of it just isn’t available; I will do what I can.
The wood I am working with in this case was taken, long ago, from a shrub tree, widely grown as an ornamental, especially in the drier areas of California, but also elsewhere, known informally as Hollywood Juniper, but botanically known as Juniperus chinensis. As the name implies, J. chinensis is native to northeastern Asia, including areas of China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, and the southeast of Russia.
The original plant has been widely hybridized and now exists in over 100 named cultivars, designed to provide different characteristics for different domesticated gardening situations. The plant ranges in size from 1 meter to up to 20 meters. Given the size of the slab I am working with, it had to have been taken from a shrub of considerable size, most likely towards the larger end of the scale.
Without question, the piece I am working with originated not in Asia, but rather in some now unknown person’s garden in California. The piece was obtained, at auction, as part of the wood collection of a long time wood turner who lived near my father in central California. As he aged, he stopped working on wood turning and sold everything in his shop, including a rather impressive collection of woods, both native to California, imported exotics, and especially wood from garden shrubs and trees not typically used for wood working. He frequently worked with J. chinensis, either because it was readily available for free or because he enjoyed the material, perhaps both. It is impossible to know with certainty now.
For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to J. chinensis as Hollywood Juniper from this point forward.
The wood from the Hollywood Juniper shrub/tree is yellowish in coloration with some darker grey and brown streaks or areas throughout. Often there is considerable figure present in the material that adds interest to the otherwise somewhat plain color.
The wood is somewhat hard although I have no formal measurement of how hard to compare it to commonly known woods.
Grain, texture, endgrain, luster, rot resistance, and susceptibility to insect attack are all unrecorded with any authority. I find the grain to be quite twisted and interlocked. The texture is quite fine once the wood is cut and sanded. The luster appears to be moderate.
From what I know of the wood as presented in gardens, it is not readily prone to rot or insect attack, although as Hollywood Juniper is almost never used as timber or lumber, outside of very specialized hobbyists, rot and insect resistance are not likely relevant.
As the wood from the Hollywood Juniper is not widely used as a wood working resource, its working characteristics are anecdotal and only from my limited perspective. The only wood working activity I perform is turning, so I cannot speak to how Hollywood Juniper will respond to most machining operations. I can assume that it would respond poorly to plane operations due to the wildly interlocked grain, but I do not know this with certainty.
I have never attempted to stain or steam-bend Hollywood Juniper.
However, I have glued it, albeit with cyanoacrylate, not a material commonly meant when referencing gluing operations with wood, but, for what it is worth, it glued wonderfully with cyanoacrylate.
I have finished Hollywood Juniper with shellac based finishes and wax based finishes. In both cases, the results were quite nice, so I would say that Hollywood Juniper finishes well. I have recently used a spray lacquer finish, necessary because of a natural edge, and that worked quite well indeed.
And certainly, I have turned Hollywood Juniper with excellent results and I should imagine that other wood turners, armed with sharp tools and patience to be sure, should also be able to succeed with the material as well.
Hollywood Juniper has a delightful odor unlike any other wood I have ever cut or turned, and at this point, I have cut and turned a fair number of different woods, exotic import and domestic included. In fact, I was not sure what the wood was that I was working with until the first cut and then I knew without doubt that it was Hollywood Juniper from smell alone (I have since had further evidence of identification based on grain pattern and coloration). Hollywood Juniper, even when dried for decades, smells distinctly of butter cream frosting or fresh cake batter when cut. Once smelled, you will never forget it and will be able to readily identify a piece of Hollywood Juniper for years to come once you have smelled it when cut.
Hollywood Juniper is not sold commercially to my knowledge by any wood vendor. If you wish to work with it, you will have to find someone with a specimen in their garden who wishes to remove it or find a gardening or tree service provider who might on occasion have the material available as a waste product. Hollywood Juniper is most widely planted in the western United States, especially in dry areas, so those would be the best places to look.
Because Hollywood Juniper wood is not typically sold commercially, I cannot provide even a guess as to its pricing structure.
Quite expensive pen blank sized pieces of “Hawaiian juniper,” genus and species unknown, can be found on Ebay, as can quite a few items hand-made from “Juniper” wood, again, of unknown genus and species, but the raw wood itself is uncommon. However, Ebay would be a very likely source of the material if and when it should become available. It can’t hurt to look.
The wood from the Hollywood Juniper is not harvested, sold, or used commercially for any application. When the wood is used, it is only for small scale crafts projects such as small turned items including pens and small bowls. The typically smaller size of even the largest of the Hollywood Juniper shrubs imposes limitations on what can be done with the material.
Hollywood Juniper is a common garden plant and could not be considered endangered by any stretch of the imagination. I have no knowledge of its conservation status in it native area, but as it is not harvested commercially I should not imagine it is in any imminent danger.
There is no documentation regarding any potential health hazards associated with Hollywood Juniper wood. Prolonged exposure to wood dust, from any species, can present hazards and appropriate precautions should be taken to limit respiratory exposure to wood dust. Because it is always possible that an individual may have a negative reaction to a wood they are not familiar with, precautions should always be exercised unless one has worked with a specific wood before and is absolutely certain they do not have negative reactions to a specific wood.
My Personal Experiences
The piece of Hollywood Juniper that I started with was roughly square but with some natural edge present. I maximized the usable material by including a small section of natural edge in the blank that I cut on the band saw. The material was about 2 inches in thickness.
The material was HEAVILY checked as a result of uncontrolled drying, most likely decades in the past. This presented challenges, of course, in the turning process as the wood was not inherently stable. The checks, coupled with the natural edge, made working with the material challenging in terms of turning, and difficult to sand and finish.
The key to any success with this material was patience, writ large. As the material was made thinner and thinner, some of the checks were completely through and through, such that light was readily visible. At any time, the tool could easily have caught and torn the entire piece apart. Using heavy pressure would have guaranteed that result, so the process was excruciatingly slow compared to the size of the piece. I think it speaks highly of the tensile and rotational strength of the Hollywood Juniper that it held together as well as it did. I was also impressed that the wood took a decent sanding even with the voids and natural edge. The texture proved to be quite fine and there was a decent natural luster, incredible for a wood this old and dry.
As can be seen in the photos, there is a great deal of figure and even coloration making for a very interesting natural appearance. I also think that the checks, given how numerous and deep they are, add incredible character and unique appeal to the piece.
As I was turning the interior, I considered the use of Inlace, a colored infill product that I have seen used to great effect with both natural voids and intentionally created grooves. According to reports on its use, after the fill is applied, it can be turned, sanded, and finished as if it were natural wood. I seriously thought about this approach but I decided, in the end, not to use any sort of fill material. The deep and significant checking is what makes the piece what it is; imperfect and yet that imperfection is its perfection.
I am well aware that there are many wood-turners and other woodworkers who would think me a fool for wasting so much time with such an incredibly imperfect piece of material, free material at that. It wasn’t as if I was trying to salvage some rare and incredibly expensive piece of wood. I am certain that in many woodshops the piece of Hollywood Juniper I turned would have ended up in a fire pile or just in the trash. I like to think that if those of us who like the unique and imperfect turn enough of these pieces, write about them, and display our photos of them, that the tide will someday turn and more and more wood-turners and other woodworkers will discover the unique perfection in the imperfect.
It was clear that I could not use a rubbed or lathe-applied finish to this piece because of the natural edge and the check voids. Anything remotely pasty or think would have gummed up and accumulated in the voids. I think I might just have gotten away with a shellac finish that I could have wiped on to the natural edge since that part is small and relatively smooth, but I was worried that liquid shellac would drip into the checks, or otherwise be uneven, and I have enough trouble getting a smooth shellac finish with perfect material.
I have used Deft spray lacquer in the past with the natural edges of burl pieces and it has always worked well. I had my husband hold the piece, outside, while I sprayed it, being very careful to apply light coatings to avoid drips. After 30 minutes, we reversed the piece, again outside since my shop doesn’t have ventilation adequate for the task of finishing with spray lacquer, and finished the bottom. I didn’t give it the recommended three applications because the piece is strictly decorative; I don’t expect it to be subjected to extensive use such that a strong and durable finish would be required.
Once again I am pleased with the results of using a piece of material that would have been on the trash heap in most shops. I greatly enjoy the challenge of working with the imperfect and in finding the unique and hidden beauty that can appear from a most unlikely piece of material. I truly wish I had photographed the starting material, for it was absolutely just about the most unpromising starting piece I have ever bothered to work with. I think there is a lesson here for all wood-turners and other woodworkers: work with that you initially think to reject for there may well be hidden treasure within.
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!