In a previous post from long ago, I briefly discussed working with Manzanita. Now, all these years later, I return with a greatly expanded discussion of this unique and potentially challenging material.
The wood most commonly referred to as Manzanita is known to botanists as members of the Arctostaphylos spp. Depending on which authority you consult, there are easily over 100 different species and subspecies of Arctostaphylos spp., almost all of them located in the mountainous areas of California as well as more limited distributions throughout the West and Southwest, usually in drier areas, although different species have adapted to a bewildering array of locales. At least one of the Arctostaphylos spp. is native to a broad swath of the North American continent, spreading from the West coast, up through the Canadian tundra and down the eastern coast as far south as isolated pockets of northern Georgia. However, despite the obvious outliers, Arctostaphylos spp. is a shrub, rather than a true tree in most all cases, of the drier and more mountainous areas of the west.
One commonly encountered species amongst woodworkers is Arctostaphylos pungens, a species whose popularity is due to the bright red color and twisted nature of its branches. A. pungens is more commonly known as Pointleaf Manzanita and it maintains a much more typical native range. A. pungens occurs discontinuously throughout the mountainous areas of Arizona, New Mexico, southern California, extreme southern Nevada and Utah, western Texas, and Mexico. In California A. pungens occurs along the Coast Ranges south to the Santa Ynez, Liebre, San Gabriel, San Bernardino, San Jacinto, Cuyamaca, and Laguna mountains. In Arizona A. pungens occurs frequently in foothills, mountain slopes, and canyons from the Virgin Mountains at the southern edge of Nevada-Utah boarder southeastward across the Mogollon Rim. From central Arizona and southern New Mexico east to the Chios Mountains of western Texas, A. pungens occurs less frequently on dry mountainous slopes. In Mexico A. pungens is found in abundance in the northern and central states from Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Nuevo Leon south to Mexico City. A. pungens also occurs in the Sierra Juárez and San Pedro Martir mountains of Baja California.
It is highly unlikely that the exact species from amongst the hundred or so to choose from that any one given piece of manzanita hails from can be known with certainty, and in most all cases it doesn’t much matter. There are also multiple different common names associated with the many different species of Arctostaphylos spp., but most always these common names will include some modifier attached to the more universal term “Manzanita,” which, in Spanish, refers to the very small apple-red berries produced by the shrubs.
For the sake of general understanding and ease of discussion, from this point forward all references to Arctostaphylos spp will use the common term Manzanita, leaving the specific species undeclared.
Manzanita heartwood is usually of a brownish red color, but sometimes wood with a distinctly bright orange tint can be found. This brighter color is highly likely to fade and darken over time and with exposure to air and ultraviolet light, as is the fate of most strongly colored woods.
The sapwood is a pale off-white color although some samples may be light brownish in color. Sapwood is easily distinguished from the heartwood due to the strong color differences but the two are not sharply demarcated.
The form of Manzanita most familiar to woodworkers is the burl, almost always a root burl, form. Manzanita burl, as is the case with burl wood from practically any species, is likely to feature wild and swirled grain and figure with multiple different colors present as well.
Manzanita burl is the most commonly used form of the wood for two primary reasons: the branches and trunks are generally much to small to yield usable lumber and burls are fairly common among Manzanita as that is the most common source of new plant generation, although seeds occur as well.
In either case, new shrubs are most likely to occur following a fire, and in fact, Manzanita seeds require scorching in a fire to be able to germinate. Because of the affinity for fire in the propagation process, Manzanita is one of the most common plants to regrow after a wildfire occurs.
Manzanita has a fine, uniform texture with a good natural luster, although the texture might vary in burl forms.
Due to the shrubby nature of Manzanita, dimensional lumber is rarely, if ever, encountered so there is no detailed endgrain information available.
The durability and rot resistance of Manzanita has not been formally studied or evaluated, reports from those familiar with the wood suggest that it is very durable and resistant to decay. This resistance to decay, even when wet, may help account for the popularity of Manzanita branches as aquarium decoration as well as its use as perches for domesticated birds.
Manzanita, being a shrub far more commonly than in any form that could remotely bef considered a true tree, tends to have multiple defects and irregular grain. These irregularities and defects can cause Manzanita to be quite difficult to machine. That said, in the rare occasions in which small pieces that feature straight and clear grain are reported to be relatively easy to work when compared to woods of similar density. Manzanita is fairly dense and quite hard, characteristics that would tend to make a wood more difficult to machine even in the absence of defects, but that same density and hardness also mean that Manzanita turns and finishes superbly.
Manzanita must be dried with great care because otherwise it is highly likely to check and split.
Manzanita is not reported to have any specific or characteristic odor when freshly cut or machined.
Pricing and Availability
In general, I always recommend West Penn Hardwoods, Bell Forest Products, NCWood, and GotWood? as excellent sources of domestic and exotic hardwoods. I have had multiple dealings with all of these vendors and have always been very satisfied.
Unfortunately, none of these vendors currently stocks, nor are they likely to ever stock, Manzanita.
Manzanita is not a wood that is in any way commercially harvested as lumber. Therefore, Manzanita is not a material that is generally available to the woodworker from major commercial sources, rather it is a material most commonly acquired from hobbyist harvesters who gather the material from their own property, often as part of fire risk-reduction measures, or because they themselves use the wood for craft and other hobby purposes.
Because of the nature of the most common uses of Manzanita, the best, if not the only, sources of the material are through such websites as Ebay and Etsy. It is possible to occasionally find more commercialized dealers selling Manzanita but even these sources tend to have a very strong focus on craft work.
When seeking to purchase Manzanita one must be very careful and clear about the nature of the material in question before purchasing it. Manzanita branches sold for use in floral displays, aquariums, or bird perches will not be remotely large enough to be of any use to the woodworker, much less the wood turner. Wood turners will be better served by seeking out Manzanita burl, root-burl, or root (all common terms that it is helpful to use in modifying your search process to weed out the branch material).
I have seen prices vary widely with burls selling for as little as $10 and for as much as $300 or more. Size and quality, as is the case with most any wood species, will greatly determine the price you pay. Burls much larger than 5” are increasingly uncommon and will therefore command a higher price.
It would be wise to be as careful as possible when sourcing Manzanita wood of any type. Much, if not most, of the land areas to which Manzanita is native are owned and managed by various agencies in the Federal government. The removal of any material, without a specific license, is illegal in most cases. To the extent that you can, you should seek to be certain that the source you intend to purchase Manzanita from obtained it legally, either by license from the land owner or from land the seller themselves actually owns. The purchase of illegally obtained wood is not only illegal itself it is also irresponsible as it encourages continued theft from and vandalism to public land. Make an effort to not be a part of the problem by knowing as much as you can about the source of the material you choose to purchase. An honest vendor should be happy to provide information about how their material is sourced.
One commercial vendor that I was able to locate is Righteous Woods located in Massachusetts. They offer, or have offered, Manzanita burls in sizes ranging from 6” up to 21” with prices ranging from ~$14.00 to ~$129. These are cut roughly round and the size represents diameter with no additional information provided as to thickness. As expected, price reflects size. Also, any Manzanita located in Massachusetts was harvested in the western areas of North America and shipped to Massachusetts. This will increase your shipping costs and I would expect to find better prices from sellers located in the western parts of North America. Shopping with those who harvest the wood locally also reduces your carbon footprint on the purchase…just saying.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for Manzanita, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms to capture all the possible listings. I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer in person to hand pick pieces at a comfortable price.
When using Woodfinder, prepare to be disappointed and frustrated when searching for the more uncommon woods, including Manzanita. My search yielded seven potential vendors, but only one actually stocked Manzanita. If find this to be a common occurrence with Woodfinder. You may find what you want eventually, but it might not be easy.
As has been mentioned previously, the gnarled and twisted branches of Manzanita make it a favorite wood for bird perches and aquarium driftwood. However, its form as a shrub generally means that its beautiful wood is only straight enough and long enough to be used in very small projects.
Some of the more common projects that use Manzanita include, but are not limited to: decorative slabs for making small tables or display stands; small boxes; other small turned objects such as pens, other desk tools, or bowls; and other small, specialty wood items such as knife handles.
While human uses for Manzanita may be limited, as a useful part of the natural world in which it is native Manzanita is vital. As noted, it is often one of the first plants to repopulate areas burned in wildfires, and as such it helps control erosion as well as providing shelter and fodder for wildlife. The seeds and berries of Manzanita are eaten by animals ranging from humans to bears to small mammals and insects. The nectar from the flowers is a favorite of a variety of species of hummingbirds as well as nectar eating insects. Some people also use the leaves and berries to make teas and ointments for the treatment of various ailments including exposure to poisonous plants that cause skin eruptions such as poison oak and poison ivy.
Manzanita is not listed as being in any way threatened or endangered by the Convention on 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.
Sycamore is not subject to special restrictions by any United States government agency unless the material is harvested from Federally owned land in which case a license is required for the removal of any and all material.
I realize that inherent in working with wood is the killing of a part of the natural world that may be slow to return and if I become deeply concerned about this fact, I will have to find a new hobby. I hope that such a time does not come to pass or at least not any time soon. I am also very confident that the vendor from whom I purchased my stocks of Manzanita sourced their material legally and responsibly. In part because I am concerned about legally and responsibly obtained wood, I am reluctant to buy from sellers outside of well-established and known vendors. I am highly unlikely, for example, to purchase exotic wood from auction sites, such as Ebay, because of uncertain sourcing and documentation, as well as the potential, even likelihood, of material being misidentified in order to achieve a higher selling price. Regretably, in the case of woods such as Manzanita, these less reliable sources are often the only available source. Life is almost always a trade-off and few options are perfect. We can only make the best choices amongst the choices we have, nothing more is realistically possible.
I also realize that many, if not most, wood workers do not have endangered species lists memorized, therefore I think it worthwhile and important to do even a small amount of research before purchasing any lumber, domestic as well as imported, to be certain of the potential impact you are having, even in a small way, on threatened or endangered populations. This information is easy to come by and takes only minutes to locate through any Internet search engine, including those you can access on your phone as you are standing in the lumber yard or store. Unfortunately, you simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered.
There have been no reports of adverse health effects associated with Manzanita. However, the long-term negative effects of exposure to sawdust of any species are well documented.
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 Manzanita.
My Personal Experiences
Many years ago I purchased about four small Manzanita burls measuring about 5” in diameter and about 3” or so tall. All featured one wildly shaped natural surface and because I was still quite new as a wood turner I was hesitant to tackle the material until such time as I felt that experience had sharpened my skill set. I also gave one of the burls to my Dad, my mentor in all things wood turning, and he made a bowl out of it, a process which he detailed in a guest authored post on this website, which is linked to in the beginning of the this post.
Over the intervening year, the burls continued to dry and not in a controlled way, so they checked significantly. While I regret this, I certainly don’t think that it destroyed the beauty and viability of the material in any way, in fact, in some ways I think the checks contribute to the wild beauty of the piece, making each one truly unique in a special way. The checks, clearly, did not significantly harm the viability and structural integrity of the material, which was questionable regardless simply because such factors are always uncertain with burl wood from any species.
The first thing I did was to turn the piece to round between centers. It had actually warped very little. While there is no data available regarding the shrinkage characteristics of Manzanita, my experience would suggest that the wood is rather dimensionally stable despite moving enough to check during drying.
I was hesitant to mount the material on a screw chuck for the purposes of creating a divot for mounting on a Nova chuck because I was concerned about holding power. I also knew that even if I did cut the divot, I would have no feasible means of reverse chucking the finished top of the piece, due to the natural edge which was, and is, quite wild, meaning that no matter how the piece was mounted I would be forced to felt the bottom to cover either screw holes or the divot. Given that such a covering of the unfinished bottom was unavoidable, I opted for the greatest holding I could manage, which was to mount the flat bottom to a face plate and do all the turning from that vantage. I was fortunate in that the vendor had cut very flat bottom surfaces and the wood didn’t warp in that direction. The Manzanita had cut so fine that there was no need for additional finish work on the bottom before felting. The vendor, located in the foothills of California where the Sierra Nevada merge into the Cascade range, did an excellent job, even if he did sell through eBay.
Once the piece was mounted on the face plate I ensured that it was cut completely to round, and this was not as simple or as easy as it would sound, nor as simple as it would have been without a natural edge. Natural edges, especially on a burl piece that is inherently unstable, provide for seemingly limitless options for a catch that will blow the piece apart. I made extremely light and gentle cuts throughout the process to avoid that fate. The natural edge had one piece that protrudes significantly out from the plane of most of the natural edge face and preserving that piece required a great deal of focus throughout the cutting process.
Once the piece was decidedly round, I started the painstaking process of hollowing the piece. First, Manzanita is quite hard and it cuts slowly, especially once dried. Second, I was cutting into a natural edge face that was quite wild with branch pieces still present, bark, and even natural material including dirt still adhering to the face. The cutting would remain slow throughout and this was complicated by that jagged piece that protruded out from the face on the edge. It would have been incredible easy to catch that piece with my hollowing tool and tear it off, or even explode the entire blank, but somehow, and I am honestly not entirely sure how, I avoided that throughout the hollowing process.
I was quite pleased with the way my Easy Wood Tools, the Rougher, the Finisher, and the No 1 Hollower all handled this hard and twisted wood. Their performance once again demonstrates why I am 100% loyal to the brand.
To help ensure stability, I remembered a trick my Dad had used in making the bowl he made from a similar Manzanita root burl. He essentially soaked every crack and crevice with thin cyanoacrylate to help increase the odds that the piece would stay together. Once I had removed enough material that I could see more clearly, I too soaked some of the larger cracks and crevices with cyanoacrylate and then I sprayed those areas with accelerator. Even so, I waited 10 to 15 minutes to be certain, I thought, that all the glue had dried. Confident that the glue was dry, I remounted the Manzanita burl on the lathe and turned it on.
Immediately there was a shower of liquid cyanoacrylate spraying out from the cracks and crevices! I had not yet put my safety glasses on because I had not started to use any tools and a droplet of the glue landed millimeters from my right eye. I was momentarily in a, excuse the pun, blind panic that I had glue in my right eye and that I might glue my eye shut or cause damage to cornea itself. I had, again forgive the pun, visions of a night in the local emergency room frantically trying to preserve my eyesight. But whew! The wood turning gods were smiling on me. There was absolutely no glue in the eye itself, only on my face, my shirt, my pants, the floor, and the bandsaw table behind me.
There were several lessons to be learned here. First and foremost, ALWAYS HAVE SAFETY GLASSES ON WHEN THE LATHE IS RUNNING EVEN IF NO TOOLS ARE IN USE! Even in the absence of the glue, a burl wood piece is inherently and always unstable. Such piece COULD fly apart from the centrifugal force at any time even if not tool is touching the wood. That was a foolish and careless oversight on my part. Secondly, I realized that cyanoacrylate that flows down into cracks and crevices might be protected from the air, or the accelerator, that is required to dry it. I should have walked away from the piece once I had soaked it in the glue for at least several hours, and even then I still should have had my safety glasses on before the lathe was turned on. I made a foolish mistake but I lived to tell about it and for that I am thankful.
Eventually the piece was hollowed out to my satisfaction, although I kept being tempted to try to thin it out just a little more and then a little more yet. In general I hate the feeling and the look of bowls that are too thick and kludgey, so I am always trying to ensure that my side-walls are no more than 0.25” thick and that the bottoms are no more than 0.50” thick. But in this case that just wasn’t reasonable or safe. I had a form that I was happy with, mostly, and I achieved quite excellent thin walls given the nature of the material, and it was still in one piece. Plus, with the screws in the bottom of the piece, I had to be careful to not cut so thin as to hit and expose them. If I did that, no felt would hide the holes because they would be visible in the bottom interior of the bowl. So, at some point, I had to say enough is enough and live with it, making exceptions due to the material being so much less than perfect and easy to work with.
Now I had to try and do some, thankfully, minimal sanding work. The Manzanita cut so cleanly that I didn’t need to do much clean up. And, on the outside edges of the natural edge area, there was only so much I could do with risking breakage or at the least tearing up the sandpaper as it would catch on the jagged natural edge pieces.
But the worst was trying to sand the interior without catching my hands on the spinning natural edge protrusions. I lost count of how many times I lost control of the sanding pad and how many times I banged my hand on some protruding part of the natural edge. I was finish sanding at 400 grit, just daring to congratulate myself on managing to almost finish this piece without it breaking apart when it did just that.
My middle finger, how appropriate, caught that protrusion on the natural edge and tore it right off the bowl. And it cut me pretty good with the force of the collision at over 1,000 RPM. At this point, cursing ensues I assure you. Then I grip a piece of paper towel on my finger, cut right at the joint crease to ensure that it would be maximally aggravating, and stopped the bleeding. The cut wasn’t deep and my finger was still clearly attached, but my bowl was missing a good chuck.
Fortunately, the bowl didn’t break any further and the piece itself was in one piece. This was good and it certainly wasn’t a guaranteed outcome as I have seen pieces come off and shatter when they hit the floor at good speed. I will say that the generous amount of shavings that are a constant feature under my lathe cushioned the blow, saved the piece, and therefore such debris is a safety feature and should not be cleaned away. It’s worth a shot, right?
The break was relatively clean and I was able, with some patience, to glue the piece back into place. I’m not going to pretend that the break isn’t visible, if you know where it is and what you are looking at, but the beauty of having so many natural checks and cracks is that it looks exactly like all the naturally occurring imperfections. And, my experience is that most people don’t look close enough to see such minor issues, or if they see them they don’t know what they are, and the overall greater beauty and style of the piece tends to distract the eye from the imperfections anyway. I don’t think it detracts from the piece at all and while I could wish it hadn’t happened, I think the piece looks better as it is than it would have had I left the piece off and finished it without re-attaching it. Perhaps it is just a matter of personal opinion.
Now of course I had to clean up the joint on the lathe, both inside and outside with a light application of the turning tools and then more light sanding, being very careful to not repeat the problem that caused it all in the first place.
Once the sanding was finished to my satisfaction, I had to decide on a finish for the piece. I turned to spray lacquer by Deft because with a natural edge a rubbed finish really isn’t practical. The natural edge would never achieve a good finish with a rubbed product and most likely it would just gum up in the cracks and roughness of the natural edge. I have always used such a spray finish with natural edge work and I don’t think there is a better alternative out there. Besides, I think lots of people really respond positively to the high gloss shine of the spray lacquer and even I think it looks quite nice, almost nice enough that I would consider using a spray high-gloss finish on other piece that don’t have a natural edge. I haven’t done it yet, but it could happen.
Natural edge work always presents both unique opportunities for beauty in highlighting the work of nature in the natural edge presentation but also unique challenges in turning, sanding, and finishing. Even the spray lacquer finish wasn’t without its challenges in that some areas of the natural edge that have a lower density, sapwood I suspect based on the coloration, tend to absorb the lacquer more than the harder and denser darker colored material which causes the gloss to be uneven, or absent, in those limited areas. I don’t know that there is much I could have done to stop that, although it is possible that a spray application of sanding sealer might have resolved it had I realized it would be an issue prior to applying the lacquer and assuming that I had a spray-on sanding sealer, which I don’t. But I don’t let it bother me personally. I know why the edge looks the way it does and I fully realize that it is the effect of the edge being truly natural. I wanted a natural edge and I am completely satisfied with how such edges finish and I have to trust that should I choose to give this unique piece to someone that they too will be the type of person who understands and appreciates that the natural world isn’t always uniform and that such non-uniformity and differences are what make natural items special, unique, and truly beautiful.
I am lucky to still have two to three more of these small Manzanita burl pieces to work with in the future. I have completely enjoyed the experience of making this small piece and now that I know I can succeed with the material now that I have some years of practice under my belt, I look forward to further experimentation. I can easily see myself looking out for additional Manzanita burls in the future, provided I can find quality material with a provenance that I trust at a price that seems reasonable. It is potentially a tall order to fill but I trust in the honesty of wood vendors across the country, despite a few bad apples, and look forward to the hunt and the find of additional find examples of this truly unique and special wood that has links to my childhood and therefore a special place of affection in my heart, forever more.
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!