Working With an Unusual Turning Wood: Hollywood Juniper

Decades Old Starting Material

I had occasion to inherit some rough turned bowls that had been started when the wood was green, approximately 30 years ago!  The original turner had left the hobby when his mainline business, yard and tree care, came to occupy so much of his time that he didn’t feel that he had time left for turning.  He was a great fit as a turner from the perspective that his work life gave him a practically inexhaustible supply of free wood to experiment with.  To my knowledge, he worked extensively with walnut, occasionally with olive wood, and on several occasions, Hollywood Juniper.

The “Official” Designation

Hollywood Juniper is officially known as Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa.’  It is a common yard shrub, especially in southern California, hence its name, where it thrives in the hot and dry conditions.  It is especially popular in some Japanese style gardens due to its naturally twisting shape and dense needles.  As popular as this juniper might be as an ornamental plant, it certainly is not what one could consider to be a timber tree, so it is highly unusual to find pieces of the wood of sufficient size to be used for turning projects.  The only sources would be homeowners who remove sizeable shrubs, or significant pieces of a plant, or the tree service who does the work.  My wood came from the later source.

Rescue Bowls

When I first started working with these “rescued” bowls, so named by me because they changed ownership four times in coming to be in my shop and were slated to be thrown out by the third owner who acquired them as part of a larger lot of wood, I had no idea what the wood was.  All the pieces were heavily coated in shellac, a procedure done when they were turned green decades ago to slow the drying process and to therefore help prevent significant cracks and warping, so I couldn’t even tell what the color or grain of the wood was until I had turned enough of the coating off to see the actual wood.  In addition to be heavily coated with shellac, the bowls were frankly dirty, coated with dust and even mud, and to compound matters, they were heavily warped and out of round.  At least a good half inch or more of material had to be removed just to achieve a round shape.  For more information about these “rescued” bowls, please see the related post on this site.

The Character of the Wood

Once I achieved round and continued cutting to shape the final product, the most noteworthy characteristic of the Juniper wood was its smell, which mimics the scent of butter cream frosting so exactly as to make ones mouth water!  I still hadn’t learned what the wood was at this point, but the smell was a characteristic that was quite distinct and also one that I had never heard associated with a turning wood previously.  The other characteristic of the wood was that it remained yellow pigmented regardless of how deeply I cut.  At first, I thought that the yellow color was transfer and penetration from the shellac, but now I believe the color to be inherent in the wood itself since it lasted through all phases of cutting and sanding.

The wood was not in ideal condition.  It had numerous cracks as well as knots which in several cases proved to be the undoing of the piece completely due to catastrophic breakages.  I wasn’t surprised by this given the age of the wood and its overall condition, but losing a piece that one has invested some time in is still at least aggravating if not potentially heart-breaking.  But these were rescue bowls, heretofore destined for the trash heap, so whatever I was able to make of them was more than they were otherwise destined to become.

Catastrophic Failure and Recovery

The smaller of the two bowls shown is truly a rescued piece!  First it was rescued, even if accidentally in some cases, by four wood turners, myself included, and then it was further rehabilitated after a catastrophic breakage that cleaved the piece almost exactly in two!  At first, my response was say “the hell with it,” but after putting it initially in the trash, I decided to try and rescue it with a bit of thick cyanoacrylate that I originally intended to be used as a pen finish (I now use thin consistency cyanoacrylate for that purpose, but I digress).  I put glue on one edge of the break and then held it together with hand pressure only for a few minutes, finishing the process with a spray of accelerator.  This process left excess glue both on the inside and outside surfaces which I had to clean off with a carbide scraping tool and I confess that at this point, with this level of effort expended, I was VERY cautious and careful to make very light cuts to preserve what was now a probably not very stable piece.  Of course, the break had occurred along an existing crack and I knew that there were still more cracks and instabilities despite the repaired one.  My luck, and the glue held, however, and I was able to complete the clean up!

No Issues and the Finish

The larger bowl has decidedly more instabilities than the smaller bowl, with several knots and voids present, but it held up nicely to the overall process, although I was probably also very careful to be as light with my touch as possible in recognition of the existing issues.  It finished with no troubles.

The smaller bowl was finished with a coat of Behlens Woodturners Finish, while the larger bowl was finished with HUT Crystal Coat, a finish I have formerly only used on smaller items such as pens or stoppers, but which I found to be quite acceptable for a larger piece as well.

Summary Thoughts on the Material

Overall, I found the Hollywood Juniper wood to be easy to turn, if a bit soft such that the turning tools, no matter how sharp, tend to leave grooving which is typical with softer woods such as soft maple or pine, but likewise with other softer woods, it is easy to sand and even relatively large areas of end grain tear-out were removed with power sanding at fairly strong grits, followed by incremental sanding up to and including 800 grit.  The wood has a nice tight grain, unlike, say, walnut, and in the pieces I worked with, the presence of quite striking figure and decoration is possible, although not guaranteed.  As is pretty much always true with a natural product, the actual appearance will vary with the luck of the draw in which piece you acquire.

Abranet – A Discovery

During this process I discovered a revolutionary sanding material sold under the name of Abranet, a Finnish product that is absolutely amazing.  It provides outstanding sanding performance with a mesh product that eliminates loading, burning, and prematurely lost sanding discs, thus ultimately saving money in the long term.  Sanding dust is easily blown out with compressed air, or the material can be washed under running water.  It can also be used in wet sanding composite and/or acrylic materials as well.

Final Thoughts – I Promise

Although I think it unlikely, if you ever have the opportunity to work with a piece of Hollywood Juniper, I personally recommend it.  There is a decent chance that you will find some interesting figure and character due to the likely presence of knots and/or voids, and the yellow color adds inherent interest.  And you might just enjoy the scent of butter cream frosting as you work the wood, especially during the sanding phase (wear a dust mask just in case you happen to have a sensitivity to the wood, a problem well known with other timber woods).  I recognize that if you demand and only work with “perfect” pieces of turning timber that Hollywood Juniper won’t be for you, but if you enjoy the discovery process of working with unusual woods of the world, and can accept that as a natural product, wood isn’t always “perfect,” then a nice, if uncommon, piece of Hollywood Juniper might be, in fact, perfect, for you.