Wood of the Month:

Continuing the Reinvention of a Classic Material

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

FAMILY NAME

Phyllostachys pubesecens and various species form the Arundinaria, Bambusa and Dendrocalamus of the Family Gramineae.



COMMON NAMES

Bamboo, moso bamboo and elephant bamboo.



HEIGHT/WEIGHT

Most industrial bamboo averages 40-foot plants, but can grow as tall as 120 feet. Weight not applicable.



PROPERTIES
  • Machines easily.
  • Sands well.
  • End grain seals and fills easily.
  • Can be finished well.

When Wood of the Month first featured bamboo, we acknowledged the obvious—bamboo is not a wood, but rather a member of the grass family. We bent the rules a little then because bamboo has a wide range of wood-like uses. Now, we are taking another look at bamboo and the unique directions manufacturers and designers are taking it.

While there are more than 1,000 species of bamboo worldwide, one of the most commonly used species is moso bamboo (Phyllostachys pubesecens). Moso bamboo is capable of growing to a height of 40 feet or more in only three to five years.

Bamboo is considered a green product because it can be harvested in as little as six years (though some cut as early as three years), and once a plant is cut, it can produce another culm, making it possible to harvest the same plant over and over.

Bamboo has properties that make it useful in all sorts of applications, from flooring to furniture, cabinetry and countertops, sporting goods, paneling, millwork, pulp for paper, medicines, fencing, trellises, fuel and even fabric. Bamboo is also being used as a construction material for residential housing; its flooring has been the big newsmaker.

Flooring Goes Mainstream

Ann Knight, vice president of marketing for Teragren LLC of Bainbridge Island, WA, says her company has been selling bamboo flooring since 1994. “It is no longer the new kid on the block. It has been accepted as a mainstream product. We are seeing huge interest in the panels and veneer,” Knight says. “People are using the products in cabinetry, wall paneling, skateboards, archery equipment, millwork and custom furniture.”

David Keegan, vice president of Bamboo Hardwoods, Inc. in Seattle, WA, describes flooring as a growing market that hasn’t hit its peak yet. “What began as an alternative is here to stay and will remain an option alongside oak, maple or cherry. Five years ago, bamboo flooring was a novelty, but it has been used in so many applications, from homes to bars and stores, that it has acceptance. In the beginning, when you went to trade shows, you had to spend a lot of time explaining the product. People had a hard time envisioning the product,” he says. Keegan thinks bamboo’s potential, particularly as an engineered material, is just beginning to be tapped.

His company produces both finished and prefinished bamboo flooring and uses three different species — moso and two others he won’t identify for proprietary reasons. “We spent a lot of time and money researching new species, so we prefer to call them Tropical and Premium species rather than using the scientific names,” he explains. He says moso comes from China, a temperate climate, while the other two grow in tropical climates.

Keegan is sold on the long-term potential for the plant. “Our wish and ultimate goal is to be able to grow bamboo in the United States. I’d like to see tobacco farms in the south converted to bamboo plantations. It would be a tremendous cash crop.”

Bamboo flooring is popular for residential applications, and commercial use is growing, sometimes in high-profile ways. Dorothy Wong, vice president of marketing for the D & M Bamboo Flooring Co. in Roselle, IL, says her company was honored to supply the bamboo flooring for the Clinton Library in Arkansas.

The Miracle Plant

Architect and designer Michael McDonough calls bamboo one of nature’s miracle plants, “destined to be an increasingly important part of sustainable technologies in the 21st century.” Interiors Magazine named a chair from McDonough’s 1997 commercial collection of engineered bamboo furniture one of the Top 20 Products of 1998.

“Bamboo has great potential because of its beauty and also for its engineering and technical properties. Bamboo is stronger than concrete in compression, stronger than steel in tension and more stable than red oak. Bamboo machines very well and can be glued with white or yellow glue,” McDonough says.

For the award-winning chair, McDonough cut the material into 1/8-inch staves and bent them, using cold forming instead of steam bending. “The chair is extremely lightweight, yet strong.”

McDonough says he was inspired by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. “He looked at bamboo as a high-tech material for commercial furniture beyond the Colonial Tradition, where the entire, round culm is used.

“Bamboo has been an integral part of our culture as well as the world’s economy for millennia,” McDonough says. It provides raw material for food, beverages, cloth, paper, medicines and wood-like uses. It has relative rapid growth and it stabilizes and improves eroded and environmentally degraded areas. “Bamboo acts like an atmospheric oxygen pump, producing 35 percent more oxygen than deciduous trees,” McDonough adds.

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