Wood of the Month:
Sequoia: Even the Name Is Majestic

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Sequoia sempervirens of the Family Taxodiaceae

Redwood, coast redwood, Pacific redwood, California redwood, sequoia, vavona burr.

Height is from 200 to 340 feet, with 5-to 10-foot diameters and an average weight of 27 pounds per cubic foot.

Redwood dries easily with little shrinkage or checking and is stable in service. The wood resembles western red cedar in properties. It is non-resinous and considered easy to work with hand or machine tools. Sharp cutting tools are suggested since the wood may splinter during cutting. Hand sanding works better than machine sanders for this softwood. It has low bending and crushing strength, low resistance to shock loads, very low stiffness, poor steam-bending rating. Alkaline adhesives cause stains.

Two related species dominate the landscape on the Pacific Coast of California. One is Sequoia sempervirens also known as redwood. The other is Sequoia gigantica, or simply the "Big Tree."

Redwood is the reigning title holder in terms of dimension, while the other, known as "Howard Libbey," is believed to be the tallest and oldest living tree in the world. This big tree was originally considered to be a sequoia, but later earned its own genus - Sequoadendron.

In "A Natural History of Western Trees," Donald Culross Peattie gives a fascinating history of the tree. "On Oct. 10, 1769, Fray Juan Crespi, chronicler of the Portola expedition (the first exploration that the Spanish made by land of the California coast), recorded that on the Pajaro River the party traveled 'over the plains and low hills, well forested with very high trees of a red color, not known to us. They have a very different leaf from cedars, and although the wood resembles cedar in color, it is very different and has not the same odor; moreover the wood of the trees ... is very brittle. In this region there is great abundance of these trees and because none of the expedition recognizes them they are named redwood from their color.'"

Another explorer who kept a diary in 1776, encountered the "spruce trees which they call redwood, a tree that is certainly beautiful and useful for timber for it is very straight and tall." This tree, found around San Francisco Bay, was measured at "50 varas high" (137 feet, 6 inches) with a circumference of a half varas (14 feet, 9 inches). Soldiers from an investigating party reported there are even taller redwoods in the forests. Redwood usage dramatically increased around the time of the Gold Rush, said Culross Peattie. "As early as 1850 sawmills appeared on the hills south of San Francisco and soon redwood was cut for houses, barns, fences; it was carried to the mining country for sluice boxes, rockers, sheds."

Redwood is an apt name for this tree. The sapwood is white but the heartwood is bright red when first cut and deepens to a reddish-brown color. However, the color can vary within a single tree, from part to part, with some being a light cherry color. It is usually straight grained. Varona burr is the name for redwood burl.

White redwood, the term for the wood from some trees grown in the Crescent City area, has neither blemishes nor knots. Black redwood is very rare and is obtained from trees with a very dark heartwood. It is primarily used for tanning vats, designed to be set underground.

Curly redwood is cut from redwood stumps and is very dramatic looking. According to Culross Peattie, the best grades of commercial timber come from an area called Humbold County.

In "The Illustrated Book of Trees and Shrubs," Czechoslovakian author Vaclav Veticka writes, "Sequoias have always grown only in the northern hemisphere. They reached the peak of their development in the Cretaceous period and since then have declined. Only this species and the closely related Sequoadendron (or sequoia) giganteum survive today.

Uses for redwood
Redwood is used in the United States for interior finish and also for exterior construction uses. Its durability makes it very popular for cooling towers, vats, tanks, hot tubs, wine casks, coffins, siding, fencing, decks and rustic furniture. It is a popular choice for paneling and millwork.

Redwood is also used for exterior cladding and shingles. It was popular for telephone poles at one time, and is still used to make pipes and other parts for organs. The redwood bark is used to manufacture particleboard, while the burl, which often is found at the base of the trees, is very striking and is used for turnery.
Valuable timber

Even in the early 1990s, redwood accounted for only 2 percent of the timber cut in the United States. However, according to Culross Peattie, it rates as one of the nation's most valuable trees.

Redwoods grow in a range from southern Oregon to Northern California. The tree was overcut in the early part of the century but is now strictly managed. Even so, redwoods have great powers of regeneration. They can sprout from cut stumps. In addition, the trees live incredibly long lives - as much as 2,000 years for the oldest known redwoods, with average lifespans up to 800 years.

According to Albert Constantine in the book, "Know Your Woods," the sequoia, he said, is "limited more or less to some 30 groves varying from a few trees to over a thousand. These are located only in the Sierra Nevadas of California, in Sequoia National Forest and in Tahoe National Forest. These trees are the oldest and largest of all living things, with the largest sequoia and the largest tree in the world being in Sequoia National Park." Constantine adds that if the tree were converted to lumber, it would "provide more than 600,000 board feet.

Veticka notes the coast redwood has been in cultivation in Europe since 1840. It grows in the Rhine region, Denmark, Britain (on plantations) and Ireland, but does not thrive as well as in the United States because of harsh continental winters. Frost will damage redwood trees.


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