August 15, 2010 | 7:00 pm CDT

Bamboo is a grass and, as such, there is no woody material in the plant stem. Yet this grass is being harvested, sawn and glued into “plywood” panels that look and behave like wood. In fact, in the past few years, there is a growing list of active importers bring bamboo products into North America. With bamboo being used in place of wood, it is wise to learn about this material.

There are over 1,000 species of bamboo, and these species are in several different genera. (As a point of reference, for oak, the genus is Quercus; for maple, Acer for pine, Pinus. So even within the woody plants, there are many different genera.) As might be expected, the properties and appearance of the various bamboos varies greatly from genera to genera and species to species.

Bamboo is very fast growing, and as such, promises to supply fiber needs in many parts of the world, especially tropical areas, where wood-based timber growing takes too long. A bamboo tree can reach 40 feet in height and over 6 inches in diameter with 4 years and can in a few more years when growing conditions are good, reach a height of 90 feet and a diameter of nearly 2 feet. When harvested, the root system will send up sprouts and will perpetuate the species with little human intervention. In many parts of the world, bamboo is grown in managed plantations.

The properties of the various bamboo species can vary greatly. For example, Calcutta bamboo has a stability, when the humidity changes, that is close to oak, but some bamboos shrink and swell twice as much as oak. In short, there is no guarantee that all commercial bamboo lumber or plywood (As bamboo is not wood, the term plywood is probably incorrect, but everyone knows what we mean anyway. One company has trademarked the name Plyboo as an alternative.) will have the desired properties and characteristics that you need. Make sure that you talk to others that are using the same bamboo species from the same supplier that you will be using before you begin investing in bamboo. Further, make sure that your supplier will not being changing species without your knowledge.

The picture here shows two pieces of bamboo. The surface of the light-colored piece (Trade-name Plyboo; supplied by Builders Bamboo) actually consists of long, narrow strips (about 1/8 inch in thickness and 1/4 inch wide) that are edge-glued together to form the 1/8 inch surface veneer. The darker piece (Trade name Durapalm) has two strips that are 2 inches wide and 1/8 inch thick for the face veneer. The grain and texture differences are obvious. Note that the strips are sawn from the outside of the bamboo stem, as the stem is hollow on the inside.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Profile picture for user genewengert
About the author
Gene Wengert

Gene Wengert, “The Wood Doctor” has been training people in efficient use of wood for 45 years. He is extension specialist emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.