Copaia (Para para)

Copaia (Jacaranda copaia) is probably more commonly known in North American trade as para para (or in Brazilian Portugese, pará pará). However, the common name of lumber from this tree varies from country to country. In fact, in Panama, it is sometimes called “elephant’s foot” as the corrugated trunk near the ground looks somewhat like an elephant’s foot.

The tree is found in Central and South America, from Belize to Brazil. It grows rapidly and is known for its ability to regenerate quickly in open clearings. It has a straight stem that can be free of branches for over 50 feet. The overall height exceeds 100 feet and the diameter is often over 2 feet, not counting the swollen butt. It is this long straight stem that makes this tree suited for local use (where it grows) as roof poles and timbers with a long span. Without a snow load, roofs in tropical countries do not need to be as strong.

The foliage resembles an arboreal fern; the leaves when broken have a somewhat obnoxious odor. The tree does have showy flowers that are a deep violet color, with blooms from February through April. In fact, because of this flower, the tree is sometimes planted as an ornamental. One reference indicates that in a native population in Guyana the leaves of this tree, when a baby is born, are thrown in the fire to ward off the evil spirits that might attack the newborn.

Because of the low density of the wood, because of its susceptibility to insects and decay which is especially important in tropical countries, and because of its creamy color without much “pretty grain,” the wood is not highly regarded. (In many ways, it reminds me of the properties and treatment that northern aspen lumber receives.) This wood is a “local use” species; uses include furniture components, interior construction, boxes and crates, matchsticks and matchboxes. Prices are quite low. Reports are that much of the lumber from this tree is exported to China; it is then imported to various countries as an exposed wood in furniture and cabinets. Nevertheless, it does offer some opportunities in the U.S. furniture manufacturing.

Processing suggestions and characteristics

Density. The density of para para varies from location to location, but averages about 17 pounds per cubic foot at 7 percent MC. This means that a piece of lumber, 6 inches x 8 feet that has been dried and planed to ¾ inches will weigh 3 pounds. A thousand board feet of rough, dried lumber would weigh 1400 pounds. For comparison, the aspen weighs about the same, but red oak would weigh twice as much.

Drying. Para para is subject to rapid blue staining (a fungal activity), so it is critical that the lumber be dried promptly after sawing. In fact, kiln drying is probably better than air drying, in order to control this staining risk. The wood dries very rapidly and with little risk of checking, splitting or warp. It is possible that cooler drying temperatures (under 130F) will produce lighter colored wood.

Shrinkage is drying is quite low; 3.6 percent radially (the thickness of a flatsawn piece of lumber) and 5.2 percent tangentially (the width of flatsawn lumber).

Gluing and Machining. Gluing is extremely easy. However, as with all light weight woods, there is a risk of the liquid in the glue being adsorbed too rapidly before the pressure is applied. So, either increase the liquid content of the adhesive or move quickly after the glue is spread.

Machining is also easy, but as with all lightweight woods, if the tools are not sharp, the fibers will fuzz and not cut cleanly. For this reason, high speed steel is recommended rather than carbide. Using a smaller knife angle and a large rake angel by as much as 5 degrees is a good idea. Sandpaper must be fresh to assure sharp particles. Otherwise, the surface will fuzz.

Stability. This wood is quite stable. It will take nearly a 7 percent moisture content change to result in a 1 percent size change radially. It will take nearly a 5 percent change tangentially to result in a 1 percent size change.

Strength. The strength varies with density. A typical strength value (MOR) is 7040 psi. The stiffness is 1.3 million psi. Hardness is 350 pounds; these are all quite low. Comparable values for hard maple are 15,800 psi, 1.8 million psi and 1450 pounds.

Color and Grain. Heartwood and sapwood look similar and cannot easily be separated. The color is dull white with a slight hint of a pinkish hue. The vertical vessels show up as darker lines, giving the wood a coarse grain appearance. The luster is rather high. The grain is straight. There is no odor or taste to the wood.


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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.