Mesquite wood only recently appreciated for beauty
By Gene Wengert
Mesquite includes three common species in the Southwestern United States: Prosopis glandulosa, often called honey mesquite and Texas ironwood; P. pubescent called screwbean mesquite; and P. velutina, called velvet mesquite. References, suggestions and data herein are for honey mesquite, but also apply to all the mesquite species in general. (In Central and South America, a similar species (P. juliflora) is called mesquite.)
Honey mesquite is a slow growing, small tree, typically at maturity 12 inches in diameter and 20 to 30 feet high, with a few trees exceeding 50 feet. The tree is found throughout the more arid regions of Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. It is a legume adding nitrogen to the soil, has fragment yellow-green flowers, produces long pods (8 inches) with edible beans, and has spines or thorns several inches long on the branches. The tree is fast growing, with a root system that can go 100 feet deep in search of water. Ranchers consider mesquite to be a water-stealing tree. Plus, the thorns are a threat to cattle, horses and humans. Many times, this tree is eliminated rather than harvested.
It also has pods that have a high nutritive value and were ground into meal and used as a staple by Native Americans. The Pima Indians fermented the pods to make an intoxicating drink called atole. To some, mesquite beans were their most important food, even more important than corn. The beans are 80 percent carbohydrate, 13 percent protein, 25 percent fiber, and 3 percent fat; and are edible without cooking. Ripe beans can be as high as 30 percent sugar. Beans were roasted for coffee during the Civil War.
The bean pods, the gum, the bark and other parts of the tree were used to cure a vast number of diseases and ailments.
It is only within the last two decades that mesquite wood has become appreciated for its wonderful properties and beauty. Its character includes swirling grain and a variety of colors, and occasional character defects such as ingrown bark, mineral streaks, insect blemishes and latent buds. In the 19th Century, European settlers fashioned hubs and spokes for wagon wheels from mesquite, as well as ribs for small boats. Mesquite fence posts were not affected by decay or insects. Today, consumers can buy mesquite furniture, lamps, flooring, various turned products, and an array of other articles from golf clubs to jewelry.
The wood is most famous for its use in grilling or smoking. It imparts a flavor that is impossible to get any other way. The smoke from wood in a fireplace, as well as contact with the fine dust has caused dermatitis in some individuals. The gum in the wood apparently has irritant properties.
Processing suggestions and characteristics
Density. Mesquite is a very heavy wood, about 50 percent heavier than red oak. Mesquite weighs about 58 pounds per cubic foot. This mean that kiln-dried lumber surfaced to 15/16-inches will weigh about 4-1/2 pounds per board foot, or a piece that is 6 inches wide and 12 feet long will weigh 27 pounds at 8 percent MC.
Drying. The lumber takes about 30 days to kiln dry to 12 percent moisture content or less. It is dried similar to red oak. This lumber is prone to bowing (warping lengthwise like an archer’s bow). Therefore, it is critical to achieve a low MC in the dry kiln. If the lumber is not fully dried, bowing will result as it dries further in manufacturing or in use. Very good stacking with stickers aligned perfectly is critical. Almost all mesquite will be dried at the sawmill.
Gluing and Machining. Glues well, but, as with all dense woods, the surfaces need to be perfectly flat to assure the best joint strength.
Mesquite is somewhat difficult to work due to hardness, internal stresses and cross-grain (interlocked grain). Sharp tools are essential. Slow feeds and / or shallow cuts may be required to prevent stalling under-powered equipment. It sands easily and finishes to a high polish. Very good turning properties.
Stability. Once dried, mesquite is an extremely stable wood, more stable than almost all other hardwoods. It requires about 18 percent MC change to develop a 1 percent size change in the radial direction (the width of a quartersawn piece of wood or perpendicular to the growth rings) and 9 percent MC change in the tangential direction (width of flatsawn lumber or parallel to the rings). Similar numbers for red oak are 6 percent MC radially and 3 percent MC tangentially.
Strength. Mesquite is hard, strong, and stiff (but some users report that it is also brittle). Estimated strength (MOR) is over 15,000 psi. The stiffness is estimated to be nearly 2 million psi. The hardness is estimated to be over 2,500 pounds. For comparison, red oak values are 14,000 psi, 1.8 million psi and 1,290 pounds.
Mesquite requires that nail and screw holes be predrilled to avoid splitting the wood or bending or breaking the fastener.
Color and grain. The very thin layer of sapwood is a lemon yellow; the thinness means that it seldom will be seen in lumber. The heartwood is a deep reddish brown, somewhat similar to Honduras mahogany. The grain is medium-coarse in texture with a fine, wavy, interlocked grain. The interlocked grain creates some ribbon streaks at times. Large, clear pieces are rare; wonderful character is its trademark.

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