Paulownia Tree thumb

Let me get much of the woodturning information out of the way at the front end and quickly, because “the rest of the story” is where things get downright fascinating. This short article only touches on the mixture of fact, rumor, and myth that surround this wood.

The woodturner quickly learns that Paulownia wood is extremely light, fuzzes up when turned, but then can finish out very nicely with sharp tools and sandpaper.  Superficially, you may mistake this rapidly growing wood for ash.  It most resembles, to me, mimosa -- in the look, feel, and response on the lathe.

John Lucas likes this wood for his famous mirrors because it is so light, easy to work, and stable when dry.  In fact, it is impossible to over-emphasize how light this wood really is -- one accompanying photograph shows ex-president Jimmy Carter (a woodworker of some note) holding a ten foot long 6x6 with one hand.

Jimmy Carter thumb

The huge leaves of this tree look something like catalpa leaves.  In fact, to the woodturner, Paulownia, mimosa, and catalpa are kindred souls in terms of their woodturning characteristics, although they are not closely related botanically.

This is a tree, originally from China, which has even more common names than osage orange, Paulownia  tomentosa is widely known as Paulownia, Pawlonia, Royal Paulownia, Royal Palonia, Princess Tree, Empress Tree, Cat’s Claw, Foxglove Tree, and several other names in the USA, Europe, and Asia.

Several months ago while playing golf at a course located north of Memphis, I spotted a large pile of logs in the parking lot.  Being a wood curious person, I wandered over to inspect the logs, about 75 in number, and found them to be 20 feet long or longer with diameters between 12 and 24 inches. I looked at the cut ends/bark and felt the end grain. This was very rough fibrous wood, but not cracked.  There seemed to be no distinct heartwood.  The wood reminded me of mimosa in appearance and character. Later, I learned that these logs were Paulownia.

I was told that the Japanese owner of the golf course, and adjacent Mississippi River timberland, harvested these trees each year and shipped them to Japan where they are highly valued (?) because of the traditional use of this wood in the Japanese culture. In Japan, craftsmen make furniture, ceremonial footwear, musical instruments, moldings, and other special items. One story is that a father would plant one when he had a daughter, and by the time she was of age to marry, he would cut the tree, and make furniture for her from it. Another story states that special wooden shoes are made for the bride. It is also used as the sounding board for a special Japanese stringed instrument.

The market for these trees is a matter of mystery and controversy. There are claims that these trees are worth a fortune in Japan; one report had a single log selling for $20,000. Other people state that the market has collapsed and that these logs are worth very little. In fact, this tree is classified as an invasive species in some areas of the United States! To my knowledge, no other tree is considered both an invasive trash tree to be eradicated and an extremely valuable tree to be cultivated.  A recent article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal stated that paulownia was spreading throughout nearby Shelby Forest and needs to be eliminated.

I posted an inquiry on WoodCentral WT forum to obtain some woodturner feedback, and one response I received was from Chuck Jones, secretary of the West Tennessee Woodturning Club in Jackson. Chuck was kind enough to donate a supply of this wood to me, and I made several hand mirrors from it. I found this wood easy to work, almost balsa wood weight, and it polished nicely with an appearance similar to ash.  Again, this wood reminds me of mimosa on the lathe.  

Mirror thumb

The logs I encountered in that parking lot were nondescript in appearance, extremely light, but strong, a wood that rarely cracks, dries quickly, and can finish nicely. Here is the ultimate trivia concerning paulownia -- it possesses natural fire resistance with the temperature required for ignition being 800 degrees F, much higher than for the usual hardwood where ignition takes place at 425 degrees (paper burns at 451).

Foliage thumb

This tree grows like crazy, anywhere, even on coal tailings and rocky ground that will not support other plants. A sprout from a stump can grow seven feet in one growing season and saplings become a “large” tree in 7-10 years, ready to harvest.  A bonus is the beautiful lilac colored blooms in the spring. All of this sounds too good to be true, and while it appears that some people have access to a private market and reap great financial returns, other paulownia plantation owners have been left with trees they not only cannot sell, but can’t eliminate.  

The story of Paulownia tomentosa goes on seemingly forever, and it is worth getting on the internet and clicking around to learn more about this most amazing plant.




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Monday the 19th. Thanks for visiting Woodturners Unlimited.