I fell for persimmon my first year behind the lathe (2005) and, although tempted by other long limbed beauties, I have remained true to Diospyros virginiana, the American persimmon (or white ebony, as less commonly known).  There is not another tree in the United States similar to persimmon, and that statement holds true from a woodturning perspective. If restricted to one source tree for all of my future wood turning, I would choose persimmon, although maple and hickory would be strong contenders.

 

The ebony genus, Diospyros, consists of some 400 species in the tropics, but only one in the temperate zone, with our persimmon tree (D. virginiana) being the only ebony species in North America.

An interesting feature of this plant is the great wood color variation, tree to tree; from almost pure white, to yellowish, to some gray, even green to a brindle or flecked pattern, sometimes with those valued streaks of ebony heartwood.  Unlike most of our native hardwoods, most of the persimmon tree is sapwood.  Heartwood may be almost nonexistent, perhaps an inch or so diameter in a 12” diameter log.  The heartwood may be a deep black color or it may not, and a perfect black circle is never seen, rather streaks and segments of black.  At first glance, the woodturner believes the black areas to be rotten and soft, but that is not the case, the ebony areas are usually tough and hard.  In fact, the sapwood is also quite firm, especially when dry. This is a close grained wood and both the sapwood and heartwood polish like glass.

 

This hard wood was used for golf club heads until displaced by high tech metal about 20 years ago -- persimmon wood resists compression and has a resiliency or springboard effect which made it popular with golfers seeking those extra yards. Interestingly, another common tree which shares this characteristic is dogwood, and some golf clubs were made from this wood although the requirement of a 10” diameter uncracked trunk eliminated most dogwood trees from this application.

 

Unfortunately, there is no way to predict what will be inside the trunk of a persimmon tree in terms of coloration and ebony, but if the bark is riddled with tiny pinholes, you can be certain that insects are present and active.  Wormy persimmon provides interesting patterns for the woodturner to display, if you can use the wood before the bugs eat it all.  The worm channels also seem to prevent wood cracking, most likely by removing stress. Cutting into a persimmon tree is like opening Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates -- you never knew what you are going to get.

 

This tree is quite adaptable as it will grow in full sun, where it spreads out with gnarly limbs covered with lichens, or in dense shade where persimmon trees grow much taller, with straight unbranched trunks of seemingly uniform diameter.  Persimmon trees are easy to spot in the forest as the bark is black and is made up of raised segments one to two inches on a side.  The American persimmon is a sexual tree with the female bearing fruits which are prized by many animals, including opossums.  ESM has tried to eat persimmons all his life and can’t get past the pucker factor as the fruits can be very astringent, even if picked after the first frost, after being almost mushy, cooked in bread, turned into pies, etc. 

 

Despite being a hard wood, persimmon is attacked by insects and fungi and extensively wormy persimmon can be spectacular but don’t tarry; like hickory, another seemingly tough tree, once persimmon is on the ground it is gone in a matter of months, especially in the summer.

 

The woodturner will find persimmon a joy to turn as the wood is easily worked, non-irritating, and emits a faint odor of cracked pepper.  The finish one can obtain with this close grained wood is glass magnificent, as good as with osage orange and black locust.  Other positive features include the fact that warping and cracking are minimal and the bark is tightly held to the wood, making persimmon a go-to wood for bark edge bowls and similar items.

 

To know persimmon is to love persimmon -- be careful, or you, too, may be smitten by this beauty.

 

 

About the author:

Emmett Manley is a retired medical scientist/professor who discovered woodturning in 2005.  He enjoys studying and collecting wood native to western Tennessee and converting that wood to useful items. He may be contacted at emanley1 @ comcast.net (remove the spaces)

Mr. Manley frequently contributes articles to the Mid-South Woodturners Guild and has been published in the American Woodturner (AAW publication), Apr 2011, Vol. 26 Issue 2, pg22, entitled Fascination with Friction.

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