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Saw it, don't drink it: Kentucky Coffeetree yields attractive, high-figure wood, but lousy coffee.

Kentucky coffeetree rarely makes the list when native commercial timbers are discussed--Fine Hardwoods Selectorama lists its availability as rare--but that does not mean the Lumber does not have fans or an impressive list of uses.

Don Weber, owner of Handcraft Woodworks, Paint Lick, KY, has used Kentucky coffeetree in a few projects, including a traveling toolbox. "Kentucky coffeetree is an ash-Like wood, which might also be mistaken for sassafras in its grain and coloration. It is an attractive wood with a peachy color and a high figure--kind of grainy looking."

Weber, a bodger, describes the wood as "pretty stable" and gives it high marks for ease of workability. "I use hand planes and it leaves the surface very smooth. It doesn't tear out much and isn't a contrary wood."

Weber, a woodworker for some 40 years, learned the basics from his father in Wales. He researched the old ways of turning, using a spring pole lathe. "I returned to Wales and England to track down the last bodgers--those old-time woodland turners who produced parts for the chair industry around High Wycombe--and have been working on the pole lathe ever since." Weber has been making English--and Welsh-style Windsor chairs since 1982 and leads classes in green woodworking. He moved to Paint Lick, near Berea, KY, and established his shop. The town is a comfortable fit for Weber as the area's traditional crafts are similar to the British craft tradition.

Webers supply of Kentucky coffeetree Lumber came from retired sawmill owner Hugh Hendricks, who lives outside of Berea. "Kentucky coffeetree is a realty pretty wood," said Hendricks, who has a side table made from it. "I always say it rooks like red oak, only better. Kentucky coffeetree is not as red as red oak, it is more of a brown, sometimes brownish yellow, with a pretty, big, bold grain."

Hendricks said that Kentucky coffeetree is similar to red oak in hardness, but not as hard as white oak. "It is a nice lumber, but its one drawback is that it might split."

Coffeetree Uses

Kentucky coffeetree's uses include cabinetry, custom furniture, railroad ties, interior finish, fenceposts and rails, general construction, railway sleepers, bridge timbers, sills and fuel, but its claim to fame dates back to pioneer times. Also known as coffeebean and coffeenut, the tree earned the names because early settlers roasted the beans from the trees to make "coffee."

Donald Culross Peattie, writing in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, does not give high marks to the brew made from coffeetree. "The appearance of the beans or seeds, rather than the taste, must have induced pioneers to roast and brew them to make what can only by imagination and forbearance be called coffee," writes Cutross Peattie. "As soon as the first settlers were able to obtain real coffee, they troubled this curious tree for its beans no longer."

Kentucky coffeetree has the distinction of being the only tree with a commonly accepted name, which includes a state. Its botanical name, Gymnocladus, translates to naked branches, most likely a reference to coffeetree's naked branches for six months of the year, making the tree took dead to some. Other common names for the tree include dead tree, stump tree and Kentucky mahogany.

"People assume that it is the state tree of Kentucky, but tulip poplar is the official state tree," said Hendricks. According to a Kentucky state website, tulip poplar was named state tree in the 1950s, but because of a clerical error, it wasn't property recorded. In 1976, Kentucky coffeetree became the first official state tree; however, in 1994, a bill passed to again make tulip poplar the official tree, citing its tong history in the development of Kentucky and its wide-ranging use to early settlers for canoes, furniture and building materials.

Kentucky coffeetree's range is from central New York and southern Ontario west to southern Michigan, Minnesota and South Dakota; south to central Kansas and southern Oklahoma; and east to Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The trees are described as picturesque, are valued as ornamental and street trees, and also are planted widely in parks and golf courses. Various experts differ on another point about the tree: whether the seedpods are edible. White the seeds, roughly the size of marbles, were roasted to make coffee, some contend that the raw seeds are poisonous.
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Title Annotation:WOOD OF THE MONTH
Comment:Saw it, don't drink it: Kentucky Coffeetree yields attractive, high-figure wood, but lousy coffee.(WOOD OF THE MONTH)
Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:May 1, 2007
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