Woodworking with Mesquite

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Fine woodworking is often equated with classical pieces from various periods of furniture design using hardwoods such as cherry, oak, black walnut or maple, but there are plenty of options for woodworkers who wish to develop a medium with hardwoods that don't have the pristine characteristics of the classics. In some cases, the knots, checks, and blemishes that would cause stock to be shunned upon by those "classical" era furniture builders can actually be celebrated and shown off as design features.

Mesquite Is Well Suited to Southwestern Style Furniture

A prime example is the Southwestern style of furniture developed and becoming increasingly popular in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and other parts of the desert region of the United States. This style of furniture doesn't pretend to have the pristine lines of the "classical era" Americana furniture styles, but instead is more pragmatic and filled with character, mirroring an attitude prevalent among the early, hearty inhabitants of the region. Much like the way that the cuisine of the region developed dishes like chicken fried steak or brisket barbecue from tough, less-desirable cuts of meat, this furniture style has developed from using locally-sourced woods that most outsiders would eschew for firewood.

How Mesquite Is Different

This brings us to one of the most popular hardwoods used for this type of furniture today, mesquite. Truth be told, it's hard to consider mesquite a wood, considering that the mesquite tree is more like a bush or an overgrown weed than a tree in the normal sense of the word. Due to the hearty conditions in which mesquite trees grow, the trees tend to develop short trunks seldom thicker than a foot in diameter with plenty of crooks and twists. You'll rarely find a straight piece of mesquite longer than about six foot that isn't loaded with checks, cracks, and other blemishes, so trying to build a pristine piece of many Early American furniture styles out of the wood would be an exercise in futility.

Turning Blemishes Into Features

Instead, furniture makers have focused on turning those blemishes into features, which in turn highlight the deep, rich color of the wood surrounding the blemishes. As such, mesquite has become popular for rustic picture frames as well as small pieces of furniture or carvings of Southwestern-themed art. Mesquite is especially suitable for wood turnings, as the blemishes can bring a unique, one-of-its-own character to popular turned items such as pepper grinders and salt shakers.

Keep Woodworking Tools Sharp

Working with mesquite requires a bit of patience, and the wood can be a bit rough on the cutting edges of tools. Therefore, it is imperative that you keep your woodworking tools sharp when working with mesquite. The stock is prone to cracks and checks in the grain of the wood along with voids that occur naturally from the growth of the tree, which can be filled with an epoxy wood filler mixed with mesquite sawdust that will help to blend in the repair with the surrounding wood. Alternatively, you may wish to use a darker colored epoxy to highlight the blemish and make it a design feature.

Mesquite Has Less Variation in Expansion and Contraction 

Mesquite tends to be short-grained wood, which means you'll encounter less variation in expansion and contraction due to seasonal humidity fluctuations than other, longer-grained woods. Instead of shrinking perpendicular to the grain of the wood, mesquite tends to shrink more evenly across dimensions as the wood dries. The one big concern with mesquite is that it tends to twist, but working with seasoned mesquite rather than uncured stock will minimize the risk of twisting.

Using Clear Coat Finishes

When finishing mesquite, most builders tend to choose a clear coat finish that protects the wood rather than a stained finish that would cover up the color and features unique to this species of stock. Natural finishes such as boiled linseed oil, shellac or a good hand wax finish would allow the wood to oxidize over time, bringing out the natural red hues inherent in the wood. More modern, chemical finishes such as lacquer or polyurethane would not allow the wood to breathe as well, and would eventually cause the piece to have a bit of a gray pallor unbecoming of the beauty of this flawed but exquisite hardwood.