the Carpentry Way: A Square Deal (3)                                                          

A Square Deal (3)

    
This is a series dealing with the design and construction of a coffee table and maybe more.

In the previous post I mentioned that I had been having trouble finding just the right piece of walnut for the coffee table project, as I was trying to find a piece which would yield a 38" wide piece free of defects and sapwood - and preferably with as much vertical grain as possible for minimizing movement in service. What I found was the perfect stick of wood just wasn't looking to be out there, though there was a candidate piece which would do for just the top, costing $4000, and some larger pieces, costing up to $10,000, which would possibly work but would mean buying far more walnut than the project required. I sent a longish email to the client detailing the situation and giving some alternative strategies, including making the top from two or more boards instead of one, making the top a frame and panel type instead, or perhaps using a different wood.

The wood I suggested, because it came first to mind, was bubinga, and in the email I included a picture of a board I knew of which would do perfectly for the task at hand:


It was a glorious piece of wood by any standard, and it would serve perfectly for the ideal of a one-board table top, but it would mean the client would be faced with buying far more than was needed for the coffee table alone. However, the client had also mentioned an interest in a sideboard, and such a slab as above could provide enough wood for both projects.

A few years ago I built a large dining table out of bubinga, and had obtained a board sliced from the same log as the board above, probably one slice below. That board was also 16' long and 50" wide, and I had the board quartered into 8' long, 24" wide chunks prior to shipment. The bubinga table came out like this - the build was detailed here on the blog over some 50 posts (see "Ming Table" in the labels index at the bottom of the page):


That particular board I had purchased three years back cost some $6400.00, at the time the most expensive chunk of wood to grace my shop. When I bought the board, it was listed on the site along with about 10 more similar pieces, some of which were a full 16/4 (4") thick. The boards had been sitting at the wood yard for some 3 or 4 years. Not exactly selling like hotcakes, though the collapsed economy and seemingly high price didn't help sales any I'm sure.

Fast forward to last year. I visited the same dealer's webpage again and noticed that he had only one large bubinga slab left - the one shown above in the first picture in fact. I was thinking - not too seriously - it might be a good investment to put some money into a board like that, and checked in with him to see what the price was. The dealer said the board now cost $8000.00. I mentioned I had bought another board from the same log and that it was 'only' $6400, so maybe he could give me a better deal...? He came down to $7200.00. I kind of choked on the price a bit and decided to buy a planer instead - it was cheaper and seemed less of a luxury than the board. Besides the cost, there was the issue of storing and moving around such a massive hunk of wood, the slab probably weighing around 1200lbs I would guess. There was really nowhere to put it in my shop space.

Last year I purchased several sticks of vertical grain bubinga from Rare Earth Hardwoods for the sideboard design I had been working upon. At the time, I sorta noticed that the bubinga stock I was coming across, while of very high quality, seemed to be topping out around 24" in width. That is an exceptionally wide board if all vertical grain - it's a fairly wide board regardless of grain orientation for that matter - but for bubinga is was more the state of normality to find boards like that. Just average. There had been a large number of bubinga slabs on the market back in 2007~2008, and I wondered if the economic malaise had meant that few logs were being sliced up in recent months, the logs kept in a stockpile or something like that, waiting for the economy to pick up.

In my email to the client, along with the picture of the bubinga board, I mentioned that it was going to cost around $7000.00. I thought that the price would be helpful in comparing options to the Claro Walnut, which was in the same sort of price zone. Following that email, the client got back to me within a day, and having digested the information, noted that he could see that the bubinga plank was clearly a very fine quality piece of material. He indicated that he would definitely consider having the table made of bubinga, and would also consider the idea of buying a large plank and commissioning the construction of the sideboard as well.

Reading this, my first thought was 'wow!', and my second thought was to get on the phone to the hardwood dealer to check that the board was still available. Just because a wood yard's website shows certain boards in stock does not mean that they are actually in stock, as I have found out many times. I called up the dealer to see what was what.

It was a classic case of good news - bad news. The good news was that they still had the board. It was the last one left in inventory from that original log, a log which was some 52" thick. The bad news was the price had changed. In fact, it had increased nearly 40% since the last price quote I had received.

By my sudden intake of breath, the dealer could clearly hear me having a near-heart attack on the phone, so he explained why the price had changed so much in such a short period of time.  It seems that Cameroon is the place where most bubinga is originating, and in 2011 Cameroon placed a ban on further raw log exports of both bubinga and wenge. Now, I'm all for Cameroon doing this sort of thing, creating mill jobs and boosting the local economy instead of exporting saw logs. The one slight fly in the ointment in this case, however, is that the biggest sawmill in Cameroon, according to the hardwood dealer, can cut a maximum of 26" in width. That's the biggest mill they've got. That explains why a lot of the fresh bubinga stock I have been coming across was 'only' about 2' wide. And for the dealer, it explains why the price needed to climb - they simply weren't any mega slabs being cut anymore. These wide slabs are kind of a vanishing breed so to speak, briefly available on the market for a few years, and then no more. And unless someone in Cameroon ponys up the money for a much larger mill - what, $75,000 or maybe $100,000? - then we aren't going to be seeing anymore of these wide slabs of bubinga or wenge.

I certainly regret it when I have created an expectation in the mind of the client as to the price of a given thing, and then have to walk it back from there and tell them it will cost more. Normally a more successful sales technique is to tell the client the price has dropped from an earlier estimate. Well, I did express my surprise as to the price of the board when I let him know the news, and apologized about prior misinformation. I was apprehensive that this piece of news might sink the entire deal, at least in terms of meeting the ideal of having the one-board top. The silver lining though, was that the client was open to the possibility of using bubinga for the table, and that meant that obtaining quartersawn stock and making the tabletop out of two boards was a comparative breeze. Getting a more seamless grain match with two edge-jointed vertical grain pieces, especially with a wood so straight-grained as bubinga, was a reasonable proposition. Another email or two followed, and I let the client know that there were a few other suppliers I had yet to check in with and that maybe there would be one out there with 'old' pricing on their bubinga. Maybe a 'bargain' could be found?

No such luck. In fact, I found that there were but three situations in terms of wide bubinga slabs:
At $100/bd.ft. or more, a board like the 50" wide, 16' long 12/4 slab picture above is in the realm of $20,000.00.  On top of that, there was the thickness I was looking for in a wide slab, not a common combination. I could only find one other supplier with 12/4 boards - Hearne Hardwoods - and most of those boards were pith center and had pronounced checking. Plus their price was $65/bd.ft.

Welcome to the steep end of the supply/demand curve folks.

So, then came the moment where I had completed the search and the ball was back in the client's court as far as deciding what to do. He asked me for my advice - what would I do were I in his situation given the options? I said that if I had the resources to do so, I would buy the bubinga slab. That board may well be the last of its kind in terms of overall size and quality, it makes possible a design, and makes possible the construction of two pieces in perfectly matching stock. In terms of quality of fiber, straightness of grain - sheer perfection as a piece of wood, that slab was hard to beat.

It's not the case that large bubinga logs are scarce, but it is the case that obtaining wide bubinga boards looks to be a challenge in the years ahead. It may never happen. The brief 'glut' of wide boards in 2007~2008 might have been an anomaly, a supply spike never to be matched again. And it wouldn't be the first time in history such a scenario has unfolded.

This situation in regards to a certain type of material suddenly becoming quite scarce, and what that means in terms of the reduced opportunity to make things which make use of that material, reminds me of some thoughts I had a couple of years back when visiting the Freer/Sackler Gallery, part of the Smithsonian, in Washington D.C. At the time they had on display a magnificent large Ming Dynasty wardrobe, an enormous piece some 8' high and at least 5' wide. It was made in huanghuali, the 'Yellow Pear Tree', actually a type of rosewood native to parts of Southeast Asia. Rosewoods - dalbergia spp. - are not known for being especially large trees, and huanghuali was in very short supply already by the end of the 16th century. Looking at the massive cabinet on display, I was struck by the wide, one-piece huanghuali panels infilling the doors. You just don't see such widths in rosewoods these days - probably such wide boards were unusual then - and I realized that it was not actually possible, in all likelihood, to replicate that exact piece today. It was an artifact of an age where the material was both esteemed and available. And it was only because of other historical events, like the Mongols making overland trade a hassle, that led to China getting into maritime trade for a period of time. That maritime trade was what made the huanghuali and the zitan more available to those few furniture makers who were even allowed to work with it. I think such times are very brief, as the moment something becomes esteemed and in demand is often the moment at which its supply begins to diminish appreciably.

Similarly, the opportunity to make gigantic conference tables out of single wide slabs of bubinga, may be a phenomenon tied only to a few years at the close of the first decade of this century. Perhaps an oddity in the historical record and no more. You had the combination of the rising popularity of the Nakashima knock-off slab table and the supply of huge bubinga saw logs to countries - the US and Germany in particular - where there also existed saws and other equipment large enough to saw up such beasts.

I mean think about it  - if this was the 1700's, even if we knew about such freaks of nature as these monster bubinga logs, I think the 'fine print' details of moving the logs around and rip sawing them would have been forbidding challenges. Anyone care to pit saw a 50" thick hardwood log by hand? Didn't think so. And of course, there was no fad for big slab conference tables at that time either. The logs may have well been on the moon for all it mattered, and in the 1700's Cameroon was about as remote as the moon as far as much of the west was concerned.

So, it was a confluence of demand, supply, fashion, and technology which led to the phenomenon of big bubinga tables. That era is over and there just happen to be a few boards still floating about in the supply pool. It won't be long before there are no more boards like that, save for what are squirreled away in various woodshops around the nation. One can only guess at the millions of board feet of lumber tucked away across the nation. I stash away a certain amount myself.

In the next post, we'll see what the client decides to do, given the options. I hope you'll stay tuned and thanks for visiting. On to post 4