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Crazy or Creative?: Working with Mesquite to Make a Picture Frame

by Mark Stephens | October 8th, 2009
Mesquite frame finished and hung

Mesquite frame finished and hung

Those who work with mesquite may appear a little nuts to woodworkers who are used to the likes of cherry, walnut, oak, and similar woods.

Mesquite’s beauty comes from a different breed of criteria other than clear wood.  Namely the worm holes, splits, checks, knots, and bark inclusions that characterize the tree and her timber.  “High quality” has an entirely different definition when it comes to mesquite lumber.

Some years ago, I had a customer lodge a demand for mesquite that was 8″ wide and totally clear – he needed a lot of it too.  I had to tell him, not out of opinion but of fact, “If you absolutely need it that wide and that clear without cutting or gluing, you don’t want mesquite.”

The mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) is a desert tree that beds down in the Southwestern U.S., Mexico and several subtropical deserts around the globe such as in Argentina. It thrives in dry soil, withstands droughts, and grows slowly.  Because of this, the tree often forms with oddball twists and generates a maze of splits and cracks within its trunk.  It’s one tough dude that grows in the worst of conditions.

A tighter look at the finished epoxy filled cracks.  What do you think?

A tighter look at the finished epoxy filled cracks. What do you think?

And the wood that comes from the tree echos those conditions in which it grew.  Boards are often “short,” which means they are rarely, rarely, longer than 6′.  While kiln dried lumber is certainly stable (not prone to unwieldy movement), it’s definitely going to include the gamut of defects that you’d typically balk at and say, “What crap!”: knots, cracks, perhaps worm holes and bark pockets.  Those characteristics are exactly why those of us who work with it like it – well okay, that and the unique dark tan color and intricate figure that appears in many sections of the wood.  Few trees, maybe no other trees at all, grow in the same conditions and generate a wood as distinguished with excellent working properties, superior durability and strength, and with perfect representation of the life it lived in a dry, rough environment.

Mesquite’s not for everybody.  The defects – excuse me, I mean the beacons of beauty – require some special care and techniques. Chiefly the checks and splits have to be cut out or filled.  Filling is far more fun.  I’ve made a number of picture frames from mesquite with the intentions of utilizing the cracks and holes as points of interest.  Here’s my latest effort for a 20″x30″ photo print.

What do you think of the lap joinery?  What could have made it better?

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This entry was posted on Thursday, October 8th, 2009 at 4:57 pm and is filed under Wood Conversations, Woodworking Projects. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Richard P.

    Thanks Mark. I have been using System 3 and thought I could fill cracks in one filling. Not so as you pointed out. I didn’t have much luck with blue tape on back side to hold epoxy in. Any other suggestions? Someone told me you learn by doing with epoxy and that’s sure ture but I really appreciate short cuts learned from others.

  • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens

    Richard,
    clear two part epoxy is the kind of thing you can get at a hardware store or even a woodworking store. It comes in two bottles, one for the resin, one for the hardener (thus, two parts).

    Depending on the size of the cracks, it may take 3 or more sessions of filling. Take a look at the comments above, for instance about initially sealing the insides of the cracks with a fast hardening CA glue (super glue). It’s good to do it in stages because bubbles do like to form in epoxy and you may only have about 10 minutes to work with it. Someone mentioned above using a tooth pick to pop the bubbles, which is effective.

    Cured epoxy will sand as smooth as the wood will.

  • Richard P.

    I would like more information on brands and type of epoxy used and how to apply it. Do you fill voids in one pour? When you sand does the epoxy sand out smooth like the wood?

  • wood-n-guy

    Mark – I think you did a bang-up job on that picture frame. Really like the rustic look of mesquite wood, hard and heavy and long lasting – very nice job – Like the lap joints !!!!

  • Anonymous

    Great looking frame.
    I make game calls and like to use a lot of mesquite wood and exotic hard woods. Using powdered stone dust as a filler, I can create some pretty interesting pieces with mesquite

  • Winterhawk

    That is a beautiful frame.

    I work almost exclusively with mesquite a friend and I harvest at various places in West Texas. The wood ranges from honey tan to brilliant hues of pinks and red depending on the area it grows. The grain structure is ALWAYS stunning. The root ball has an almost burl like quality. I use marine grade 2 part epoxy mixed in small batches to prevent excessive heat build up. I leave it clear as I feel it gives an extra dimension to the project to look deep into the wood, but the biggest problem is bubbles which form and do not rise out of the epoxy before it sets. If I spot them in time, I use a tooth pick to lift them out. I fill everything before surface planing the wood, but be aware the epoxy is hell on planer blades and unless they are very sharp, they will take deep chips out of the epoxy.

    I have found that the High Temp duct tape works best for sealing the back side of the cracks as it is not as affected by the heat build up and does not leave adhesive on the wood when removed. I have used sanding dust from mesquite mixed with the epoxy for filling holes I did not want to see into too deeply. Be careful in mixing foreign material into the resin as it will occasionally cause it to flash set and become VERY hot.

  • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens

    Christine, what’s the story with the splitting zebrawood? How did that happen? I’d like to help out if I can.

  • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens

    Funny thing about the square ebony pins. We’re on the same page! I made a second frame at the same time, but with square pillowed ebony buttons at each joint. Totally cheated though. The buttons are hiding a #6 screw in each corner. :-) Still searching for the right photograph to put in that one.

  • Sandxssun

    Good work, Mark. The lap joints look good. I would have gone shorter on the overhang, not that I’m criticizing. Square pins of ebony in the joints would have looked good too. Pablowood gave some excellent tips – I also use super glue to initially seal the cracks- its fast so you don’t have to wait for it to cure. I use polyester (fiberglass) resin instead of epoxy- I’ve had good results and its cheaper. Have others tried polyester with success? Mark, your description of Mesquite was right on, its in an incredibly beautiful wood, with unequaled character. You forgot to mention that the sapwood is bright canary yellow. Plus, while cutting, it smells like roasted wheat flour! I recently acquired another Arizona wood with similar characteristics (drying cracks, bark inclusions, etc) – Arizona black oak, much more red than red oak, larger varied rays than qtr sawn white oak, with big black streaks throughout. I plan on making a bow arm Morris chair with it.

  • Christine

    Great timing! I had just purchased some zebrawood from you and I live in Nevada. With this wood I am making end-tables / coffee table and some of the wood is splitting, but it is already cut to size and ready to glue up. Being a beginner woodworker, this certainly is a challenge for me. You guys gave me great ideas – THANKS.

  • Dale Gillaspy

    I really like the style and filling. I have used turquoise and really like it, but haven’t had good results with copper. I am in the process of trying to turn some mesquite, and it really likes to take the edge off of chisels. Great work. I really like the lap joints. It really adds to the feel of the piece.

  • http://www.woodworkerssource.com Mark Stephens

    Ah, yes, Pablo made some good points. While haven’t experienced the masking tape getting deteriorated as the glue cures, I have noticed that the filling process works best with an initial thin coat of epoxy that you let dry. Then tape off one side and finish the filling. Yep, super glue (cyanoacrylate) would be a better way.

    Copper, turquoise, crushed rock, etc. All good choices. There’s a mantle made of mesquite in the project gallery that was filled with turquoise: http://www.woodworkerssource.com/photopost/showphoto.php?photo=55

  • Ben P.

    Great article. I have also seen a mesquite table, built for grandchildren, that had a long meandering crack. Grandpa filled it with epoxy , small rocks (sand or gravel) and small plastic fish to create the ilusion of a small stream.

  • Gary Werbowski

    I think it looks great and gives it great character. Fine job!

  • Dan G.

    Hey, I like it! It says, “Southwest.”

  • Andy P

    Beautiful frame. My kind of stuff. I personally like the voids and irregularity of Mesquite and try and use it just as I receive it from Woodworker’s Source. I have used it for many of my frames.

  • JohnMc

    Absolutely beautiful work. I will keep the idea of the copper in mind. I’ve used turquoise with great results. Your work is wonderful.

  • A.H.B.

    This frame is really beautiful and reflects the Southwest in a fine way. Good Job!

  • geardance says:

    I laid a mesquite floor in the kitchen , entryway , and running down the hall to the bedrooms of my house durning the remodel from hell the floors look great , I’m thinking of making a headboard from it next.

  • joejt

    The wood is perfect for the desert picture (cacti).

    Also the lap joints fit the style of a rustic frame. I made a similar frame years ago, but I used rough cut cedar to frame a mountain scene with cedar bushes in the foreground.

    How about JB Weld for filling mesquite cracks? I believe it finishes very dark so the dye mixing step wouldn’t be necessary.

  • Buck

    finzona – you can sometimes buy ironwood at the Phoenix store. Or, if you cruise around the many large residential construction sites, you can often find it in slash piles. Out on a run the other day, I went up the construction area for the loop 303 extension north of Happy Valley Road. I saw a 6′-7′ length of ironwood trunk in a slash pile that had at least an 8″ diameter section of heartwood. Sadly, I can’t carry 1000lb. trunks while running :-)

  • dvdesigns

    Looks great. Mesquite is challenging, but oh so rewarding. I use glue and sawdust of various sizes to fill the cracks. Sometimes I leave the cracks. Then sand and polish some areas for highlites. Mesquite looks great with an oil and wax finish.

  • finzona

    I forgot to ad there are several wonderful woods in Arizona to work with. From soft, open cell palo verde to ironwood. Each has unique characteristics. To all you readers just be very careful where you get your ironwood. It is a protected specie, taking hundreds to more than a thousand years to grow.

  • Buck

    I love the frame. It really celebrates the wood. For another take on the corners, how about through tenons pinned with ironwood? Can you get boards thick enough to do that?

  • finzona

    Mark, you done good. I like to use copper powder and/or crushed turquoise, obsidian or other native Arizona minerals in the epoxy or sprinkled on top before curing has occurred. I also once did a mixture of course ground copper and turquoise. The biggest limitations are our imagination and the willingness to try something even if it may sound stupid.

  • rick in tx

    it makes great flooring too. there are a couple of mills around san antonio that sell it ready to use.

  • monomoy

    Anyone can make a frame of clear wood. Great Job Great Style. Wish we had some growing on Cape cod

  • pablowood

    I have been a custom furniture maker for 30 years and have worked with mesquite for 20 of those years. I thought I would offer a couple of suggestions. If you are filling natural wanes, cracks knot holes etc. You do not need to add dyes. The natural cracks will be black so you do not need to add dyes. Another faster and more effecient method of filling voids in mesquite is to use a gap filling super glue to seal the crack or hole, then use masking tabe or duct tape and then pour your epoxy into the gap. When epoxy cures it generates heat which will deteriorate masking tape and let all the epoxy just run through the board onto your bench. Also, if you are working with rough stock, fill all your voids first & then run the board thru your planer. I hope this helps!