It starts with a sweaty trip to a sawmill in a far-off jungle….When the guys started pushing an 8-foot-long log through the 8-inch-wide bandsaw blade (and said bandsaw was taller than a pro basketball player and wider than a pro football player), the log looked like something you wouldn’t dare bring home to mom.
It actually looked like a pain to deal with. The log had an irregular lumpy shape. The outside of the log had been de-barked and had the semblance of a skinned cat that you probably remember cutting open in your sophomore science class; just kind of pale and streaked and awkward.
This is what cutting into an exotic wood log is like, though, and there is big thrill in watching the saw make all these slices from an ugly log into stunning lumber.
I was visiting a sawmill in the jungle of Quintana Roo – a state in Mexico that’s on the Caribbean coast – and less than 100 yards from the border with Belize. At the lofty elevation of 33 feet above sea level, and considering it was May, can you imagine the humidity and the heat here?
There were two guys heaving and leveraging the log with a couple of poles in an effort to load it on this metal cart, which they used to push the log through the mammoth-sized saw. They lined it up, and spun the flywheel on a generator which powered the saw.
My sawmill guide, Jorge, lit a cigarette and reminded me, “Cuidado, Marcos” (translated: “careful, Mark”). As if a guy smoking cigarettes around all this saw dust and wood had any business dispensing the safety rules at this jungle sawmill – but, hey, I was several thousand miles from home and a guest in this sawmill. He probably thought of me as a “delicate gringo” anyway.
I backed up from the saw about 15 feet and watched the blade start to slice the unsightly log.
My sawmill guide, Jorge, lit a cigarette and reminded me, “Cuidado, Marcos”Those 1-inch-long teeth bit right into the wood at about 500 RPM and steam billowed out of the resulting kerf. They keep a steady stream of water on the blade when they’re cutting logs like this.
After a minute or two, the first slice came off and they passed it through the saw again. The head sawyer – a heavy flip-flop-clad gent with a scowl – sort of circled his finger in the air. The two sweaty guys with the poles looked at each other, sighed, and began prying and heaving until the log rolled over onto the newly cut side.
Another cut. Then another. And finally, they’d cleared the billet free of the sapwood and got to the real business of cutting some boards.
Every board looked incredible with a colorful cathedral pattern.
Jorge said to me, “That’s chechen. Caribbean rosewood.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I thought. Always looking for a way to squeeze the word “rosewood” into a wood name, aren’t you? Nevertheless, it is true that the wood has a likeness to rosewood; dark alternating colors, sweeping grain patterns, and good density.
But chechem doesn’t need to be compared to rosewood, really. It stands on its own as a great wood.
So what is Chechen like, anyway?
Botanical Name: Metopium browneii
Specific Gravity: 0.82
Other Names: Chechem, Chechem Negro, Caribbean Rosewood, Black Poisonwood
Yes, chechen is hard. It’s used for flooring as well as furniture. Hobbyist woodworkers will get a kick out of it for small projects as well; for the way it machines and responds to hand operations (though sharp tools are a must), for its striking appearance, and especially for the way the wood accepts finish – anything from tung oil to lacquer will look fantastic.
You can use regular wood glue, no need to worry about that.
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