Wood IDs #11: Paperbark branches

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Blog entry by Gary Fixler posted 04-14-2009 02:21 PM 11286 reads 1 time favorited 7 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 10: Found limb - Bottlebrush Part 11 of Wood IDs series Part 12: Not a California Bay Laurel after all... »

A couple weeks ago I passed some tree trimmers cutting up a handful of paperbark trees (Melaleuca quinquenervia).

tree trimmers trimming paperbark trees

I passed a few times on lunchtime errands, and finally decided to stop and ask for some free wood. I’ve been so curious for 5 years now about what’s underneath the spongy, peeling bark of these trees. You can punch the trunks and leave a deep imprint of your hand, which swells back up eventually, hiding the dent. It doesn’t hurt, because they feel like a stack of chamois, or like something made by Nerf®.

They let me take whatever I wanted, but for the most part were only cutting off long, straight branches, clearing out a sight-line for a security camera that was being installed soon. I filled my hatch with them.

paperbark limbs in hatchback

paperbark limbs in hatchback

I had to go back to work after that, and when work ended, I found my car heavily steamed up inside :)

water vapor in hatchback from paperbark tree limbs

Here’s the haul. The leaves hide a fair bit more of the limbs. I didn’t want to be ungracious by tearing all the leafy branches off and throwing them back to the trimmer guys, so I just loaded them all. Later I was pleased to learn that the leaves are very fragrant. They even got me to look into distillation, and I’m teetering on the edge of buying a Pyrex still for obtaining essential oils from them and other things I’ve found.

paperbark branches


paperbark leaves

Here’s some bark on very young, and only somewhat young limbs:

paperbark branch bark

It took quite a bit of work to remove the leafy twigs. The bark grows up thickly around them and acts like strain relief. The twigs are also a bit rubbery, so not only is it hard to break them, but it’s hard to bend them sharply enough near their connecting point to break them. I resorted to some wire cutters.

paperbark branches with twiggy stems removed

Here’s the twig/leaf pile from the paperbarks next to a pile of bark from a recently found weeping bottlebrush tree (Callistemon viminalis) limb that blew down in a storm. It’s quite fragrant as well, and when burned, I’ve found it smells just like church incense.

Callistemon bark with paperbark leaves and twigs

Rough cut cross section shows off how thickly layered the bark is, even on young limbs:

paperbark limb rough-cut cross section

It’s hard to make out the profile of this one thick piece I got under all of its spongy, peeling bark:

spongy, layered, peeling bark of paperbark limb

The bark starts to peel when the limb growth exceeds the bark growth, tearing it open like fabric stretched too tightly:

tearing bark of paperbark limb

A week later I finally found a window of time to start cutting them up and sealing them with the new Anchorseal that had arrived (2 gal). The branches are a bit deceptive in size, as the bark is so thick, but I think they’ll be somewhat useful little pen-blank-sized pieces, with a few slightly larger, and one in particular that’s of a more respectable “log” thickness.

cross sections of paperbark limbs

paperbark limb cross section

cross section of paperbark limb

paperbark limb cross section

paperbark limbs cut into shorter lengths

I couldn’t resist trying to peel a few entirely to see what was beneath the spongy bark layers.

peeling away paperbark bark layers

The cambium underneath is very wet and cold to the touch, perhaps insulated from the day’s heat by the bark layers, and is covered in a bit of a slimy white layer of something for which I don’t yet have a name. It rubs off under finger pressure.

bark peeled from paperbark limb

white layer rubbed off of cambium of paperbark limb

And here’s what’s underneath all of that bark, peeled away with only minor hassle by hand:

bark-free limb of paperbark

paperbark limb without bark

paperbark limb with bark removed

Here’s a limb with half of the bark peeled away, and half with most of its inner layers still included:

paperbark limb half peeled of its bark

Peeled limb with unpeeled limbs behind it:

peeled paperbark limb among non-peeled versions

This one looks like an apple:

paperbark limb cross section with apple-like appearance

If I’m reading it right, this limb is only 3 or 4 years old, suggesting they grow pretty quickly:

paperbark limb cross section

Larger limb peeled:

peeled paperbark limb

peeled paperbark limb

Anchorseal seems more slimy than Rockler’s Green Wood End Sealer, takes much longer to dry (a day or two vs. a couple of hours), and does seem in the last few weeks of using it to provide a better seal. It also seems to cling better to more kinds of limbs, and create a more even layering. Rockler’s stuff tends to pool to one side, or thin out too much. I can dunk a limb in the Anchorseal bucket, take it out, give it 3 hard shakes, turning it as I do to get the excess off all sides, and that’s a really good coverage. Rockler’s would be too thin at that point, and recoating later is hard, as the wax doesn’t like to stick to its dry counterpart. I’m still learning about it, and will post more about the two in a review some day when I’ve gathered a lot more data over many more tree species.

Here’s a stack of Eucalyptus next to the first of the paperbark pieces. The euc has had a day to dry, and some are still wet. Had it been Rockler’s sealer, they’d all be dry, with thinner coverage.

Eucalyptus and paperbark limb pieces sealed with Anchorseal

Eucalyptus and paperbark limb pieces sealed with Anchorseal

I decided to save the peeled bark for now, in the off chance there’s some use for it. It stinks when burned, however, like burning hair, though not as strong:

peeled bark of paperbark tree limbs

Here’s the one thicker piece I got, showing 2 different cuts that have gone their separate ways. I believe the darker one is simply the older one, and that this is how the species looks when it dries out naturally in the air. I had a couple of limbs that showed this on their ends – the dark, fuzzier look, caused by fibers pulling into the tree at different rates when shrinking. The newer chainsaw cut is much cleaner, and far less porous:

paperbark limb with different color cross-sections at a split

paperbark limb with different color cross sections, probably based on age of cut

The flip-side of that one larger limb I got shows some interesting heartwood and sapwood delineation, and makes me extra sad that I did not get the one monster-sized piece I saw there. I meant to go back for it, but forgot, and then they were gone on my next swing by. It must have been 14”-16” thick, and 4’+ long, and probably had some really neat heartwood in it. I peeled the bark from this one (there was a lot):

paperbark limb with darker heartwood

paperbark limb peeled of its bark

paperbark limb

This piece might be fun to turn on my mini lathe, which can only really handle stuff about this size anyway:

small chunk of paperbark limb

small chunk of paperbark limb

Here’s the second set of cutups on a different day:

paperbark limbs cut up

paperbark limbs cut up and sealed

Speaking of paperbark bark, here’s a little video with a visitor I found in my bag of the stuff:

This small rental house sure is starting to fill up with logs! I did a tiny test turning of both the bottlebrush and this paperbark, which I’ve read several places online are related by genus, somehow, and they looked nice inside. These were just 1” thick pieces, about 3” long, turned down to about 1/2” diameter (so much bark!), then polished up with PPP sticks from Rockler, while still pretty green, but they gave me some hope that these could be useful, perhaps for things like white chess pieces.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

7 comments so far

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27249 posts in 5159 days

#1 posted 04-14-2009 03:00 PM

Gary, I am not sure where you are going to put all this “found wood”. You have managed to get a nice wood collection started. You did a nice job on the photos too.

Glad you posted the video. After watching your technique I have come to the conclusion that you may have missed your calling in life as a “critter re-locater”. :)

As always, this was a nice post.

-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

View WhitePineLane's profile


5 posts in 4743 days

#2 posted 04-14-2009 06:01 PM

Fun post! Really interesting to see the wood going from the tree all the way down to turning pieces.

-- WhitePineLane

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 4718 days

#3 posted 04-14-2009 09:26 PM

rob – I finally took a look through your site. Amazing stuff! You have some beautiful, rustic doors and tables. How on earth did you find that much land in souther California?

Scott – I built some racks, and can add 4 more to the 3 I’ve made so far in that space. I’m going to get those in a project post soon.

WhitePineLane – thanks! Having used nothing but dimensioned lumber all my life, I’m still amazed that there’s useful wood hidden inside most trees. I imagine it’s a bit like the feeling of hunting, skinning/gutting, and slicing up your own dinner. In either case, these things have always been prepared for me by factories.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 4718 days

#4 posted 04-15-2009 02:16 AM

Rob, I’m not sure how you afforded it. I think a place that big anywhere near where I am would be half a billion big ones, at least. Awesome, though. My family has a lot of land like you back in NJ. The south is still pretty underdeveloped.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View mmh's profile


3701 posts in 5059 days

#5 posted 04-15-2009 07:38 AM

Gee, did you really have to evict the baby oppossum? He was too cute. We have a mating pair in the neighborhood and I saw the mother with 7 babies on her back last spring. They were all clicking to each other and trying to hang on while she waddled around looking for food.

As for the wood, how hard is it? What do you intend to do with it? The bark looks like you could carefully peel it off in one piece and make cloth out of it as the Hawaiians do to make tapa cloth.

Is this the same tree used for tea tree oil?

Nice documentation of your discovery and stash (and eviction).

-- "They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night." ~ Edgar Allan Poe

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 4718 days

#6 posted 04-15-2009 09:23 PM

rob – thanks! I might take you up on that offer. I’d love to check out the operations. It’ll be awhile, though. I’m swamped this month.

mmh – I know. I felt bad about kicking him out, but he’d starve in the shop. I wasn’t even sure it could get back out of the bag! I saw it again last night backing into the driveway, scurrying under the hedge wall. The wood seems to be about medium hard. It’s not super soft like some pines, but it doesn’t seem very hard like hard maple. I’ll know more when I resaw the one larger piece, and turn some of the smaller ones. Not sure about the leaves, but it’s possible. They’re really fragrant.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View palaswood's profile


1061 posts in 3088 days

#7 posted 09-20-2013 07:05 PM

Gary, I have a few huge trunk pieces up behind my house of this tree. The wood is hard and purplish (its super old). If you’re down near OC, hit me up and I’ll split it with you (not literally, well, I do have an axe)- I’ll share it with you. We would need your truck to haul it out of the ditch its in, but its dry and you could slab it up right away. PM me if you’re interested.

-- Joseph, Irvine CA, @palas_woodcraft on Instagram

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