First published in British Woodworking Magazine July 2008
Pearwood is one of the most sensual and satisfying of hardwoods that a furniture maker can encounter. The structure of the wood is hard, so hard that the sharpest of tools are required to work it. This allows you to cut the finest of details and form the most delicate of shapes. Pearwood is also, unlike almost any other hardwood, without figure. I say without figure meaning without the usual graphics of timber. Pearwood is a timber that hasn’t lines running through it but instead has a colour shift. The general colour of pear wood is almost dark fleshy colour, pinky brown is a favourite description. That colour can shift orangey or purple brown on either side of the main colour. On rare occasions you can get dark purple, blacky contrasting heartwood colour but that is rare. Generally, the colour of pearwood is a fleshy pink.
Unlike our other exotic timbers, pearwood is a wood that is sensitive to work. Hand tools will take silky shavings from pearwood. There’s no need to scrape and scratch around to take out interlocking grain for there almost never is interlocking grain on pear wood. It’s what I call a well mannered wood. Pleasant to be with. It doesn’t stink or make you feel itchy or scratchy, it doesn’t get up your nose, it’s a nice wood to be around. In fact, one of the most pleasant things about it is the way it works. The way fine silky shavings will come off with a well-sharpened bench plane. The way new hues and colours are exposed with each shaving. Working with pearwood is a genuine sensuous experience and one that should be cherished.
I first came in touch with pearwood over 30 years ago when I read about it in books by James Krenov. I then found myself a dealer near Bristol who had recently felled a small log of English pearwood. If I was prepared to buy the whole lot he would mill it up for me to the sizes I wanted. At that time I’d never dried any timber before and my London workshop hadn’t much space for me, let alone stacks of half-dry timber. But I did have a flat roof that I thought would be a suitable place to stack this wood out. I read up about how to do it, got the pearwood home, dragged it up three flights of stairs, stickered it out with 1” square sticks at 12” intervals between each of the boards so that air could get round and covered it with a corrugated iron sheet to keep the direct sun off the boards. I sat back and looked with satisfaction at my precious stack of soon to be exquisite furniture. About that time an old craftsman said something to me that has stayed with me. He said ‘In timber lad, there’s as much joy as heartache’ and I didn’t know that this was going to be one of those heartache moments. In the Handbook of English Hardwoods which was the reference book I used at the time, it said ‘pear wood is a timber that is inclined to twist on drying’, which is why I put the concrete blocks on top of the drying stack. What I should have done was put two or three tons of timber on the top of this stack as well. As my precious pearwood boards dried during that summer they turned into unusual wooden propellers. Each board twisted approximately 1” to 2” in each direction. I think I got a few small pieces of furniture from that stack but nothing larger than a jewellery box. Needless to say, that was the last time I’ve attempted to dry English pearwood. Most of my pearwood these days comes from Switzerland. The Swiss are wonderful people and they grow pear wood as a shade tree in many of their cities. The pearwood they grow is steamed as a part of the drying process. The steaming slightly changes the colour of the timber from being pale fleshy pink to a slightly darker, redder fleshy pink. The steaming is done to remove and kill the huge borers that can munch their way through the entire tree. I found a few of these borers in my stack of pearwood propellors. They made gigantic holes, not just down the sweet sapwood but right in the middle of the heartwood, and you found them only by putting the board over the jointer, suddenly your immaculate board now had a great long hole in it and you’d shaved the top off this living creature, yeuch! Steamed pearwood suddenly had great attractions.
It’s not an enormous tree the pear tree, but I’ve found in my time boards coming from Switzerland can be 10’ long and 2’6” wide. The bark on the tree is coarse but the sapwood, like cherry wood, is almost indistinguishable from the heartwood, meaning you can use the timber almost from edge to edge.
You have to be careful about what you use pearwood for. This is a timber that is in scarce supply and it is a relatively expensive timber. Also, it’s not available in really big boards so it would be unusual to find a dining table being made in pear wood, certainly in solid form, though I have seen veneered pearwood boardroom tables occasionally. Over the years I have made small cabinets and small occasional tables and card tables in solid pearwood and wall hung cabinets and very occasionally chairs, and I can safely say it has been one of the most enjoyable timbers I’ve ever used. Now just ‘cos I say so don’t go out and cause a world shortage by buying it all.