One of the most versatile natural commodities used by man for thousands of years is wood. He increasingly found the best ways to use it in construction, coming to realise that some woods suited certain purposes better than others. While some woods have been grown and harvested commercially for centuries, the value of others is only just now being fully appreciated. One of these is rubberwood.
Solid Rubberwood and Its Qualities
Solid rubberwood, also known as heveawood and parawood, is the wood from the rubber tree, "Hevea brasiliensis," which is felled when its useful life as a source of latex has come to an end after 20 to 25 years. During the 1980s, rather than just being cut into logs and used as fuel for fires, the commercial potential and suitability of rubberwood as a material for the construction of furniture and other objects was realised. Its qualities are that it is easily worked, light and attractive in colour and close grained. Alternative retail names for rubberwood include white mahogany and Malaysian oak.
The Rubber Tree Arrives in Europe
The rubber tree, which can reach a height of 25 to 30 meters (80 to 100 feet), is native to the tropical Amazon Basin of South America. Its existence was known to European explorers as early as the 16th century, but the first seeds to be successfully grown in Europe were transported from Brazil to England in 1876 by the Englishman Henry Wickham, who was paid £700 for the 70,000 thimble-sized rubber tree seeds he delivered to London's Botanic Gardens at Kew. Of the seeds delivered, 2,397 germinated.
Rubberwood in the British Colonies and Beyond
In 1877, the British Colonial Office arranged for some of the rubber tree seedlings to be shipped from Kew to Sri Lanka, a country then known as Ceylon, off the southeast coast of India. Grown successfully there, seedlings were sent on to Singapore and Malaysia. Henry Ridley, director of tt the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888 to 1911, established a system of cultivation which ensured that the trees would provide latex regularly every year. The trees should be grown between 600 and 1,000 meters (2,000 to 3,000 feet) above sea level in well-drained soil, at a temperature of 20 to 28 degrees C and with a well-spread-out annual rainfall of 2,000 millimetres (80 inches). By the early years of the 20th century, rubber tree plantations had also been successfully established in the countries now called Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia. Rubber trees are today grown commercially in thirty countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Problems and Solutions
When the rubber trees are felled, the rubberwood has a high starch content, which renders it liable to infestation by fungi and insects. To prevent such attacks, the rubberwood logs must be processed almost immediately through the sawmill, and to avoid warping, the planks must be kiln dried. A further preventive measure against warping is the cutting of the rubberwood into pieces 50 millimetres (2 inches) wide and from 0.3 to 1.2 meters (1 to 3 feet) long. Longer and wider pieces are then created by jointing and gluing. Working finished rubberwood is comparatively simple, few if any problems arising during machining, gluing, screwing, boring, turning, nailing and finishing.
Other Uses for Rubberwood
As well as being used in its solid form, rubberwood features extensively as a component of wood panels, as a veneer, in plywood, medium density fibreboard (MDF) and particleboard.
In 1920, Henry Wickham received a knighthood for "Services in connection with the rubber plantation industry in the Far East," while in 1926 the American oil baron Edgar B. Davis gave him £6,000 as a gift on his 80th birthday.
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