Way down south to Mexico way! Alright!

Today’s post title is referencing, however obliquely, Jimi Hendrix and one of his bigger hits. Might be before your time, might not. The lyric from “Hey Joe” comes to mind, you see, as I just took a trip myself down to Mexico way:

Just to allay any concerns that might be forming among readers familiar with “Hey Joe”, no, I didn’t shoot my old lady down – she came along with me quite happily in fact. We went to Mexico not to flee the law, not to lay on a beach, but to look at some wood. Hah! ‘Some‘ wood, well, that’s an understatement.

When I got to Mexico, I saw a whole bunch of rosewood, or cocobolo. More cocobolo than I had ever seen in my life. Kinda what you’d expect, perhaps, had I actually gotten on a plane and flew that far south. In this case though, my journey was by car, heading way east, to Mexico, Maine, the home of Rare Woods. Four and a half hours of driving and a journey most definitely into that part of Maine where the economy was nearly comatose, and rural poverty was fairly apparent everywhere you looked. A lot of rural New England is like that actually. And it’s a beautiful part of the world too, that cannot be emphasized enough, once one learns to look past the ever-multiplying dollar stores and boarded up businesses.

Rare Woods is a business run by South African expat Rory Wood and his wife. He relocated from South Africa around 2008, about the same time as I moved to the US, just ahead of the biggest financial crash since the great depression. Well, timing can’t be everything, as they say. Here’s a picture of Rory Wood by the entrance to the main warehouse:

Most of his business now is exporting North American species, like Cherry, Basswood, Walnut, Oak, etc., to South Africa, where the economy seems a little better than here, and where such woods are considered ‘exotic’.

Rare Woods occupies a former sawmill site in the boondocks, a site which sprawls over a few acres, plus the proprietor has several other facilities and storage buildings. There is a fair amount of wood –tonnage I mean- squirreled away here and there on at his facility. It’s a place where you are climbing mountains and decending valleys of lumber of all shapes and sizes.

Rory has traveled the globe and has been dealing in rare and exotic woods for more than 30 years. He mentioned to me that he has a library of more than a thousand books on wood species of the world, and is extremely knowledgeable, not only about the species, down to their botanic names, but about the conditions of wood production in the countries where he sources material.

I arrived on a Thursday afternoon, thinking that the 90 minutes I had until close of business would be enough time to look around and make some decisions about what to buy. I had set out with a vague plan to obtain some rift sawn bubinga for the Japanese-inspired hutch that I spent some time designing last year (and intend to start making in the next while), and perhaps pick up “a stick or two” of other interesting woods. As Rory showed me around Rare Woods, it quickly became apparent that 90 minutes was not going to be enough, not by far.

The term ‘kid in a candy store’ applied immediately to the situation I experienced. I was so dumbfounded by the vast selection that I fell into a curious state, alternating between bouts of excited discoveries, gasps of wonderment and disbelief, and even periods of slack jawed near-catatonia, staggering around unable to think. It was that overwhelming. My wife would come around every now and again and snap her fingers in front of my face, hey, earth to Chris! Well, she’s denying that ever happened, but I thought the embellishment to the story would make my point.

We decided it would be best to retreat for the moment, sleep on it and come back the next morning, so we headed to the nearby town of Bethel, ME where we had booked a room at a Bed and Breakfast. The B and B turned out to be an average sort of place to stay, but the Victorian house itself did have one of the nicer forms of roofed towers I have seen in a while:


Refreshed and refocused, or so I thought, we headed back to Rare Woods the next morning and spent another couple of hours wandering about. My hopes for clear-headed decision making were dashed as I returned to that catatonic reverie in short order. I was most thankful to my wife for her help in keeping things on track for me. I could have been lost in there for days.

The weird thing about Rare Woods was the situation of seeing types of wood which I had only ever seen previously in limited quantities, if at all, now in somewhat vast quantities. For example, I used to have a piece of Brazilian Tulipwood, a type of rosewood (Dalbergia decipularis), in my collection, however it was an orphan of sorts, and with that rosewood no longer available anywhere it seemed, I ended up selling that piece to a luthier a year or two back.  In most cases, if you want to make a piece of furniture bigger than a humidor, having a single small board of a material is not of much use.

Rare Woods somehow, at some point in time, acquired a fair amount of Brazilian Tulipwood, and now I was staggered to see lifts of the material:

It was this kind of thing that was hard to get my mind around. I felt like I was in some sort of parallel universe, and it was located in backwoods Maine of all places. I will add that some of the woods carried by Rory are usually only available as veneers, not as lumber. Rare Woods deals exclusively in solid wood products – my kind of place in other words.

The volume went on like this for species after species. To draw a contrast, many hardwood suppliers I have visited will have stock in bubinga, a beautiful hardwood from west central Africa. By ‘stock’, I mean they will have anything from a few boards to a lift of the wood. Rory, on the other hand, has something like 15,000 board feet of bubinga. We’re talking about lift after lift. A lift of 4/4, a lift of 6/4, a lift of 8/4, and so forth.

Another example: the ‘rarest’ wood in the world is supposed to be Pink Ivory (Berchemia zeyheri). I’ve no experience working it, but I’d seen a single piece of it years ago in a hardwood yard on Vancouver Island, but none since. By contrast, Rory has 92 tons of it. You read that correctly – tons. Pink Ivory is a very heavy, hard and dense wood, and polishes up extremely well – I can see why some people might like it, especially if they were looking for a pink wood.

To see vast quantities of woods which I had only come across previously as a single scrappy board here and there, the sort of thing perhaps displayed as a ‘trophy’ in a hardwood yard’s collection, was a bit surreal for me. It was akin to some sort of optical foreshortening effect – or was it a house of mirrors? I dunno.

Now that I could see rare materials in abundance they no longer seemed quite so rare or special. Oh yeah, a bin of African Blackwood, yawn….oh, what’s this? – a lift of Macassar Ebony? ho hum…. I needed to remind myself that I was not viewing anything remotely ‘normal’, kind of like when I was in Boulder, CO last month and saw so many super fit cyclists and joggers everywhere I went. Wandering around Rare Woods is like going to a shopping center and finding the parking lot full of Italian Supercars – it just doesn’t quite compute somehow. Even now as I type this and think back to my recent time in those warehouses in Mexico ME, I fall into a mild sort of catatonia, my mind tracing back over the sights and smells. I catch myself drooling and snap out of it, thank god!

With my wife’s help that morning, I was eventually able to draw some sort of focus that morning and made a decision to buy a four pieces of 12/4 bubinga, along with a couple of small bits and pieces of African Blackwood for peg stock. It was a miracle we made it out alive, bank balance dented but not decimated.

Rare Wood’s prices are reasonable for the materials he sells. The bubinga was $17 per board foot, which is a typical sort of price these days for ‘narrower’ (which, in bubinga, means under 16″) S4S boards in that species. He has loads of wenge and ebony, while most hardwood supplies have no stock in those materials. I could list many other similar examples. He had many hardwoods which I had never even heard of before, and I consider myself somewhat of a wood geek.

There were many, many boards which formed dangling carrots of great temptation, however I am trying hard to avoid the ‘orphan board problem’, so I steeled myself and passed on buying. Rare Woods is too far away to make casual visiting a proposition for me, however I am sure I will be doing business with them in the future now that I know what lurks in Mexico, ME. It was also a pleasure to meet a business owner so passionate and knowledgeable about their trade.

I you are a luthier or furniture maker who uses imported species, I would imagine you would have to consider Rare woods first and foremost as a supplier.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

4 Replies to “Way down south to Mexico way! Alright!”

  1. Chris
    I just looked up RareWoods on line the other day.Thanks for the insight on going there!Would like to visit myself! Hope you next project comes up soon can't wait!!


  2. I get a little catatonic in my local wood supplier and it's not nearly that impressive.

    -Harlan B.

  3. JT,

    thanks for your comment. I'm sure Rory would be pleased to have your visit – just drop him a line beforehand and leave yourself plenty of time.


  4. Harlan,

    oh, me too! It's just now the frame of reference has been altered and I am going to find it less awe-inspiring going in most lumber yards from here on out I would suspect. Rory was telling me that what looks like a lot of stock in one species, like ebony, is dwarfed by what he has seen in wood yards in other parts of the world, places like Singapore.

    It's a tough time to be a wood supplier in the US these days, just as it is tough to make a go as a professional woodworker of most any stripe.


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