Friday, November 19, 2010

Parawood

Our home furnishings are eclectic and come from many places. Sometimes we make a great find when we least expect it. We have picked up several great chairs from the side of the road, after the owners cast them off. A few years ago we rescued a decent dresser from a burn pile (after we asked the owner and before the fire started). Yard sales are another source. Our favorite pieces are those we've made -- bookcases, a dresser, a pantry and sideboard, lamp tables, a blanket chest. All were made with the guidance of Al Mitchell at his Homestead Woodworking School just up the road.

Once in awhile we go in search of a ready-made, new piece of furniture for the house. For this we often look to Pompanoosuc Mills ("Pompy") based in Thetford, Vermont. Although a bit expensive, their furniture is beautiful, durable, locally made, and the company seems to be good to its employees.

This week I was thinking about bedside tables. Srini's woodworking list is a bit back-logged, so I set out to look at options at local furniture stores. I never fail to come home disappointed from such a trip. The unfinished furniture available from most retail stores is very poorly made -- something you might throw in the burn pile within a year (and I wouldn't rescue it). So it was a surprise when, at first glance, I thought I found inexpensive, well-made oak tables. But it was not so. This oak-like furniture is actually parawood - imported from Malasia (and probably elsewhere) and is flooding the retail furniture market, according to the salespeople. And the prices are ridiculously low compared to say a piece of furniture from Pompy.

Before this week I had not heard of parawood. After some research, I discovered that it is the rubber tree, specifically Hevea brasiliensis. I think the marketers changed the name, much like they do for fish, to make it more palatable. Having a rubber tree coffee tree does not sound the same perhaps as having a parawood coffee table. Parawood is touted as "green" and "ecofriendly" and very sustainable.

The rubber tree is native to the Amazon basin, especially Brazil. Almost all of the world's rubber -- for tires, tubes, footwear, belts, hoses, latex products -- comes from the rubber tree. The trees are cut and the latex (like a sap) is extracted for 25 to 30 years, before the tree is tapped out. Until about 15 years ago the trees were cut down and used mostly as local firewood. Then someone discovered it made good furniture. Now, when the rubber trees are spent of all latex they are cut down and turned into furniture. That is the sustainable part -- turning what was considered a waste product into a much more profitable product. So everyone feels good.

In the 1800s, the British, and perhaps others, took rubber tree seeds to Europe and more importantly southeast Asia. Rubber plantations got their start in Asia; Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia seem to be where much of the industrial quantities of rubber are extracted. Rubber (the latex) was once extracted by indigenous people in the Amazon at a scale that was sustainable. However, now rubber trees are grown in large plantations that displace large swaths of native forest that was once ecologically diverse. We all use rubber so we must expect some loss of native forest.

I wonder though if this surge in parawood furniture is causing more native forest to be cleared to grow more rubber trees, and hence produce more wood. So then it is not really "green" furniture. And the fact that it is shipped so far and is so cheap, there are a multitude of questions about human and environmental costs.

As I mentioned at the start, roadsides, yard sales, burn piles, and local woodworking classes are some of the best sources of "green" furniture. I have yet to find a nice bedside table in the ditch, so Srini has placed two such tables at the top of his woodworking list. I'll pass on the parawood.

3 comments:

  1. I know what you mean about the difficulty in finding good furniture Ellen. We had a ratty couch for years because I just couldn't find one in a store that I liked and thought would last. Until we went into the local Pompamoosuc store. It was VERY expensive but it has served us well. And we really like the idea of supporting local furniture makers using native woods. The rest of our furniture, like yours, is found and occasionally created by me, though the more time I devote to art the less I devote to woodworking. And I'm most definitely a better artist than woodworker.

    I hadn't heard of parawood but I suspect it like most 'miracle cures' really isn't. Thanks for writing about it. I wonder what would happen if people started insisting on locally made furniture just as some are doing with locally grown food. Unfortunately in bad economic times I fear the added costs would just be too much for most people.

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  2. What are they using in place of this firewood? Imported Oil?

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  3. Ken -- I like that you spend more time on art and share it with the rest of us. I think you are on to something about promoting local furniture like we do local food. Great idea.

    Scott -- I was thinking the same thing!

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