I have an interesting slab of wood in the store that was given to me by a friend. It appears to be oak and it is over 5,000 year old! The tree originally grew it Missouri and it has spent most of those years buried in a stream bed. The slab is a cross-section of the trunk, about a foot in diameter. Sanded to a high polish, the wood is almost black. No doubt from centuries of being immersed in mud. But even after all that time the wood is still workable.
As amazing as that piece of oak is, it is not the oldest wood around. There is another species available that is at least 10 times as old! Radio carbon dating places the age of Ancient Kauri trees at 50,000 years old. That is the maximum limit of radio carbon dating, so it’s possible the wood is even older. Of course, these aren’t standing trees – the logs are being excavated from below the surface of farm fields and ranch lands in New Zealand. Like the oak from Missouri, the Kauri trees have stayed intact by being buried in muddy bogs.
Just to put the Kauri’s age in perspective, here are some historical markers:
- 40,000 years ago – The La Brea Tar Pits in California were actively gaining specimens.
- 32,000 years ago – Oldest known cave paintings.
- 16,000 years ago – The depressions that will become the Great Lakes were fully formed.
- 10,000 years ago – Wooly Mammoths and Saber Tooth Tigers became extinct.
- 5,500 years ago – Invention of the wheel and writing.
- 4,572 years ago – The Great Pyramid of Giza is completed.
It’s fascinating to hold wood that old and consider the history that has transpired since those trees were making chlorophyll.
Even better, Kauri is gorgeous wood that is similar in density to Cherry and can be worked with normal woodworking tools. It has a natural, rich caramel color and incredible grain textures. ‘Active grain’ shimmers and seems to ripple when you move it in the light. ‘Whitebait’ has deep, shimmering streaks of iridescence found in some of the wilder grain patterns. It is named after schools of New Zealand whitebait fish that show a similar pattern when schooling.
Kauri trees do still grow in New Zealand, and other locations around the Pacific Rim. Early New Zealand settlers harvested incredible amounts of Kauri around the turn of the last century, for ship building, and everything from houses and bridges to furniture and household items. Harvesting living Kauri is now prohibited by law but the ancient wood is available.
We are fortunate to be able to use this wood rather than just view it in a natural history museum. Next time you are selecting wood for a special project, think about including a piece of history. Kauri is beautiful, ecologically sound, and it grew on trees… about 50,000 years ago.