Twenty-two years ago, I got my first summer job in a woodworking shop. I was 17, surly, socially awkward and really interested in how to make stuff. An architectural paneling business needed a kid to sweep, carry, stack and do whatever needed doing that took no skills. I had none of the right qualifications, but the owner was my girlfriend’s dad. So I got the job.
On the first day, I walked into the shop and found everything was covered in bright orange dust. Wood dust was brown, right? So what was this stuff?
“What’s this stuff?” I asked after my first sneeze.
“Pterocarpus dalbergioides” was the answer. I didn’t move. He seemed to soften with a bit of a smile and said “padauk.” I still didn’t move. Perhaps my new boss had just sneezed. “And shut up and get to work” he continued. So I did, mostly, still puzzling over the bright orange dust.
At the first coffee break, I tried to approach my new fellow employees with ‘shop talk.’
“So, what’s the bright orange stuff?” my icebreaker delivered with a wide smile.
“Wood dust, you moron” was the answer, accompanied by the type of sniggering that I deserved.
“Yeah, yeah, but what kind of dust?” I pressed on, pretending not to be a moron.
“Padauk dust, you moron.”
“Oh, I see” I lied then shut up. At least ‘pterodactyl dibertensis’ sounded intelligent.
“We’re paneling a corporate headquarters with it.”
“I see” I added with a thoughtful look, figuring silence was the better part of perceived intelligence.
That evening, I arrived home dirtier than usual and covered in orange dust. Actually, my mother shrieked as my face was red. The dust had mixed with sweat to produce a reddish tone on my skin. I washed off the dust, but not all of the color. I had been dyed red. Only exfoliation got the red out.
When my clothes came out of the wash, they also had a reddish tinge. It never came out.
The next day, my nose did not stop running. I began to worry. At the coffee break I couldn’t help myself and spoke.
“Wow, that dust is toxic. Makes me sneeze like crazy.”
“Wear a face mask, you moron.” At least this reply was helpful. But even with a dust mask, the nasal infection continued.
There was a huge amount of work to be done at the corporate headquarters, and the padauk dust wafted through the shop all summer. One of my jobs was unloading the lumber truck and stacking the fresh boards on the racks. My first splinter was an experience. It wasn’t just painful, it stung like crazy instantaneously.
“Ow ow ow ow” I cried, hopping around the shop looking for a tweezers.
“What’s wrong, you moron?”
“A spinter, a padauk splinter, a big one” I howled.
“Oh shit, let me help.” It was the first genuine sympathy I had gotten from my co-workers. A tweezer was found, the splinter was pulled from my hand with great pain, and blood trickled out. Some splinter that was.
“Better get some antibiotic ointment on that before it starts to fester.”
“No, I’ll be fine.” It was time to assert some poise and stop acting like a baby.
That night, I awoke with a swollen, painfully throbbing hand. The damn thing was festering.. I stumbled to the bathroom, squeezed a huge volume of puss out and slathered antibiotic ointment all over it. In the morning, my hand felt broken.
At the next coffee break, my obviously swollen hand fetched more sniggers and not a few “morons.” In my frustration, I pressed for information.
“So where the hell does this awful shit come from?”
“The Andaman Islands, you moron.”
“Yeah fine, but where are they?”
“Somewhere around India. Other side of the planet. Why do you care?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just it’s awful stuff. Why are we building paneling out if it?” and I sneezed again.”
“Look at it when it’s finished, and you’ll know why. Moron.”
So I did, just to spite them.
And man was it gorgeous. Padauk finished with linseed oil gets very dark, becoming deep blood-red with black and purple streaks. The grain is really fine, with intricate eddies and sort of a flaky appearance in places. It was fascinating up close, impressive at a distance. This wood from another planet was wonderful.
I ended that summer with an odd orange tan, a new set of orange clothes and a healthy respect for the toxicity of tropical woods. But the corporate headquarters was stunningly beautiful. I vowed never to work with padauk if I had a choice.
Two weeks ago I spent Christmas on Havelock, one of the Andaman Islands, with my wife and kids. None of them (thankfully) knew me as a snot-nosed kid in my first woodworking job. So none understood when I abandoned them one afternoon to visit Chatham Island, just outside of Port Blair.
“I’ll be back. I just have to visit a sawmill.”
“Huh? Has dad lost his mind or is he just being stupid again?”
Chatham Island is occupied entirely by the largest sawmill in Southeast Asia. It’s the only sawmill in the islands, so all padauk is sawn there, always has been and probably always will be. For a mere 20 rupees, I got to visit the source of the wood I carried, stacked and hated so long ago.
In the Saw Doctoring Unit, I met a sawyer tuning a blade. He had worked at the mill all his life, starting 25 years earlier. I thought he might have sawed the board that gave me that horrible splinter. But he would have been a snot nosed apprentice back 25 years ago, so I didn’t punch him in the nose. But I took his picture.
I found the main sawing floor. The logs are carried from the forests to the Mill on ships. The loading docks are on the same level as the mill, so the logs are rolled directly onto carts and fed into giant bandsaws. It’s quite an operation.
The Mill seemed prepared for woodworking tourists, since there was a museum between storehouses. It told the tale of padauk and other species found on the Andamans. The museum featured some burls (called “cancers”) some wide boards, awful furniture a buffalo, and a dolphin, all equally coated with gloppy varnish.
In a big storehouse, I found a pile of freshsawn padauk, perhaps cut that morning, still damp to the touch. All the wood we used back when was kiln dried, and largely odorless except for the stinging sensation of breathing in the dust. But the fresh stuff smelled wonderful: a bit of cinnamon, a bit of stale socks, a bit of potpourri, a bit of I don’t know what. I lingered so long the stock manager asked if I was all right. I was.
I picked off a large splinter from one board, stuck it in my pocket and walked away. I felt like a moron again.