Coconuts and Lumber

Cut into the opposing side of the coconut palm tree, equal distances apart and wooded over, the wedges almost look natural. But they aren’t natural. They are footholds carved into the tree, allowing harvesters to more easily climb the tree and harvest the coconuts.

“If you’re looking for lumber, you hate to see steps chopped into the tree trunk. It make the wood less valuable, but you have to understand that the primary mission of these trees is to produce coconuts,” Said Angus Stocks, president of Smith & Fong Plyboo, a San Francisco Company that makes flooring and plywood out of over-aged coconut palms.  “The trees weren’t grown to produce lumber,” said Angus. “They were grown to make coconuts.”

Fewer plantations are using the human-harvesting method these days, but you  still see it. Plyboo uses the outer rings of the tree for lumber.   So, when climbing notches are cut into the tree, it significantly reduces the amount of wood that can be harvested.

“I’m glad they are moving towards mechanical harvesting.  It preserves the wood and it’s far safer for the people who no longer have to scale the tree,” said Angus.

 Dan Smith, the company founder, makes trips to Southeast Asia to tour coconut palm plantations, hoping to salvage the beautiful, if not exotic wood that is produced by the trees.

Certainly, it’s the purpose of the coconut palm tree to produce coconuts, but as the tree grows older and taller, it’s difficult for the nutrients to reach all the way to the canopy.  At a certain point, coconut production drops off to a point where it is no longer profitable to keep the tree.

That’s where Plyboo comes in. Plyboo was one of the first companies to seek out coconut palms as a source of quality wood. 

In the past, coconuts palms were chopped down and sold off to local businesses that milled the wood into low-grade lumber. Plyboo discovered that if the wood is properly milled and finished it is quite beautiful, with a rich dark brown color and unique grain pattern.  

“Using the palms for coconut and for lumber get us the best of both world,” said Dan.  When the trees are fairly young they produce lots of coconuts.  When they get older, the interior of the trunk becomes more woody, which is bad for coconuts, but great for lumber.