One of the aspects of making puzzles that I most enjoy is choosing woods to compliment the design. The array of colors and textures produced by trees is amazing! Shedua and mahogany give animal puzzles a beautiful furry look, while padauk has a fiery red color that looks great for a dragon or phoenix.
When I started seriously making puzzles, I would go into my local woodworking shop and grab whatever boards were within my budget and appealed to me aesthetically. Yet over the past few years I've become more aware of the environmental impact of tree harvesting, especially in the tropics where vast swaths of forest are being illegally logged. It's important to me to operate my business in an environmentally sustainable way, so paying attention to the types of wood I use and where they come from has become a central concern as I purchase materials.
The good news is that the Internet makes it easy to find out what woods are endangered or threatened. My go-to source for anything and everything about wood is the Wood Database. Begun by Eric Meier, this encyclopedic site has everything a woodworker needs to know about all the varieties of wood out there. It will tell you how hard a wood is, how easy it is to work, and what it is commonly used for, among many other details. Eric also keeps up to date information about each wood's sustainability, handily listed in these charts.
Who decides whether a wood is endangered or threatened? The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is one source. This is an organization created by international agreement that tracks and restricts the transport of natural products from endangered species. If you want to geek out on the details, here are the full CITES Appendices.
There is also the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) made up of governmental and private sector members. Their Red List of Threatened Species is a bit more comprehensive than the CITES list, as the IUCN threshold for being identified as threatened is often more strict than the CITES criteria.
Now when I am purchasing wood, I use the information from the Wood Database to inform my decision making. Not only do I want woods that will have the aesthetic and working qualities that I'm after, but I make sure to avoid ones that are endangered or threatened. For example, once I use up my current stocks of mahogany and sapele, I will not purchase them any more as the status of those trees are unclear. Instead I will switch to shedua, which is not flagged. Avoiding endangered species would seem like a straightforward thing, but it can be surprisingly complicated. For example, black walnut found in the eastern United States is not threatened, but Peruvian walnut is nearing threatened status. Many woodworking stores simply label boards as "walnut" with no indication of its source, making it impossible to know whether the wood was sustainably harvested.
Happily I have found suppliers that are clear about where their wood comes from. Connecticut Wood Group is a great local business that stocks an amazing array of domestic and exotic woods. I also purchase from Woodworkers Source in Arizona - who also happen to have the funniest shipping notifications I've ever received. (Really, you should order something from them, just to get the shipping email.)
Researching the woods I use takes some time, but it is well worth it. I can feel good that my business is not contributing to the worldwide decline in biodiversity, and my customers will know that their handmade purchase was made with consideration for our planet. That's a win-win if I ever heard one.
Barbara Bitgood, Artisan owner of Holyoke Puzzles in Holyoke, Massachusetts.