Wood from forest trees is getting scarce, but bamboo poles afford products that fit the bill. Need wood for a new house or furniture but want to spare the tree sitting in the backyard? No problem. Bamboo poles from nearby clumps will do as well without killing the whole bamboo ‘tree’. As new shoots will soon appear, the poles that were cut will be replaced in no time. The bamboo clump be as dense, green, and luxuriant as before.

The elite’s stone houses are adorned with staircases, floors, doors, walls, and furniture made of the finest wood like the durable Yakal and Molave. Not a big surprise why these trees are now almost gone.

Away from the town’s central sprawl and into the edges are the nipa huts made of entirely perishable, non-permanent materials, with bamboo parts standing out among them. There are also portions from palm leaves like nipa on the roof, and perhaps some low-quality, small timber from fast growing trees, such as Ipil-ipil and Kakawate, as posts or support. Rattan or abaca are used to tie the parts together. Amazingly, through the years, little has changed in these huts except perhaps for the use of synthetics such as plastics as twine.

It was unthinkable for the rich in the old days to use bamboo to build their houses. Even wooden musical instruments at that time were off-limits to the poor-making do with instruments out of bamboo that imitated the real ones.

Modern times have transformed the reputation of bamboo. For instance, bands using native instruments like those crafted out of bamboo are now sought after to entertain the rich. Fabric made from bamboo fibers are now fashioned into clothing that primarily targets high-end markets. A visit to the hardware will lead us to lumber-like construction materials made of bamboo, although made in China, for use in building our houses or fabricating trendy furniture.

One may wonder why these bamboo products are also made in China. Are not Philippine bamboos enough to supply the need? Sadly, there are 36,000 hectares left of the Philippines’ bamboo forest, not enough to feed a manufacturing plant designed to used bamboo poles as the main raw material.

A bamboo pole is like wood, only that it is hollow in the middle. Despite this defect, bamboo is as strong as steel, especially if stretched or squeezed along its length. But no one wants flooring, posts, or walls made from a material that’s empty inside. Hence, the bamboo pole has to be reshaped into something that makes it more wood-like. An engineered bamboo is the answer. Familiar and convenient, it has a wide surface, solid inside, paintable, and can be joined together by driving a nail with a hammer through them. It is still bamboo minus the round, empty pole.

To get rid of the bamboo pole’s hollow core, it must first be broken down. The trick is to maximize the pole by breaking it down nicely, not wasting so much to make available materials in good form for the subsequent steps. A machine made up of circular twin saws that turn together like a pair of car wheels ripping the pole along its length is ideal. The process produces bamboo strips with straight edges. The less planning and sanding to smoothen the surface before the strips are joined together, the lesser the cost.

But there are difficulties with local bamboo, foremost of which Kawayan Tinik, much unlike the Chinese counterpart, Moso. It is not uncommon to find local bamboo poles that are out of form, damaged, or cut with its best part, the lowest portion, removed. For better yield, the pole must be dig in diameter, and must have think walls. Young poles should be spared. Farmers growing bamboo must bear these qualities. A little tending will most likely help. Bamboo should be planted far apart and crowding within each clump or cluster reduced by removing over-mature poles. Being extra-careful in harvesting so as not to damage those to be left behind. Cutting every pole flush to the ground will lead to better, bigger poles that have more useful parts. Carabao hauling of bamboo poles can still be done but not in a way that causes the skin to rub against the ground, leaving scratches and other defects on the pole.

Some more steps are needed before the bamboo strips can be joined together into a compact material. A bamboo pole can be likened to several empty tin cans placed on top of another, forming a long tube of a material. Each joint give rise to the so-called node that has plate that disrupts the tube’s hollow center. When a pole is split, these plates are exposed like protrusions on an otherwise flat, even surface. These have to be removed. The more nodes, the more protrusions to cut off. This also leads to unevenness that makes it difficult for the strips to make stronger contact when assembled together. The strips should also be sufficiently dry to avoid separation of the constructed layers when eventually put to use. Also, if the bamboo poles is harvested when there is too much rain or when new shoots are emerging from the clump, soon the harvested pole will be infested with powder-post beetles and termites. Hence, chemicals must be applied to make them less palatable to these insects.

To make the strips stick to one another, glue must be spread on the surfaces to be joined, then several pieces are matched together. By applying heavy pressure on the assembly, air spaces and gaps between the bamboo strips are removed. Some glue need to be heated before they harden. If done well, a solid material that is hard to distinguish from wood is the outcome.

Easy as it seems, one cannot yet produce engineered-bamboo at a cost that can compete with Chinese-made products. For one, even the glue is imported. Technology-wise, Filipinos improvise a lot, making do with machines that are originally intended for use with wood to process bamboo. Better poled are wanted to reduce wastes and so that less labor is involved. Also, there is the lack of assurance that the bamboo pole supply will be enough for an investor to venture into the business of making new wood from bamboo.

Count the dollars that can be saved and local jobs created as well as the cost of cutting trees. Turning bamboo into engineered wood will answer the need for a green product within an easy reach.

Written by:
Ramon A. Razal, Ph.D.
University of the Philippines Los Baños

Published by:
Department of Science and Technology-Science and Technology Information Institute (DOST-STII