Tung Oil in the USA

We think the history of the use of tung oil in America is interesting enough to have a short page of its own.

Before the beginning of the 20th century tung oil was hardly known in America.

In 1905, the first tung tree seeds were imported from China to America by the US Department of Agriculture. These seeds were grown throughout the Southern States over a period of 20 years to establish which had the best growing conditions.

Such was the success of these experimental plantings that by the early 1930’s tung tree plantations had been established in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, with Florida alone having over 10,000 acres of tung groves, producing almost a third of American production.

Tung Oil was being talked about as a new wonder crop at this time, ‘perhaps the foundation of a great new American industry’ with economic yields per acre of 12 per cent or more, rivalling or surpassing oranges, grapefruit, lemons or limes.

As the American automobile industry grew dramatically during the first half of the twentieth century, with the assembly line systems introduced by Henry Ford, so did the use of tung oil to waterproof and prevent rust on steel and reduce wear on engine parts.

Tung oil is an excellent electrical insulator and was used to insulate electrical parts for telephones, telegraph instruments, radios and televisions. Because of its non-toxic nature when dry it was used to coat the inside of food cans. Tung oil came to be used in the manufacture of quality paint and varnish, linoleum, oil cloth, ink, and many plastics.

Unfortunately the history of domestic American production did not end happily. The tung tree needs exact growing conditions to survive. It needs the right amount of sun and rain, at the right time of year. A late frost can kill the blossom of the tree and lose a whole years crop. The tree can be killed by a single season of severe drought or flood. By the 1960’s US production was restricted to the south western states. In 1969 hurricane Camille destroyed the remaining tung tree plantations in the gulf states, and production effectively ceased.

Although no longer a major producer of tung oil, the USA remains a significant world user, and American industry and consumers continue to benefit from the unique, natural, properties of tung oil.