Lignum Vitae

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Lignum Vitae (Guaiacum officinale)Common Name(s): Lignum VitaeScientific Name: Guaiacum officinale, G. sanctumDistribution: Central America and northern South AmericaTree Size: 20-30 ft (6-10 m) tall, 1-2 ft (.3-.6 m) trunk diameterAverage Dried Weight: 79 lbs/ft3 (1,260 kg/m3)Specific Gravity (Basic, 12% MC): 1.05, 1.26Janka Hardness: 4,390 lbf (19,510 N)Modulus of Rupture: 18,450 lbf/in2 (127.2 MPa)Elastic Modulus: 2,043,000 lbf/in2 (14.09 GPa)Crushing Strength: 12,200 lbf/in2 (84.1 MPa)Shrinkage: Radial: ~5%, Tangential: ~8%, Volumetric: ~13%, T/R Ratio: ~1.6

Color/Appearance: Heartwood color can range from a olive to a dark greenish brown to almost black, sometimes with a reddish hue. The color tends to darken with age, especially upon exposure to light. Color of genuine Lignum Vitae tends to be darker than that of Argentine Lignum Vitae.

Grain/Texture: Grain is interlocked, sometimes severely so. Has a very fine texture and an oily feel. Bare wood can be polished to a very fine luster due to its high natural oil content.

Endgrain: Diffuse-porous; small to medium pores, few; exclusively solitary; mineral deposits occasionally present; parenchyma diffuse-in-aggregates, vasicentric; narrow rays,

Rot Resistance: Lignum Vitae is reported to be very durable for outdoor use and is also very resistant to insect attack.

Workability: Lignum Vitae has a tendency to skip over-top jointer cutters on account of its extremely high density, and very light passes are recommended. Lignum Vitae will also dull cutters, and overall is considered quite difficult to work. Also, due to its high oil content and density, it’s very difficult to get a strong and reliable glue joint. However, Lignum Vitae is an exceptional wood for turning on the lathe, and finishes well.

Odor: Lignum Vitae has a mild, perfume-like fragrance.

Allergies/Toxicity: Lignum Vitae has been reported to cause skin irritation. See the articles Wood Allergies and Toxicity and Wood Dust Safety for more information.

Pricing/Availability: Trade of Lignum Vitae is restricted in CITES Appendix II, and prices for genuine Lignum Vitae are accordingly very high: and usually from questionable sources. Lignum Vitae is typically sold by the pound, (instead of the more common board-foot measurement), and since it is the heaviest wood in the world, this also makes it considerably expensive.

Sustainability: This wood species is in CITES Appendix II, and is on the IUCN Red List. It is listed as endangered because populations are severely reduced and exploitation for both its wood and resin extracts have continued for hundreds of years.

Common Uses: Tool handles, mallet heads, bearings, bushings, pulley wheels, and turned objects.

Comments: Lignum Vitae is regarded by most to be both the heaviest and hardest wood in the world. Its durability in submerged or ground-contact applications is also exceptional. Lignum Vitae has been used for propeller shaft bearings on ships, and its natural oils provide self-lubrication that gives the wood excellent wear resistance.

Unfortunately, Lignum Vitae has been exploited to the brink of extinction, and is now an endangered species. Verawood—a related wood species with similar working properties and characteristics—is commonly used as a substitute, and is sometimes called Argentine Lignum Vitae. Yet even this species (Bulnesia sarmientoi) has been included in CITES Appendix III, though it is not as restrictive as Appendix II where Lignum Vitae is found.

Though Verawood is in a different Genus than Lignum Vitae, (Bulnesia and Guaiacum, respectively) both genera are biologically classified in the same Family: Zygophyllaceae. Both woods are extremely hard, heavy, oily, and have a feathered grain pattern with a distinct brownish olive color.

The name Lignum Vitae is Latin, and means tree of life, or wood of life, which is derived from the tree’s many medicinal uses.

Related Species:

Zygophyllaceae family:

Related Articles:

Scans/Pictures: For the endgrain zoom, I’ve slightly modified the brightness of the image to help show the details of the pores.

Lignum Vitae (sanded)Lignum Vitae (sealed)
Lignum Vitae (endgrain)Lignum Vitae (endgrain 10x)
Guaiacum sanctum (sanded)Guaiacum sanctum (sealed)

SANDED, below

SEALED, below