Desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota)

Desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota)

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Common Name(s): Desert Ironwood

Scientific Name: Olneya tesota

Distribution: Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico

Tree Size: 20-30 ft (6-10 m) tall, 1-2 ft (.3-.6 m) trunk diameter

Average Dried Weight: About 75 lbs/ft3 (1,210 kg/m3)

Specific Gravity (Basic, 12% MC): ~.97, ~1.21

Janka Hardness: 3,260 lbf (14,500 N)

Modulus of Rupture: 10,880 lbf/in2 (75.0 MPa)

Elastic Modulus: No data available

Crushing Strength: No data available

Shrinkage: No data available; reported to be very stable in service

Color/Appearance: Heartwood color ranges from an orangish yellow to a darker red or brown, with darker violet to black streaks. Some pieces may be almost entirely black. Narrow yellow sapwood is clearly demarcated from heartwood.

Grain/Texture: Due to the small size of the tree, grain can be wild or gnarled. Fine even texture and excellent natural luster.

Endgrain: Diffuse-porous or semi-ring porous; large pores commonly in clusters and radial multiples of 2-5, few; tyloses and other heartwood deposits abundant; parenchyma banded, vasicentric, and confluent; medium rays, spacing normal.

Rot Resistance: No data available.

Workability: Very difficult to work on account of its density. High cutting resistance. Desert Ironwood is usually restricted to very small projects, though it takes a good natural polish and is very stable in service. Turns, polishes, and finishes well.

Odor: Desert Ironwood has a distinct, somewhat unpleasant smell when being worked.

Allergies/Toxicity: While there are no official studies available for Desert Ironwood, anecdotal reports suggest that the sawdust can be irritating to the skin and respiratory system. See the articles Wood Allergies and Toxicity and Wood Dust Safety for more information.

Pricing/Availability: The small size of the tree—in combination with its restricted distribution and relative rarity—means that Desert Ironwood is in scarce supply. Expect prices to be extremely high for a domestic hardwood, or par with many high-end exotic imported hardwoods. Usually seen as turning or knife blanks, also sold as whole logs.

Sustainability: This wood species is not listed in the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, Desert Ironwood (known as palo fierro in Spanish) is considered a protected species in Mexico due to overexploitation and diminishing natural habitat.

Common Uses: Knife handles, carvings, and turned objects.

Comments: Desert Ironwood is perhaps one of the most highly-regarding of all woods in knife-making, with its density, stability, and grain patterns and colors creating a unique combination of characteristics that’s ideal for decorative handles. It’s also favored for carving by the indigenous Seri people now living in the state of Sonora in Mexico. (And because of it’s high thermal value, the wood is also cut and used as charcoal.)

Related Species:

None available.

Related Articles:

Scans/Pictures:

Desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota)

Desert Ironwood (sanded)

Desert Ironwood (sealed)

Desert Ironwood (sealed)

Desert Ironwood (endgrain)

Desert Ironwood (endgrain)

Desert Ironwood (endgrain 10x)

Desert Ironwood (endgrain 10x)

  • George Emmons

    Just got done turning a razor stand and seem to be having a respiratory issue. Have become very stuffy and sneezing some,have turned once before and had a very mild reaction. I thought it was a cold coming on and didn’t really think about it till today. Had my dc running but didn’t have a mask on, will remember it next time. It doesn’t seem too serious, just an observation and something I will learn from as it’s the first ever reaction to wood dust I’ve had.

    • Stan Calloway

      my one and only wood dust reaction occurred with this wood too. you definitely want to wear clothes and gear to keep this stuff off of your skin and out of your lungs. made me quite sick for about a day, and luckily no adverse reactions down the road. i had that reaction 25 years ago. i got halfway through the black side of a turned chess set, and my buddy used the remaining chunk i had for firewood. UGHHH!!!

  • Larry Sullivan

    currently carving a knife handle of it, so far this is the most toxic wood I’ve worked with. I’ve experienced sneezing, coughing and nasal mucus flow (dribbling). antihistamines relieved the respiratory symptoms. I don’t normally react to wood dust. I tried working it under water, the wet sawdust left a dark purple stain on my hands that has taken three days to mostly ware off. I’ve been leaching the wood in soapy water with little to no effect other than temporarily darkening the wood. I recommend a respirator type mask and working it outside and rubber gloves if working it wet

  • JimQuarles

    In addition to allergic reactions, Desert Ironwood also contains a lot of silica which causes permanent damage to lungs.

    It will fluoresce in direct sunlight or LED lights.

  • mattolsen

    As far as work ability goes just a few notes. When its cured, it is very hard and very brittle. With my nice table saw and a brand new blade, a chunk broke of and gave me a bloody nose. Use sharp blades, bits, chisels, and tools, and sharpen often. Carbide bits and blades are recommended. That being said i love this wood. I me some pistol grips for my 1911, and just got more and more excited with each grit progression. I took it to 1000 then used superglue as the finish. Sanded that up to 2000 then polished it with compound and a cloth wheel. The grain is beautiful with its dark bands and has some contrasting light cream grains in it. Just beautiful.

  • JosephD

    Is it just me, or does this species smell like bad morning breathe when sanding?

    • ABC

      Wait until you get around either the tree “strychnos nux-vomica” : hell on earth. The latin name hints in the right direction, just guess.
      On the other hand, desert ironwood is a “robiniae” which is closely related to the black locust(robinia pseudoacacia), but being also a faboidae like laburnum, they all reek -when freshly cut- of unripe crushed beans, well that’s the impression I had.
      the scent almost disappears when well dried.

  • desert man

    People who say that desert ironwood is “brittle” should be aware that billies and clubs are made from this wood, as well as animal sculptures made by natives who don’t have complicated machines to carve them : the type of desert ironwood used then is not burl but straight grained wood (or slightly wavy grain).
    Burls tend to explode, crack, warp and twist when cut and ironwood being probably harder than maple,the problems encountered with usual burl materials will reach a new levevl of annoyance with hard exotic wood burls.
    I’m extremely curious to learn the fracture toughness, elasticity modulus, crushing strength, hardness (revised probably) etc values, they cannot be found elsewhere even on the US department of forests website. Are they to be found anywhere?

    • Aaron Wise

      Yes, Desert Ironwood can be found in the south western part of Arizona. I am from Yuma Arizona and this stuff is everywhere around here. It is however protected. only pieces of wood that have fallen off of the remaining tree can be picked up and taken and you may not drag large pieces of wood through the desert or uproot a tree. Desert Iron wood is super hard, a lot harder than hard Maple or most other wood. it is composed of tiny wood fibers that when become airborne irritate the respitory system and eyes similar to pollen allergies. It is also so dense that it does not float in water, it sinks right to the bottom. I cannot give exact specs on the wood, but i can say that this wood does NOT bend. it also does not crack like most wood, it shatters. The way we break it into pieces when we plan on using it in a fire is we hit on it with a big sledge hammer and crack it into smaller pieces but it takes a lot of time to do this, you really have to wail on this stuff. if you plan on cutting the wood with a saw be ready to change blades often. I use a chain saw to cut up larger pieces and i might as well be burrying the blade in sand. be sure to wear gloves when handling pieces. Handling this wood will likely result in multiple splinters that will ache badly and immediately start to fester. The green wood of the tree is in between mesquite and palo verde in characteristics. it is a lot lighter in color and not nearly as dense as the old dry stuff. the tree you see in the picture is an old dead ironwood tree. this is when its in its most dense form. It takes a long time for the tree to become like this.

  • Crashman

    I have a carved ironwood eagle that, unfortunately, sat in a sunny window for years and is now very bleached. Is there any way to restore its color?

    • Crashman

      To answer my own question, applying an oil finish restored the color. I used salad bowl finish.

    • mitch481

      I use brown Kiwi shoe polish. Try some on a small piece and let it dry. Then give it a good buffing. Hope that works.

  • Rob

    Just received a fine ironwood fingerboards from a pal in AZ. It’s *incredibly* dense and absolutely gorgeous – that said, he told me that it requires very sharp tools to work without issues.

  • Ken

    Let me toss this out. I’m trying to find a ironwood blank about 7′ long and about 1 1/2″ to 2″ square or round in order to make a hiking staff out of, if any of you happen to know who might have this size blank I would very much appreciate a link or company name. I know a blank like that isn’t going to just drop out of the sky, but who knows one of you guys might know someone and we can do some business. Thanks guys.