Lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinale)

Common Name(s): Lignum vitae, palo santo, guayacan, holywood, genuine lignum vitae

Scientific Name: Guaiacum officinale and G. sanctum

Distribution: Central America and northern South America

Tree Size: 20-30 ft (6-10 m) tall,

                      1-2 ft (.3-.6 m) trunk diameter

Average Dried Weight: 79 lbs/ft3 (1,260 kg/m3)

Specific Gravity (Basic, 12% MC): 1.05, 1.26

Janka Hardness: 4,390 lbf (19,510 N)

Modulus of Rupture: 17,970 lbf/in2 (123.9 MPa)

Elastic Modulus: 2,481,000 lbf/in2 (17.11 GPa)

Crushing Strength: 12,380 lbf/in2 (85.4 MPa)

Shrinkage: Radial: 5.3%, Tangential: 8.7%,

                             Volumetric: 14.0%, T/R Ratio: 1.6

Color/Appearance: Heartwood color can range from olive to dark green/brown to nearly black, sometimes with a reddish hue. The color tends to darken with age, especially upon exposure to light. On average, the heartwood color of genuine lignum vitae tends to be darker than that of Argentine lignum vitae or verawood in the Bulnesia genus.

Grain/Texture: Grain is interlocked, sometimes severely so. Has a very fine texture and can be polished to a high luster due to its high natural oil content. Raw wood surfaces can feel greasy or oily to the touch.

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 the wood is considered quite difficult to work. Also, due to its high oil content, it’s very difficult to get strong and reliable glue joints. Finishing can also be problematic as well. However, lignum vitae turns well on a lathe.

Odor: Lignum vitae has a mild, perfume-like fragrance. (Though its scent isn’t quite as pungent nor as lingering as the closely related woods in the Bulnesia genus.)

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. Irregular chunks and turning blocks are sometimes sold by the pound instead of the more common board-foot measurement.

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: The common name lignum vitae is Latin, and means “tree of life” or “wood of life,” which is derived from the tree’s many medicinal uses. Regarded as one of the heaviest and hardest woods in the world. Its durability in submerged or ground-contact applications is legendary—it 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. While lignum vitae was among the very first species to be listed as endangered by CITES back in 1975, even the closely related Argentine lignum vitae (Bulnesia sarmientoi) eventually received protected status some 30 years later.

Images: Drag the slider up/down to toggle between raw and finished wood. The top image is Guaiacum officinale and the lower image is G. sanctum.

Identification: See the article on Hardwood Anatomy for definitions of endgrain features.

Lignum vitae (endgrain 10x)
Lignum vitae (endgrain 1x)

Porosity: diffuse porous

Arrangement: exclusively solitary

Vessels: medium, few

Parenchyma: diffuse-in-aggregates, vasicentric

Rays: narrow; close spacing

Lookalikes/Substitutes: Often confused with Bulnesia spp. such as verawood and Argentine lignum vitae. The two genera can be separated by pore arrangement. Bulnesia spp. have pores arranged in radial or diagonal rows, while Guaiacum spp. pores occur exclusively solitary and in a more or less random distribution.

Notes: Scent in Bulnesia species tends to be stronger and lingers longer in comparison to Guaiacum.

> Hardwoods > Zygophyllaceae > Guaiacum > Related Species

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Aidan Forde

Hi Eric, great website. Do you think this is lignum vitae sapwood? It is very orange/yellow in planed specimen and with rich lemon yellow sawdust. It sinks in seawater. The pencil marks on the image are 100 mm apart. The pore pattern suggests not verawood but it is LV? Strangely, this plank of approx 5000x200x75 mm was found on a beach here in SW Ireland, well away from a road. Very heavy plank! How did it get there?! Thanks for your help.

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Aidan Forde

Eric, I have attached two face grain pictures. I’m sure that it is dry and it sinks quickly in seawater. Would appreciate your view and thanks for your help.

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Jonathan Lyons

Lignum vitae is also native to Southern Florida, found in The Keys. My father grows it.

Berke

Hello, do you think this tree is the original lignum vitae?Or argentina lignum vitae ? Help me pls :)

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Kevin Kempton

I have found that Lignum can be worked very easily with sharp tools. It is basically self lubricating due to the high oil content. When using a rotary carver with a carbide burr it carves very much like HDPE plastic. I got some nice pieces that were salvaged after sitting on the forest floor for several decades.

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Geir-Endre

Interesting to see so much information on this wood type. In 1996 I was working onboard the legendary cruise ship SS Norway ( former SS France), and we went to drydock in Southampton. Among all the jobs done, we also changed propeller shafts, and the propeller shaft casing bushings. The bushing in the shaft casing and propeller brackets was made of Lignum Vitae, laid in a circle in more than a meter in length in the bracket and shaft casing. I took a few pieces of the new materials, and one of the used ones that I have on display… Read more »

Marty

I have a piece of LV to make mallets for carving. What is the mass of a block of LV? I’m planning to turn the wood with a friend who has more skills than me.
Any suggestions for dimensions for a predictable mallet head?
I’m thinking of preserving the block to make just the heads and make handles of another hard wood. Suggestions?

hary santos

I have some pieces around here, this wood don’t float on water, super heavy wood

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The smell of fresh cut Lignum Vitae is a breath of fresh air. Even better than pine-sol.

Tim Cole

My cricket fan friend tells me that Lignum Vitae is (or maybe was) used to make cricket bails to be used in windy weather. If they still fall off the umpire can choose to play on without bails, and must decide if a hit constitutes a broken wicket or not.

Marcus Hernon

I am a flutemake/fluteplayer from Connemara Ireland. I got a lovely piece of Lignum Vitae from a musician friend from Belgium and I wish to find out whether or this timber is suitable for making traditional Irish flutes, keeping in mind that the flute would be left in on your face when playing.
Marcus Hernon

Dale Harris

This wood is used for rudder bearing material in the U.S.S. Constitution.

David G. Holland-Sydney, N.S. Canada

As a young man, my Father worked for an Uncle in His SAW MILL. The SAWYER used lignum Vitae to make the Bearings for the Big Saw. Never had to lubricate because of the natural oils. At one time they tell me it was used as spacers in the cores of Electrical Transformers. Would be submerged in oil.

J C Lee

I have a guitar with a nearly black Lignum Vitae fretboard and it’s the best I’ve ever played

Robin

loool, For sure that ain’t lignum vitae. It’s probably Ebony. Can you proof it’s L.V.? I don’t think so.Give the model number and I’m sure the specs will not say Lignum Vitae fretboard.

Dave

Density. If it is as you say, you’ll need to prove it. Don’t let it out of your sight.

Tom

That’s Gorgeous

Barney Barton

I have been turning old bowling balls into potpourri bowls brilliant to work with

Gretchen Dawson

I have two bowls my father made from a lignum vitae bowling ball, in 1944. Have been stored in a barn for 75 years, good as the day he made them!

Ken Wiley

My favorite wood-carving mallet is made of Lignum Vitae. I love the feel of it the weight and balance of it is perfect for what I do. When I bought it 40 years ago I was told to put it in water occassionally to keep it in good shape but I never did, and it’s fine the way it is.

Graham Large

Worked with Lignum vitae at Chatham Dockyard on warship propellor thrust blocks / bearings.I believe policeman’s truncheons were once made of it. , also seem to remember staying at a chain hotel (Amadeus ) ? at two locations where a piece of Lignum vitae was used as a bar floor feature.Would not have thought too many guests would have known what they were looking at.

Steve

This wood was used as rail road ties here in Costa Rica.
Hand cut with an axe.
The better it was cut the more the rail company paid.
My 85 year old neighbor and friend still has the axes he used to cut ties with.

Tom

I will sail to costa rice to remove these railroad ties lol

Jeffrey

What are the axe handles made from?

Jeff Herman

I LOVE this material for making tools in restoring silver because of its density and tight grain. I put a 1200-grit finish on the wood ends and use them to remove dents in trays because it doesn’t stretch silver the way steel does.

Peter Folske

I picked up about 40 pieces that are 18inch x 3×3. Rough sawed it was shipping material marked product of India this is a project just sanded no finish

Michael Woods

Is the oil in this wood foodsafe for cutting boards?

William

The dust of this wood is considered toxic with exposure to skin over time can cause dermatitis. Here is a link to woods and their toxicity and effects. https://library.davidtilson.com/materials/toxic.html

Wood has been banned by many countries for food blocks because bacteria has been found to survive in the cracks and knife scores even after submergence cleaning. White plastic is the alternative.

guy boor

I have a 2x2x8 inch pices of this wood it was given to me from a friend. I make tobacco pipes, I’m concerned about the the fumes or gas that could occurre from the natural oils in wood when the tobacco is burning in the smoking chamber. Would anyone know if this wood has ever been used for a Tobacco Pipe. Or if this wood was used in food or water containers application.

Carolina Hennig

In Paraguay they use it for cups for their national drink called Tereré. Google it, you’ll see. They call it Palo Santo there.

Seven_Spades

My father has a load of it in his shed from the 1970’s. Every now and again he will make a pan handle out of a bit. I had not idea it was so sought after.

citizen6

Care to sell any of it? If so please email me at dlhultz@comcast.net

Vandal

Lignum Vitae is also used in leather working, specifically polishing the edges of straps and belts.

Jack Janssen

During the ’70’s I owned a Star class sailboat #2112. The skeg and rudder were made of
Lignum Vitae which was unpainted and had a 2″ split at the top of the rudder. I tried to repair the split and was unsuccessful. The boat was built in Chicago in 1942. Frames were white oak. The garboard planks were mahogany. The rest of the planking was white cedar. Each side was a single plank 30″ wide, 24′ long and 2″ thick. Not a blemish in either one. I doubt
that one could find wood like this today.

J.C.

I’ve been looking for a naturally green wood for a custom butcher block. After much research this is the one that’s come up the most. Any pictures I’ve seen have been a darker colour (not green). Does anyone have any experience with Lignum Vitae? What would you recommend be done in order to have the wood turn green? (expose to sunlight? etc)

J.C.

Thanks for the info, very helpful.

Dan Downard

True Lignum Vitae will still turn green even after you put polish on it. (if you can get it to stick to it) I have made a few rings out of it and finished it with CA glue, but it really didn’t need it as it can be sanded to a high shine. If you want to get good at sharpening your tools work with this stuff…..

citizen6

My verawood matches your picture, it is nothing like lignum vitae in my experience. It was sold to me as lignum vitae; a hard lesson.

citizen6

It is very easy to tell them apart. The Verawood endgrain runs mirror like through the whole piece.

Kyle anderson

I am an apprentice saddle maker in the U.S. and just received some tools
from a master saddler, David Boot from England. Some of the tools are
made from lignum vitae, including a masher and loop blocks. Both of the
types of tools are meant for extreme force, and are not only extremely
strong, but they are equally as beautiful.

clomorleodhas

I have a supported spindle with lignum on the tip and an insert in the support bowl. It spins really well and for a long time. It helps the tip NOT to become blunt and slow down.

Kyle anderson

I am an apprentice saddle maker in the U.S. and just received some tools from a master saddler, David Boot from England. Some of the tools are made from lignum vitae, including a masher and loop blocks. Both of the types of tools are meant for extreme force, and are not only extremely strong, but they are equally as beautiful.

Andrew Uttley

I have a set of crown green bowls made from lignum vitae. Far better to play with than the more widely used plastic varieties.

Rod Reidnauer

I’m right in the middle of fashioning a set of 4-1/2 x 7 inch lignum vitae bearings for a 1200 lb flywheel. It is a bit rough on tools, but it sure is pretty, polished stuff just the way it comes off the saw. I have a picture of the bearings being constructed atcomment image

John

I see a great deal of sapwood. Is it as durable as the heart?

Don Rivest

Some older hydro-turbines used journal bearings made made from this material – for the same reasons as ship’s propellers. I’ve also understand that the block and tackle equipment in many older ships had bearings of Lignum Vitae. Cool stuff!

dave

I had a mate that worked on the Queen mary he was the 34 officer & his job was to watch the main bearing on the prop shaft & put water on when needed the bearing was Lignum Vitae

Geoff Lusk

I have a Lignum Vitae cane that was given to my Great Grandfather at the opening of the Panama canal, this wood was apparently used in the construction of the canal.

mack anderson

late father had set of highland bagpipes made from this wood in 1925 by a maker in otago n.z. wood came from propeller bearings in old ship. beautifull soft mellow sound commented on by several piping judges over the years.