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.)