Common Name(s): Snakewood, Letterwood
Scientific Name: Brosimum guianense (syn. Piratinera guianensis)
Distribution: Coastal regions of northeast South America
Tree Size: 65-80 ft (20-25 m) tall, 6-12 in (15-30 cm) trunk diameter
Average Dried Weight: 73 lbs/ft3 (1,170 kg/m3)
Specific Gravity (Basic, 12% MC): .96, 1.17
Janka Hardness: 3,800 lbf (16,900 N)
Modulus of Rupture: 23,000 lbf/in2 (158.6 MPa)*
Elastic Modulus: 2,720,000 lbf/in2 (18.76 GPa)*
Crushing Strength: 11,800 lbf/in2 (81.4 MPa)*
*These are minimum values in the strength class; Snakewood’s strength values most likely exceeds those of Bloodwood
Shrinkage: Radial: ~6%, Tangential: ~9%, Volumetric: ~15%, T/R Ratio: ~1.5
Color/Appearance: Snakewood is so called for its characteristic snakeskin patterns. Wood is typically a reddish brown, with contrasting darker brown or black patches. Color tends to darken and homogenize with age and exposure; see the article on Preventing Color Changes in Exotic Woods for more information.
Grain/Texture: Grain is straight, with a fine even texture. High natural luster.
Endgrain: Diffuse-porous; solitary and radial multiples; medium to large pores in no specific arrangement, few; tyloses mineral/gum deposits common; parenchyma winged and confluent; narrow rays, normal spacing.
Rot Resistance: Snakewood is reported to be very durable and also resistant to insect attack, though it is seldom used in exterior applications where durability would be an issue.
Workability: Being closely related to Bloodwood, Snakewood shares many of the same working properties; namely, the wood is extremely dense, and has a pronounced blunting effect on cutters. Snakewood also tends to be quite brittle and can splinter easily while being worked. Despite the difficulties of working it, Snakewood turns well and finishes to a high polish.
Allergies/Toxicity: Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, Snakewood has been reported as a skin and respiratory irritant. See the articles Wood Allergies and Toxicity and Wood Dust Safety for more information.
Pricing/Availability: As a rare and small tree, prices for surfaced and milled Snakewood that display the characteristic snakeskin pattern are perhaps the most expensive of any exotic lumber worldwide in terms of per-boardfoot cost. Less figured sections of the wood are usually sold for much lower prices. Snakewood is also commonly sold in full and half log forms, which typically include significant pith checking and areas of both figured and non-figured wood, which can result in high wastage.
Sustainability: This wood species is not listed in the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Common Uses: Inlay, veneer, violin bows, tool handles, and other small turned or specialty objects.
Comments: One look at a highly figured piece of Brosimum guianense and it’s easy to see why it’s called Snakewood: the dramatic specks and splotches bear a close resemblance to the skin of a snake. Such figuring can be so pronounced that it has been compared to the writing of hieroglyphics, and is sometimes called Letterwood.
In addition to its colorful figure, Snakewood is also among the densest and hardest of all wood species worldwide. Among woodworkers, it vies with Lignum Vitae as the heaviest wood in the world.
Scans/Pictures: The facegrain picture is a bookmatched panel that was glued up to get a full 4″ wide sample. The brightness and color settings have been adjusted for the endgrain zoom scan to aid in recognizing anatomical features; the endgrain is usually very dark, sometimes nearly black.