How to Tell Genuine Lignum Vitae from Argentine Lignum Vitae

by Eric Meier 

In the world of wood, lignum vitae is the stuff of legends. The name is Latin for “wood of life,” which is derived from the tree’s many medicinal uses. Lignum vitae has been imported into Europe for medical use since 1508, and its use became so highly demanded that “the wood sold for as much as seven gold crowns a pound.”[1]Record, S. J., & Hess, R. W. (1949). Timbers of the new world (p. 556).Among commercially available hardwoods, it is widely regarded as the heaviest and hardest wood in the world (though when more obscure non-commercial woods are taken into account, there are a quite a few other contenders). It’s unique olive green color, delicate feathered grain pattern, and other-worldly rot resistance only serves to add to its aura.

Verawood (color change)
Two skittle balls turned from substituted Argentine lignum vitae (by Steve Earis)

Given such a long and rich history, it should come as little surprise that genuine lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinale, G. sanctum) has has been exploited to the brink of extinction, and was among the inaugural round of endangered species from CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) dating back to 1975.

As a result, a few closely related species outside of the Guaiacum genus—but still within the Zygophyllaceae family—have been substituted. Argentine lignum vitae (Plectrocarpa sarmientoi), and verawood (Plectrocarpa arborea) are two very closely related wood species, sometimes used interchangeably with one another. These two species have been used to satisfy some of the demand of genuine lignum vitae, yet in 2010, Argentine lignum vitae (Plectrocarpa sarmientoi ) was also added to the CITES Appendix II. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before all variants and related species of lignum vitae are restricted from international trade.

So What’s the Problem?

To be fair, woods from both genera (Guaiacum and Plectrocarpa) are biologically classified in the same family: Zygophyllaceae. Both woods are extremely hard, heavy, oily, and have a distinct brownish olive color. 

However, some retailers have adopted the dubious practice of dropping the “Argentine” or any other classifier from the common name and simply refer to Plectrocarpa species as lignum vitae. While Plectrocarpa is a satisfactory drop-in replacement for true lignum vitae for most applications (with the exception of bearings[2]Timbers of the World (p. 233). (1979). United Kingdom: Construction Press. TRADA.), this is a misleading omission that implies a historical wood of greater commercial value.

Telling Them Apart

As discussed in the article The Truth Behind Wood Identification, the most common approach to casual wood ID is to simply look at the facegrain. But in many cases (including lignum vitae), there just aren’t enough uniquely identifiable characteristics to consistently separate the two wood types based solely on the facegrain. 
The good news: as long as you have clear access to the endgrain, you absolutely can tell the two woods apart with near 100% consistency. Let’s take a look at both the pitfalls of using the usual means of wood identification (color, grain, weight) and then move to a more reliable feature (endgrain anatomy).

Facegrain and Color

Genuine lignum vitae
Guaiacum officinale
Argentine lignum vitae
Plectrocarpa sarmientoi
Verawood
Plectrocarpa arborea

Facegrain and Color: Despite the subtle differences in grain and heartwood color shown in the samples above, all woods have a very similar color range, and could easily be confused with one another. In the broadest sense, genuine lignum vitae heartwood tends to have a slightly darker, more reddish cast, while the heartwood of Plectrocarpa tends to be slightly lighter in color and sometimes with a more olive cast. However, the color intensity and hue in all these species can shift over time, so relying on heartwood color alone, especially in aged pieces, should be considered insufficient on its own.

Average Dried Weight

Genuine lignum vitae
78.5 lbs/ft3 (1,260 kg/m3)

Argentine lignum vitae
74.9 lbs/ft3 (1,200 kg/m3)

Verawood
74.6 lbs/ft3 (1,195 kg/m3)

Average Dried Weight: Of the characteristics of identifying lignum vitae on this page, weight is probably the least reliable. On average, there is only 5% difference between the heaviest and lightest commercial species, which is well within the regular natural variation seen from tree to tree (and even from different parts within the trunk). When dealing with the dried weight of wood in general, it’s not at all out of place to expect to find pieces plus or minus ten percent from the given average weight.

Scent

Genuine Lignum Vitae

Lignum vitae has a mild, perfume-like fragrance, though its scent isn’t quite as pungent nor as lingering as the closely-related commercial woods in the Plectrocarpus genus.

Argentine Lignum Vitae and Verawood

Both these Plectrocarpa species have a distinct, perfume-like fragrance that lingers even after it has been machined. Argentine lignum vitae in particular is currently protected as an endangered species—in part due to its over-harvesting for extraction of its fragrant oil, sometimes called oil of guaiac.

Endgrain Anatomy

Genuine lignum vitae
(endgrain 10x)
Argentine lignum vitae
(endgrain 10x)
Verawood
(endgrain 10x)

Endgrain Anatomy: Although the pores can be small and difficult to make out on all three species, examining the endgrain anatomy is really one of the easiest and most reliable ways to separate these woods. I suggest cleaning up the endgrain and possibly sanding it to a fine (400+) grit to help get a clear view of the pores and their arrangement. Using a 10x magnifying lens, you’ll notice two things about the pores.

  1. Genuine lignum vitae’s pores are almost all exclusively solitary. (That is, none of the pores are bunched together in groups or pairs), and they are arranged in a somewhat random pattern, or perhaps slightly diagonally.
  2. The pores of Argentine Lignum Vitae, you’ll notice the pores are frequently arranged in clusters and radial (vertical) rows. This pore arrangement is a dead giveaway for Bulnesia spp.

Are you an aspiring wood nerd?

The poster, Worldwide Woods, Ranked by Hardness, should be required reading for anyone enrolled in the school of wood nerdery. I have amassed over 500 wood species on a single poster, arranged into eight major geographic regions, with each wood sorted and ranked according to its Janka hardness. Each wood has been meticulously documented and photographed, listed with its Janka hardness value (in lbf) and geographic and global hardness rankings. Consider this: the venerable Red Oak (Quercus rubra) sits at only #33 in North America and #278 worldwide for hardness! Aspiring wood nerds be advised: your syllabus may be calling for Worldwide Woods as part of your next assignment!

References

References
1 Record, S. J., & Hess, R. W. (1949). Timbers of the new world (p. 556).
2 Timbers of the World (p. 233). (1979). United Kingdom: Construction Press. TRADA.
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Runen

Hi Eric
Can you help me determine what kind of wood I have here? It’s been used for bulwarks and is at least 70 years old. It sinks in water. The magnification is 10x.

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Stijn A

Hey Eric.

I have a couple of pieces that I got in my possesion, though I am confused between lignum vitae and Holywood,

I will share a few pictures regarding to what I got (one of which is oiled in cooked linseed oil), but what is the diffrence between Lignum vitae from the caribbean, and Holywood?

and how comes that some pieces of lignum look more red than others?

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Brad

Is there any way we can have the different species listed as their own? Rather than having then all lumped under “lignum vitae”

Luka Mrkonjic

It definitely is not an easy hardwood (genuine) to get. I have a quarter log I bough about 20 years ago from a woodworking buddy of mine. Made a couple sets of book ends, and still have about half the log left. But man, does it do a number on your tools.

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steve rajski

Do you know a (brave/guitar builder) Luthier who has attempted to hand carve an acoustic Archtop guitar(backs & sides) with Argentine Lignum Vitae? I’ve used it for small carvings………but an entire Archtop guitar is another story. Am I lookin’ for BIG trouble? Is this a bad idea?? Pic’s?

thomas dijkstra

those who are looking to secure the real thing should not neglect searching for vintage / antique items that were made of it: i.e., lead dressing tools for plumbers; old-time two-hole bowling balls, etc.

Hugo

Hi. I wrote to you on another post a few days ago. A good example of questions that come up for me is what happened on today’s asia wood safari. Is this Argentine Mahogany? See pic below:….. can’t seem to attach photo.

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Hugo

Trying again now. Seems to work now. Maybe operator error before.

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T Luhm

Whatever it is, it’s quite beautiful and should yield you some fine projects!

Hugo

I was told it’s mahogany from Argentina and then found your article. I understand that Argentine lignum vitae is sometimes mistaken or sold as mahogany so I wondered if you could tell by looking at it. Asia wood safari refers to just searching for woods here. Sorry, I should have been more clear. Everything is imported. Names
of woods are changed or hidden. Origins are obscured. Quite frustrating.

Hugo

Thanks.

mariano Di Tonto

hola, soy Luthier argentino, las tablas de tu foto, no son caoba argentina, esa madera aquí se le conoce como viraró. Es una madera muy dura, se usaba para pisos. Yo la he usado para mastiles de guitarra. Y mi abuelo carpintero la ha usado para construir heladeras de carnicero en los años 70s

Ken woolcutt

Would lignum vitae possibly be turned to a size bowl as described here: https://rover.ebay.com/rover/0/0/0?mpre=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ebay.com%2Fulk%2Fitm%2F293378681596

Robin

A wooden knife opener I made from Guaiacum officinale.

Robin

Two species of Lignum Vitae grow on the ABC Islands of the Dutch Caribbean: the Roughbark Lignum Vitae (Guaiacum officinale) and the Holywood Lignum Vitae (Guaiacum sanctum). While the trees were harvested on a large scale on Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, they are now thriving on these islands and are a common sight. I have several Guaiacum officinale trees in my garden and I’m growing a hedge of them as well. I’ve also planted one Verawood, which indeed grows much faster.

Johnny Mayo

I have some 2×12’s from an old old barn. It has a greenish heart. I routed on some, it really dulled my bit.
Id like to know if this is from south America. Maybe came from an old ship !

Steve Earis

as eric says you won’t get lignum in that sort of section size. the wood you have may well be Greenheart.

Mark Stebbins

Eric; thanks for the great article. I’ve grown many tropical hardwood species on my property in Central Florida and have to say that Verawood is one of my favorites. Much faster growing than Lignum Vitae and a nice ornamental with yellow flowers. I’ll post a photo of a tree I grew from seed. It was lost in a freeze and I used the wood to turn handles for the vices on my workbench.

Schennelly Stoughton

This is an amazing compilation of data on woods of that world , very impressive and appreciated.A very big thank YOU!!

asadefa

i have a piece of lignum vitae that is olive green but much lighter in colour than the lignum vitae photo on this site. It also has green lines in the grain. Do you think it is real?

Marge Herring Ellert

I have a lamp that was given to us as a wedding gift in the ’70s. The bottom of it reads “Lignum Vitae Lamp Company, Designer David Kongas, Long Key Florida, 2 March 1978” It is a very large and heavy lamp. I am wondering how to determine its value as well as whether it is actually made of Lignum Vitae wood or not. I have attached a picture of the bottom of the lamp. Do you have any ideas?

Lance

We have a similar lamp with the same inscription. Did you have any luck researching the lamp/value?

tek wyzrd

I have a few pieces of argentine lignum vitae and it is the best wood I haave ever worked with hand tools. Dense and hard but not too much so and the aroma is wonderful. I used a piece for the handle of a hickory and bigleaf maple cane and the final result was spectacular.

Hunter John

I completely agree about the aroma. I have a trumpet turkey call turned out of it and it is my favorite because of the smell. Wish I could buy a candle that smelled like it.

Shane Kennedy

Hi. I am looking for some Lignum Vitae to refurbish the outer propshaft bearings in a 1955 (small) warship. If anyone has any that they would be prepared to part with, I would appreciate a note. I am in Ireland btw. It is fair to say that, for my use, the Argentininian variety would suffice. I don’t have the money for fuel for any major voyages.

Christopher Edward Penta

Get yourself some delrin, that would do the job best for a fraction of the cost.

Shane Kennedy

There is an American company that make L.V. bearings … for water turbines/hydro-electric powerstations. It seems that nothing is anywhere near as good. My propshafts are 3 1/2″, in probably at least a 5″ housing.

Brad Elliott

Could genuine Lignum Vitae, be raise, on tree frams, as pine is raised in the southern states. If it could be raised in this way, what would be the best climite, for it to grow in the united states.

lorem

Lignum vitae is a relatively small and very slow growing tree, taking upwards of 15 years to reach the stage where one could cut lumber. In addition, the seeds display unpredictable germination periods and sprout extremely slowly. However, G. Officinale is grown as an ornamental tree in southern california and florida.

Shane Kennedy

I guess it needs quite warm conditions to grow. I have discussed the possibility with someone else in Ireland.

larry

G. Officinale does not like the cold. it grows best between 10° and 30° north latitude in moist warm climates. socal coast is really too dry for it and inland is too cold, but it will grow if it is taken care of.

Shane

One part of the country (Valentia Island) is considered sub-tropical due to the Gulf Stream. We are also seeing an increasing number of Tropical fish species such as Sunfish, Gt white sharks, Lions Mane jellies and Portugese Man-o-war. No Box jellies or Irukandjis (yet).

Juan Pablo Salmon

By the way, I love your explanation of the difference between Genuine Lignum Vitae and Bulnesia.
Dear Robert, if the Lignum Vitae piece you have is from the Dominican Republic it is most probably Ganuine as Bulnesia or Argentine Lignum Vitae grows further South in Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay among other Countries.

Robert Harrison

Good morning, I have an old wood piece from the Doinican Republic.
I believe the wood type is Lignum Vitae. I was hoping that you could identify the wood by a picture. Thank you for any help you might provide. Regards, Robert