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: 78.5 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.
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.
A special thanks to Salem Barker for providing the sculpture photos of this wood species.
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.