January 7, 2023
If you have taken Latin courses in the past, you might be familiar with the Latin phrase “Lignum Vitae.” Of course, Vitae is the genitive form of “vita” and means “of life.” Lignum, on the other hand, means “wood.” Taken together, Lignum Vitae means wood of life. Lignum Vitae is called “the wood of life” because of its medicinal properties. Its natural resin has been utilized to treat several medical conditions like arthritis and coughs for a long time. As such, it is a valuable wood for its medicinal applications.
However, Lignum Vitae is not only valuable for its medicinal properties. It also gets prized for its wood. It has many sterling qualities like its remarkable toughness, strength, and density. Besides, it is the national tree in the Bahamas, and its flower is the national flower of Jamaica. Its other names include “Aura palo santo and palo santo. It is a perfect choice for cabinetry, shipbuilding, and woodturning. It also belongs to the group of woods called “ironwoods.”
What is Lignum Vitae Wood?
Lignum Vitae is also referred to as guayacan from the genus Guaiacum. It is also known in Europe as Pokhout or Pockholz. It is native to the South American northern coasts and Caribbean, and in the past, it is a valuable crop for export to Europe. It was once an essential material for projects that require exceptional toughness, density, strength, and durability.
Lignum Vitae has an average height of thirty feet and diameter of twelve inches. It features a dense and rounded crown characterized by pale blue or dark green leaves. Besides, it has flowers with five petals. It is the densest wood available commercially, and because of its density, it will sink in water with ease. Its scientific name is G. sanctum and Guaiacum officinale.
How Dense and Hard is Lignum Vitae?
Lignum Vitae is a very durable hardwood. In fact, it is considered the densest wood available commercially, with a Janka hardness rating of 4,390 Jankas. This Janka rating is very high, which is even higher than the Brazilian Walnut (3,680 Jankas), Brazilian Teak (3,540 Jankas), Purpleheart (2,890 Jankas), and many other wood species. The Santos Mahogany and Merbau pale in comparison to its Janka Hardness rating. Thus, you can gauge the actual hardness of this wood by comparing it to the hardest hardwoods you can ever find on Earth.
Lignum Vitae has 17,970 lbf/in2 Modulus of Rupture, which is very high. It also has a high Elastic Modulus at 2,481,000 lbf/in2. Around 36 wood types or more get referred to as Ironwoods. The best-known species among these ironwoods or Lignum Vitae are the Bulnesia sarmientoi and Bulnesia Arborea, belonging to the same guaiacum family. Moreover, these two get referred to as Argentine lignum vitae or verawood. They look the same as Lignum Vitae and have similar working qualities.
Characteristics and Properties of Lignum Vitae
Lignum Vitae is a rare and exotic wood you seldom find in the market. But if you ever intend to use this wood for your woodworking projects, it will be best to know the succinct properties and characteristics of this wood:
Color and Appearance
Lignum Vitae features colors ranging from nearly black to olive or dark green/brown. Sometimes, it has a reddish hue. Its color also darkens over time, especially after exposure to UV rays. The heartwood of the real Lignum Vitae is darker than those of the other so-called Lignum Vitae of the Bulnesia Genus.
Grain and Texture
The grain of Lignum Vitae is interlocking, with occasional heavy interlocking. It also has an excellent texture. Besides, you can polish it to produce high luster because it contains natural oil. You will also notice that raw Lignum Vitae wood feels oily or greasy.
Resistance to Decay and Rot
Lignum Vitae is known to be very durable, especially for outdoor use. It also exhibits exceptional resistance to insect or pest attacks.
Lignum Vitae is quite heavy and will sink in the water when you put it in water. It sinks because it is very dense, and it has a specific gravity of 1.05 at 12% MC. Because of its high density, it is challenging to work using your ordinary hand and machine tools.
The durability of Lignum Vitae is no doubt very high. Yet, if you don’t season it well, it is vulnerable to longhorn woodborer beetles’ attack. But once dried well, it is resistant to decay and insect attacks. It also necessitates no treatment when thoroughly dried.
Shrinkage and Drying
When drying this wood, you must take extra care not to cause it to split. If you season it well, it will dry slowly and not exhibit any distortion. This wood, of course, has dimensional stability after drying. It will shrink minimally at 2.5% radially and tangential shrinkage at 3.8%.
Workability of Lignum Vitae
Experts would not recommend Lignum Vitae for beginners because it is tough and dense. However, if you’re an experienced woodworker, you can always work with this wood if available. The heartwood of this wood is very challenging to work with. However, its sapwood is a bit less brittle and hard. When you work on this wood, it will be best to use lowered cutting edge even though the timber will tend to ride over your cutters.
Lignum Vitae is more receptive to turning. Yet, it has high resin content, which can easily clog sandpaper. Because of its high resin content, it is hard to glue. Hence, synthetic glue is best for this wood.
When nailing and screwing this wood, predrilling is required. Drilling should be done using low speeds. Polishing is also highly recommended for this wood, and it is very effective as a finishing. However, when working with this wood, you should wear your protective gear, including your dust mask.
Because of the high density of this wood, it will tend to skip over the top of your jointer cutters. Thus, you only need to let it pass lightly over the jointer cutter. Because of its extreme hardness, it will also tend to dull your cutters. Hence, using extremely sharp cutters when working on this wood will be best. The only consolation is that it turns well; if you’re a wood turner, you will find this wood easy to work with.
Applications and Uses of Lignum Vitae
If you’re after a very dense wood, you should seek out Lignum Vitae. This hardwood comes with several applications. It gets used for making heavy bails for cricket games. Besides, you will find it used for making lawn bowls, skittle balls, and croquet mallets. It has also been used in making mortars and pestles. Moreover, it gets used for making mallets for wood carvers.
Many ship manufacturers use it to make bearings and bushings for the propeller shaft. The reason is it is self-lubricating. Besides, it lasts three times longer than metal bearings and bushings and can withstand pressure up to 2 thousand psi.
Lignum Vitae gets often used as bearings for small applications like fans, air conditioners, and clocks. It also gets used for casters, rollers, small wheels, and mallets. Besides, it gets used in making bowling balls. It gets also used for medicinal applications to treat rheumatism and gout.
In the UK, it has been traditionally used for making police truncheons because of its density and the natural softness of the surface. Many ship makers also used this wood for many other applications.
The USS Constitution, for example, has its deadeyes and belaying pins made of this wood. Because this wood has natural oils and high density, it seldom gets replaced as a component of anything. Thus, before synthetics got introduced, this wood was used for the sailing ships’ sheaves of blocks.
Using Lignum Vitae does away with horological lubricating oil because it is self-lubricating. Horological oil tends to become viscous, reducing the accuracy of movement of the components of timepieces.
Similarly, it got used for shaft bearings for hydroelectric power plants and ships. This wood had been used in the ship’s stern-tube bearings before metal bearings (white sealed) were introduced. Even the USS Pampanito Submarine shaft bearings (SS-383) used this wood.
And in USS Nautilus (SSN-571), this wood was used for its aft’s main shaft strut bearings. USS Nautilus, of course, is the first nuclear-powered submarine. So, from the abovementioned applications, you will notice that this wood works well in applications that require a durable and self-lubricating component.
Alternatives to Genuine Lignum Vitae
You’re lucky if ever you get hold of Lignum Vitae wood, for it is scarce. You will not find it in the market today. The genuine Lignum Vitae (guaiacum officinale or G. Sanctum) has been over-logged and overharvested. As such, it is rare to find it nowadays. Besides, it got listed in the different indexes of endangered wood species.
Yet, if you’re desirous of getting a hand on Lignum Vitae or similar wood, you can opt instead for the Argentine Lignum Vitae (Bulnesia sarmientoi) or Verawood (Bulnesia arborea). These two wood species are related to the genuine Lignum Vitae and have similar properties and characteristics as the genuine one.
Nevertheless, even the Argentine Lignum Vitae got listed in CITES Appendix II, and not long from now; it will also be listed as endangered wood species.
As a rare and exotic wood, Lignum Vitae is a pleasure to have for a woodworker. Seldom would you get a hand on a very dense and durable wood like Lignum Vitae? You might not even have access to this wood in your woodworking lifetime. Its incredible density and hardness make it a costly wood.
However, if you ever get access to this wood, it will be best to know its succinct properties and characteristics. This way, you can maximize your use of this wood in your woodworking projects.
Liam is a 37-year-old woodworker and interior designer who loves to make every furniture project an art piece. He is very experienced in furniture design and woodworking project planning.