Lignum vitae

Lignum vitae

Lignum vitae


Density in kg/m3

The Tree
Lignum vitae is a small, slow-growing tree, normally 6.0m to 9.0m high and about 0.3m in diameter, although some trees grow to 0.75m. Clear boles in excess of 3.0m to 3.5m are uncommon. Bolts or logs 0.6m to 3.0m long and from 75mm to 450mm or 500mm in diameter are marketed. Logs of G. officinale are reported to be larger generally, and to have a greater proportion of heartwood than those of G. sanctum.

The Timber
Extremely hard and heavy, lignum vitae is one of the heaviest woods in the trade, and weighs on average 1250 kg/m3 at 15 per cent moisture content. The heartwood is a dark greenish-brown to almost black and readily distinguished from the narrow pale yellow or cream-coloured sapwood. The wood is very fine and uniform in texture with a heavily interlocked grain. It has a characteristic oily feel due to the resin (guaiac content) that constitutes about one-fourth of the air-dry weight. Heating the wood to a temperature of 1000C causes the resin to ooze out and reduces its self-lubricating properties.

Because of its refractory tendencies, considerable care is required to avoid shakes and splitting during drying. End coating logs with a bituminous or proprietory compound helps to reduce this form of degrade.

Compared with English oak, lignum vitae is 3 to 4 times harder. Straight grained material has a resistance to splitting in a radial plane about double that of oak, but splits very easily on the tangential plane at loads of about 30 to 40 per cent of those for oak. However, most material has severely interlocked and irregular grain and to split it would require much greater loads than those needed for straight-grained material.

Working Qualities
Difficult - It is a very difficult timber to work with hand tools and difficult to saw and machine with power tools, tending to ride over the cutters in planing. A short tooth pitch and limited hook are needed in sawing in order to reduce vibration, and a cutting angle of 150 will help prevent raised or chipped grain when planing quarter-sawn faces. Increased pressure is also needed to hold the wood firmly during planing. In most other operations a good finish is possible; the wood turns and shapes very well and takes a high polish. Owing to its oily nature special surface treatment is required for satisfactory gluing.

Latin Name
Guaiacum spp, Guaiacum officinale, Guaiacum sanctum, Guaiacum guatemalense

Also known as
guayacan (G. officinale) (Spain), bois de gaiac (G. officinale) (France), guayacan negro (G. officinale) (Cuba), ironwood (G. officinale) (USA), guayacan blanco (G. sanctum) (Spain), gaiac femelle (G. sanctum) (France), guayacancillo (G. sanctum) (Cuba), palo santo (G. officinale) (Cuba)

Wood Type

Extremely Difficult



Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico