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Olneya tesota

Olneya tesota of the family Leguminosae, the legume family (subfamily Papilionaceae, the pea group)

My thanks to correspondants Michael Dow and Bob Wickey, both of whom alerted me to the fact that there really is only the one species that SHOULD be called "desert ironwood".

That being said, I believe it is also true that "desert ironwood" is a generic term used in the Southwest of the United States to (incorrectly) denote a number of different species that have an extremely hard, dense wood and that are used by local craftspeople to make small items such as jewlery, knife handles, and so forth.

The name "ironwood" is used for so many different species around the world that I don't even want to bother trying to list them all or figure out which ones might be applied to the wood harvested in the Southwest of the USA.

True desert ironwood, Olneya tesotais, is almost unbelievably hard for a wood. It is brittle and cracks easily and that combined with the very small size of the tree all mitigate strongly against any veneer production from the species. It will not float, is VERY hard to work with hand tools (pretty much impossible) but takes a fabulous finish when worked carefully and slowly with very sharp power tools.

It is very common to sell this wood in bookmatched pairs so as to be used for earrings or knife handles or gun handles.

my samples:

both sides of a sample plank of desert ironwood / Olneya tesota --- HUGE enlargements are present. This sample was loaned to me by David Clark whom I thank for this and other contributions to the site.

end grain and end grain closeup of the piece directly above

END GRAIN UPDATE from directly above

both sides of a sample plank --- HUGE enlargements are present

end grain and end grain closeup of the piece directly above

END GRAIN UPDATE from directly above

face grain closeup of the piece directly above

both sides and end grain of a plank contributed by Chris Arvidson, whom I thank for this and other contributions. This piece is much lighter than what I had thought of as desert ironwood, and also much lighter than other web pics and my other samples. Although I believe this is one of the species sold (incorrectly ) as "desert ironwood", I do not believe it is Olneya tesota.

same plank as directly above but moistened with water. I had left this just sitting out in my house for about two weeks after sanding it and taking the dry pics. When I picked up the piece to moisten it for the new pics, I noticed, and you can seen this pretty well in the end grain enlargements, that it had cupped quite noticably.

end grain closeup of the piece directly above

All of the pics between here and the web pics are from the big batch directly below.
All of the pieces have been sanded for the pics unless otherwise stated.
HUGE enlargements are present for most of the pics

This is the raw batch and all of the pieces have a dark patina. Upon rough sanding, they turn a fair amount lighter but after moderately fine sanding, they once again become fairly dark. This is because of the way that light reflects off of rough vs fine sanded pieces. This pic makes the pieces look a bit more dull than they actually are.

two views which together show all 6 surfaces of each of 4 little chunks. The letters are used below to identify which piece was used for the various end grain and face grain shots

face grain closeup, end grain closeup and END GRAIN UPDATE, all from piece A above

end grain and END GRAIN UPDATE from piece B above

face grain closeup and end grain closeup from piece C above. This face grain shot does a great job of showing some of the nice, small, tight ray flakes that this wood can show sometimes (they show up better in the first enlargement)

face grain closeup, end grain closeup and END GRAIN UPDATE of piece D above

a particularly colorful piece with a good illustration of the sharp demaraction between heartwood and sapwood, and the creamy color of the sapwood.

end grain, end grain closeup, and END GRAIN UPDATE of the piece directly above

two face grain closeups and a side grain closeup of the first surface shown above

two face grain closeups of the second face shown above. When I saw these pics I was confused because they did not seem to be of the same area of wood yet I knew that they were. Upon looking at the wood from different angles, I realzed that the chatoyance of the piece is what caused my confusion. These pics are from contiguous areas of the surface and if the two were merged they would be a good representation of that whole area of the wood. To show the effects of the chatoyance even more dramatically, I took the angled pics shown below

closeups of the same two ares of wood as the pics directly above but with the wood angled to emphasize the differnt looks caused by the chatoyance.

this wedge shaped piece has one surface rough sanded (on the left) and the other fairly fine sanded (on the right) to show the difference.

a small piece that is not sanded and has the patina

end grain and end grain closeup of the piece directly above

This small plank is still raw except for the end grain update below

end grain, end grain closeup and END GRAIN UPDATE of the piece directly above

a small wedge shaped piece and its end grain. You can see in the upper left of the end grain pic how on an outer surface the patina can go quite deep.

end grain closeup and a face grain closeup of the piece directly above. As you can see in the end grain the grain lines curved down to the vertical right at the bottom which produces the perfectly quartersawn face that the right-hand pic is from, showing the small but very nice ray flakes that can sometimes be found in desert ironwood.

small stick with a very rough upper surface and its end grain, You can see from the upper part of the end grain pic how the patina on an outside surface can go quite deep.

both sides of a little irregular shaped piece

both sides of a very small plank

end grain and end grain closeup of the piece directly above

a small section and one end grain

the other end grain of the piece directly above and a closeup of it

two contiguous sides of some small pen-blank sized sticks

both side of a small section with one sanded (on the left) and one untouched (on the right)

face-on shots of the two surfaces directly above

an end grain closeup and an edge grain closeup of the piece directly above

face grain and both edges of a section taken from the outer area of a tree

two contiguous surfaces of a couple of pen blank sized sticks. I took this intending to show the difference between a rough-sanded piece (the upper piece) and a fine-sanded piece (the lower piece) which is subtle but unmistakable when you are holding the wood in your hand. The difference is barely discernable here and manifests itsef mainly as a slight lightening of the color and a slight decrease in the amount of orange. Before sanding, the lower piece looked identical in color to the upper. In the enlargement of the end grain shot below, you can clearly see the rough sanding marks on the upper piece.

end grains of the two pieces directly above

both sides of a small swirly piece

end grain, end grain closeup and END GRAIN UPDATE of the piece directly above

web pics:

end grain

plank closeups

plank closeups with colors that suggest that either the pics were taken with a black light or the photographer is staggeringly bad at color correction.


misc sized pieces

misc sized pieces from the BogusColorVendor with what I take to be their usual massive over-saturation of the color in the pic

slab listed as Texas ironwood


pen blanks

sets of pen blanks shown both dry and wet, all listed as desert ironwood / Olneya tesota

a plank pair, showing the irregular shape in which this wood is frequently sold

cross section with bark

turning stock

a pair of turning sticks mositened for the pics

5 bookmatched pairs, all from the same vendor

several pieces, all from the same vendor

these "pairs" are all from the same vendor

desert ironwood chunks ("chunk" is a technical term meaning "I just can't figure out what else to call this")

bookmatched pairs, all from the same vendor. It appears to me that these pairs have been fine sanded and had a coat of finishing agent applied.

three pairs and a closeup of the bookmatched pair in the middle. I don't know which color is correct, but I suspect the closeup is a better representation.

bookmatched slap pair listed as burly desert ironwood / Olney tesota

both sides of a burl slab from the BogusColorVendor, so the red color is undoubtedly exaggerated

knife scales --- I have no idea whether or not the color is accurate.

listed as a burl

desert ironwood seems to be a particularly popular wood for pistol grips because of a combination of the striking figure and the hardness/durability