Guaiacum spp. of the family Zygophyllaceae. The wood is primarily from Guaiacum officinale and Guaiacum sanctum, but may also be from Guaiacum coulteri, Guaiacum angustifolium, and Guaiacum guatemalense. Native to several areas in South America
The name means "tree of life" which was given for its medicinal properties. Other common names include palo santo, greenheart, ironwood, and verawood, but ALL of these names are also used by several other, unrelated, species.
Verawood (as opposed to Guaiacum spp. CALLED verawood) is a fairly similar wood with both woods being very dense and very hard and it is from the same family (but a different genus). Verawood and lignum vitae are often confused with each other, BUT they are easy to tell apart via the end grain. I had been sold several different batches of wood as lignum vitae and only much later when I improved my end grain processing (see END GRAIN UPDATE) did I realize they were mis-identified and moved them all to the verawood page.
This wood is one of the world's most dense and will readily sink in water. It is quite hard and takes a high natural gloss. Because of a pervasive oily substance in the wood that reportedly does not dry out over VERY long periods of time, it has been widely for support bearings for very heavy things like propeller shafts in boats (including submarines) and, likewise, support bearings for power generator shafts.
In woodworking, it is widely used as a mallet wood because of its weight, strength, and durability. It is fairly readily available, but expensive.
NOTE: I believe that a fair amount of the wood sold in the USA these days as lignum vitae is actually verawood / Argentine lignum vitae, (Bulnesia arborea and Bulnesia sarmientoi) which are not closely related to Guaiacum spp. but do have similar characteristics (until you look at the end grain)
my samples: NOTE: these pics were all taken in very bright incandescent lighting ("soft white" at 2700K) colors will vary under other lighting conditions
both sides of a sample plank of lignum vitae / Guaiacum officinale --- HUGE enlargements are present. This sample was loaned to me by David Clark whom I thank for this and other contributions to the site. NOTES: (1) the sample is labeled with the common name "guayacan" but since that name is used as all or part of one or more of the common names of at least 70 different species, I consider it utterly useless as a designation. (2) the labeled side is raw but the 2nd side has been lightly sanded to 240 grit and shows a slightly redder tinge. The end grain update below as been sanded even more and shows a strong change from green to red. Over time it will revert to green.
end grain and end grain closeup of the piece directly above
END GRAIN UPDATE from directly above. See comments on color with the face pics above
both sides of a sample plank of lignum vitae / Guaiacum officinale --- 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
a small log-end cutoff loaned to me by Mark Peet for identification. The interlocked grain, the density, and the end grain characteristics make it conclusively lignum vitae but I have no idea which of the Guaiacum species it is.
the two flat cut faces that were big enough to bother getting pics of
I noticed that at least a few days after I had done the end grain update sanding and taken the pic directly above, the surface had developed numerous obvious cracks. I find that the heat generated by the fine sanding sometimes does this with dense wood but usually the appearance of the cracks is immediately after the sanding.
two shots of a small sliced block of lignum vitae that was sent to me for identification
both sides of one of the pieces
HIGH GRIT END GRAIN CLOSEUP of the piece directly above; this was only done to 400 grit (unlike my normal 1200 grit) but clearly shows the characteristics of lignum vitae. Sanding this stuff in general, and the end grain in particular, is VERY unpleasant because it clogs the sandpaper immediately because of its natural oil and you spend more time cleaning out the sandpaper than you do using the sandpaper.
slabs listed as lignum vitae / Guaiacum spp.
this pic said the piece was green (as in "recently cut-off a live tree") and that's why it's colored green, but personally, I'm pretty sure it's verawood mistakenly identified as lignum vitae.
another piece listed as "green" (this one also identified as Guaiacum officinale)
planks --- the colors are all over the map here and I don't know which ones might be correct or not
although these were listed as lignum vitae, I'm confident that they are verawood
both sides of a plank of lignum vitae / Guaiacum officinale. Both levels of enlargements are present. The vendor stated specifically that this piece is the real deal, not verawood, but I'm not 100% convinced. Along with this they listed some pen blanks as lignum vitae (without the "genuine" designation) and then in the descriptive text for those blanks, they said it is actually verawood.
plank with a color that just seems ridiculous
misc pieces identified as lignum vitae / Guaiacum officinale
although this was listed as lignum vitae / Guaiacum officinale, I'm pretty sure it's verawood
both sides of a piece of lignum vitae / Guaiacum officinale
planks listed as lignum vitae / Guaiacum sanctum but which are almost certainly verawood
planks listed as lignum vitae / Gauiacum guatemalense
plank listed as "pock" which is another common name for this wood
both sides of a set of planks with highly dubious color
plank and closeup
dowel listed as lignum vitae --- both levels of enlargement are present and the grain shows up nicely
knife handle scales
lignum vitae pieces and a smoother plane made from a similar one. The pic was contributed to the site by a gentleman who identified himself as "Swedish Holmberg".
bowl blanks (heavily waxed)
planks with sapwood
bowl listed as lignum vitae but I'd bet money that this is verawood
spoon by Richard Carlisle
mortar and pestle listed as lignum vitae
All of the following pics are from a professional woodturner in the UK named Steve Earis. Steve has contributed quite a bit of other stuff to this site and this latest set is a GIGANTIC skittles ball (10+ inches diameter) made from genuine lignum vitae. Steve tells me he has about 1.5 TONS of the stuff on hand. It is his primary choice for turning, although genuine lignum vitae is very hard to get these days so he is switching over to verawood (Argentine "lignum vitae").
This set shows the progresssion of the creation of the ball, which weighs 25 lbs and is over 10 inches in diameter. The log it was taken from (show) was 165lbs. Skittles is not normally played with balls this big but this is for a special match. The progression starts with the raw log and ends with three pics of the final, finished ball. HUGE enlargements are present throughout.