The Incredible Lignum Vitae
We all know wood floats on water. Who hasn’t picked up a stick, threw it in the water, and watched as it floated downstream? After all, ships were built from wood for millennia.
When I saw a video of the wood known as lignum vitae being thrown into water and sinking to the bottom, I was intrigued. So, I set about learning about this fascinating wood.
Check this out:
What is Lignum Vitae?
Lignum vitae is a wood that comes from a Guaiacum tree. There are 5 species of Guaiacum, but most of the wood comes from two of them. (Just FYI, some sources state there are 6 different species).
The tree is native to the Caribbean and northern South America. It’s the national tree of the Bahamas.
What makes it unique, though, is its extreme strength, density and hardness. In fact, it’s one of a group of hard woods known as “ironwood”.
The tree’s fibers never grow straight. Instead, they crisscross and grow in a serpentine manner. When the wood dies, each cell fills with the tree’s resin, which then hardens. This gives the wood incredible strength.
“Lignum vitae” is Latin for “Wood of Life” because it has been used medicinally to treat a host of ailments, such as bronchitis, coughs, and arthritis. Chips of the wood are sometimes used to make a tea.
How Hard is Lignum Vitae?
The hardness of wood is measured using pound-force (lbf), and density is measured using a Janka rating (still pound-foot).
Hardness refers to how resistant the wood is to denting or wear. The Janka hardness test measures the amount of force needed to embed a .444-inch steel ball to half its diameter into the wood.
Density, of course, is mass/volume, or how much mass is crammed into a certain volume of space. The more compact it is, the denser it is.
Lignum vitae boasts an impressive hardness of 4500 lbf. That probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but the hardest wood in the world, wood from the Australian buloke tree, has a hardness of 5060 lbf.
Most standard 2×4 studs used in construction are made of a mixture of spruce, pine, and fir (or SP&F). The Janka hardness rating of these studs are usually around 400 lbf.
Lignum vitae has a density of 73 – 83 lb/ft3, or 1170 – 1330 kg/m3. In other units, its density is 1.23 g/cm3.
If you remember from your school days, if something weighs more than an equal volume of water, it will sink. If it weighs less, it’ll float.
Since the density of water is 1 g/cm3 (or 62.428 lb/ft3), theoretically, anything denser than 62.428 lb/ft3 sinks. So, when you throw some lignum vitae into the water, it heads straight for the bottom.
What is Lignum Vitae Used for?
The British police used to use lignum vitae in their police batons instead of metal because it can bruise and stun people instead of cutting the skin when you hit them with it.
Lignum vitae is used in various structural ship parts because, well, obviously, because it’s so strong, but also because its natural oils make it last a really long time. Conditions are harsh out on the sea, with the wind, salt spray, and constant motion, but this wood is very durable and long-lasting.
It has been coated with diamond powder, attached to a spindle, and then used to cut gems.
It’s been used to make gears and bearings for various applications, from watches to hydroelectric power plants.
It was used by United Railroads of San Francisco in its insulators because the wood was better able to withstand the high stress and high temperatures. When fires and earthquakes hit, the metal poles and cables melted and broke, but the lignum vitae parts survived just fine.
It used to be very popular for making bowling balls, but now that use has declined.
It’s often used to make mortars and pestles, as well as heads for golf clubs.
It was used to make durable railroad ties when the Panama Canal was being built.
Want Some Lignum Vitae?
All species of Guaiacum are now listed as “endangered” by the IUCN (The World Conservation Union). They’re also listed as endangered by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
They’re tropical and can grow in Southern Florida, so if you live there, you can plant a few trees for yourself. Otherwise, you can purchase some of the wood or buy something crafted from it.
Here are a few options:
If you’re skilled at wood crafting (or just want to try your hand at it), you can buy some lignum vitae cuts to carve or craft into whatever you can dream up. Here are some smaller pieces to get started.
You could get a lignum-vitae pen with 24-karat gold plating as a special gift for your epicurean friends.
Or, you can wear some lignum vitae with a handcrafted ring.