In the past, I have written extensively about my experiences with Olivewood, specifically Olea europaea, of which there are many various cultivars and subspecies, and which is familiar to most of us through its fruit, the olive; green, black, Greek, etc., even if we have never actually seen the typically knurled tree with the dusty green leaves growing in the hotter places of the planet, typically California or the Mediterranean region. When I wrote about Olea europaea, I did so with confidence because I knew that was the specific wood I was working with and writing about. I knew this because in one case I had actually picked the wood up from an orchard floor where pruning was occurring, and in another case, I specifically purchased it from Israel. I can’t speak to the actual cultivar or subspecies, but I know darn well that it was Olea europaea.
Disambiguation and Geographical Distribution
However, in most cases when wood turners speak of working with Olivewood, as is also often the case with what so-called “Lignum Vitae,” the assumption that we know what wood, or tree of origin, we are working with, might well be incorrect unless we have information specific to the contrary. In fact, most of the time, when wood turners, or other wood workers, speak of “Olivewood,” they are in fact referring to African Olivewood, scientifically known as Olea hochstetteri, a species that is commonly harvested in Eastern Africa, specifically Kenya, Tanzania, and sometimes Uganda, although it is reported to grow in other areas as well, including some in Western and Southern Africa. The degree to which this wood is harvested responsibly and sustainably is unknown.
The fruit of Olea europaea is generally of too high an economic value to readily allow the sacrifice of productive trees, which are often too small for lumber purposes regardless, although small pruned off cuts, and the rare removed tree, might be available if you live, or have contacts, as I do, in areas of cultivation. It is also worth noting that was a common practice in the 1980s and 1990s, at least, to remove mature commercial specimens and transplant them as decorative trees in warm, dry areas, especially in southern California. It might be possible to obtain wood from such trees if they are pruned or removed, if you live in an area where such decorative plantings have occurred.
Very occasionally, the field can be even more confused by the presence of what is known as Russian Olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia, a tree only remotely related to what is commonly called olive, being of a completely different genus. Russian Olive is native to eastern Europe as well as to western and central Asia. It has been extensively naturalized throughout North America where it is considered an invasive species. The trees tend to be small and shrub-like, rendering their timber use unlikely or impossible. If used at all, it is only used for small scale turned items or knife handles.
For most practical purposes these distinctions are only of scientific interest, but I find this to be another interesting example of how a common name of a wood can be misleading to the wood worker who doesn’t carefully investigate the wood he or she is working with, as well as the potential, in this specific case, for intentional misinformation targeted toward those who ascribe specific spiritual or religious significance to olive trees and their wood.
I am henceforth referring to Olea hochstetteri, although for most working purposes, Olea europaea is quite similar.
Olivewood has a creamy or yellowish brown body commonly highlighted with darker brown or black contrasting grain lines. The color tends to deepen with age, however if this is considered problematic, there are some well-known and relatively simple means by which color change in exotic lumber can be prevented or slowed. Olive is very commonly figured with curly or wavy grain, burl, or wild grain, and while generally considered attractive, this can complicate tooling. Olivewood also features closed pores with a fine texture. The durability of Olivewood is subject to debate, with some authorities claiming it is highly perishable with others saying that it is at least moderately durable. In general, for the uses for which it is employed, durability isn’t a major concern. It is well known, however, that Olivewood is highly susceptible to insect attacks, a factor which is controlled in commercial settings although wild specimens might be subject to damage. In my experience, even specimens from commercial fields often demonstrate small examples of insect damage, which can either be considered a fatal flaw, or a beautiful naturally occurring feature. I tend toward the later interpretation.
Overall, Olive is easy to work with, although as previously mentioned, wild or interlocked grain may tear out during surfacing. The use of very sharp tools and patience is generally rewarded with Olive as with many woods. Olivewood is highly sought after as a turning wood, an application for which it proves superb. In addition, Olive glues well and finishes nicely. One of the few negatives about Olivewood is that it tends to have a high shrinkage rate, which is problematic if worked or turned to specific size specifications when wet. The use of dry wood should alleviate this issue. As might not be surprising for what is ultimately a fruit wood, Olivewood has a distinct, olive-fruity scent when being worked. Some might find it unpleasant and it is pervasive.
Pricing is highly affected by which species of Olive you are seeking to buy. Only relatively small amounts of Olea europaea wood reach the world market, for the reasons previously noted and therefore it is quite expensive. Pen blanks of Olea europaea can be purchased for $3.00, and up, each. I have never seen bowl blank sizes available for purchase, but as noted, if you live in, or have contacts, in an area where the trees are cultivated, you might be able to find such a blank, at who knows what price, potentially free, if a tree has been removed or severely trimmed. Alternatively, Olea hochstetteri pen blanks are sold for slightly less, roughly $2.50 each, while a more substantial bowl blank size measuring 8”x8”x2” retails for slightly under a whopping $70 at an exotic wood retailer such as West Penn Hardwoods, a reliable source for bowl blanks from many species at fair prices. Other exotic wood suppliers may also have Olea hochstetteri in stock as it is a relatively common exotic wood in dealers stock. Woodfinder is a website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers and I can’t speak to the quality of any of them, but they do have the advantage of performing searches based on your location which might allow you to visit a wood dealer in person to hand pick what you want to work with at a price you are comfortable paying.
Common uses of Olive include high-end furniture, veneer, turned objects, and small specialty wood items. While board lumber pieces are sometimes available from specialty retailers such as Bell Forest Products, prices are high and availability is not guaranteed. Because of limited size availability, most uses of Olive tend to be for small decorative items.
Severe negative allergic reactions are uncommon but Olive has been known to cause reactions in sensitive individuals. Therefore, care should be taken especially if an individual has experienced allergic reactions with other woods or wood dust.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database along with additional information about the best use of a dust collection system, coupled with the use of personal protective equipment such as respirators, which is highly recommended when machining this wood. Fortunately, I have never experienced any negative side effects from working with Olive.
My Personal Experiences
Overall, I have greatly enjoyed working with both Olea hochstetteri and Olea europaea. I have found both woods relatively easy to work with. I like the limited end grain tear out which makes sanding and finishing a much easier prospect than is the case with some woods. I have generally found the specimens I have worked with to have very nice figure and coloration which adds to the overall appeal. The wood has always cut and drilled easily. I confess that I am not a huge fan of the scent but it isn’t so oppressive that I would consider stopping working with Olive of either species. My opinion is that the scent is greater in specimens of O. europaea that in O. hochstetteri, but that is simply my experience and opinion. I consider Olive to be one of the woods that I would be happy to work with again, perhaps even in larger formats, provided that such pieces could be obtained for a price I would feel comfortable paying, a prospect which doesn’t seem likely at today’s current pricing and availability levels.