The tree and the wood harvested from it, commonly known as American Osage Orange, is scientifically known as Maclura pomifera.
It is important to be very clear when talking about, and especially when buying, any wood referred to as “American Osage Orange” to be certain that you know exactly what you are buying. Almost always, when purchasing wood called “American Osage Orange” from dealers in exotic tropical hardwoods, you will be buying a closely related species, Maclura tinctoria (out-dated botanical names can include: Chlorophora tinctoria, Morus tinctoria). M. tinctoria is almost always Argentine in origin, although the tree can grow throughout the tropical Americas from Central America to the northwestern tropical regions of Argentina. Conversely, M. pomifera is strictly a native of a very limited area of North America. Unless you are purchasing “American Osage Orange” from a wood dealer in North America who specifically indicates that they are selling American American Osage Orange, you are almost certainly buying the Argentine version.
The native area of M. pomifera is quite limited. The tree is native to only small areas of the Red River Valley, which lies mostly in eastern Texas as well as very small areas in south-eastern Oklahoma and a tiny section of north-western Arkansas. However, over the years, M. pomifera has been widely planted throughout the United States and even into south-eastern Canada, mostly as hedgerows or wind-breaks. Unfortunately, unless the tree is controlled, it can rapidly become invasive, a situation which has occurred in many areas of the country, especially on land that is not actively cultivated. The tree becomes shrubby, and because of the prolific and sharp thorns, it is not eaten by domestic or wild animals. The fruit, which resembles large green apples, is full of seeds which allow for the natural spread of the shrubby tree.
Due to the widespread introduction of M. pomifera, it is possible that the tree and its wood could be harvested from almost anywhere in the United States, although most of the limited commercially available specimens originate in the mid-western United States where the tree is particularly prolific and common. Harvesting is often done primarily for landscape clearing reasons as opposed to timber harvest, but trees of adequate size may be milled for the salable lumber resource. Mature trees may reach up to 50-60 feet in height with trunk diameters of up to 2 feet, and such trees can yield considerable amounts of usable material.
The botanical name references the apple-like fruit, pomifera being a Latin reference to apple. Other common names for American Osage Orange also reference the fruit and include, but are not limited to: Horse Apple, Hedge Apple, and Bois d’arc.
For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to M. pomifera from this point forward simply as American American Osage Orange.
American Osage Orange heartwood tends to vary between a golden color up to a quite bright and vibrant yellow shade. Unfortunately, as is true of most all highly colored woods, exotic and domestic, over time, the vibrant and bright yellows will age toward a boring medium brown. This color shift is mostly due to exposure to ultraviolet light in natural sunlight. Items made from American Osage Orange stand a much better chance of staying brightly colored if kept out of any direct sun exposure. However, even the best efforts at preventing color change will probably fail over time, so while color change in American Osage Orange may be slowed it may not be possible to prevent it.
The grain of American Osage Orange tends to be quite straight, rarely if ever exhibiting any twisted or interlocked grain or figure. The natural texture of the wood tends to be fine to medium, once properly surfaced.
Well sanded American Osage Orange wood will demonstrate a high natural luster with shine high enough that one could easily believe that a high gloss finish had been applied even when nothing but the natural well-sanded wood is present.
American Osage Orange end-grain is porous but the pores are small.
For outdoor applications, American Osage Orange is a stand-out among native North American hardwoods. American Osage Orange is extremely durable and many experts consider it to be one of the most decay resistant woods in North America.
The working characteristics of American Osage Orange are primarily dictated by its relatively high hardness. American Osage Orange scores a thousand points harder than Hickory when measured on the Janka Hardness Scale. Sharp tools and patience, as always, will greatly contribute to success when working with this very hard wood.
Interestingly, despite the hardness of American Osage Orange, it doesn’t seem to readily dull cutting edges. This may be due to the absence of mineral deposits.
American Osage Orange turns quite well. It also is reported to stain, finish, and glue well. Given the natural color, I can’t imagine trying to stain the wood!
American Osage Orange is not reported to have any characteristic odor when cut or otherwise processed.
The first challenge in pricing American Osage Orange is ensuring that the listed wood is North American Osage Orange and not the tropical import. Very few if any commercial vendors in hardwoods will ever stock the American variety of Osage Orange because it is simply not harvested in any predictable commercial manner. Most everyone who sells American Osage Orange wood lives somewhere, often Missouri for reasons not entirely clear to me, where the wood grows wild. These hobbyist type timber harvesters frequently sell American Osage Orange in both turning blank and dimensional lumber formats, but the challenge, if you do not live in an area where such casual harvesting is common, is finding someone selling the wood.
As much as I am generally reluctant to use this resource, Ebay is probably the most likely and reliable seller of American Osage Orange wood materials. A quick search of Ebay will display multiple sellers of turning blanks and dimensional lumber, although turning and carving blanks are much more commonly found. The prices, relative to other domestic and exotic hardwoods, tend to be quite low. A standard 6”x3” bowl blank sells for between $6 and $8. Even a very large 12”x2” platter blank sells for the relatively low price of $25.
However, beware shipping costs on Ebay purchases! Some wood vendors offer extremely attractive product prices and then gouge on shipping. Granted, wood is quite heavy and potentially expensive to ship, but the use of Priority Mail Flat Rate boxes is now common among wood sellers and those boxes ship for one price regardless of weight. If purchasing American Osage Orange, or anything for that matter, on Ebay, always be sure you understand the shipping costs thoroughly before you agree to buy.
While I always recommend both West Penn Hardwoods and Bell Forest Products as excellent sources of both domestic and exotic hardwoods, only Bell Forest Products is currently stocking any American Osage Orange wood. However, they are only offering pen blank sized material, ¾”x ¾ “x 6”. If interested, these pen blanks sell for only $1.00 each. You just can’t beat that pricing.
While the dealers above are personal favorites, American Osage Orange may be obtainable from other dealers, especially if you live in Missouri or other areas of the American Midwest where the wood is commonly harvested by hobbyists or by those who work in landscape clearance.
If you don’t have a favorite supplier that you have worked with extensively in the past, by all means shop around for the best prices and the best selection to meet your particular wood working needs.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for American Osage Orange, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms to capture all the possible listings. I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer near their home in person to hand pick nice pieces at a comfortable price.
That said, I checked Woodfinder and while over 50 dealers are listed as having American Osage Orange to sell, I strongly suspect that most, if not all, of them are in fact selling Argentine Osage Orange. A quick check of Google Shopping shows only Ebay vendors selling American Osage Orange specifically identified as coming from North America.
Due to the relatively limited availability of American Osage Orange, its common uses are limited and it is most likely to be employed in the areas in which it is commonly found growing naturally. Where available, it is often prized for fence posts because of its incredible durability and resistance to rot. In addition, a yellow dye can be extracted from the wood. A particular specialty use is in the making of archery bows. In fact, the common name “Bois d’arc” is a French reference to this usage. Some luthiers have used American Osage Orange to make musical instruments although this is not a common application. The wood is quite popular among wood turners and is used by them to make bowls, pens, and other small specialty wood items.
American Osage Orange wood makes an excellent fire wood as it yields considerably higher BTUs per unit than most any other domestic hardwood. Living American Osage Orange trees also continue to function as effective fences against cattle and other domestic animals due to the thorniness of the branches. American Osage Orange trees also provide habitat for wildlife, especially birds that are protected from land-based predators due to the thorns.
While not a use of the wood, the fruit of the American Osage Orange is sold at markets and on the Internet as a natural and non-toxic insect repellant. The whole fruit is placed near windows and doors and is thought to repel insects. The fruit usually has no smell, or at most smells slightly of oranges. Researchers at the University of Iowa have extracted chemical compounds from the fruit of the American Osage Orange that did indeed demonstrate insect repellant ability, but these same researchers also concluded that the concentration in the fruit would not be sufficient to have any effect. This doesn’t necessarily dissuade those who believe that the fruit works as an insect repellent and it remains widely sold for this purpose.
The fruit is not considered edible by people, although if one is willing to invest the considerable effort required to obtain them, the seeds are said to be palatable. Anti-oxidant chemicals have also been extracted but as humans don’t eat the fruit this probably won’t be highly relevant.
The seeds are the only part of the fruit that squirrels will eat and they are reported to make an incredible mess of the rest of the pithy fruit in the process of extracting them. Cattle, and potentially horses, will occasionally attempt to eat the fruit and if they fail to chew it adequately, they may die from asphyxiation when the large fruit becomes lodged in the esophagus.
American Osage Orange is not listed as being in any way threatened or endangered by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices nor does it appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
American Osage Orange wood is not subject to any special restrictions by any United States or Canadian government agencies.
I realize that inherent in working with wood is the killing of a part of the natural world that may be slow to return and if I become deeply concerned about this fact, I will have to find a new hobby. I hope that such a time does not come to pass or at least not any time soon.
I realize that many, if not most, wood workers do not have endangered species lists memorized, therefore I think it worthwhile and important to do even a small amount of research before purchasing any lumber, domestic as well as imported, to be certain of the potential impact you are having, even in a small way, on threatened or endangered populations. This information is easy to come by and takes only minutes to locate through any Internet search engine, including those you can access on your phone as you are standing in the lumber yard or store. Unfortunately, you simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered.
If working with green wood, American Osage Orange sap has been widely reported to cause dermatitis. There have been no reported negative health effects associated with the dried wood. However, appropriate protective equipment is recommended, as always, when working with this, or any other, wood, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it. Anyone working with the green wood should take steps to prevent contact with the sap. Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database.
The known risks posed by prolonged and repeated exposure to dust from any wood species are still present when using American Osage Orange. Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.
Fortunately, I experienced no negative side effects when working with American Osage Orange.
My Personal Experiences
Contrary to my usual practices, I purchased my supplies of American Osage Orange (I also have much larger supplies of Argentine Osage Orange) from a vendor on Ebay, located near my great-aunt, in Springfield, Missouri. The seller operates a small private mill and processes local woods, including some that are not commonly available commercially. The wood was likely green when purchased years ago but it was quite dry when I used it.
While the wood was hard without doubt that presented no issues in working with it. I was also pleased to note that the wood had become only slightly misshapen from its original round shape during the drying process. This relative dimensional stability is a feature of the wood that many users value. Even when worked green, the object made will only distort slightly whereas some other woods, especially Sweet Gum, another common hardwood found in some of the same areas as American Osage Orange, will distort wildly on drying.
The wood cut beautifully with my Easy Wood Tools and I almost exclusively relied on the Easy Hollower #1 to make the finished piece. The American Osage Orange wood sanded easily and quickly, a process greatly assisted by the fact that the wood cut so cleanly to begin with. Once sanded progressively down to 800 grit, the wood had an incredibly natural sheen that looked as though I had already applied a buffed high-gloss finish! This characteristic of the wood is quite incredible to see.
I did choose to apply a finish anyway although I don’t know that it was truly necessary. I used my “go-to” choice of finish, ShellaWax in the liquid formula.
Overall I was quite pleased with this experiment in working with the American variety of American Osage Orange. I would certainly have no objection to working with the wood again, but I am hesitant to purchase much of anything through Ebay due to some bad experiences with some vendors who have interesting ideas about fulfillment time-frames or the quality of the products they are selling. If American Osage Orange were as readily available from those vendors with whom I already have established and trusting relationships, I would be highly inclined to work with the wood again. Unfortunately, unless something changes with my known vendors, I don’t think I will have much chance to work with this wood again soon, unless perhaps I can find some, in person, while visiting my great-aunt in Missouri sometime in the future.
That said, my aversion to Ebay is a personal one and if other wood-turners have had different, and positive, experiences with the service and wish to purchase some American Osage Orange to experiment with, I would absolutely encourage them to do so. I had a great experience with the wood and I decidedly hope that others who choose to try it will have a great experience as well.
As always, I wish all my readers a great experience in whatever their wood working interests happen to be and to those who like working with lathes especially, do a good turn today!