Imbuia, botanically known as Ocotea porosa, is a wood of southern Brazil, especially the states of Paraná and Santa Catarina. Smaller numbers of the trees that yield Imbuia are also found in the states of São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul. It is also possible to find Imbuia in neighboring areas of both Argentina and Paraguay, but commercial exports come from Brazil almost exclusively and Imbuia is a major export wood for Brazil. On occasion, some retailers will identify Imbuia as Phoebe porosa, and while this is considered an acceptable alternative identification, the more correct and up-to-date designation is O. porosa.
Wood workers searching for Imbuia should also be aware that the wood is sometimes referred to by the common name “Brazilian Walnut,” due to the dark coloration of the wood, even though Imbuia is not in, nor related to, the true genus containing Walnut which is Juglans.
Other common names or alternative spellings that one might encounter include but are probably not limited to: Canella Imbuia, Embuia, Embúia, Embuya, Imbuya, and Imbúia. Most of these names are not likely to be encounter outside of Portuguese speaking areas, but alternative spellings are sometimes encountered in American wood markets.
Imbuia is moderately dense but actually rather soft for an imported exotic hardwood. Of course, “hardwood” doesn’t refer to the actual hardness of the wood at all; it only means that the tree from which the wood is harvested is a deciduous tree as opposed to an evergreen. Some so-called “hardwoods” can be actually softer than some so-called “softwoods!”
Imbuia earns high marks for its coloration. The heartwood color of Imbuia can vary substantially. Typically, one will find medium to dark brown colors and sometimes the wood will feature a reddish, golden, or even olive-colored cast. The light grayish yellow sapwood is usually easily differentiated from the heartwood. To the delight of many, Imbuia burls and wildly figured boards are commonly seen.
The grain of Imbuia is usually straight, but as noted above many boards can exhibit wild or burl-like patterning. Imbuia usually features a medium to fine uniform texture with good natural luster.
The end grain of Imbuia is described as diffuse and porous with large pores.
Although it probably isn’t relevant to the uses most commonly found for Imbuia in the West, the wood is rated as durable against rot and is also moderately resistant to insect attack. Also, if the application for Imbuia happens to be outdoors, the wood does demonstrate good weathering characteristics.
Multiple excellent photos of Imbuia can be found here.
To the delight of those who work with Imbuia, the wood produces good results with both hand and machine tools. However, as is essentially always the case with any species of wood, pieces of Imbuia with wild or irregular grain may present challenges in surfacing and other machining operations.
Imbuia also turns, glues, and finishes well.
Another feature of Imbuia that many wood workers will enjoy is the characteristic spicy scent. Some have likened the odor to cinnamon, which accounts for at least one of the common names for the wood, Canella Imbuia!
Imbuia is usually available as lumber in good sizes, as well as in turning or instrument blanks. Plain, unfigured lumber should be moderately priced for an imported hardwood, though figured pieces may be considerably more expensive, as is always the case.
I always recommend both West Penn Hardwoods and Bell Forest Products as excellent sources of both domestic and exotic hardwoods. I have had multiple dealings with both vendors and have always been very satisfied.
West Penn Hardwoods is offering Imbuia in a number of sizes and at a range of prices depending on size, including wood described as “curly,” “figured,” and otherwise plain. Figured Imbuia bowl blanks come a relatively high price with the low end starting at about $26 and the high end, for 8” blanks, selling for over $100 each. Personally, I got lucky and I purchased my bowl blank sized pieces on a close-out special, and I sure am glad I was able to obtain them that way instead of having to pay full retail price.
Although Bell Forest Products does not stock Imbuia at this time, I have had multiple dealings with this vendor and have always been very satisfied. I would keep checking to see if stocks of Imbuia arrive in the future to this vendor.
While the two dealers above are personal favorites, Imbuia is obtainable from other dealers in tropical hardwoods, probably including one near you. 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.
As additional examples of hardwood retailers who are currently selling Imbuia, although in dimensional lumber formats, consider the two following vendors:
Currently, AdvantageLumber.com is selling Imbuia planking, 8/4, for between $8.00 and $7.25 per board foot depending on quantity. Alternatively, Rare Woods USA of Mexico, Maine is offering 4/4 Imbuia for $18.00 per board foot so I am guessing that the wood is highly figured, although a potential buyer should ask first for clarification, or better yet, good quality photos prior to purchase.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for Imbuia, 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 in person to hand pick pieces at a comfortable price.
Imbuia is commonly used for many of the same purposes as other exotic hardwoods, including furniture, cabinetry, flooring, veneer, boatbuilding, gunstocks, and turned objects. In its native area, it may also be used for more mundane purposes including construction.
Imbuia is not listed with the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices but it is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as vulnerable due to population losses of over 20% over the past three generations due to a decline in range as well as over-exploitation. The tree is slow to grow, so replacement stocks are not likely to remotely meet demand and few nurseries are in the business of growing seedlings in the first place.
Personally, I believe that regardless whether a species is listed by conservation agencies or not, conservation and good forestry practices should be of overall concern when working with or purchasing any species.
I purchased the bowl blank and pen blank pieces of Imbuia that I have in stock long before I was aware of the vulnerable status of the species. Ideally, the loss of a species is slowed or halted long before it becomes necessary to include it on the IUCN Red List. Given what I now know about the status of Imbuia, I may not choose to purchase it in the future.
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 am also very confident that the vendor from whom I purchased my stocks of Imbuia sourced their material legally and responsibly. In part because I am concerned about legally and responsibly obtained wood, I am reluctant to buy from sellers outside of well-established and known vendors. I am highly unlikely, for example, to purchase exotic wood from auction sites, such as Ebay, because of uncertain sourcing and documentation, as well as the potential, even likelihood, of material being misidentified in order to achieve a higher selling price.
I also 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 purchased 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. You simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered!
Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, Imbuia has been reported to cause nose, throat, and skin irritation. In addition, the long-term negative effects of exposure to sawdust of any species are well documented.
Appropriate protective equipment is always recommended when working with this, or any other, wood, exotic or domestic, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database. 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 Imbuia.
My Personal Experiences
My bowl blank sized pieces of Imbuia were purchased recently from West Penn Hardwoods as part of a close-out special. They were marketed as “figured” pieces and my experience has been that they were indeed highly figured.
My blank was of the characteristic dark color but it also featured significant degree of swirling figure that defies description as it is quite complex and appears in multiple orientations.
The wood cut quite easily and cleanly, which was a bit surprising given that Imbuia is not hard comparative to many other exotic hardwood and sometimes the softer woods tend to cut with a fuzzy finish, but this was not the case with Imbuia.
Only light sanding was required and then it sanded quite beautifully. Once the wood was properly surfaced, it displayed a remarkable natural sheen and luster such that I think it could be left unfinished, and instead just buffed with a light protective was coat and it would be equally beautiful.
There was indeed a wonderful sweet and spicy scent when the wood was cut. I can’t exactly describe the scent but perhaps the smell of holiday cookies baking comes the closest. My husband thought it smelled of soap, but that seems to be his standard odor comparison when it comes to wood so I wouldn’t take that too much to heart. When I suggested a more sweet and spicy scent profile, he agreed that such was a better description than his original idea. I think any one wood worker will just have to experience it for themselves to decide how they would describe what is a delightful scent regardless of what you call it.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed working with Imbuia and I would be more than happy to work with it again, but I am troubled by its vulnerable status. However, as I purchased multiple pieces as part of the clearance close-out deal I will be working with Imbuia again regardless of its current conservation status. I am not unhappy about this in that I enjoyed working with Imbuia and found it to be easy to work with and lovely to boot. And, the wood was already cut and milled, it wasn’t done because I wanted to buy it, so my purchasing the wood did not directly cause the destruction of the tree. That said, I might think twice about purchasing future additional stocks of Imbuia in the future once I have used the good number of bowl blanks I already own. In the future, I will more than likely favor of one of the many woods, both domestic and imported, that are in plentiful supply. However, if any other wood worker would like to experiment with Imbuia I wish them the best of luck and hope that they have as good an experience as I did with this remarkably beautiful wood.
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!