Lilac belongs to the genus Syringa, and it was as “Syringa” that my small pieces of this wood were marketed to me as part of a set of Australian woods. I’m not certain why Syringa was considered an Australian wood as the 12 currently recognized species are native to Europe and Asia, but certainly not Australia. Syringa, as the widely recognized Lilac bush, is now widespread across the globe, having become naturalized in some places, including New Hampshire where it is the state flower. My pieces may, therefore, very well have originated in Australia for Lilac certainly grows there.
Most commonly the bush, shrub, or if left long enough, small tree, referred to as Lilac is in fact Syringa vulgaris. The other 11 species are less common. With the exception of perhaps 2 to 3 species, all the remaining species are restricted to various locations in Asia, some of them remote. Some variants, such as “French Lilac” are simply cultivars or hybrids of S. vulgaris, of which there are many, and are not separate species at all.
Even within the Lilac group there remains the problem of potential misidentification due to common naming conventions bearing no relation to actual genus and species identification. This is a very common situation when dealing with wood identification. The tree commonly referred to as “Persian Lilac” is not a member of the Syringa genus at all, instead being properly identified as Melia azedarach. Many wood workers will recognize it as “Chinaberry.” The “berry” refers to the seeds of the seedpod that were once commonly used as rosary beads prior to the invention of plastics for this purpose. Unlike Syringa, the primary use of the Melia azedarach is as timber. The fruit of the tree is, however, toxic to humans although not to birds which become instead of ill rather “drunken” after eating the fruit. The tree is widely naturalized in the United States southern regions and in some cases is becoming invasive, although it is still sold through nurseries as an ornamental.
To further potentially confuse matters, Melia azedarach is also sometimes referred to as “Indian Lilac” or “Cape Lilac.” Other common names are also potentially misleading, albeit in other directions, such as “White Cedar.” The tree is native to Australasia so it would have made sense for it to be included in the selection I purchased as Australian woods, but my wood was clearly not from this tree since the coloration is completely different.
To complete the potential confusion, there is a species within the Syringa genus, Syringa persica, which is also commonly known as Persian Lilac, but as this is a shrub and not likely to bear commercially usable timber wood, it is unlikely that a wood worker will find this being sold through retail outlets as Lilac wood.
Lilac, perhaps surprisingly given that it is best known for its delicate flowers, is one of the harder and denser woods. Its Janka hardness is easily twice that of White Oak. In fact, Lilac is one of the hardest and densest of all European woods.
In terms of tree size, it certainly surprised me to learn that Lilac can reach heights of up to 25 feet with trunk diameters of 4 to 8 inches. I have personally never encountered a Lilac of such impressive dimensions.
The color of Lilac wood is variable, in part depending on the species from which it is harvested. Most sapwood samples seem to be rather pale in coloration, but the heartwood can achieve colors ranging from reddish to brownish, sometimes featuring reddish to lavender color streaking throughout the heartwood which increases the value as might be expected. Multiple color photos showing the variability of Lilac wood can be seen here.
Lilac wood grain is typically of the slightly interlocked variety, which is quite common in smaller trees, shrubs, and especially in vines. The texture is fine to very fine and Lilac wood has a natural luster, perhaps due to natural oils present in the wood.
The end grain of Lilac wood tends towards the small to medium in terms of pore size while being arranged in a semi-ring format. This can also be seen in the photos referenced above.
There are no official reports regarding the rot or insect resistance characteristics of Lilac wood but this is likely irrelevant, and hence not reported, because the limited uses of Lilac wood are not likely to include situations in which these factors would be of relevance.
The working character of Lilac wood is mostly associated with its use as a turning wood, a use for which it is reported to be excellently suited. Most pieces are simply too small to be used for furniture or cabinetry so the turning of small items on the lathe is a use well suited to this wood.
Further complicating the potential use of Lilac wood for other wood working purposes is its tendency to distort, even wildly to the point of resulting in twisted sticks of material, during drying. End checking is also a common problem. However, for turning purposes, these problems can be overcome far more easily than for any other wood working use.
On the positive side, Lilac does have a distinctive floral scent when being worked.
Pricing Lilac wood is a difficult proposition since the small size of most living specimens means that the wood is never commercially harvested since it is not useful for larger scale projects. Occasionally small pieces will be sold to hobbyist wood turners or carvers, especially for knife handles and even for small musical instruments, but this is always a small scale endeavor. Perhaps the best chance of obtaining pieces is to either grow it oneself or find a friend or neighbor who has a sizable specimen from which one could obtain prunings, or best case scenario find larger pieces from a gardening service that is removing older plantings. It is realized that these are situations not likely to be common for most but for a wood that is just not commonly available it seems the only possibilities.
One vendor, All Righteous Woods of Rowley, Massachusetts, located through Woodfinder as referenced below, was at one time offering an amazing Lilac burl from Washington state but this has since sold. It looked to be an amazing piece and I would love to see what was made from it.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for wood, 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.
Although they do not stock Lilac wood at this time, 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.
As previously noted, due to the small size of most Lilac wood pieces, uses are limited. Most commonly, when used at all, Lilac wood is used for small turned items such as pens or small bowls, as well as for carved items, especially knife handles due the hardness and density of the wood.
Some sources cite the use of Lilac wood for musical instruments, but it is not entirely clear what types of instruments were, or are, made from Lilac wood. It seems most likely that one reference to this usage has been copied repeatedly, now including by me, as the wording often is identical. One person has speculated that Lilac wood has been used for bridges in string instruments but this is not substantiated elsewhere. The most reliable source suggests that in times long past, Lilac wood was used for making reed pipes and flutes and indeed the name “Syringa” is derived from the Greek “syrinx,” meaning a hollow tube or pipe, and refers to the broad pith in the shoots in some species, which were easily converted to pipes in ancient times.
Lilac is not listed with either the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices or the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as being threatened or endangered.
Given that Lilac is a common garden plant such listing would seem highly unlikely in the future.
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.
It 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!
Relax, there have been absolutely no reports of negative reactions occurring while working with Lilac wood.
However, that said, appropriate protective equipment is ALWAYS recommended when working with any wood unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it. However, given the potential uncertainty about identification, it is possible that one sample might be quite different from another even if labeled the same, and caution is almost always rewarded.
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.
As expected, I experienced no negative side effects when working with the small pieces of Lilac wood that was able to obtain.
My Personal Experiences
My experience with Lilac wood, or Syringa as it was sold to me, is limited to two small pen blank sized pieces. Surprisingly, I found the wood to be somewhat soft and slightly pink in coloration. The grain appeared open with visible pores. There were blackish inclusions to provide some character to otherwise fairly plain wood that featured no figure to speak of. I detected no scent and no oil. As is common with softer woods, my samples cut rough but sanded out smooth quite easily.
All that said, my experience doesn’t mesh with what is reported about Lilac wood, so either my samples were misidentified or they were taken from the sapwood. Lacking a DNA analysis, I am not likely to ever know and since I no longer have the stylus pens in my possession, and even if I did I lack the resources, or the will, to have such an analysis conducted, this will have to remain one of the mysteries of my wood turning experiences!