Geographic Distribution

The wood most commonly known and sold as Marblewood is known to botanists as Zygia racemosa. Sometimes, it may still be referred to by the now outdated classification Marmaroxylon racemosum. The Zygia genus contains slightly over a dozen known species, all of them native to Central and South America. Z. racemosa is found in northern South America where it is endemic to French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. However, despite its larger range, Z. racemosa on the United States market is almost always imported from Guyana or Suriname. European markets, especially French markets, are more likely to feature wood harvested in French Guiana for reasons of trade agreements, tariffs, and shipping routes.

To further confuse matters of identification, some retailers also sell Zygia cataractae, usually known as “Tigre Caspi,” as “Marblewood.” While clearly related, Z. cataractae is not identical to Z. racemosa. Z. cataractae, harvested in Brazil exclusively, is much rarer than Z. racemosa and therefore usually more expensive.

However, with that said, the woods are very similar in appearance and it is practically impossible to tell the two apart without resorting to genetic testing, which is impractical for most wood workers, nor is it necessary as neither species, at this time, is subject to restrictions on export or sale.

For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to Z. racemosa from this point forward as Marblewood.

Marblewood Bowl Top

Marblewood Bowl Top

General Characteristics

The heartwood of the Marblewood tree is where the action is, so to speak. While the sapwood is usually much the same distinctively yellow color as the heartwood, only the heartwood features the highly distinctive stripes, ranging in color from yellow, golden, or dark brown, to even purple or black. These streaks are what woodworkers are after when using this wood. The streaks have no relation to growth rings and are completely random in appearance, thickness, and density. Every piece of Marblewood will feature different stripe patterns in varying colors. These stripes cause Marblewood to bear a superficial resemblance to Zebrawood, but the two woods are otherwise very different. Any woodworker who has worked with both species will be able to tell them apart quite easily.

Marblewood Bowl Sidewall 1

Marblewood Bowl Sidewall 1

The grain of Marblewood timber tends to be straight although slight interlocking is not unknown. The wood features a medium texture with very open pores. The pores can be quite large and may require filling, especially on the endgrain sections, if a completely smooth finish surface texture is desired.

Marblewood end grain shows diffuse and porous medium to large pores in no specific arrangement. There are frequently considerable deposits of a yellowish substance found in the end grain pores. Growth rings are indistinct and as noted before, the stripes bear no relation to growth rings.

While it probably doesn’t have relevance for the uses of Marblewood outside of its native range, Marblewood is considered to be durable to very durable in its resistance to rot, as well as moderately resistant to insect attack.

Working Characteristics

Everything about working with Marblewood revolves around its incredible hardness and density. The density is obvious when the woodworker picks up a piece and notes how heavy the wood is relative to its size. This hardness and density causes many woodworkers to consider Marblewood to be difficult to work with. Marblewood will have a moderate, or more likely, severe blunting effect on tools. Frequent re-sharpening, or the use of replaceable cutters, that are then frequently replaced, will be absolutely essential to being able to work with Marblewood not only successfully but at all. Tools that are inadequate to the task will simply bounce over the surface with the wood showing no evidence of any attempt to modify it.