The wood that was sold to me as Silky Oak was sourced from Australia, but as to where exactly in Australia, I cannot say. This uncertainty is due to confusion as to which actual genus and species of tree the wood I used was harvested from as there are at least two timber trees in Australia whose wood may be sold under the name Silky Oak. In addition, at least one retailer is selling Greville sp from Indonesia under the common name Silky Oak. To make matters more confusing, wood from either of the Australian trees may also be sold as “lacewood,” a descriptive term that can include numerous other woods including woods from South America, as well as, apparently, any wood which displays characteristic figure resembling, at least to some viewers, lace. To put it mildly, identifying any one piece of wood identified no more specifically than “silky oak” or “lacewood” may not be possible without submission to a specialist, or potentially through the use of genetic testing, which is beyond the means and needs of most wood turners.
I remain fairly confident that the wood was sourced from Australia since it was sold to me as part of a set of Australian woods. Therefore, it could be a piece of Cardwellia sublimis, otherwise known as the Northern Silky Oak (as well as bull oak, golden spanglewood, lacewood, oak and oongaary) of Queensland in the northeast of Australia, or it could be a piece of the very similar in many functional respects and measurements as well as in appearance, Grevillea robusta, known as the Southern Silky Oak (as well as silky oak, or Australian silver oak), found also in coastal eastern Australia in areas that are well watered. Grevillea robusta is also now grown on plantations in South Africa. Despite the common names, neither species is related to “true” oaks of the Quercus genus. The potential range of these two distinct genus and species of trees may, in fact, overlap and be identical, further confusing the issue of identification for the non-specialist.
The actual identification of the wood is not of critical importance to most users, but it is a matter of curiosity. Both specific trees appear to be of importance to the timber industry and they share many characteristics aside from appearance and common names.
Regardless of which actual genus and species my sample came from, both of the above mentioned timbers are described by reliable resources in essentially identical terms beyond some slight variations in very specific measurements. Overall, both timbers feature heartwood that is a light to medium reddish brown with grey to light brown rays. Similarly to other highly figured woods, such as Sycamore, the most pronounced figure and grain will appear in quartersawn pieces, making such pieces potentially quite valuable for fine furniture applications and high end trades. Both species tend to feature fairly coarse texture and a straight grain. Both species are rated as moderately durable to durable in regards to decay resistance, and they are also moderately resistant to most insect attacks.
Overall both species are reported to be fairly easy wood to work with, though there may be some difficulty in planing, with tearout occurring in both species. This problem is common in highly figured woods so it should come as no surprise to wood workers experienced with such woods.
Unfortunately, both species tend to have a moderate blunting effect on cutting edges. Because of this, the use of very sharp tools and frequent re-sharpening will be essential to success. It is not clear to me what contributes to the blunting effect, which in many cases is specifically noted to be due to the presence of high silica content. The silica content of the two species under consideration is not known to me.
Despite the reported blunting and dulling effects, both woods are quite soft, much softer indeed than the oaks which they are said to resemble macroscopically. Both woods are, however, about twice as hard as western white pine, but again about half as hard as white oak. This softness means that the wood is likely to cut roughly with turning tools of any sharpness but it will consequently also sand quite smooth with ease and minimum effort.
Both species are reported to glue and finish well. This is potentially due to the low oil content in these species.
Pricing these woods is complicated by several factors. The first difficulty is simply finding United States based dealers who stock and handle Australian woods. The cost of transportation is prohibitive for materials that are not specifically required and these woods do not possess characteristics beyond potentially that of high figure that cannot be duplicated with much more affordable American woods. And some American woods, again such as Sycamore, can have incredible figure without the cost and difficulty of importation from Australia.
If you can locate a dealer that stocks either species, than you may have difficulty in determining exactly which genus and species you will be receiving if you can place an order. Vendors offering “silky oak” may be selling either genus/species mentioned above, and if you rely on searching for “lacewood” you could end up with wood from South America instead of Australia. If you specifically want an Australian wood, make sure your dealer specifies country of origin. If you further want to be specific about the genus and species, be sure that this too is specified. When searching for these woods, it is necessary to use multiple different terms to find the best results. Dealers may sell this wood under various terms including: lacewood (with further clarification sometimes provided about origin and/or species), silky oak, Australian silky oak, selano, and/or Cardwelia sublimis.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for either 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.
Some retailers that handle, stock and sell at least one or the other of the two above species, most commonly Cardwelia sublimis, include, in no specific order:
- Compton Lumber of Seattle, Washington
- Rare Woods USA of Maine
- Righteous Woods of Massachusetts
- Lee Tree Woods of Georgia
I have located prices for wood products sold as “silky oak” or “lacewood” that range from $7.00 to $30.00 per board foot. Other vendors do not quote prices on the Internet, instead you must call or email to inquire about specific items or even specific boards. These vendors note that the cost range is “high.” It is clearly a buyer-beware marketplace, as it always is with exotic woods, and I would encourage anyone seeking to buy wood sold as “silky oak” or “lacewood” to be as clear and specific about what they are actually purchasing as they possibly can be.
As is true of the general and working characteristics of both species, the uses to which the two timbers are put is also essentially identical. Common uses for both species include: veneer, cabinetry, fine furniture, musical instruments, turned objects, and other small specialty items. All of these uses exploit the highly figured nature of the wood, although the wood and its use remain relatively uncommon outside of Australia.
Neither Australian species commonly sold as “silky oak” is 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, but that doesn’t mean that conservation and good forestry practices shouldn’t be of overall concern when working with or purchasing any species.
Although severe reactions are rare, both species of Australian woods commonly sold as “silky oak” have been reported to potentially cause skin and/or eye irritation. Appropriate protective equipment is therefore recommended, as always, when working with these, or any other, exotic woods, 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.
Fortunately, I have experienced no negative side effects when working with the small pieces of wood that were identified to me as Silky Oak.
My Personal Experiences
Unfortunately, I was only privileged to work with small pieces of pen blank size that were labeled as Silky Oak. I found the wood to be quite soft and therefore difficult to achieve a smooth cut with wood turning tools, even when using carbide tips that were quite sharp. However, as noted, this fuzzy finish was easily removed with light sanding. Also as reported by other users, I detected no scent when turning this wood, could not identify any oil production, and found the pores to be closed which made finishing easy. The wood did display the characteristic heavy figure. I would be quite pleased to work with Silky Oak again, provided I could be reasonably certain of what I was buying and felt that the pricing was therefore appropriate. In fact, Silky Oak features on my very short list of six exotic woods that I am actively seeking to purchase if I can find quality and reliable vendors. I welcome any information about such from any readers who have known sources. Because I so enjoyed working with this wood and found the figure to be amazingly beautiful, I highly encourage other wood turners to try this material if they can find it. I think anyone would be pleased with the outcome.