Verawood, also known as Argentine Lignum Vitae, is scientifically known as Bulnesia sarmientoi. Care must be taken since Verawood is also commonly used to refer to a close relative, Bulnesia arborea. B. arborea is valued as a flowering shrub in some parts of the United States, notably Florida, and it is the official flower of Jamaica, but this is not technically the same tree as that which yields the lumber in question.
As the common name, Argentine Lignum Vitae implies, the tree that is native to a part of the Gran Chaco area in South America, around the Argentina-Bolivia-Paraguay border. The wood may occasionally also be sold as Paraguay Lignum Vitae. The use of the tag “lignum vitae” derives from the woods similarity to the much rarer wood from the trees of the Guaiacum genus, either officinale species or sanctum. Trade in Guaiacum is restricted under the rules of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This action was taken due to overharvesting of Guaiacum in the native regions of Central America and northern South America. If offered such wood, be certain you are dealing with a reputable source.
Verawood may also be known, it is areas of growth, as Palo Santo (Spanish for holy wood, origin unknown) or by some native peoples as ibiocaí.
The heartwood of Verawood can range in color from a pale yellowish olive, to a deeper forest green or dark brown to almost black. The color tends to darken rather dramatically with age, especially upon exposure to light. Fortunately, there are some well-known and relatively simple means by which color change in exotic lumber can be prevented or slowed.
Verawood has a fine texture and closed pores which means that minimal sanding is required on most pieces. Bare wood can be polished to a fine luster due to its high natural oil content. The grain tends to be interlocked and tight. Grain has a unique feathered pattern when viewed up close.
Verawood is reported to be very durable for outdoor use and is said to last nearly indefinitely in direct ground contact. Verawood is also resistant to insect attack. These characteristics likely derive from the wood’s extreme density, hardness, and high oil content.
Extreme caution is necessary when cutting Verawood since it has been known to skip off or over cutters, especially joiners, due to its extremely high density. Any machining of Verawood must employ light passes. Patience will be rewarded! Verawood will also dull cutters so frequent sharpening, or the use of replaceable carbide cutters, is required. The high oil content makes it difficult to achieve a strong and reliable glue joint, although there are techniques that can be employed to improve glue bond strength in exotic woods. Overall, Verawood is considered very difficult to work with in most applications, but it is an exceptional wood for lathe turning and it finishes quite well if one can overcome its other difficulties.
Verawood has a distinct, perfume-like fragrance that lingers even after it has been machined.
The recent inclusion of Verawood (Bulnesia sarmientoi) in the CITES Appendix III will likely decrease supply of the wood and consequently drive up prices, potentially dramatically. Currently, pen blanks can be purchased for $1.50, while a more substantial bowl blank size measuring 8”x8”x3” retails for slightly under $60 at an exotic wood retailer such as West Penn Hardwoods, a reliable source for bowl blanks from many species at fair prices. Other exotic wood suppliers, including Bell Forest Products and Griffin Exotic Wood may also have Verawood in stock as it is a relatively common exotic wood in dealers stock. Note that the above retailers refer to their stocks of Verawood as Argentine Lignum Vitae. Another potential source is Woodfinder, which is a website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers and while I can’t speak to the quality of any of them, they do have the advantage of performing searches based on your location which might allow you to visit a wood dealer in person to hand pick what you want to work with at a price you are comfortable paying.
Alternatively, “real” Lignum Vitae, which is listed under CITES Appendix II, which is more restrictive than Appendix III, is still available for purchase. Both Griffin Exotic Wood and West Penn Hardwoods offer species identified Guaiacum officinale for surprisingly low prices considering its reported rarity and difficulty in obtaining it due to import/export restrictions under CITES. In fact, West Penn Hardwoods is offering small Guaiacum bowl blanks for about $12, which is highly surprising since other sources claim that true Lignum Vitae should be priced at the very top of the exotic wood market! Griffin Exotic Wood does note, however, that this is the last of the wood that they will be offering and the prices are correspondingly higher than for some other woods. If interested, it might be worth asking West Penn Hardwoods how it is that they can offer such low prices on what is reported to be a rare, and getting rarer, wood.
Some common uses for Verawood include: tool handles, mallet heads, durable wooden posts for direct ground contact, bearings, bushings, boat building, pulley wheels, heavy construction (in areas where the tree grows locally), turned objects and engraving.
“Oil of Guaiac” (or guayacol) is produced from Verawood and it is used as an ingredient for perfumes as well as in the making of varnishes and dark paints.
Verawood is also appreciated for the skin-healing properties of its essence and also because it provides good charcoal. It ignites easily despite being so dense, and produces a fragrant smoke. Natives of the Gran Chaco region employ the bark to treat stomach problems. Small pieces of the wood are also used as a form of natural incense in spiritual rituals.
Severe negative allergic reactions are uncommon but Verawood sawdust has been known to cause sneezing in sensitive individuals, and the closely related Lignum Vitae has been reported to cause skin irritation. Therefore, care should be taken especially if an individual has experienced allergic reactions with other woods or wood dust.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database along with additional information about the best use of a dust collection system, coupled with the use of personal protective equipment such as respirators, which is highly recommended when machining this wood. Fortunately, I have never experienced any negative side effects from working with Verawood.
My Personal Experiences
When I first worked with what was most likely Verawood, I assumed that it was “real” Lignum Vitae and wrote a post about it based on this assumption. While the information about Lignum Vitae stands as accurate, I probably hadn’t really worked with Lignum Vitae at all. The fault was almost certainly mine in that I may have ignored the inclusion of a specific indicator like “Argentine,” assuming that all Lignum Vitae was the same regardless of which country it came from, although I have long known this is not true when working with variously labelled Rosewoods and Mahogonys, where the specifics are critically important. Lesson learned, all the parts of wood’s name are likely to be important, and Lignum Vitae by another name may not smell as sweet, or at all!
This clarification article regarding what almost certainly Verawood instead highlights an important and all too common reality among woodworkers; we don’t always know with certainty what wood we are working with! This can come about because we are given wood by someone who isn’t sure what it is, but thinks it is X, and we go with that assumption and perpetuate it. Perhaps we order several pieces of potentially look-alike wood from a supplier and the wood isn’t marked clearly, or at all, and we have to make guesses as to which piece is which. In some cases, I am not confident that even exotic wood retailers are 100% certain of the origins or species of all the wood they sell, despite operating in general good faith. And then there are those sad, and I choose to believe, rare occasions where wood turners are intentionally misled in wood identification in hopes of driving up profit margins. My only advice is to work with retailers you trust who have an established presence in the market and who come recommended by other woodturners or workers, especially if you are willing to part with significant amounts of cash in obtaining wood. All that said, the most important aspect I can think of personally is that you enjoy the wood you have chosen to work with regardless of its specific species!
All that said, I have read articles written by people who have worked with Lignum Vitae of some derivation or another who absolutely passionately hated the wood and swore they would never work with it again! And even above I do note that the woods known as Lignum Vitae, Argentine, Paraguayan, or otherwise, ARE difficult to work with depending on your application. But on the lathe, I have found the wood delightful and would happily work with it again and again. Yes, it is brutally hard and dense, so you take your time, don’t get in a hurry, take light cuts frequently, and you are rewarded with a surface so fine and so smooth that to sand it would be to desecrate it, and it is a rare wood that one can say that about. Yes, it will dull your tools, so you frequently use a diamond plate or stone to resharpen or hone, which you should do anyway, or use a replaceable carbide cutter system like the Easy Wood Tools I use, which provide EXCELLENT results on Verawood. And yes, the high oil content can make it a nightmare if you do need, or want, a bit of touch up sanding, so I use Abranet screens which don’t load up like sandpaper does, and besides, all that oil makes for a pleasant scent and a beautiful natural buffed high gloss finish without using any other chemical. I have not had difficulty gluing with cyanoacrylate, especially if the area to be glued is first washed lightly with a solvent such as acetone, mineral spirits, or lacquer thinner. Verawood enters a small list of my favorite woods that I would be very happy to work with again, The secret to working with Verawood or another Lignum Vitae is to work with the wood as it is, not as you might wish it to be. Once you know its special characteristics and how to work with, instad of again, those features, you will have a perfectly delightful experience working with the wood, I am sure of it!