There was a time when the term ‘lacewood’ applied specifically to the Australian Northern Silky Oak (Cardwellia sublimis). Long considered the industry standard, Australian lacewood is increasingly difficult to source do to export restrictions imposed by the Australian government. There are many lacewood substitutes on the market now, but for this article, we will stick to the classic Australian timber.
Australian lacewood is found in the tropical rainforests of the Australian territory of North East Queensland. It can grow to heights of 100 feet with a 4 foot trunk diameter. It is typically straight grained with a coarse texture. The tree is very attractive and is widely cultivated as an ornamental tree. However, attempts to grow it commercially in plantations have not been successful.
Australian lacewood end-grain
The heartwood is pinkish brown with very prominent medullary rays. When cut or sliced on the quarter, these rays produce a very pronounced and striking lacelike pattern. The pattern itself is made up of individual rays called ‘buttons’. The size of the buttons will increase as the orientation of the grain changes from rift to quarter cut. One of the distinctive traits of Australian lacewood is the consistency of the button size; all of the buttons will be similar size on a given surface.
With such a distinct figure, lacewood is used for numerous decorative and ornamental objects. It is also in demand as a veneer for interior panelling and furniture. Solid lumber is utilized in small boxes, musical instruments and turnings.
Working lacewood can present several challenges to the woodworker. Careful selection of solid material is important. Lacewood can twist as it grows. A piece of lumber with striking figure at one end can end up with no figure at the other end as result of the rotation of the tree from quartered to flat cut. Solid lumber can also present drying defects such as surface checking and honey comb, especially in thicker quartered pieces.
The buttons themselves are delicate and can chip and crumble when worked. Slower feed rates, machining on an angle and wetting the wood can help reduce tear out. If a truly flat surface is desired; sanding to a final dimension may be required. The wood glues and finishes well. It can provoke an allergic reaction, so woodworkers should consider dust masks as well.
Lacewood’s ‘active grain’ and striking appearance can present some design challenges. Successful furniture pieces that used lacewood are often restrained in its application, perhaps as accents or small panels. The challenge is to find a balance between the distinctive figure of lacewood and the proportions of the finished piece.
There are many ‘lacewoods’ on the commercial market. Southern Silky Oak (Grevillea robusta) is a close replica but suffers from the same Australian export restrictions. A Brazilian specie, Panopsis sp., originally planted as a shade tree for coffee plants is an acceptable substitute. Colour and workability are similar, but it is a small in stature producing small lumber and veneer as well. Leopardwood is now the most common wood sold as ‘lacewood’. It is a dark brown in colour as well as being harder, denser and brittle. It too is smaller, yielding lumber and veneer with considerable variation in button size and shape..
Finding genuine Australian lacewood requires a reputable vendor who has trusted supply chain. Don’t be afraid to ask for scientific names as they are a requirement for import purposes. True Australian lacewood is an exciting wood to work with and can add a striking element to the right project.