Canadian Woodworking
Desert ironwood

Desert ironwood

Olneya tesota

Author: Peter Mac Sween

I have to admit I’ve never seen a real piece of Desert Ironwood and it’s not that I haven’t tried.  I’ve seen pictures of it and they only serve to whet the appetite. Desert Ironwood can be a very beautiful wood, multicoloured with a distinctive grain pattern. It is also hard to source and only comes in small pieces for turning and carving.  With that scarcity comes a high cost, comparable to rare imported species.

Desert Ironwood is a small tree, typically 20 to 30 feet tall with trunk diameters of 1 to 2 feet.  It is extremely slow growing with a long lifespan. Trees over 800 years old have been found, and it is speculated that there are individuals over 1000 years old. The slow growth is probably due to adaptations to preserve water consumption. Slow growth rates also yield a very dense wood.  It is so heavy that it will sink in water.

Desert ironwood

Desert ironwood

Desert ironwood

Desert ironwood end-grain

Desert Ironwood is endemic to the Sonoran Desert of the American southwest and the Mexican northwest. It grows nowhere else. Within its range, it is an extremely important specie ecologically.  It is considered a nurse species for other plants providing shelter from the extreme heat as well as from deadly frosts. Animals are also dependent on it for food and shelter. It is reported that over 500 plant and animal species are associated with the Desert Ironwood tree.

Wood from the Desert Ironwood is usually very attractive. The heartwood can contain orange and yellow hues as well as darker reds and browns. There are often purple and black streaks throughout. The sharply demarcated sapwood is a thin orange band. The grain can be quite wild and is also very finely textured.  The best pieces have an active swirling appearance.

Working with Desert Ironwood is difficult. It quickly dulls tools; expect to make many trips to the sharpening stone.The small sizes available means it will have to be worked mostly by hand.  It turns well, holding detail and possessing a natural luster when polished.

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The wood was first commercially used for iconic carvings produced by people living near the Sonoran Desert. At first, only dead material was used.  Increasing demand for the carvings led to over exploitation. The trees slow growth makes recovery and repopulation a lengthy process so Desert Ironwood is protected in Mexico. Today it is considered one of the finest woods for knife and gun scales and handles. The pieces available are typically very small although small logs are reported to be available. Expect a lot of waste and degrade in the logs.

Desert Ironwood is a rare species, and most woodworkers will only be able to obtain it from wood dealers in the United States. Obtaining it will lighten your wallet considerably. If you are a knife maker you will probably want to obtain some. I would like to have a small piece for my collection, but I am not holding my breath!  Until then, I will have to be satisfied with the many images available in print or online.

More about Desert ironwood

The Wood Database specifications: Desert ironwood
Last modified: July 19, 2022

Peter Mac Sween - [email protected]

Peter's woodworking journey began with a career in carpentry followed by a decade buying and selling veneer. His spare time is spent abusing his guitars and exploring the great outdoors.

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