Olive is a small evergreen tree native to the Mediterranean area of southern Europe, western Asia and northern Africa. It is of major agricultural importance and is one of the most cultivated trees in the world, even surpassing the apple. It’s famous for its fruit, the olive, of which there are many varieties, as well as the oil extracted from the fruiting body.
The tree is well known throughout history, and olive oil has long been considered sacred in many cultures, even fueling the eternal flame of the original Olympic games. The Spanish brought the tree to the New World, and it reached Japan in the early 20th century. In some countries, it has escaped its orchard boundaries and is considered an invasive specie.
Olive is a short squat tree, rarely exceeding 50’ in height with a distinctive gnarly and twisted trunk. However, there is a unique variety in southern Italy called the Pisciottana which regularly grows over 50’ high with a corresponding increase in girth. The olive is very hardy, being pest, disease and fire resistant. Many specimens live over 1,500 years with the odd individual tree surpassing 2,000 years. The wood is finely textured and close grained. It is very strong and has a high resistance to abrasion, which makes it an ideal flooring wood.
Olive must be dried slowly to prevent degradation due to its high volumetric shrinkage. The specie is prone to warping and often contains reaction wood. The woodworker must be careful to select well-seasoned material. The fine texture of the wood combined with its natural waxy feel make it ideal for turning and carving.
Given its small size and the fact that most olive trees are pruned for fruit production, the wood is rare and expensive. Common uses include kitchen utensils, bowls, cutting boards and decorative turned objects. It is occasionally sliced into veneer.
Despite its rarity, woodworkers should not turn up an opportunity to work with olive wood. This is a very beautiful material. The heartwood ranges from yellow to a light greenish-brown, often with attractive dark veining. The sapwood is a creamy-yellow and sharply demarcated from the heart. This is a unique wood, a pleasure to turn and will yield many satisfying projects.