#41: Desert Ironwood

Bird number: 64
Date:  May 30, 2012
Wood: Desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota)
Source: Gift from a friend

The first thing to note about Desert Ironwood is that it’s hard. Really hard. The Janka hardness is about 4,000, which makes it by far the hardest wood I’ve worked. (Mesquite, by contrast, has a hardness rating of about 2,350). The wood also is dense. With a specific gravity of about 1.20, the wood doesn’t float.

I actually tried to carve this stuff with a knife, just to see what it was like. It’s not impossible, but I’d need to re-sharpen my knives with a much steeper bevel if I really wanted to hand carve this stuff. I chose instead to use the power carver.

The other thing you’ll notice about Desert Ironwood is that it stinks when you’re working it. The dust is known to be toxic, so I was careful to wear my air filter when I was working with the wood, but even then I could get a whiff of the stuff. And when I removed the filter after cutting on the bandsaw, the odor was very strong. It’s an unpleasant odor, but not as bad as, say, wet crape myrtle. That stuff reminded me of a poorly maintained outhouse.

Working the ironwood with the Foredom, I had to be careful to keep the speed low. Running the bit at high speed tended to create too much friction, burning the wood. A slower speed meant that it took more time to carve, but it didn’t burn. Surprisingly, hand sanding went fairly quickly. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but ironwood seemed to sand much easier than, say, Purpleheart.

In any event, the wood is lovely.

The piece that my friend sent was a log about four inches long and about five inches in diameter, including the bark. The bird’s tail is slightly shorter than the standard bird. There also is a crack on the left side of the breast, which I filled with epoxy. It’s apparently very difficult to get large pieces of Desert Ironwood that are crack-free.

Ironwood grows in the southwestern United States and in extreme northwest Mexico. It is most commonly associated with the Sonoran Desert. The tree is protected on public lands, and most of its range in the U.S. is public land. As a result, and because it’s a slow growing tree, it’s rather difficult to come byPurchased commercially, the stuff is very expensive. It would cost me about $10 per bird if I were to buy this wood.

Unfortunately, I don’t have another piece large enough to carve a bird from. I do, however, have some smaller pieces that I’ll do something with. The wood is too beautiful to just let it lie there, unused.