Exotic Woods - Awesome Vs Awful!




Introduction: Exotic Woods - Awesome Vs Awful!

About: Hi I'm Linn and on my Youtube Channel I have lots of great videos about building, construction and fun projects. You can also check out my site @ http://darbinorvar.com

Exotic hardwoods are quite spectacular, featuring bold colors and interesting grains. Many of them are very hard and dense which makes them great to turn on the lathe. I didn't have much experience with turning different tropical hardwoods, so I thought it would be interesting to test a variety and make some cheese knives handles in the process. Here's my experience (hint, some woods I absolutely loved, and some I hated!)

Step 1: Design

So I got a bunch of different exotic hardwoods, some which I never heard of before, never mind actually worked with. I also got a set of cheese knives that needed handles. First up, I started with playing with design concepts. How big of a handle did I want for each knife? I settled on a similar shape for all of them, however a slightly different thickness and length, depending on the knife. Then I paired each knife, with a different wood. So today I'm going to work with African Blackwood, Desert Ironwood, Redheart, Black Palm and Osage Orange.

Step 2: Preparing the Blanks

Right off the bat, I cut the blocks to size on the miter saw.

Next, finding and marking out the center in each.

Then, drilling a hole in each one.

Finally, screwing in the insert attached to each cheese knife. Now I can screw in a mandrel that you attach to the lathe.

Now, in my highly scientific study, let's go to the lathe and start turning.

Step 3: African Blackwood

First up - African blackwood.

This wood grows in central & southern Africa, and measures 3,670 on the Janka hardness scale.

When I first started turning this I couldn't believe how awesome it was. It felt like turning butter, I got nice thick shavings, it was super smooth, and I felt like I was off to a great start here. It was really fun to turn. I did some sanding, and finishing with shellac, cut off the end part, sanded that smooth, then took it off the mandrel and attached it to one of the knives.

Step 4: Redheart

Next up we have redheart - this one grows in the region from southern Mexico to southern Brazil and ranks 1,210 on the Janka hardness scale.

Now redheart really lives up to its name. It's super red! I could definitely tell that this one wasn't as hard and buttery as the blackwood, however it still turned really nicely, I got some beautiful thick shavings, it wasn't too dry, plus I was just so memorized by the color, I thought it was so cool.

So just finishing up this redheart handle, and the color really pops when you get some finish on there, and this is the shellac again. Then cutting it off, sanding, finishing adding some wax polish, and trying it on. I really liked this wood as well.

Step 5: Black Palm

Now let's move on to the black palm wood. This one grows in tropical Asia and Africa, and ranks 2,020 on the Janka hardness scale. When I first started to handle this, you could really see how fibrous it is, it looks really interesting, unlike the other species in terms of the grain.

Right off the bat, I got dry hard little needles coming at me, that flew surprisingly far, the dust was really dry, and the shavings came off not in beautiful curls, but in angry little needles. I had to stop a couple of times to shake them off, and you can see here how dry and dusty it was. At this point I was sure I hated black palm and I never want to turn it again. It was uneven to finish, and looks pretty interesting with the super open grain, but after turning this one, I had to take a break, wash my clothes and take a shower.

Step 6: Desert Ironwood

So back the next day, and this time I'm working with desert Iron wood, which is grown in the southwestern US & northwestern Mexico. This one ranks 3,260 on the Janka hardness scale, so pretty high up there.

Immediately as I started turning this one, I loved it. It's really dense and hard, yet buttery to turn and I was able to get those really nice shavings. Throughout this project, I've really come to appreciate certain types of shavings - if they flow almost like water, like they're connected, and they're pretty thick and not too dry - well, then the wood is gold. Desert iron wood is gold. Loved this one. There was however a knot so I got a small crack right where the insert was, so I simply mixed up some epoxy, filled in the crack and glued the insert back in place. Then I finished it up on the lathe, sanded, and finished it.

Step 7: Osage Orange

Ok, so the final wood I'm turning is Argentine Osage Orange. This one grows in tropical America, so west indies, central & south america and measures 2,380 on the Janka scale. This one turned pretty nice. A little dry, and not quite as buttery to turn as the African blackwood or the desert ironwood, yet still really nice. It sanded really nice, and of course that yellow really pops when you put on a finish. And like with all the handles, I started with shellac, and then ended with a final coat of wax polish. And this one is for the cheese slicer, which is a tool that you'll find in every single Swedish household.

Step 8: Conclusion - Watch the Video

For a much better perspective on each wood, plus to see the knives in use, make sure to check out the video!



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    23 Discussions

    I love these woods as much as I do with everyone with an appreciation for them, but hoping everyone does a little homework on endangered species before purchasing any of these woods, even in small quantities. As long as there's a market, a desire, they'll mow down every last one. Some here are even illegal. African Blackwood is on the top ten most endangered species. Others however, like the Black Palm are excellent choices in that they're pretty sustainable and have properties equivalent to less sustainable species like ebony. Also worth note that some exotics also have significant negative health effects when working them. there are many info sources online.


    2 years ago

    Excellent presentation


    2 years ago

    very nice job well done you definitely got my vote

    Great project! I have made knives for years and use exotic hardwoods for handles almost exclusively. Most knifemakers use 2" X 72" belt sander to go from rough-cut on a band saw to very near final dimensions on the handles. Black palm looks good on a finished knife handle, but it is most unpleasant to work with. After sanding it to shape, I feel like I've been through a sand storm in the desert.

    Thank you for sharing your work,


    I have to agree with the african blackwood as being nice to turn. They call it the wood of kings and I agree it is my favorite wood to turn (and I have turned a lot of them) sadly it is one of the most expensive woods too. The smell is really nice as well almost like baked goods kinda chocolaty. Some other woods you might want to try in the exotics are padauk, bocote, goncalo, and cocobolo.

    I have found that janka hardness is a measurement without much use when it comes to turning. It is really move for stuff like flooring. It measures compressive strength which isn't overly relevant. They use a ball bearing of a specific diameter and press it into the wood to a certain depth measure the pressure needed to do that. Since turning has more to do with cutting the fibers of the wood this doesn't help much in determining how well the wood will turn. Some examples that show this in your instructable are the desert ironwood and the black palm the ironwood is a very hard wood but it cuts nice and cleanly (though it does have a significant blunting effect on blades and for larger projects you will be sharpening more often) whereas black palm has a decent hardness but is chippy and cuts poorly.

    4 replies

    Ayep, Janka hardness is important but there are many other factors you need to review. Silica deposits, type of grain you're dealing with, and specific gravity are more important on the turning side of things.

    On a side note, African Padauk and Bocote are two of my favorites to turn. Padauk is extremely easy to turn and isn't quite as hard, sands down smooth. Bocote is striking but will dull cutters due to high amounts of silica present. Bocote is moderately expensive, though.

    Oh and bocote to me (and anyone I have talked to about it or helped someone trying to id it) smells a bit like pickles.

    Oh and when it comes to turning another big factor is MC. For small spindle work like the cheese knives here dry wood is great. For bigger things most of us actually prefer to use green wood, rough turn, dry then finish. Amazing the difference it makes with some woods. There are some though that are just a bear to turn green especially turning end grain.

    Yea padauk has the nice orange (almost open grain) streaks usually too. Bocote I haven't had an issue with relative to other woods but I don't use carbide I use HSS so I keep a diamond card handy at all times anyway. I have a large hunk of sapodilla on the lathe right now that is really dry and keeping the sharpening in full gear lol.

    I am pretty fortunate living in South Florida getting a number of exotics not available elsewhere in the US free from friends, family, curbside and from some tree service friends. I have a large stock of mango, cuban mahogany (which is near impossible to get commercially), avocado, and carrotwood which are all great to turn. Have also scored acacia, bechofia, rosewood. orange (fruit not osage), and some great bottle brush burls as well as others but not in as much quantity. The down side is we don't get some of the nicer domestics that are readily available to the north like walnut, maple (though we do have red and japanese maple here they rarely get big and aren't as good as hard maple), and cherry.


    2 years ago

    Interesting and useful, thanks for posting this. I see you are using chisels with replaceable tips, how do you like those compared to the kind you have to keep sharpening? I've just bought some of the Easy Wood Tools to try them out but haven't had a chance yet (still in process of setting up the lathe)


    2 years ago

    Gorgeous! I really want to turn some redheart now!

    1 reply

    You may want to try padauk too it is also very vivid red and turns nicely and is generally a bit cheaper.


    2 years ago

    I love your instructable information and video on wood turning . I am a beginner female wood turner starting to turn pens but would love to do some cheese knives as well. Where did you get your assortment of cheese knives that need handles-I like the matte metallic finish on them. Thanks for any help. You are an inspiration :O) K

    3 replies

    I get mine from Rockler Woodworking and Hardware. Rockler.com or several stores around the US

    You can get them from Penn State, Woodturnerz, and a number of other places that sell turning supplies. Good luck.

    Thanks for the info ---yes luck I will take too! ---I am an artist not a craft person so using calipers to be exact is a new challenge--a bit unnerving ---I usually go by intuition not exact measurements--- the caliper is actually a very neat looking tool -:O)K

    These all look great. One trick I have used in the past when dealing with a particularly open grained or unstable blank has been turn it to rough shape, apply thin super glue to the surface while the lathe is off so it can penetrate, let it sit to cure thoroughly, and either take a very light cut or sand it smooth. Seems to work well for me, but I do have to be extremely careful with the super glue. I believe there are also kits sold for finishing small items with CA, but I have never tried it.

    Amazing work! Where did you learn to turn wood like that??

    Fantastic job! to me they are all pretty!! :)

    Just keep in mind, some exotic woods are getting rare. Not necessarily endangered (yet), but many grow slowly, or in sensitive habitats. Especially
    any of the rosewood or Ebony species. Desert
    Ironwood is getting scarce too.

    Its best to look it up just be sure, and buy from a reputable dealer, or buy old/used or reclaimed if you can.