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Lignum Vitae–The Bosun’s Favorite Wood

by Deirdre O’Regan – Published in SEA HISTORY 119, Summer 2007

How is it that Lignum Vitae, a wood that sinks like a rock, became so valuable to ships? Lignum vitae is a tropical hardwood that grows naturally in the Caribbean, Florida, Bahamas, and in parts of Central and South America. The name is Latin for “wood of life,” so called because of its early use for medicinal purposes. It has also been called palo santo, holy wood, and is one of many types referred to as ironwood. It is three times harder than oak and so oily that it is self-lubricating.

First introduced to Europe by Spanish New World explorers in the early sixteenth century, lignum vitae was later recognized by sailors and maritime artisans as an excellent wood for rigging tools (fids and mallets), use in standing rigging (fairleads, deadeyes, belaying pins, and sheaves for blocks), ships frames, and even in navigational
in navigational instruments (backstaffs and sextants).

The wood was important for uses requiring great strength and hardness. The Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, was framed with lignum vitae. The wood’s self-lubricating qualities made it ideal for steamship shaft bearings—the World War II submarine USS Pampanito (SS-383) has lignum vitae shaft bearings. Even the solution to the vexing longitude problem was found,

O’Reganin part, thanks to this wood. Master clockmaker John Harrison used lignum vitae for the bearings in his first successful chronometer because they never needed to be oiled (the gears needed to be friction-free, and lubricants changed viscosity at sea when temperatures rose and fell).

The tree’s trunk grows to a diameter of about one foot, but, historically, specimens measuring two to three times that size were known. It grows to an average height of 30-40 feet, with a trunk that is somewhat crooked and incredibly hard; it has beautiful blue flowers, which cover most of the tree and bloom for a very long time. Its heartwood is greenish-brown and its sapwood is pale yellow. Lignum vitae tools are easy to identify because, accordingly, many are two-toned.

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A 400 day clock

Comments: Hello, Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your web page. While working as an engineer at the Atlantic Underwater Test and Evaluation Center on Andros Island, in the Bahamas, a friend and I were exploring the jungle area and came across a Lignum-Vitae tree that had fallen over. The trunk was about 8" in diameter. We went back to the base, got a big two man saw, and cut off about an 8 foot section of the trunk. Brought it back, sliced it up into slabs, and everyone on base wanted a sample. I traveled the Caribbean for many years for RCA and every now and then I'd spot a piece of Lignum-Vitae in a gift shop, usually a carving such as a mortar and pestle or a small statue.

I made a base for a 400 day clock out of the wood; it still sits on my book case.

Lignum Vitae Key

There is a State of Florida Botanical Preserve which occupies the island in the Florida Keys which is named "Lignum Vitae Key".  The island is just to the west of the channel between upper and lower Matecube Keys and US 1 which together have the much older name of  "Islamorada" because they have a purple hue when viewed from beyond the reef in the Straits of Florida.

The island just east of US 1 is named "Indian Key" and was the site of one of the largest settlements in Florida until around 1840.  The others were Key West and St Augustine.  The island was attacked by indians at that time and has never been repopulated.  It, together with Lignum Vitae Key are part of the state park system.  There are Lignum Vitae trees on Lignum Vitae Key which have been cored and have ring counts supposedly in the range of 1800 years according to what the park rangers tell.  The oldest North American lignum vitae tree is supposedly on Old Rhodes Key in the Biscayne National Park further north just east of the mainland off Turkey Point, the site of the nuclear power plant.

I do not have any yarns to tell but enjoy the trees.

I recommend visiting these keys in the winter months because they are au naturel ie. heavily populated by mosquitoes in the summer months.

Stuart era chest

I like the part about your mistress..My  boat was named "Lignum vitae", I grow them from seed and have several in my yard. If you ever get to England, tour the Royal apartments at Windsor. There are some Stuart era chests made of  Lignum vitae.

Boat Builders

Your site is fantastic. My family has lived in the Keys and Miami since the 1850's. My great grandfather and grandfather were boat builders and told me about Lignum-vitae when I was young (the mid to late 70's).

Lignum Vitae

Your website is wonderful and fascinating and I love the photos of your shop and the richly colored wood and lumber and the old artifacts made from Lignum vitae. I share your passion for Lignum vitae, but my interest is scientific.

Lignum Vitae guaiacum officinale resin

Comments/Questions: Hello! Thank you for your beautiful website and information. I am looking for medical grade Guayacun officinale. Do you know anything about Brazilian Guayacun? Any resources or websites you could think of where i could investigate more would be greatly.

Thanks for getting back to me. I appreciate you interest in helping me. I would like to research a helping hand for those with rheumatoid arthritis.  A very old dear biochemist friend suggested i start experimenting with guaiacum officinale resin. i only need a small quantity to start with to see if theres anything to it.

Lignum-Vitae Royal Navy

Comments/Questions: real nice sight, just surgt in looking for fids. By the way did you know that the pivot between an ancor shaft and it`s flukes was made of Lignum-Vitae!. strong stuff.I`v seen an acor withe the fluks totally bent, (was in the Royal Navy)

Lignum-Vitae Man O’War Cay

The William H. Albury was built in ManO'War Cay in the early sixties by William and gang. I'm told she was built with no formal plans and no power tools. I tend to believe both claims. She's a beautiful schooner. As for the wood, she's chock full of exotic local hardwoods which I've heard called iron wood, horseflesh, and lignum vitae. The only wood that I know for sure was lignum vitae were the dead eyes and some of the block cheeks. They were lovely. I don't know if they were made locally or not. I served aboard the Albury in the mid seventies. My interest in lignum vitae was rekindled several years later when I visited the Dauphine Block shop in Lunenburg. They know what the real stuff is, and create very nice fittings out of it. I bought a lignum vitae fid from them, and have been using it for close to thirty years now. I also have a large serving mallet and a heavy shipwright's mallet out of Lignum Vitae. It's fascinating wood, but of course, I'm preaching to the choir. I'd be very interested in some of your stories. I look forward to hearing from you.

Lignum-Vitae , Woodworking, Pistons Town-Gas Engine

But I've learned a few things I didn't know before. Back in the late sixties, I used to disappear into the basement and chisel away at blocks of wood, with my dad's tools, and some made by my grandfather, and great great grandfather, who were blacksmiths and wheelwrights. My dad asked me if I really wanted to learn to carve wood, and I did, so he arranged for me to visit an old guy, a retired employee of my dad's friend's timber import business. Jack loved wood, and working wood, his home was like an encyclopedia of wood, he'd pick a piece of wood up, strike it, and it would ring, "Australian Potwood", he'd say "It destroys the edges on tools, hit it with a hammer and it shatters like stone". He made violins, never used sandpaper, only scrapers, taught me to recognise wood blindfold by touch, scent, taste, and sound. And he gave me a piece of Lignum Vitae, to turn on the lathe. Jack would buy up old "woods" the lignum vitae pieces turned to be used in crown-green bowling, he checked out estate sales, yard sales for them, and then would turn them into other things. I loved the feel, the heft of lignum vitae, I made my own mallet, which, incidentally, just like yours, was stolen. Bastards! Some twenty years ago, i used to know a guy who specialised in restoring very old motorbikes, to him, anything after about nineteen twenty is "new", and he told me that he'd been asked to restore, to working order, a town-gas engine. This ran on gas from the mains, and in the late 1800s, early nineteen hundreds, ran a generator that fed electric lighting in a "gentleman's residence", nowadays we'd see that as a steampunk lover's dream, Anyway... the piston in the gas engine was made of lignum vitae, as also was a slide-valve. The engine had been disused since, I suppose, the city's electricity mains reached the house, and not because it was in any way faulty. I had the pleasure of seeing it running in the late eighties. Another friend was a ship's engineer, who told me that on a sugar-plantation in the caribbean, he'd seen an old 1940s bedford truck, which was running with one lignum vitae piston, in the six cylinder engine. Spares had been impossible to find, so a local mechanic made one out of wood, with a tin sheet on the piston crown. It had been running, by then, for over ten years with no problems. Reading your site reminded me of all this, and also the fact that Lignum Vitae is still used medicinally. I live, by the way, in the north of England, where we have oak-framed buildings dating back to at least the fourteenth century, their joints still showing the cut marks and numbering of their long-gone makers.

United States Naval Institute proceedings,
Volume 45 P. 1929

Lignum-vitve, The Vital Wood.—The propeller shaft of every battleship, every destroyer, every transport, in fact, every large steamship, revolves in a wooden bearing at the stern end. Of all the thousands of woods in the world, true lignum-vitae, a native of the West Indies and certain other parts of tropical America, is the only one that has been found equal to this exacting service. The peculiar properties which so well fit lignum-vitae for the purpose are due to the arrangement of the fibers and the resincontent of the sap cells. The fibers never run straight up and down the log, but weave back and forth in a serpentine manner that cross and crisscross like the corded fabric of an automobile tire. The result is a material of extreme tenacity and toughness. When the sap cells cease to function, their every nook and cranny become filled with a resin which is about a third heavier than water. The result is a material which weights about 80 pounds per cubic foot.

Stern bearings provide the most important use for lignum-vitae but by no means the only one. Formerly it was in great demand for bowling balls, but now only one ball in ten is made of wood. A large quantity of low-grade logs, known as " cutting-up " wood, is consumed in the manufacture of rollers for furniture casters. Small round sticks made excellent mallets and fill a large demand, especially in Engand. Another important use is for sheaves of pulleys, and they have been known to last in constant use for 70 years. Another nautical application is for " dead-eyes," a small flattish block with a grooved rim to fit in the bight of a rope or encircled by an iron band, pierced with three holes to receive a lanyard, and used to extend the shrouds and stays. Among the miscellaneous uses may be mentioned stencil and chisel blocks, watchmakers' blocks, mortars and pestles, dowels, golf-club heads, wooden cogs, water wheels and block guides for band saws. In building the Panama Canal, the true lignumvitae made the most serviceable railroad ties that could be obtained. Between 150 and 200 tons of genuine lignum-vitae are used every year in New York for fuel in grate fires. The very dense nature of the wood, together with the heavy resin content, produces a fuel with intense glowing heat and good lasting qualities. This provides one outlet for defective and crooked logs which are found in every shipment—Engineering World, Oct. 1, 1919.