According to the University of Florida, the species Guaiacum sanctum, commonly known as lignum vitae, is the hardest and heaviest wood known. The tree is native to the West Indies and Central and northern South America, and can grow over 9m tall. The wood has gained mythological status over the centuries and it has long been sought after for its usefulness and durability.
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Properties of lignum vitae
Lignum vitae has a dried weight of 1,350 kg per cubic metre, which means it is so heavy, it will sink in water. Greenish-brown when cut, it darkens over time until almost black. It is extremely difficult to work with as it blunts blades and resists cutting. It is also virtually pest free, as few insects are able to bore into it. The Janka hardness test is based on the force required to embed an 11.28mm steel ball into the surface of the wood. The rating for pine is 870; for lignum vitae it is 4,500. The name, lignum vitae, means "wood of life", as it is reputed to have medicinal properties.
Lignum vitae was often used for propeller shafts, bearings, gear wheels, mallets and bowling balls. Its durability made it useful for underwater applications. Furniture made from the wood is highly treasured.
The tree is very slow growing, so sustainability has been a problem; the species almost became extinct due to over-harvesting. However, it has survived and is now cultivated on a semi-commercial basis as well as in arboretums around the world.
The second hardest wood
Bulnesia sarmientoi or verawood is the second hardest wood with a Janka hardness test rating of 4,000, according to Ejmas.com. Although a different genus to lignum vitae, it has similar properties. It is native to Central America and northern South America.
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