As promised, this is the first in a series of posts on materials. It's a touch dry, but it will be mildly informative, fill up some of my time, and streamline future posts by locating basic information about wood species in these posts.
Lignum vitae, Latin for "tree of life," is a Central and Northern South American wood that is hard. Really freaking hard. In addition to being hard, it's unbelievable heavy. It's also kinda cool looking.
A little more after the jump:
I mentioned that it is hard. Its Janka Hardness Rating is 4,390 lbf, which is three times harder than hard maple.
I mentioned that it is heavy. Its density is 84.4 lbs/cubic foot. To compare, the density of water is 62.3 lbs/cubic foot. We tend to think of wood as something that floats, lignum vitae would sink like a stone. I picked that piece up and was astounded by how heavy it was. The only wood I've ever held that compares is bloodwood (74.6 lbs/cubic foot).
I saw the board pictured above at the lumber yard, and as you can see it's not cheap. That board was probably 8 inches wide by 10 or so feet long, and they wanted over $200 for it. Their typical price for four quarter is $44/board foot. That's not cheap. A board foot of quartersawn white oak is $5.60 and that's still not cheap.
In appearance you can see it has intricate grain patterning of tan and almost gray-green. I've never seen anything else quite like it.
It's an oily wood that is incredibly strong and rot resistant. It has been used for dozens of maritime uses from propeller shafts to old sailing vessel clocks. San Francisco used it to insulate trolley wires. Unfortunately, the very characteristics that make it so useful made it desirable in an era before sustainable harvesting, and we have pushed the it onto the endangered species list.