Spotlight on Lacewood

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This article is from Issue 64 of Woodcraft Magazine.

A decorative wood with colorful roots

Technical consultant: Larry Osborn

Woodworkers in the United States have long delighted in the striking appearance of lacewood, which gets its name from the lacelike pattern of light-colored medullary ray flecks against a background grain that can range from pink to orange-tinged tan to brown. But during its colorful history, a number of different species have received the “lacewood” label, making it difficult to determine the wood’s true origin. That said, lacewood remains a sought-after woodworking wood for a variety of uses, with many being decorative.

History in woodworking

The medullary ray look of lacewood results from quartersawing the logs. This makes the wood especially appealing to woodworkers who have used the wood for furniture, cabinetry, decorative boxes, inlays, turnings, and even carving. Antique American and British furniture contain woods that–back in the day–were referred to as lacewood. (See “Where It Comes From.”)

Lacewood veneers have dressed up box tops and plywood panels for dramatic effect. Lacewood strips have served as eye-catching inlays. Musical instrument makers have glued down thin pieces for fingerboards, while knife makers employed it for scales. Because of the wood’s susceptibility to rot and insects, you won’t find it in outdoor projects.

Where it comes from

Sorting out the genuine article is a trying task because the lacewood name serves more as a marketing alias than a description of a single species. The earliest furniture woods referred to as lacewood were actually American sycamore and London plane tree. Both are Platanus species, with large and visually obvious ray flecks. Cardwellia sublimis was a much later species bearing the lacewood moniker. This tree, native to northern Australia, is more commonly referred to as Northern or Queensland silky oak in its native continent, even though it doesn’t belong to the Quercus (oak) genus familiar to North Americans. As the wood journeyed to the United States, it acquired a new name–Australian lacewood.

Over time, the species became a victim of its own beauty and desirability and was overharvested to meet demand. This led lumber importers to substitute the species Grevillea robusta, called Southern silky oak in that region of Australia. It, too, is not related to the Quercus genus. But because the wood appears similar to its northern cousin, importers appropriated the Australian lacewood name for the species. Here, again, aggressive cutting depleted availability.

Today, a South American species from Brazil and Argentina (Roupala brasiliensis) fills the void while marketed under the lacewood name. (Some mistakenly still refer to it as Australian lacewood.) To add to the confusion, it is sometimes sold with a similar species–leopardwood (Brosimum guianense)–which is denser, heavier, and darker.

Despite all of the differences, the Australian and South American lacewood species are all part of the predominantly Southern Hemisphere botanic family Proteaceae, which includes some 60-80 genera and over 1,000 species. The South American lacewoods Roupala and Panopsis serve as current primary lumber sources. The trees can grow to 150' high and boast 4'-diameter trunks.

What you’ll pay

You can purchase a 3⁄4 × 3 × 24" lacewood board for about $19.00 at a specialty wood supplier, which may sell wood in a variety of thicknesses, widths, and lengths. A specially milled 1⁄8 × 3 × 24" board carries a premium price tag of about $13.00. Consider saving a few bucks by resawing lacewood stock when possible.

For individual 3⁄4 × 3⁄4 × 5" pen-turning blanks, expect to pay about $1.50; bundles of blanks carry a lower price per unit. You’ll find larger 2 × 2 × 12" turning blanks for about $11.00. Use this size for shaping bottle stoppers, spindles, and handles.

Lacewood is also available as quartersawn veneer in several formats: no backing, paper-backed, and also with pressure-sensitive adhesive (PSA) backing. A package containing 3 square feet of unbacked veneer sells for under $12.00; 12 square feet of the same product is under $36.00, generating a significant discount. Purchasing a 4 × 8' sheet of PSA quartersawn veneer will set you back $275.00.

How to select the best stock

Quartersawn lacewood’s decorative appearance results from ray flecks that can be large (up to 2" long), numerous, and distinct. These can taper down to much smaller flecks across a board’s face and can even show up on edge grain. That is due to the spiral growth of the tree, making quartersawing uneven from one end of the log to the other. Because flatsawn lacewood appears dull and ordinary, you’ll not find it sold commercially.

While large size flecks are an impressive characteristic, consider the style and scale of your project when choosing your stock. For example, a jumbo fleck on a pen turning will look completely out of scale. Also, be sure to match the color of the boards you select.

Working lacewood in the shop

Lacewood can be crosscut and ripped cleanly; the same can be said when edge routing. However, planing lacewood boards with large ray flecks can result in tear-out. Using sharp cutters, take only fine cuts and run the boards at an angle to reduce tear-out. Take fine passes when hand-planing, working diagonally across the grain. Better still, thickness the wood at a drum sander if you have one. A random-orbit sander works well smoothing lacewood surfaces. Note that the wood surrounding the ray flecks tends to be a smidgeon softer and may sand off more quickly, resulting in ray flecks that feel raised. Here, use a sanding block to ensure an even surface.

When sanding lacewood, be aware that some have suffered skin and eye allergic reactions to the dust. As a precaution, work with a small piece to see if you are allergic. Don a long-sleeve shirt and respiratory protection when turning and sanding, and wash afterward.

Due to the low resin levels in lacewood, common woodworking adhesives produce good bonding results. It also accepts all finishes and may darken with exposure to sunlight.

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