WoodSense: Leopard Wood

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This article is from Issue 96 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By its spots, ye shall know it. Like those on its feline namesake, leopard wood’s spots vary from board to board. The widest ray flecks appear when the piece is perfectly quartersawn with the growth rings dead perpendicular to the surface.

Pretty, but tough to tame

By Ken Burton

Leopard wood is another treasure from the rainforest. It’s a heavy, dark reddish-brown wood marked with speckled or lacy figure. This figure comes from the trees’ wide medullary rays. All trees have these rays that radiate from the central pith; they have to do with the way trees store nutrients. In leopard wood, these rays happen to be particularly distinct. You can see them most clearly in the end grain where they appear as light brown or gray lines. Several other wood species display similar figure including lacewood, and the Australian native silky oak (which is also sold as leopard wood on occasion). Of the three, leopard wood (Roupala montana or R. brasiliense) is the darkest and heaviest. 

Rays or Rings? Leopard wood’s conspicuous spots come from its wide medullary rays. These rays are so prominent in the end grain that you might mistake them for the much less distinct annular growth rings.

Where the wood comes from

The trees grow throughout Central and northern South America. At full maturity, they can reach 100 feet in height and close to 3 feet in diameter. Leopardwood is widely available through exotic wood dealers. As of this writing, it is not on either the CITES list or the IUCN Red List as being endangered.

History in woodworking

Leopard wood is a relative newcomer to the woodworking scene. While our woodworking ancestors seem to have overlooked it, contemporary makers have incorporated the bespeckled boards into everything from boxes and desktops to electric guitar bodies. It is also available as a veneer on plywood. These sheets have the type of uniform yet exotic patterns that architects often specify for boardroom paneling and cabinetry.

Selecting the best stock

As with most figured woods, leopard wood’s grain varies from board to board. So if you intend to edge-glue pieces, request photographs or view the pieces in person for grain matching before purchasing. The wood is available in both 4/4 and 8/4 thicknesses. Many sources sell smaller pieces—under 5" wide and 5' long—as well as turning blanks. Nevertheless, wider, longer boards are readily available. It’s frequently sold S2S (surfaced two sides), so you can clearly see the figure. Expect to pay $20-$25 per board foot with a premium charge for wider and longer pieces.

Working and finishing

By the numbers, leopard wood is not a stable species. Its radial shrinkage is 3.5%, while its tangential is 8.8%. But to take advantage of the flecked pattern, most of the wood is quartersawn, which tends to offset the disparity in the shrinkage rates. It is not a very friendly wood to work with hand tools. It’s quite hard and all those beautiful flecks tend to flake or lift when hand planing. The wood does glue well, however, and readily accepts both oil and water-based finishes. It holds nails and screws well, though I recommend predrilling, even for self-tapping screws.

Leopard Wood Uses

  • Veneer
  • Furniture
  • Cabinetry
  • Turnings
  • Musical instruments

Bold and beautiful. The rich color and striking figure of leopard wood go hand-in-hand with the strong shapes and playful inlaid elements of this Art Deco desk caddy.

Worth the trouble?

Leopard wood is visually very striking, but taming it requires careful work. As I started prepping the stock for this desk caddy, a couple of swipes with my smoothing plane told me that hand planing was a no-go. The flecks made reading the grain direction nearly impossible. Then once I had that figured out, those flecks didn’t cut the same way as the surrounding wood. Tear, tear, and more tear. The edges cut a little more cleanly, although the grain direction often changed midway along the board. 

On the plus side, the wood did scrape and sand well, so I stuck with that to clean up the surfaces. While the wood has a slightly waxy feel, sandpaper didn’t load up the way it does with some other exotic species such as cocobolo. The wood also cut well on the jointer, but I could tell how hard it was both from the sound and the vibration generated. There wasn’t anything I could do about the noise, but firm downward pressure mitigated the chatter from the vibration. 

The wood is quite coarse and splintery (and those splinters are sharp and stiff—ouch). Aside from the splintering on the backside of crosscuts, it machined nicely both on the table saw and the router table, and behaved well on the drill press. It seemed to glue well, though the glue lines showed white against the dark tones of the wood so consider a dark—rather than yellow—glue. Fortunately, the glue lines became less noticeable after applying a finish.

What little turning I did went well, though some of the same tearout problems I had with the hand plane showed up as I cut with both a gouge and a skew. A little extra sanding was all that was required to smooth things out. Back at the bench, I had to pare the round tenon on the penholder to fit its hole in the base, a job that was easier than expected.

Finishing was fun. The wiping varnish I used made the figure really “pop.” I’ll be adding leopard wood to the palette of species I use. Its distinctive pattern makes a bold statement when used in smaller pieces such as this desk caddy. 

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