Woodsense: Spotlight on Olivewood

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olivewood
Although better known for its fruit and oil, the European Olive tree (Olea europea) hides a treasure under its gnarled bark: a creamy sapwood that transforms into deliciously striped, sometimes marbled, heartwood.
Despite its hardness, the wood’s tight grain and natural oil make it friendly to turn and carve, and the sweet aroma from the sawdust may make you think you’re working in your kitchen.
As you might expect, gorgeous wood isn’t necessarily perfect. In addition to its high price, olive challenges you with its inherent instability and high percentage of defects, but the end result is worth the extra work. Read on to discover how to make the most of this rare wood.

Where the wood comes from

This small evergreen tree is native to the southern Mediterranean, western Asia, and northern Africa. It’s also found in California, where it was introduced by the Spanish in the 19th century. In some areas where the trees have escaped orchard boundaries, they’re considered invasive.
Olive is one most cultivated trees in the world, surpassing even the apple. However, due to the fruit’s economic importance, healthy trees aren’t typically felled for lumber. (Even 500-year-old trees can still bear fruit.) As a result, the wood is rare, expensive, and hard to acquire in large pieces because orchard trees are generally kept small to facilitate harvesting.


olivewood

History in Woodworking 

Olive is sometimes used for fine furniture and paneling, but because of the tree’s small size, it is regarded as a novelty wood, and is typically reserved for smaller projects. Blocks of olive wood harvested from Rome and Bethlehem (and sold with labels of authenticity) are coveted by some turners and carvers for their religious significance.

How to select the best stock

Stock availability is generally limited to trimmings and diseased or storm damaged orchard trees. Smaller blanks, suitable for making pens or knife scales, cost $3-5 apiece. Lumber prices start at $26 per board foot, and can exceed $100 per board foot for figured stock. Note that wide boards are often actually East African Olive (Oleaceae hochstetteri), which is a larger tree that is not known for its fruit. Bandsawing gnarled trunks (see photo) to reveal the figure within can be a thrilling and affordable means of obtaining blanks and boards, but you’ll need to accept the likelihood that the piece hides a few flaws, such as checks or splits. Also note that air-dried trimmings will need additional time to acclimate. In comparison, milled and kiln-dried boards are more expensive, but they are easier to inspect for defects, and can be worked without the wait.
Olive’s most alluring figure can make the wood difficult to work. Branch, or highly figured burl stock, is likely to have hidden checks or cracks that reveal themselves during the milling process. And because of olive’s inherent instability, figured wood is more likely to crack over time.


olivewood

Working olive in the shop

Olive dries slowly, and tends to warp, check, split, and honeycomb if you try to rush it. However, turners frequently use wet wood to their advantage, as it’s easier to turn than when dry. When wet, you can expect long ribbon-like shavings to fly off your tools, even when working irregular grain. Bagging a rough turned block with its shavings can cut the drying time in half compared to a solid blank. Compared to other green-wood turnings, you should expect a higher percentage of cracks as the rough turned bowl acclimates to ambient moisture levels.
Well-seasoned olive is far more challenging. The wood’s hardness, coupled with its interlocking, irregular grain will frustrate handsaws, chisels, and planes. You’ll have better luck with power tools, but expect a moderate blunting effect on blades and bits.
Olive can be scraped and sanded to a polished finish, but because the hard wood holds scratches, do not skip grits. Be especially mindful when power sanding because the wood may check if you let the disc or belt heat the wood. Despite its reputation as an oily wood, olive glues up without difficulty.
The shavings and sawdust smell sweet, but may be somewhat toxic. Although severe reactions are uncommon, olive has been reported as a sensitizer and may irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory system. Also note that prolonged contact with olive shavings can leave blackish-blue stains on your hands and any steel they contact, so clean things up after working with it.


Finishing

Olive accepts finishing oils and waxes well, but the wood’s natural oils may resist water-based finishes. Sealing the wood with a shellac wash-coat will eliminate any compatibility problems. You can use dyes to add color and highlight figure, but you may want to just leave the wood alone to become darker and richer naturally over time.



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