Woodsense: Spotlight on Holly

The world’s whitest hardwood with centuries of tradition

Technical Consultant: Larry Osborn

Nearly 350 different species of holly trees grow worldwide. Although Brazil and China claim the greatest number, the most storied of the species–and the most familiar to woodworkers–are found in Europe and the United States.

Few tree species have such a long history of folklore and holiday tradition as this evergreen hardwood (which, by the way, has its own botanical genus Ilex). England’s ancient druids associated the tree’s shiny, prickly leaves and red berries with special powers of protection, as did the olden day Romans who brought the foliage inside as decoration for their celebration of the winter solstice. This yuletide practice eventually emigrated to England and then to the New World.

Today, the coming of winter along America’s mid-Atlantic coast coaxes swarms of holly berry-and-leaf harvesters to ready decorations for the holiday season. The state of Delaware embraces holly as the state tree.

History in woodworking

Holly has always been used for small items, such as chess pieces, brush backs and handles, treenware, and inlay. In fact, piano keys made of this extremely white wood look like ivory. Its tight grain and trait of taking a high polish made it the choice for loom spinning rods in the 19th century textile industry–the smooth wood did not snag threads.

Today’s woodturners love putting holly on their lathes, carvers adore shaping it, and marquetry makers dye it into a host of colors (dyed black, it’s an ebony look-alike as shown above, right). Luthiers use holly for pegs, fretboards, and other tiny but highly noticeable instrument parts.  However, due to lack of suitability, the wood is seldom made into cabinets or furniture.

Where the wood comes from

Holly trees can thrive anywhere in a temperate climate, but the colder the conditions, the smaller the tree. You’ll find American holly (Ilex opaca) growing in tree form from east Texas to Florida and north to Delaware. Further north in southern New England the species shrinks to shrub size.

Wherever it grows, holly trees rate as fairly abundant. But it’s never a very large tree (50' tall maximum) and due to its many branches, holly trees produce comparatively little clear wood. And, as might you might guess, the wood does not constitute a mainstay commercial lumber. In fact, where it grows the largest, along the Mid-Atlantic coast, it’s often not even cut for lumber, but instead left to produce its annual growth of shiny green leaves and red berries to be used for holiday decoration.

It’s a fact that…

Once upon a time in England, and later in Colonial America, entrepreneurs stripped holly trees of their bark, and then boiled and strained it to obtain a highly adhesive substance called “birdlime.” It was spread on tree branches to capture unwitting songbirds, which were then sold at market as caged pets. The practice is unlawful today.

Holly Quick Take

WEIGHT Moderate (a little lighter than red oak)
HARDNESS Moderate (two-thirds as hard as sugar maple)
DURABILITY Low (low regarding decay, modest for wear indoors)
TOOL TYPE Power tools and sharp hand tools
COMMON USES Accents, carvings, turnings, inlay, jewelry boxes, and small musical instrument parts

What you’ll pay

You’ll only find holly at specialty wood suppliers, especially for turning squares, pencil (as in No.2 Ticonderoga) and pen blanks, and carving blocks. Because of holly’s modest trunk diameter, board size will range from 2-10" in width and 3-10' in length, but with many knots (in fact, the wood normally grades as #1 Common or below). And at about $20 a board foot, it’s expensive. Small sheets of veneer are available for marquetry but are also costly.

How to select the best stock

Holly is a tight, close-grained wood with barely discernible grain patterns and absolutely no figure. Its large band of sapwood is the whitest of any hardwood. The heartwood is only slightly darker and may show tinges of blue.

Select boards and pieces based on the fewest number of imperfections (knots) and uniform color with no “blue stain.” This discoloration typically appears when holly is harvested during warm weather and seasoning/kiln drying is delayed. Also be mindful that holly is not really that stable, so watch for signs of warp that could worsen. In small pieces for inlay, accents, and so on, this is of little consequence.

Working holly in the shop

This close-grained, fine-textured wood is subject to scorching and burning when sawn and machined, so avoid a too slow feed rate. When drilling, stop often to clean out the dust from the hole. With holly boards, expect to work around knots.

Holly isn’t hard, but sharp cutting edges are important when milling holly due to its interlocked grain. Take very light passes when planing, jointing, and routing. Carvers find that it cuts similarly to basswood; turners like how holly shapes easily, yielding a smooth surface.

Sanding holly is nearly effortless as you progress through successive grits. Achieve a polished surface by using fine abrasives. Holly also bonds well with all types of adhesives and poses no problems when dying, staining, and finishing.  

Back to blog Back to issue