Woodsense: Spotlight on Osage-orange

An oft-forgotten wood with historical roots

Technical Consultant: Larry Osborn

Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera) may have played more significant roles at pivotal points in North American history than any other single tree species. In fact, the saga of this one tree intertwines with westward expansion and its aftermath.

Before Europeans arrived, Native Americans harvested Osage-orange for archery bows that proved powerful enough to kill bison. The tree was virtually unknown to white settlers until 1804 when Meriwether Lewis enthused about it in a letter to President Jefferson, and even enclosed planting slips.

Later, as the Midwest underwent settling through the 1800s, farmers and ranchers planted hedgerows of Osage-orange to establish property lines. These thorny barriers more than met the settlers’ needs, serving to contain livestock as well.

Some claim that the wickedly sharp thorns of the Osage-orange thicket may well have inspired the invention of barbed wire. And when that product became available (around 1880), settlers stapled it to Osage-orange posts, chosen for the heartwood’s resistance to rot and insects.

Later still, when widespread mechanized farming in the Midwest led to the Dust Bowl, the situation was made less severe through the plantings of millions of Osage-orange trees that served as windbreaks and shelterbelts.

It’s a fact that…

After the F5 tornado leveled much of downtown Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, the only thing left standing in the half-mile swath of destruction was a massive Osage-orange–a testimony to the tree’s resiliency and toughness.

History in woodworking

Some Native Americans in Osage-orange’s original range were full-time bow makers, exporting finished weapons to tribes hundreds of miles away through an elaborate network. Many modern bowyers (bow makers) still turn to Osage-orange to keep the tradition alive.

Osage-orange did not emerge as a woodworking wood until the 20th century. But any woodworker who has seen the vibrant orange to bright yellow tones of Osage-orange heartwood may find it hard to forget. It’s an excellent choice for small specialty projects, including knife handles, jewelry, inlays for boxes, plane soles, musical instruments, pens, bottle stoppers, bowls, and more. Woodworkers interested in making rustic furniture have used the limbs and shoots to fashion outdoor chairs and tables.

Where it comes from

Osage-orange originated in Arkansas, southeastern Oklahoma, and east Texas, but its current range includes most states east of the Rocky Mountains and up into Ontario. If you’re inclined to help the species spread on your property, you can buy seedlings online.

The tree itself is exceptionally unruly and requires trimming. A mature Osage-orange can reach 40' to 60', but the branches can twist, interlace, and curl crazily, producing a plant nearly as wide as it is tall. Individual trunks generally don’t exceed 11⁄2' in diameter, but several shoots can clump together to produce a tree of truly impressive size.

Osage-orange is not a mainstream wood, so you may need to seek out an online source or a local supplier or sawyer to get some. Woodworking clubs and turning guilds are other great sources.

Be aware, too, that Osage-orange has many aliases. It’s also known as bois d’arc (French for bow wood), and the derivative “bodark.” Other variations include hedge and horse apple.

An alternative to American-grown Osage-orange is a look-alike from Argentina, Maclura tinctoria. Its color and working properties are remarkably similar to the domestic version.

Osage-orange Quick Take

COST Moderate/high (limited availability)
WEIGHT Very heavy
HARDNESS Slightly harder than mesquite; 50% harder than hickory
STABILITY Very stable when dry. (Mill the wood promptly, and seal the ends to minimize drying stresses.)
TOXICITY Use normal precautions when working dried wood. Fresh-cut wood and fruit can emit a milky fluid that may cause skin irritation.
TOOL TYPE Sharp hand and power tools
COMMON USES Turning projects such as pens, stoppers, handles, and bowls. Also good for bows, knife handles, jewelry, inlays, plane soles, musical instruments, and rustic furniture.

What you’ll pay

Given its cantankerous growth habits (trunks are usually small, crooked, and susceptible to splitting), Osage-orange is not widely harvested as lumber. Accordingly, you’ll usually purchase boards or turning blanks on a per piece basis.

Here are a few examples from online suppliers. For pen blanks, expect to pay a dollar or two each. Turning blanks 11⁄2" square × 12" long are in the range of $10.00, but when the square is 2", the price can double. Move up to 3" and the price can double again to about $40.00 for a 12" length. Prices from local suppliers may vary considerably.

Select the best stock

Hands-on inspection is always best, but not always practical. If you’re buying from photos, make sure that they’re clear and comprehensive. Have an understanding of the seller’s return policy.

Be aware that Osage-orange is subject to shake damage, a tangential separation along the wood’s annular rings generated by wind, growing stresses in the living plant, or by poor felling practices at harvest. Unfortunately, this defect is not always readily visible, and may appear only after you’ve begun work on a piece.

Some Osage-orange may have dark streaks, attributed to localized spalting at live edges. Sellers often regard this condition as an aesthetic benefit, not a price-reducing defect.

If purchasing hand-split staves for an archery bow, note that this is very specialized Osage-orange stock. In such cases, buy from an accomplished bowyer for good wood.

Working Osage-orange in the shop

Osage-orange works well with ordinary hand or power equipment, but the density of the wood requires sharp tools. Dulling of tools is not beyond what you’d reasonably expect from any very hard wood. Some of the wood may have mineral deposits that could accelerate tool wear. Hence, you’ll find that carving the wood takes longer.

Because of the wood’s density, you can sand it to a good polish even before applying finish. For the same reason, take care gluing up pieces. You may need to scuff mating surfaces for a better bond. When routing, keep the bit moving to avoid burning. When turning, you’ll have better luck working with green Osage-orange, as dried wood is always harder.

Screws hold well in Osage-orange, but you may want to drill pilot holes at least 1⁄64" over standard recommendations due to the wood’s density. Nailing will probably be a futile effort unless you drill pilot holes.

Use a water-borne rather than oil-based finish to reduce the tinting effect of petroleum products. All the same, normal exposure to air and light will eventually turn the wood a golden brown. 

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