Woodsense: Spotlight on Yellowheart

A Brazilian specialty wood that packs a real color punch

Technical consultant: Larry Osborn

It makes for occasional confusion, but in the world’s lumber trade yellowheart sometimes goes by different names. It can be called satina, pau amarello (Portuguese for yellow wood), Brazilian satinwood (which it is not, although it is in the same family as Ceylon and Indian satinwoods) and Brazilian boxwood. Wood dealers in the United States, though, seem to agree on yellowheart (Euxylophora paraensis) of the family Rutaceae that includes citrus trees such as orange, lemon, and lime.

The popularity of yellowheart stems from its uniform, nonfading yellow color, which offers woodworkers a distinctive accent for their projects. That said, it can just as easily serve as the primary wood. And unlike the true satinwoods, it’s much less costly!

History in woodworking

Where it grows, yellowheart has been and still is employed for everything from boats to framing lumber to flooring, carvings, cabinets, furniture, and musical instruments (woodwinds). The fact that it’s available in sizeable widths and lengths helps explain its numerous applications.

American woodworkers, however, principally use the colorful wood for dramatic inlay and small craft items, such as turned pens, bowls, and boxes. Recently, yellowheart has  served as flooring material.

It’s a fact that…

Yellowheart is quite capable of making beautiful music when put to good use by instrument makers. Instruments where yellowheart has found a home include stave-construction snare drums, flutes, psalteries, and guitars.  Guitar makers favor the wood for electric guitar bodies, acoustic guitar sides and back, as well as the neck.

Yellowheart Quick Take

COST Moderate
WEIGHT Slightly heavier than red oak
HARDNESS Equal to hickory
DURABILITY Resistant to decay
TOXICITY Irritant (skin rash from dust)
TOOL TYPE Hand and power tools
COMMON USES Boxes, carving, flooring, furniture, inlay, turnings, and musical instruments

Where the wood comes from

Although yellowheart is generally considered as a Brazilian hardwood, its actual range is limited to only a section of the country’s Eastern coastline south of the equator known as the State of Para. There yellowheart reaches heights of 130' with diameters of around 30". Because of its abundance and size, the tree has a significant economic impact on the local forest products industry. When it blooms, yellowheart becomes a tree of splendor with a profuse showing of creamy white flowers.

What you’ll pay

You’ll find yellowheart at specialty wood mills and suppliers, as well as online. For FAS boards in 4/4 thickness, widths to 10" and lengths to 12', expect to pay about $6 per board foot. Yellowheart pen blanks sell for less than $2 each. And thin stock (1⁄4" thick) sells for about $12 per square foot. Veneer is also available for marquetry and sells for $2 to $2.50 per square foot.

How to select the best stock

Yellowheart is a heavy, hard, close-grained wood with straight, barely discernible grain, although some curly figured stock does occur. (Be aware that its interlocking grain may require special care in the workshop.) Quartersawn stock may display ribbon figure that could prove desirable for a tabletop or panel.

The wood’s color can vary. With lumber obtained from different trees of the same species you may find stock that ranges in color from yellow through light orange to red. For the best color match in a project, try to select boards from the same tree if possible.

Working yellowheart in the shop

This close-grained, fine-textured hardwood can be worked with hand or power tools, although its hardness will dull cutting edges. Planing and jointing yellowheart requires attention to grain direction in relation to the cutters as the wood has a slight tendency to tear out. Running the wood through the planer at an angle may prove beneficial. Curly yellowheart or ribbon figure requires taking very light passes. A drum sander may yield better results for final smoothing and thicknessing.

Take care when sanding yellowheart, progressing  through successive grits until you arrive at desired smoothness. Due to its hardness, the wood will take a lustrous polish with fine abrasives. Caution is in order here. Yellowheart is classified as an irritant, meaning its dust can cause a skin rash if you have sensitivity, so always wear a dust mask and long sleeves when sanding, and wash thoroughly afterwards.

Don’t worry about gluing–all types of adhesives work because yellowheart has no natural oils. You will, though, have to predrill for screws. The wood carves and turns well.

Finally, yellowheart poses no problems in dying or staining (if you choose to do that), and final finishing. However, exposure to sunlight will darken it slightly, so a clear finish with ultraviolet protection may be warranted, depending on the project.  

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