Working with New Wood Species?

Article - May 25, 2009

Our question comes from Duane (you remember Steamer Trunk Duane). He writes:

“Hey Marc, I had a co-worker give me some olive wood recently. I was wondering if you have ever worked with this wood and if so any suggestions?”

I have not worked with Olive Wood before, so here is a link to some helpful information: And just as an FYI, here is what I do whenever an unfamiliar wood comes through the shop. First off, I do a little research. Google the heck out of it and look through the various forum posts and websites you are bound to find. Always helps to go in armed with info. The site linked above is a great place to start. I will then inspect the wood itself. I start by poking it with my fingernail, trying get an idea of how hard the wood is and how durable it might be in a project. The harder woods usually won’t dent at all, but the softer woods will.

I also look to see if the grain and pores are open or closed (open like oak and walnut, or closed like maple or cherry). This may affect how I finish the piece. Closed grain woods tend to look good with just about any sheen of finish. But open grained woods look a little odd to me with a high gloss finish, unless you perform a pore-filling procedure first (just my opinion). I then rub the wood a little to see if there is likely to be a high natural oil content, as this would create finishing problems. A brightly or deeply colored exotic is likely to have a good amount of naturally-occurring oils. Sometimes I’ll even throw some poly over a test area. If there is a lot of natural oil, the finish will take longer than usual to cure.

The final thing I do is actually cutting and planing the piece. One or two test cuts and a few passes from a hand plane will give me a reasonable heads up on how the stuff is going to work. Is it going to have a tendency to chip out or tearout? Is it brittle? Or does it cut like butter? These are all questions I ask myself as I begin experimenting. When its all said and done, you will be much more familiar with the wood and its working properties. Add that to your research and you’ve got a pretty good profile of this new wood species. Now its time to make something with it.