Lignum Vitae

As a timber, Lignum Vitae will always remind me of my days at sea.  It was not a timber you actually saw during the normal course of events, but it was integral with the propulsion system, and that it was the material of choice always fascinated me.

The ships in question, at least that I was dealing with were the Leander Class frigates, but many of the same vintage (WWII – 1970s) used Lignum Vitae (LV) in the same role.  It is a very dense timber, so much so that it does not float, (weighing around 1.3 times that of water (less that of sea water!)), and is a very oily timber, so is self lubricating.  Both the density and self-lubricating properties made it ideal for the role, and being an ironwood, is extremely hard-wearing.

On some ships, LV was used in other bearings in the propulsion system, and in the stern tube (which stop water getting into the ship around the ship’s shaft), but not here (as far as I know!).  On the Leander frigate, it is used in the A frame – at the very back of the ship.  The A frame supports the end of the shaft, just near the props.  They remain immersed in sea water, and have to carry and support the weight of the shaft and prop, which is not the nicest of roles for any material, and yet LV got on, and got the job done. Unfortunately, the popularity of the timber for ship propulsion systems, and other large bearings has significantly depleted stock around the world, but hopefully, given other materials have since become more popular, overall demand has decreased and LV trees have a chance to come back.

To give you a sense of scale, here I am in the drydock beneath HMNZS WAIKATO (another Leander frigate – not the one pictured in the first photo – it is hard to get a photo of one’s own ship while at sea!)

So that’s a little story behind the scenes about Lignum Vitae, and why it always has particular meaning to me.  Sadly (and something I do want to recitfy), I’ve never actually owned a piece….yet.

5 Responses

  1. Stu,
    Lignum is a great timber to turn. At one stage I was getting every piece of it I could from Len Smith. I have turned gear stick knobs and rope working fids from it.

    Here is a link to a picture of what I still have.

    The piece in the front is 40mmx40mm by 1300mm long. One day I will turn it into a walking stick. I got that piece from Ray Mafoud of Supreme Woods about 10 years ago. I don’t know if he still trades.

    I’d be happy to pass on a couple of pieces to make some pens from if you’d like to have a try turning it. You’ll find you will get a great finish from polishing the wood alone.


    • Would love to get my hands on some, so would be interested in taking you up on your offer!

      Did a search for Supreme Woods, but didn’t turn up anything, other than an old Wood Forum thread (2006). If anyone knows any current suppliers who have it, please let me know! Doesn’t have to be turning blanks either.

    • By the way, interesting shed in the background there Darren 🙂 TS10L in the foreground I suspect, 14″ bandsaw, old jointer, and a Triton dust bucket (full!)

  2. Stu,
    I am in Mt Evelyn. You could tie in picking some up with a visit to Pop’s Shed. Or i’d be happy to put them in the post for you. PM me with the details.

    I contacted Ray tonight and although he hasn’t imported timber for a few years he has small lignum turning blanks (40*40*1000) and some boards. Lignum is $55 kg – he says the blank above would be about a kilo. He said he also has some small pieces of pink ivory.


  3. Thanks Darren – I’ll have to get back to it when things get a bit quieter. Might have to give Pop’s Shed a visit by the sounds of it!

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