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Olive wood use branches out far and wide

Olive is a small tree that primarily grows in Greece, Italy and Spain, and is pruned for its fruit and prized for its oil. It is also used for fine furniture and items of religious significance.

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Some olive trees in the Mediterranean (Olea Europaea) have existed since the time of Christ, yet have a trunk of only 2' to 3' and, if pruned, only reach heights of 25' to 30'. Olive trees (Olea hochstetteri) also grow in eastern Africa and South Africa and have even been introduced to Southern California. Trees that have been left to grow in the wild can reach 90' to 100'. However, the olive tree, wherever it grows, is dense, gnarly and twisty. So why is olive a popular, albeit novelty, wood?

"Olive just has a beautiful creamy color on the outside, going into a marbleized appealing brown-and-black streaked spiderwebbing on the center of the board," says Rick Hearne, owner of Hearne Hardwoods in Oxford, Pa. "It's a nice oily wood; it has a nice aroma while you are working with it and once you have it all sanded and scraped, it has such an amazing soft feel to it. But it is a very dense wood."

"It has tremendous Biblical importance and it is actually beautiful-looking stuff when it is finished," says Myles Gilmer, owner of Gilmer Wood Co. in Portland, Ore. "We get calls from people who want furniture out of it; they want paneling or office suites, usually a lot of times because of its Biblical significance. But it is a species that has all kinds of flaws in it. So when I buy logs from a mill, I always tell them I want them to be less than 24" in diameter because after that they start fluting and then you start getting all these weird inclusions and stuff.

"It's a pretty phenomenal wood. It's very dense, and the other thing is that it is apparently very acidic because if you take a piece of green olive wood and leave it on a piece of steel, it will pit it in a day for so. It rusts it almost instantly."

The wood was used for posts and doors in the Temple of Jerusalem. In modern times, it has been made into canes and brushes. The seeds have been used to make rosaries. And the fruit is rich in oil, which is not only used to produce olive oil for cooking, but also used in lubricants for soap and perfumes. The fruit is pickled and stuffed with pimentos, making the common olives that we eat today. The oil and fruit are valuable markets for southern Europe. Spain alone produces about 250 million pounds of oil a year, yielding about 700 gallons per acre.

Buying olive wood usually requires guidance from a trusted wood broker.

"The boards look pretty good, but you are always going to need to tell people up front that it is not a perfectly milled board," says Fabs Corte of Cormark International in Weaverville, N.C. "With the olive, as it grows, you can find some pretty good-sized trees, but the problem is that the middle of the tree tends to get some inside rot, so when you cut into the tree there is always some void in the middle. That void can be pretty severe or pretty small. Because of that, you are always going to get some type of defect on the lumber as you are cutting into it."

As long as olive is dried properly (it has a tendency to check), it is a pleasant wood to work with, although it can be somewhat difficult to cut across the grain. Olive is a favorite wood of carvers and turners.

"It's used for things like knife handles, pistol grips, letter openers, furnishing accessories, turned boxes, crucifixes or rosary beads," Gilmer says. "You get this pippy olive, which is almost this burly-type stuff, or crotches, which are really spectacular. I buy logs and saw them through and through. I've had stuff up to 40" to 50" wide and these days the widest is about 2'; lengths are probably 4' to 9' long and you can expect to see a fair amount of defects in them in a log-run board."

Olive doesn't come cheap. Prices start at about $35/bf; figured material has sold for as much as $140/bf. The price reflects the gamble by wholesalers when buying olive logs.

"I've told people in the past, when you cut a red oak tree you might get a nice yield between an FAS all the way down to a nice crating grade, but you'll get a good yield that you can sell to various people and industries," says Corte. "Whereas with olive, your yield isn't going to be as good. It is either OK with a certain amount of defects or it is totally unusable because it is totally cracked up, twisted or has too many voids."

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.

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