As a medium, wood is strong, beautiful, and endlessly useful. Whether you’re building a home, a breadbox, a musical instrument, or anything else, wood lends itself to multiple projects and purposes. Spruce, fir, pine, cedar, walnut, oak, maple, hickory, and mahogany are the most common woods available. But you’ll never find some kinds of wood at your local hardware store or lumber yard. Here are the rarest types of wood in woodworking, what they’re good for, and why they’re so hard to come by.
One of the most expensive woods in the world, African blackwood is more specifically found in Senegal, Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa. Due to overharvesting and the fact that it takes decades to mature, the wood is hard to come by, and small logs of African blackwood can go for high prices. Its resistance to moisture makes it a perfect wood for musical instruments such as oboes, clarinets, piccolos, pipes, and other woodwind instruments. African blackwood is also used in banjos and knife handles, and it’s especially valued by fine furniture makers.
One of the most expensive woods in the world, sandalwood is prized for its loveliness in appearance and scent. Probably better known for the latter, sandalwood has been used in fragrances for thousands of years, and items created from sandalwood retain its distinctively pleasant odor for a very long time. The tree is so valuable, it’s removed entirely—roots and all—during harvesting since the oils that produce the scent are in abundance in the roots and stump. Sandalwood used to come mostly from India, but again, overharvesting has made it rare there, and most sandalwood is now grown in Australia.
Once upon a time, forests of American chestnut trees grew from the East Coast to the Midwest. An extremely handy wood, American chestnut was used to build everything from barns to telephone poles to furniture. It was known for its strength and resistance to decay. Native Americans and later European settlers found other uses for the tree and its nuts: feeding livestock, making medicines, and more. Unfortunately, the introduction of Japanese chestnut trees to the United States led to the spread of a fungus called Cryphonectria parasitica during the chestnut blight of 1904. Billions of American chestnuts died. Some still exist in small patches here and there, and there are efforts to save the trees, but in woodworking, American chestnut is mostly found in wood reclaimed from older structures.
As you can probably guess from the name, purpleheart wood is named after the rich, purple color of the center of the tree once it’s cut. It grows browner with exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, but it still retains some of its purplish luster. Found in South America and Central America, and most appreciated for its use and beauty in furniture making, musical instruments, and flooring, the wood has become one of the rarest types of wood in woodworking due to overharvesting.