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Desert Ironwood title

I have recently discovered Desert Ironwood, Olneya tesota, and want to use it in my intarsia, as well as try to carve it, or make jewelry and beads from the scraps. The lettering that you see on this page is electronically "carved" out of a scan of the actual wood, to give you an idea of its appeal.

I have heard that it is a very toxic wood, but can find no information supporting this claim. If you know something about the toxicity, and can document it with a written source, please email me!

I would also like to know what scrollsaw blade would be the best for cutting through this Ironwood. I plan on treating it like ebony or bois d'arc (osage orange), until otherwise guided by those who know better.

My email address is: sunny@iglobal.net Thanks!

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Desert Ironwood
Olneya tesota
Family: Fabaceae
A member of the Pea Family.

Also known as Arizona ironwood, desert ironwood, palo-de-hierro, tesota, palo de fierro and palofierro (which literally translated means "iron rod").

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The Desert Ironwood is a slow-growing, bluish gray-green tree with a broad crown, which is 15 to 25 feet tall, but can grow to 30 feet. The bark is thin and scaly and the branches are sparsely armed with paired, slightly curved, 0.5" long spines at the base of the leaves.

The bluish gray-green leaves are pinnately compound to 2" long with leaflets to 0.75" long, and deciduous; the old leaves fall after bloom, but are quickly replaced with new leaves. Although classified as an evergreen, it is deciduous in hard frosts and cannot endure prolonged freezes. It can, however, tolerate any amount of summer heat.

Desert ironwood leaves

The Ironwood blooms during the months of April, May and June before the new growth of leaves. The trees are filled with showy flowers that range from pink and pale rose-purplish to white, with a sweet pea-like appearance. The flowers are followed by brown, beanlike seed pods, about 2 inches long.

The Ironwood's seeds are eaten by birds and animals and were eaten by the Native American People who once inhabited the foothills. Early settlers used it for firewood and it was used by Native Americans for tool handles and arrowheads.

Phainopeplas birds nest in the Ironwood trees and eat the juicy berries of the parasitic desert mistletoe, which grows on the tree's branches. When these birds fly between trees, they distribute the sticky mistletoe seeds in their droppings. In winter, mule deer also feed on the mistletoe.

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Habitat and Distribution

Desert ironwood tree
The Desert Ironwood grows below the 2500 foot elevation level in the desert and coastal regions of Sonora, Mexico and is found near the sandy wash areas where some deep water is usually available because it requires good drainage and ample water.

The geographic distribution of the native Desert Ironwood is limited to the Sonoran Desert. The Sonora Desert is located in the northwestern part of Mexico and includes part of California and Arizona. The Ironwood grows as small, sparse trees in this area.

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While there are 14 different species of ironwood in the United States, there is only one Desert Ironwood which takes centuries to grow. A large piece of dead wood is very difficult to obtain because the Ironwood tree is generally hollow, commonly cracked and more often than not, as twisted as a sailor's knot.
Desert ironwood bark

The wood is used for furniture and wood carvings, and as a result, in some areas of California and Mexico, mature trees have become rare. The living specimens are now protected, and the removal of the dead wood from the area is strictly regulated. No dead wood less than 100 years old may be taken from the area.

Commercial carving of Ironwood has come about during the past 25 years, mostly done by the Seri Indians of Mexico. Again, only dead trees are used in the carvings, most of which, after having grown for more than half a century, have laid in the desert sun with temperatures exceeding 140 degrees F. for over 100 years.

The dry and relatively ice-free climate in the Sonoran Desert makes decomposition a slow process. Generations of termites and desert millipedes will gnaw, sometimes for hundreds of years, at a majestic deadwood snag, making the nutrients of the dead tree available for the organisms in the ecosystem.

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The Wood

Desert Ironwood has an extremely hard and heavy heartwood, dehydrated by nature over a long period of time. As the name implies, it is one of the heaviest and most dense woods known to man. It is so dense that it will not float, and so hard that it has been used for bearings. One cubic foot of Ironwood can weigh up to 66 pounds.

Scan of Desert Ironwood
Ironwood is appreciated for its beauty, rarity and durability. The natural beauty of its grain and its dark, rich brown color sets it apart from other woods. The fine, dense grain makes it very difficult to carve but also makes it a very beautiful and rare artist medium. A smooth, glass-like sheen can be obtained from countless hours of patient sanding.

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Seri Indian Carvings

Among the inhabitants of the Sonora Desert are the Seri Indians. For centuries the Seri lived in small villages along the east coast of the Gulf of California. Today the Seri live in and around the town of Bahía Kino in northwestern Mexico and have become well known throughout the world for their Ironwood (Palo de Fierro in Spanish) carvings.

The wood is picked up or dug out by hand in the desert, in pieces of different shapes and sizes, mostly small and medium ones. A large carving made only from one piece of wood, with no assembled parts, is a rarity and very valuable( some in the thousands of dollars ).

Desert ironwood carvings

These carvings are created using only hand tools to shape, smooth, and polish the raw wood into beautiful carvings that allude to the wonderful variety of animals and plant life that is predominant in the Arizona-Sonora Desert and Sea of Cortez.

These figures include porpoises, tortoises, sea turtles, whales, sailfish, roadrunners, deer, owls, cacti, ducks, eagles, buffalos and bears. According to tradition, these carvings made from the "sacred tree" bring good fortune and long life.

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Care of Ironwood Carvings

Normal dusting and an occasional application of clear shoe polish (such as Kiwi polish) to renew the rich luster and to bring out the beautiful wood grain is all the care it needs. Use a soft, clean cloth to polish the surface.

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Desert Ironwood Toxicity

I have heard from various woodworkers and lumber dealers that Desert Ironwood is an extremely toxic wood, but I can find no documented information supporting this claim. Looking at pictures of the Seri Indians at work give no indication of any toxicity problems, though the pictures do tend to show them working with the wood while outdoors. If you know something about the toxicity, and can document it with a written source, please email me! In the meantime, it might be prudent to treat this wood as any other unknown exotic and use a dust mask when cutting or sanding.

Since writing the above, I have received several replies to my request for ironwood toxicity information, but all said they either had not heard of a problem with it, had not HAD any problem with it, or that it really wasn't toxic - it was just hype by the Seri indians to protect the wood from commercialization. Well, during a discussion on one of my newsgroups, this information came up:

To: woodworking@egroups.com

Regarding the earlier discussion on wood toxicity and breathing sawdust, I can tell you something I just now learned from experience - Ironwood (the type from the southwest desert) dust is quite toxic. I just got out of the shop where a cut a few pieces for the first time in my life. I wore no mask and came out with a burning, runny nose and sneezing like a banshee (you know what that's like, eh?). Yikes. I am not the wheezy, allergy ridden type by nature - when something gets me like that, I am sure it's not just me


Desert ironwood is supposed to be right up there with the most irritating of the woods because the dust is so fine. We always use dust masks when working with it, or any other wood for that matter.

Once you have an allergic reaction to any wood, all woods will get you from there on out.

Judith Mattart - THE LUMBERLADY
Hardwoods of Yuma
Exotic Woods from the Mountains & Deserts of the World

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Links to Desert Ironwood Carving Sites

JoBa Unique Giftware
Treasures of the Earth
The Treasure Boxx
Design Art by Vaughn Croteau

If you come across any others, please let me know!

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Updated: October 17, 2000