World's 5 Most Valuable Trees for Lumber

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Black Gabon Ebony (Diospyros crassiflora)

Grade ebony Black wood. Cameroon ebony (Diospyros crassiflora)
Grade ebony Black wood. Cameroon ebony.

Unfortunately, many high value trees are located in tropical forests and sought out with a passion. Many species of ebony are considered to be endangered by some environmental organizations. With that said, here are trees that produce some of the most valuable lumber as determined by price per board foot (bf).

Botanical facts: Black ebony trees include Gabon (or Gaboon) and Cameroon ebony and are in the plant kingdom genus of Diospyros (the same family as our persimmon). The tree's older heartwood is often jet-black and wood grain is hard to see on polished wood. Dark brown or grayish-brown streaks may be present on the outer portions of the heartwood. It is a highly prized tree of the lowland-rainforests of central Africa. It has been considered to be an endangered tree by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Products made from ebony:  Ebony is a  very hard wood and durable with very fine pores. The wood polishes to a high luster is among the most expensive of all available lumbers. The small size of the tree limits the available wood which is in high demand for ornamental wood stock.

It is used to make sculptures, carvings, pool cues, doorknobs, tool and knife handles, gun grips, the black keys on pianos, organ-stops, guitar fingerboards and bridges, and chess pieces. It is the wood of choice for the fingerboards, tailpieces, and tuning pegs used on all orchestral stringed instruments, including violins, violas, cellos, and double basses.

Prices $ per board foot:  Ebony wood is sold by grade and quality. You can expect to pay from $70 to $100 per bf value. When compared to North American black walnut's $5 bf value - this wood is 20 times more expensive that Juglans nigra.

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Pink Ivory (Berchemia zeyheri)

Macassar Ebony & Pink Ivory box. Ian Burt/Flickr

I am listing these tree values by comparing their lumber prices to other World woods. In the case of pink ivory, much of its value has to do with small tree size and tree scarcity. I have not found pink ivory listed as endangered. With that said, this species should be considered as one of the most valuable solid wood products as determined by price per board foot (bf).

Botanical facts: The pink ivory tree produces a drupe fruit that is delicious to taste. This fruit as well as other parts of the tree have been used traditionally as remedies and medicines.The tree grows in various parts of Africa but is most noted as a "common" tree of South Africa. The tree is protected and sustainably maintained in SA where it is only felled by a very limiting permit system.

The tree takes hundreds of years to reach a size suitable for large carvings and ornaments so there is harvest pressure on smaller trees. This scarcity of large trees makes it nearly impossible to find a large pink ivory with the potential to saw large dimensions of solid wood.

The heartwood can range from an almost neon pink, to a deep red. Typically the most valuable pieces of pink ivory are a vibrant pink. Sawn pink ivory needs to be dried over many years to produce quality products. This is a complicated process and is exacting to avoid cracking.

Products made from pink ivory:  The tree's wood is very desirable ornamental turning wood that has a fine grain and can be polished into beautiful objects. It is extremely hard and dense and has the ability to display very fine, carved details.

Because smaller wood blanks can be turned with precision, it is in great demand for pen turnings. Other uses for pink ivory are carvings, veneers, wood inlay, knife handles, billiard cues, chessmen, and other turned objects.

Prices $ per board foot:  pink ivory wood is sold by grade and quality and usually air dried under exacting conditions. You can expect to pay from $80 to $100 per bf value. When compared to North American black walnut's $5 bf value - this wood is 20 times more expensive that Juglans nigra.

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African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon)

African blackwood sliced log. Mogano/German Wikipedia Common

African blackwood may have been the first wood to be called "ebony" and its use dates back to ancient Egypt. The tree is considered to be among the hardest and densest of woods in the world based on density tests on some 285 species.

Botanical facts: African blackwood is actually in the rosewood family, its scientific name is Dalbergia melanoxylon with other common names like Grenadilla and Mpingo.  It is a spiny grey-barked small tree and native to dry savanna regions of central and southern Africa.

The tree is an important timber species in its native areas despite the tree's slow growth. As with most expensive woods the African tree is generally small and gnarly. Like pink ivory, the  available boards of blackwood are typically narrow even-though large clear sections are occasionally harvested from older trees.

Products made from African blackwood: The favorite use of this wood is in the manufacture of musical instruments and fine furniture. The tonal qualities of African Blackwood are particularly valued when used in woodwind instruments, principally clarinets, oboes, transverse flutes, piccolos, Highland pipes, and Northumbrian pipes.

Prized and valuable clear sections sawn from the tree are used to make bookmatched guitar backs. Other uses include inlay, carving, tool handles and other turned objects.

Prices $ per board foot:  As with all expensive wood African blackwood is sold by grade and quality and usually air dried under exacting conditions. You can expect to pay from $60 to $80 per bf value. When compared to North American black walnut's $5 bf value - this wood is 16 times more expensive that Juglans nigra.

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The Rosewoods (Dalbergia spp.)

Guitar with reclaimed Brazilian rosewood back
Brazilian rosewood (reclaimed). Larry Jacobsen/Flickr

The worldwide popularity of acoustic guitars and the unique tonal properties of a Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) backed instrument has ultimately limited the species' use. This particular rosewood was dramatically over-harvested in Amazon forests, in part because of this popularity. In 1992, the tree was listed in the CITES most restrictive category of endangered species.

"Several substitutes have been used in recent years, primarily East Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia). Hence, for a multitude of reasons, differentiating between true Brazilian Rosewood and many of its close cousins can be very useful."  This is according to The Wood Database in its publication Distinguishing Brazilian Rosewood, East Indian and Other Rosewoods.

Botanical facts: All true rosewood species belong to the genus Dalbergia. As I have mentioned, the premiere Brazilian rosewood is now legally purchased only from pre-sawn remnants of old exported lumber. You can still purchase similar wild rosewood lumber.

The most popular substitute rosewood wood comes from Dalbergia latifolia known as East Indian Rosewood or sonokeling. It is native to India and grown in Southeast Asian plantations. This species has a magnified pore density twice as numerous as the Brazilian redwood and is a good check for authenticity.

Other substitute commercial rosewood species are: the exploited Madagascar rosewood,  cocobolo and kingwood. All true rosewoods have a distinct, rose-like scent when being worked.

Products made from rosewood: Other non-guitar related products made from rosewood are veneers, fine furniture, cabinetry, flooring, turned objects, and other small wooden specialty items.

Prices $ per board foot: High quality rosewood can be very expensive and questionable sources need to be investigated. Remember that Brazilian rosewood sales are generally limited to reclaimed or pre-existing pieces of lumber.

You can expect to pay from $45 to $55 per bf value for mill-run rosewood. When compared to North American black walnut's $5 bf value - this wood is 11 times more expensive that Juglans nigra.

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Lignum Vitae

Wood of Argentine lignum vitae (Bulnesia Sarmientoi)
Argentine lignum vitae. Ibbel~commonswiki

Lignum vitae is Latin for "wood of life" and the name comes from its natural medicinal uses to treat a variety of medical conditions, often ingested in the form of a brewed tea. Alternate names include palo santo (Spanish for "holy wood") and "bastard greenheart".

There are actually two small, slow growing trees with the scientific names Guaiacum officinale and Guaiacum sanctum that are sawn, milled and sold under the name lignum vitae. This valuable wood is listed CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) as potentially endangered. The good news for this tree is that wood demand is down due to the rising use of alternate materials.

Botanical facts: Lignum vitae is one of the most dense woods being traded on the World lumber market. One of its key identifying factors - it will not float in water. Putting this in perspective, wood is 2.5 times as dense as hickory and 7 times as dense as yellow pine.

Its durability is legendary because it is rot-resistant when submerged in water or in continuous contact with the ground. Lignum Vitae's natural oils protect the tree from rot and provides self-lubrication that gives the wood excellent wear resistance.

Products made from lignum vitae: Many of the products made from this tree are now replaced alternate material that are just as effective for the purpose intended but at less cost.

Heavy balls like cricket balls, lawn bowls and croquet mallets need the weight to excell at the sport. The sports now have less expensive substitutes. Weight and durability needed by carvers mallets and morters and pestles are no longer used to grind andby carve.

Water-lubricated shaft bearings for ships and hydro-electric power plants, propeller bearings, sheaves of blocks on sailing vessels were made of lignum vitae until the introduction of modern synthetics.

Major users of this wood today are craftsmen using mallets, classic ship builders/refitters and wood turners.

Prices $ per board foot:  This heavier than water wood is often sold by the pound. You can expect to pay from $30 to $40 per bf value. When compared to North American black walnut's $5 bf value - this wood is 8 times more expensive that Juglans nigra.