August 14, 2011 | 6:06 pm CDT
A look at the many branches of the prehistoric olivewood family tree.

If you are looking for dramatic good looks, olivewood lumber and veneers have fit the bill since the days dinosaurs sought the olivewood trees’ shade.

Family Name:
Olea europaea and related species Olea hochstetteri and Olea welwitschii of the Family Oleaceae

Common Names:
Olive, olivewood, genuine olive, European olive, Italian olive, Mediterranean olive.

European olive grows to about 49 feet, while trees from Olea hochstetteri and Olea welwitschii average 80 feet in height but can grow taller. Olea hochstetteri has an average weight of 55 pounds per cubic foot; Olea welwitschii’s average weight is 50 pounds per cubic foot.

Wood needs care when drying to avoid checking or honeycombing, especially with thicker material.

Wood has excellent strength properties.
Material can be difficult to work due to interlocked grain and oily
surface of the wood.

Pre-boring needed when nailing.
Moderate blunting effect to cutting tools.

Finishes well with no difficulty.

Olive trees are widely known for the olive fruit and oil they provide, but the trees do yield beautiful and usable lumber and veneer. Several species of olive trees provide commercial timber. The wood, often known as genuine olivewood, Mediterranean and European olive, comes from the species Olea europaea. East African olive, also known as olivewood, comes primarily from two species: Olea hochstetteri and Olea welwitschii.

All three of the olive species belong to the Oleaceae family, which also includes ash, jasmine and lilac trees. Olea europaea is considered the most important member of the olive family, most probably for its fruit and oil, and was believed to originate in Asia Minor and Syria, according to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees, Timbers and Forests of the World, by Herbert Edlin and Maurice Nimmo. “It has been cultivated since prehistoric times and is now grown all over the Mediterranean region with the best orchards in Spain, France, Italy and more recently introduced in California.”

“Olive trees grow slowly, naturally reaching only a maximum height of about 49 feet and nearly always are pruned to keep the branches low for harvesting,” according to the book.

 Colorful and Durable for Furniture and Flooring Alike

Jim Dumas, owner of Certainly Wood Inc. of East Aurora, NY, said he has seen an increase in interest in Italian olivewood veneer in the past five years, with sales doubling each year.

“Olivewood can have a very wild grain and is very colorful,” said Dumas. “It is popular for artsy furniture, custom pieces and for small specialty items, but would have wider appeal if the wood was available in longer lengths.”

Dumas said drying the lumber and veneer can be tricky. “The material has a tendency to check, so drying must be done carefully and slowly. We are seeing veneers that are problem free, so I am guessing that there have been strides in the technology of drying lumber and veneer.”

Mediterranean olive differs from East African in a few ways, primarily size. Most of the material from the species Olea europaea is available in billets.

The olives from Africa and East Africa tend to be taller. Olea hochstetteri, also known as East African olive, olmasi, ngwe, olivewood, elgon and musharagi, can grow as tall as 80 to 100 feet with heavily fluted boles. It also dries very slowly with a strong tendency to check and warp. Material that is dried too quickly may honeycomb. The U. S. Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory, recommends a kiln schedule of T6-D2 for 4/4 stock and T3-D1 for 8/4 stock.

Olea welwitschii, also known as East African olive, olivewood and loliondo, is used for furniture, cabinetry, paneling and turnery.

Olivewood is also in demand for sculpture and carving work. The wood averages from 50 to 55 pounds per cubic foot. When used as commercial and residential high-end flooring, it offers great durability and resistance to wear. The wood also is sliced into decorative veneer for paneling.

The three species of olivewood can yield extremely attractive figures. Olivewood from all three species is a favorite choice for inlay work and is used to make tool and brush handles, bowls and a variety of specialty items. The heartwood is often pale to medium brown with irregular streaks that vary from brown to dark-brown and dark grey. The sapwood is generally pale yellow and is clearly demarcated from the heartwood.

Other trees from the Olea species include Olea laurifolia from Africa, which is also known as black ironwood; and Olea verrucosa and Olea capensis, also known as cape olive, which come from South Africa. Olea ferruginea is an Indian species, sometimes called ironwood. Olea paniculata from Australia is called marblewood and ironwood. The Japanese tree, Olea fragrans, is famous for its huge, fragrant flowers.

Longevity can take its toll on the trees’ outward appearance. The older Mediterranean olive trees have a very distinctive look, described by Edlin and Nimmo as “weirdly contorted” with “cavity-ridden boles.” Fortunately, the fruit and the wood have retained their beauty.

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