Materials Used in Ornamental Turning

The Wood Database is a great online reference tool, so links to it are added when possible. Images of the wood on this site are courtesy of The Wood Database.

As a side note, Eric Meier at The Wood Database has created a poster showing the woods in a form that is really nicely done. I have one in my shop and reference it often.

Material Notes Sample
African Blackwood This is an excellent wood for ornamental turning, and gets used often. It is quite hard (Janka hardness = 16,320 N), so expect to resharpen often. That hardness enables it to hold shapes very well, and the relative plain-ness of the wood allows for the ornamental turning cuts to show well.

If you choose to finish it (most ornamental turners don't), you should test the finish on an unnecessary piece.

It is very expensive, so I recommend making a prototype using another wood (e.g., Ash or Maple) to :

  1. ensure the design is what you want, and
  2. that you have worked how you will achieve that design

Entry in The Wood Database

Ash This is a good wood for prototyping. It is very available, and very low cost or even free. It's not too hard, so you won't have to resharpen often, and it shows cuts well enough to determine if the design is good or not.

Entry in The Wood Database

Artificial Ivory Al Collins has used this material to make some amazing objects (you can see some of his work on his Instagram page). He does this using fixed tool work.

Artificial Ivory is typically made from a resin.

(none available)
Black Walnut This is an acceptable wood for ornamental turning. But it is the color, and the relative plain-ness of the wood which is the draw.

Different cutter shapes may be helpful. I have found that a rounded edge (rather like a spoon) leaves a better finish. Pointed cutters leave some "fuzz" on the cut.

Finishing this may be necessary to bring out the cuts. Something simple with low sheen is recommended. If you do choose to finish it, you should test the finish on an unnecessary piece.

It is highly available, and moderately priced. Making prototypes is not critical; however it might be useful to ensure the design is what you want.

Entry in The Wood Database

Bone Bonnie Klein has used this material to make some amazing turned boxes. She recently showed some really nice objects made from the femur of a cow. (none available)
Desert Ironwood This is an excellent wood for ornamental turning, though it is less used as it has natural beauty, and the ornamentation could easily become gaudy. It is quite hard (Janka hardness = 14,500 N), so expect to resharpen often. That hardness enables it to hold shapes very well.

Finishing this may be necessary to bring out the cuts. Something simple with low sheen is recommended. If you do choose to finish it, you should test the finish on an unnecessary piece.

It is costly, so I recommend making a prototype using another wood (e.g., Ash or Maple) to :

  1. ensure the design is what you want, and
  2. that you have worked how you will achieve that design

Entry in The Wood Database

Dogwood This is an excellent wood for ornamental turning, though I have seen little use of it. The wood is highly dense but not as hard as woods like African Blackwood (Dogwood's Janka hardness = 9,560 N). The high density enables it to hold shapes very well, and the relative plain-ness of the wood allows for the ornamental turning cuts to show well.

Finishing this may be necessary to bring out the cuts. Something simple with low sheen is recommended. If you do choose to finish it, you should test the finish on an unnecessary piece.

It is not highly available, but is not costly. Due to the lack of availability, I recommend making a prototype using another wood (e.g., Ash or Maple) to :

  1. ensure the design is what you want, and
  2. that you have worked how you will achieve that design

Entry in The Wood Database

Hard Maple This is an acceptable wood for ornamental turning, but care must be taken to not burn it with the cutters. The wood is fairly dense, and it holds shapes very well. But it is the lightness in color, and the relative plain-ness of the wood which is why it is chosen for ornamental turning often.

Different cutter shapes may be helpful. I have found that a rounded edge (rather like a spoon) leaves a better finish.

Finishing this may be necessary to bring out the cuts. Something simple with low sheen is recommended. If you do choose to finish it, you should test the finish on an unnecessary piece.

It is highly available, and moderately priced. Making prototypes is not critical; however it might be useful to ensure the design is what you want.

Entry in The Wood Database

Holly This is an excellent wood for ornamental turning, and gets used often. The wood is fairly dense, and it holds shapes very well. But it is the lightness in color, and the relative plain-ness of the wood which is why it is chosen for ornamental turning often.

Finishing this may be necessary to bring out the cuts. Something simple with low sheen is recommended. If you do choose to finish it, you should test the finish on an unnecessary piece.

It is not highly available, and is costly. Due to the cost and lack of availability, I recommend making a prototype using another wood (e.g., Ash or Maple) to :

  1. ensure the design is what you want, and
  2. that you have worked how you will achieve that design

Entry in The Wood Database

Lignum Vitae This is an excellent wood for ornamental turning, though it is less used as it has natural beauty, and the ornamentation could easily become gaudy. It is quite hard (Janka hardness = 19,510 N), but the oiliness helps to not have to resharpen often. That hardness enables it to hold shapes very well. It has a natural beauty, but in a simple kind of way that allows for the ornamental turning cuts to show well.

Finishing is probably not necessary due to the inherent oils. If you do choose to finish it, take this into account. You should test the finish on an unnecessary piece.

It is fairly expensive, so I recommend making a prototype using another wood (e.g., Ash or Maple) to :

  1. ensure the design is what you want, and
  2. that you have worked how you will achieve that design

Entry in The Wood Database

Mopane, Mopani This is an excellent wood for ornamental turning, though it is less used as it has natural beauty, and the ornamentation could easily become gaudy. It is quite hard (Janka hardness = 15,060 N), so expect to resharpen often. That hardness enables it to hold shapes very well. It has a natural beauty, but in a simple kind of way that allows for the ornamental turning cuts to show well.

If you choose to finish it (most ornamental turners don't), you should test the finish on an unnecessary piece.

It is somewhat expensive, so I recommend making a prototype using another wood (e.g., Ash or Maple) to :

  1. ensure the design is what you want, and
  2. that you have worked how you will achieve that design

Entry in The Wood Database

Pear This is an excellent wood for ornamental turning, and gets used often. The wood is easily worked, and it holds shapes well. But it is the color, and the relative plain-ness of the wood which is why it is chosen for ornamental turning.

Finishing this may be necessary to bring out the cuts. Something simple with low sheen is recommended. If you do choose to finish it, you should test the finish on an unnecessary piece.

It has reasonable availability, and is not costly.

Entry in The Wood Database

Pink Ivory This is an excellent wood for ornamental turning, and gets used when the color is need for the piece being made (e.g., multi-layered pieces). It is quite hard (Janka hardness = 14,370 N), so expect to resharpen often. That hardness enables it to hold shapes very well. It has a natural beauty, but in a simple kind of way that allows for the ornamental turning cuts to show well.

If you choose to finish it (most ornamental turners don't), you should test the finish on an unnecessary piece.

It is not highly available, and is costly. Due to the cost and lack of availability, I recommend making a prototype using another wood (e.g., Ash or Maple) to :

  1. ensure the design is what you want, and
  2. that you have worked how you will achieve that design

Entry in The Wood Database