Ironwood is one of the heaviest woods in the world. It weighs about 90 lbs. per cubic foot, making it almost twice as heavy as oak, ash, walnut and other more common woods. This wood is so dense that it sinks in water rather than floating.

Ironwood cannot tolerate freezing temperatures, so it is most prevalent at elevations less than 2,500 feet, along the hot, dry arroyos in Southern Arizona, the eastern edge of Southern California, and down into Sonora, Mexico. An ironwood tree takes several hundred years to reach maturity and at least another 50 years, and possibly up to 1,000 years after it dies to season properly. In the spring the tree blossoms with thousands of small orchid-like lavender flowers, then seedpods containing small beans form. The ripe beans were sometimes ground into flour. If one were to pick the beans while they were fresh and green, the taste would be very like fresh garden peas. Actually, the ironwood tree belongs to the same family of plants as the peas grown in our family gardens.

The Seri Indians who live along the coast and islands of the Sea of Cortez made ironwood carving popular. They made fish hooks, arrowheads and spears. Small pieces of this wood were shaped into seals, dolphins, sharks, porpoises and birds of the area as “toys” for their kids. Because much ironwood has gone into bonfires and fireplaces, carvers and jewelry makers today have difficulty finding wood suitable for this work. Cracks and check marks must be removed before beginning work. 700 to 1,000 lbs. of wood may gave to be cut to get 60 to 70 lbs. of good, solid usable material.

Because of the extreme hardness of this fabulous wood, ordinary woodworking tools dull quickly. This means shaping and sanding the wood smooth is usually done with metal-cutting and lapidary (stone cutting) tools. Some ironwood workers will even use carbide tools. Many workers cut the wood to show outstanding grain and color variations-therefore, no two pieces of jewelry or carvings are alike.

Due to the quantity of natural oil in ironwood, it is usually not necessary to put a finish on either jewelry or carvings. Shellac, varnish or urethane is not used. Ironwood should be finished with fine sandpaper, and then waxed. If the wax luster dulls, simply rub with a soft, dry cloth until the luster returns. Occasionally, a small amount of boot and shoe wax, such as Kiwi Paste wax (brown) can be applied and polished with the soft cloth. Because of the heavy density of ironwood, its fibers will not expand and contract like softer woods. These carvings should be kept out of direct sunlight in extremely hot weather.

Beautiful finished carvings and jewelry can be seen in Gem & Mineral Shows. Color will vary in these lovely pieces of artwork from dark golden yellow to reddish brown and from light brown to almost black.
(From The Aganzer, 02/96, The Rock Vein, Desert Hobbyist, via Scribe, 12/96)