The most expensive woods in the world are used for fine art pieces, musical instruments, jewelry, cooking utensils, and even pencils.
For millennia, wood has been a staple of civilization. There is no doubt that wood shaped the course of history. From early man’s use of twigs and bark for heat to a later reliance on wood and plant products for daily needs. As civilizations developed, the variety of woods gave rise to other uses. From shelter and boats, for casks and barrels, for farm implements and cooking utensils.
Wood’s versatility fueled human creativity, and as diverse cultures developed, wood transformed the world. The growth of civilizations is intertwined with the story of wood.
Local availability of wood once had a limiting effect on the kinds of products and uses that evolved. To some extent, it still has. But, in a global economy, it’s possible to obtain exotic hardwoods or scarce woods for special uses almost anywhere in the world. Today, demand for some of these woods has never been stronger, with prices to match.
Table of Contents
- Common Types of Wood
- Wood Uses and Characteristics
- Desirable Exotic Woods
- Here are 11 of the world’s most expensive woods available today
Common Types of Wood
Wood is an organic material, the porous and fibrous structural tissue found in trees and “woody” plants. It is the basic building block of the plant and performs a kind of support function for trees and growing plants. In the living plant, the tissue is the systemic supplier of water and nutrients from the roots to the stems and leaves. While it is common to think of only the tree trunk as wood, the broad term can also refer to the spreading branches and roots of various plants.
A traditional distinction has been made between hardwoods obtained from leaf-bearing trees and softer woods obtained from cone-bearing trees. But this distinction is confusing because some coniferous trees actually produce hardwoods. Traditional hardwoods include cherry, oak, maple, mahogany, walnut, teak, and rosewood. Common softwoods are pine, ash, and hickory, along with beech, birch, fir, cedar, spruce, hemlock, and redwood.
Some woods have been the go-to choices of woodworkers across time. Wood choices have changed throughout the centuries, however. Bowling balls were once made almost exclusively of Lignum Vitae, a hardwood from a slow-growing flowering bush/tree found primarily in Central America and the northern portion of South America.
The introduction of rubber changed that in the early part of the 20th Century. However, cricket balls today are still made from this relatively rare wood that looks painted, even in its natural state.
Wood Uses and Characteristics
There are many regional varieties of woods that have also been prized for their unique characteristics, traded in world markets, and used for both functional and artistic purposes. Some of them are scarce today due to overharvesting or disease. Current concerns with sustainability and deforestation have led the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to place some species on the Red List and to discourage the use of certain woods in an effort to reduce the possibility of extinction of some at-risk trees.
It is estimated that up to 1,400 trees are critically endangered, and in need of immediate conservation action. Three of the woods on this list — African Blackwood (Mpingo), known as the national tree of Tanzania, Honduras Rosewood, a member of the Dalbergia genus currently found in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, and Macassar Ebony, also known as Striped Ebony — are considered endangered.
Wood remains the most common material on the planet, and its use in everyday life is so widespread that most people don’t think twice about the variety or the characteristics of the wood they use. From pencils and cooking spoons to salad tongs or cutting boards, from house framing to outdoor decks, from pianos to violins, wood is a part of everyday life.
Different woods are highly prized for their unique characteristics. Some command expensive prices because of their rarity or extreme durability, others because they represent a challenge to work with. Still, others enjoy high popularity because of their beauty, and products made from these woods are considered a status symbol. We should make it clear that these are not the woods you would use for fencing a yard, flooring a normal home, or building kitchen cabinets, although fine furniture, musical instruments, and decorative art might certainly be made from these varieties.
Desirable Exotic Woods
Demand for the most expensive woods varies, and prices can fluctuate substantially from one year to the next. While much lumber is sold by the board foot, some of the more exotic wood prices, particularly those suitable for smaller projects and unusual use, are per kilogram. Both hobbyists and professional woodworkers pay attention to the pricing and determine their needs accordingly.
Here are 11 of the world’s most expensive woods available today
1. African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon)
Price: $100 per board foot
A log can cost approximately $9,000; the price for processed timber in 2016 was listed as $13,000 per cubic square meter. It is commonly priced at a minimum of $100 per board foot.
Typically a small tree found commonly only south of the Sahara Desert in Africa, this extremely slow-growing tree has a heartwood that is dense, fine-grained, and melodious. It is heavy and hard, prized for its deep purple, nearly black color, and is used primarily for art pieces and musical instruments, both woodwinds and small stringed instruments. It is an oily wood and does not allow rust to form on tools.
Historically used for the handles of early European medical instruments, the wood was widely exported from British, French and German colonies in Africa, and also used for furniture inlays and turnery. The tree itself grows to only about 50 feet in height, is oddly shaped, and is not fully mature until it’s about 200 years old. Most trees are harvested today at an age of 70 to 80 years, with an extensive replanting program in place to assure future supply.
This makes African Blackwood the most expensive wood in the world.
Price: Fine Ebony will command a price of up to $10,000 per kilogram
Impressive almost-black Ebony wood is harvested from several species of trees of the genus Diospyros that grows throughout the Tropics. The bark of Ceylon and Indian Ebony trees appears rough and charred, almost black. It hides a layer of pure white wood that can be two inches in width, surrounding a deep charcoal, almost-black core. It is the heartwood that is used for veneers and artistic applications.
The wood has a flat grain, is smooth and dark, and can be polished to a high gloss. This makes it extremely valuable for use as piano keys, decorative items, and fine furniture. Ebony is also extremely dense and heavy, and it will sink in water. Other varieties of ebony, including some grown in the United States, can be almost greenish-black in appearance.
Price: Large Sandalwood chunks for craft purposes can be purchased for about $85 per 100 grams. Wood chip prices range between $70 and $250 per kilogram. Lumber for furniture or artistic uses would be more expensive.
Sandalwood, aromatic, yellow-gold wood is derived from a slow-growing tree found throughout Southeast Asia and the islands of the South Pacific, is more important in Oriental ceremonies and religious rites than it is for woodworking. In its powdered form, it is used for Brahman caste marks and as sachets, and the oil is an ingredient in perfumes, scented candles, soaps, and incense. It is also a component of folk medicine. However, the heartwood is also prized for furniture and ornamental boxes. The white sapwood is often used for fans. Sandalwood is now being commercially grown and harvested in Australia, primarily for its oil.
Price: From approximately $6 a board foot up to slightly more than $40, depending on color and quality.
American Holly is a white wood that is said to be excellent for turning, crafts, carving, and inlay purposes. Because of its very pale, almost white coloration and smooth surface texture, it is also popular for piano and organ keys, and for inlay lines. However, holly trees are small and slow-growing, making it extremely rare. Holly is subject to a unique form of fungal staining that gives it a blue-gray tone, and it must be harvested in winter and dried quickly.
Not often thought of as a wood, it is a distinctive choice for fine turnery and exotic uses. It is considered a hardwood with a close grain. Holly wood also takes stains easily and is sometimes dyed black as a substitute for Ebony.
5. Pink Ivory
Price: Bright, vibrant colors can range up to $80 a board foot.
Quite rare, Pink Ivory is esteemed for its color, the brighter and more brilliant, the better. It can range in tone from a pinkish brown to a brilliant deep, almost purple-red. Hard and strong with a fine texture, this exotic rare wood is native to southern Africa, predominantly Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa, where its harvesting is sustainable and controlled. The wood is employed for turning and for artistic purposes. It makes beautiful small bowls for a variety of uses and is also popular for knife handles and jewelry.
6. Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra)
Price: Up to $70 per board foot, definitely not a bargain price.
One of only two woods in the world known for a pattern known as “spider-webbing,” this unique wood can range in tone from dark chocolate to a red or purple cast with darker streaks. It also is known for lighter, yellowish sapwood that adds distinctive appeal to the darker heartwood. Although the grain is typically straight, it can also be wavy or spiraled, giving it a distinctive appearance. Considered one of the most durable types of wood, it resists insects and decay, is easy to work with hand tools or machine tools, and typically is easy to finish. However, it tends to be oily and sometimes does not take well to glue.
Brazilian Rosewood, also known by a variety of other names, is used for everything from flooring to furniture, musical instruments and small art pieces, and for veneer and solid wood projects. It is well known and expensive, but durable and requires little care under normal conditions. Its use has been exploited, but it is now more strictly controlled.
Price: Up to $60 per board foot.
The second wood to be known for its spider-webbing pattern, ziricote is a heavy, medium to dark brown wood from Mexico and Central America. It is a popular choice for cabinetry and furniture, musical instruments such as guitars, and gunstocks. Known for its decay-resistance, and lasting good looks, it is widely available, and some of the finer wood has a distinctive green or purple cast.
8. Macassar Ebony
Price: The raw wood will typically sell for at least $65 a board foot in today’s market, possibly much higher.
Durable, but difficult to work with, this special wood is also known as Striped Ebony. A rare wood best suited for indoor use. It has a striking appearance, but does not tolerate insects well, and can split during the drying cycle. Grown in Southeast Asia, it often appears yellowish or red-brown with darker stripes, and provides a dramatic look for large pieces of furniture that can be very pricey! It is extremely rare and is currently on the endangered species list. It is still possible to finds smaller products — including pens and mechanical pencils, pool cues, and musical instruments made of Macassar Ebony.
Price: Up to $62 a board foot.
A native species to the Hawaiian Islands, this wood’s appearance can be similar to Mahogany. Because some of Hawaii’s native forests have been cleared for grazing land, and young trees are favorites of grazing animals, it is becoming more scarce and prices seem destined to climb. It is popular for guitars and ukeleles, and its golden or light red-brown hues and simple grain make it an appealing choice for cabinets and furniture. Koa bowls are widely used on the island, and represent favorite tourist souvenirs.
Price: Commonly sells for between $50 and $65 per board foot.
Cocobolo is a Central American wood that is widely prized by owners of expensive handguns and knives. It’s a beautiful wood that ranges from orange to reddish-brown with dark traces running through the grain. Only the heart of the wood is used and it is unique in that the color of the heartwood changes after being cut. Cocobolo is dense and hard, can be polished to a glossy sheen, and has a nice tone. Musicians and chess players treasure the wood as much as sportsmen. It is used to craft guitars, flutes, clarinets, and bagpipes as well as chess pieces and weapon grips.
11. Bubinga (African Rosewood)
Price: $17 and up per board foot.
Coming in last on our most expensive woods list is Bubinga. It’s sometimes referred to as a Rosewood substitute, even though it is not even of the same family as true Rosewood. It is a smooth, stunning wood of the genus Guibourtia. Different examples of the wood can vary dramatically in shade and grain pattern. That said, it is popular because the trees grow to be immense. Large slabs are available with natural edges and used for dramatic tabletops, desks, and conference tables.
It’s also a popular veneer and is used to produce not only fine furniture but musical instruments, cabinetry, turnings, and specialty items. All true Rosewood varieties are much more expensive, and several have become increasingly scarce, making Bubinga an even better choice.