The Characteristics, Benefits and Uses of Olive Wood

Derived from the trees of Olea europaea (or European Olive), olive wood has a long history, dating back thousands of years. It boasts a long life expectancy too, with the oldest known olive tree still alive today reportedly being planted in Portugal at the beginning of the Atlantic Bronze Age some 3350 years ago.

Famous for both its oil and its fruit, the olive tree’s wood has also been used for centuries in furniture making and a multitude of other industries. This wonder wood is still widely used today, and you might be surprised at its many benefits. In this article, we will discuss some of the characteristics and uses of olive wood and what makes it so special.

What is Olive Wood?

Olive wood is an extremely strong, hard, dense, and durable wood originating from the Olea europaea and O. capensis olive trees around the eastern Mediterranean coast of Europe and Africa.

Most olive trees grow to between 25-50ft and a diameter of around 3-5ft with a few having reached heights of up to 130ft.

Noted for its deep, rich colour, fine texture, and intriguing grain pattern, olive wood has become favoured by artisans and carpenters globally for its beauty, strength, and versatility.

Although widely used in the creation of high-end fine furniture, the twisted fashion in which olive grows makes it hard to obtain large, straight pieces of lumber. It is most commonly sawn into smaller sections and used to craft more compact indoor furniture, decorative objects, and luxury kitchenware.

Symbolism

The olive branch has long been a symbol of peace and victory. Historically, the leafy branches were offered up to deities in religious rituals and in ancient Greek custom, were intertwined to form wreaths and used to adorn the heads of Olympic champions and war heroes alike in the form of primitive crowns. The widely-used symbol is also featured in the Great Seal of the United States where the eagle in the seal can be seen with an olive branch in its talons, depicting the power of peace.

In Christianity, the olive tree is one of the first and most significant trees mentioned in the Old Testament. Probably the most memorable mention being in the account of Noah’s Ark in Genesis, where a dove returned to the ark with an olive branch to indicate to Noah that the flood was over. Olive wood was used in the building of the Temple of Jerusalem, specifically for the posts and doors. With further mentions in the New Testament, it’s clear that this tree has played an important part in Christian symbolism.

Similarly, in Islam, the Prophet Muhammad is quoted to have said: "Take oil of olive and massage with it – it is a blessed tree". The olive tree has several additional mentions in the Quran and some Muslim Mediterranean countries also use olive tree leaves as incense.

Characteristics

Olive wood has the most wonderful characteristics that make it especially suitable for woodturning and carving. Its unique grain patterns, striking colour, and rich, contrasting tones are the reason this wonder wood is prized by so many across the world. When cut or carved, the distinct, fruity aroma it produces not only makes it a pleasure to work with but can be enjoyed as part of the finished product with the scent often remaining for years.

As the wood ages, its deep brown and creamy caramel colours are known for becoming darker, richer, and even more attractive. Its irregular knots and fascinating marbled texture can be sanded to achieve a highly polished finish, simply adding to its character and charm.

Benefits

The olive tree is renowned for its numerous benefits, with the wood it provides being no exception.

Aside from its natural beauty, olive wood is also a truly sustainable resource making it a very eco-friendly choice for many applications. The trees are not listed as a threatened species and the wood is most often a by-product of the agricultural industry; olive trees live for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, but they eventually stop producing fruit. The trees are also heavily pruned every year following the harvest to increase the olive yield. Most olive wood used commercially today is sustainably sourced from pruning branches or non-fruiting trees.

Due to its unique colours, differing grains, and gnarled appearance, no two items made from olive wood will look exactly the same.

Olive wood is an incredibly hard wood and therefore extremely hard-wearing. This quality has obvious benefits across many uses. Taking kitchen utensils as an example, olive wood spoons remain smooth when many wooden spoons eventually fray at the edges with use.

The olive tree grows extremely slowly which results in a very close, dense grain. This also means that the wood repels stains and odours which has great benefits for both furniture and wooden utensils.

In addition, olive wood is known for having its own natural anti-bacterial properties making it ideal for the production of kitchen utensils and dinnerware.

Uses

Olive wood is famed for its versatility and its suitability for a vast array of uses.

Its visual appeal combined with its superior strength and durability have made olive wood a natural choice for many fine furniture craftsmen in the production of a variety of items from tables and cabinets to smaller, more intricate pieces.

The slow growth of the olive tree together with the commercial value of its fruit have resulted in olive wood and the products made from it becoming quite expensive, especially larger items that require big sections of lumber for manufacture. For this reason, apart from high-end furniture, many of the items we see crafted from olive wood today are smaller more decorative items and homewares such as carved wooden bowls, cutting boards, and similar artisan products.

When it comes to the kitchen, olive wood is a must-have. As we have already mentioned, it contains natural anti-bacterial properties which make it perfect for chopping boards, serving plates, and utensils.

Olive trees themselves are commonly used in landscaping as ornamental garden features due to their wonderfully gnarled trunks and attractive, evergreen foliage.