Prized for its beauty, harvested for its durability.

In the high tropical forests of Central and South America, well-drained soils furnish nutrients for a variety of dense, durable hardwoods sought for maritime use, heavyconstruction, and furniture. The Spanish began harvesting in Latin American forests in the early 1500s to provide timber for boatbuilding and repair. By the early 1900s, however, steel ships had replaced wooden ones, and the interest in tropical forests by both Europeans and Americans shifted to appearance-grade woods for furniture. Although history fails to provide us with a shopping list of species from either harvest period, it's probable that the wood we know today as goncalo alves has always been sought. That's because goncalo alves, considered one of the most beautiful of tropical woods, has a tough reputation, too. Strong and durable, it's used for construction in its homeland and secondarily for fine furniture. Woodworkers elsewhere treasure the wood for decorative items and veneer accents.

Machining methods

Both species of goncalo alves, because they are hard, heavy, and dense, require power tools for successful working. The wood takes a toll on cutting edges, too, so use carbide-tipped blades and cutters. Then, remember these helpful tips:

  • Feed this dense wood slowly into the planer. If you find that your stock has interlocked grain, feed it at a slight angle of about 15°. If any tearout occurs, take a shallower cut.
  • Goncalo alves' density also means that you should rip it with a rip-profile blade that has no more than 28 teeth. This allows sawdust to clear and avoids burning from heat buildup.
  • Crosscut wood with lots of figure with the help of a backing board to prevent tearout.
  • In jointing, take shallow passes of 1/32" to reduce tearout.
  • At the drill press, a slower rpm (about 250) won't burn this hard wood. In deep drilling, back the bit out once in awhile to clear it.
  • You'll get the best results in routing goncalo alves if you use bits with ballbearing pilots. Combine this with a consistent feed rate and you'll avoid burning.
  • Due to the extreme hardness of this wood, you won't want to skip any grits in sanding or you'll leave scratches. Also avoid cross-grain sanding. You'll find that a cabinet scraper may give better results than sanding.
  • Be sure to lubricate screws.
  • In gluing goncalo alves, first wipe the wood in the joints with a solvent to clear natural extractives. Then, because its density resists glue absorption, use an adhesive with a longer open time, such as woodworker's white glue. Put on a light coat, briefly join the pieces, then pull them apart and let the glue set up a bit before reassembling the wood.
  • Although goncalo alves takes a high luster from simple polishing, you'll want to give it a clear finish to show off its beauty.

Carving comments

Goncalo alves is hard and dense, so nothing but power-carving tools with carbide-tipped burrs will do. Start with medium-cut burrs and progress to fine ones. Coarse burrs can chip the wood.

Wood identification

Goncalo alves belongs to a large family of trees (Anacardiaceae) that claims over 600 species. Its relatives include the tropical cashew, pistachio, and the mango. A cousin, the smoke tree, often ornaments North American lawns, and except for its smaller size, bears much resemblance to its Latin American relation. The grayish-white sapwood of goncalo alves gives little notice of the color that lies underneath. In shades of brown and reddish-brown—frequently with dark, nearly black longitudinal stripes—the heartwood can be stunning, especially with Astronium fraxinifolium. Even in its plainer forms, goncalo alves has a soft luster. With age, the color deepens to a mahogany-like, dark-red hue. A dense wood with a specific gravity that can approach .95 (double that of hard maple), goncalo alves also has a texture that varies from fine to medium and a grain that varies from straight to interlocked and wavy. The wood weighs about 60 pounds per cubic foot air dry and rates as highly resistant to moisture, rot, and insect attack.


Turning tips

  • Unless you happen to get a highly figured piece of goncalo alves with alternating grain densities, the wood turns easily as long as you have sharp tools. In the former case, be careful of tearout.
  • In sanding your turning, don't skip grits or you'll get hard-to-remove scratches.

Uses in woodworking

Goncalo alves esteem with North American and European craftsmen. It's made into high-value items such as archery bows, billiard-cue butts, jewelry boxes, and turnings. In veneer form, it becomes panels and decorative accents on fine furniture.

Shop-Tested Techniques

Any exceptions-and special tips pertaining to this issue's featured wood species-appear under other headings on this page.

  • For stability in use, always work wood with a maximum moisture content of 8 percent.
  • Feed straight-grained wood into planer knives at a 90° angle. To avoid tearing, feed figured wood or twisted grain at a slight angle (about 15°), and take shallow cuts of about 1/32".
  • For clean cuts, rip with a rip-profile blade having 24-32 teeth. Smooth crosscutting of hardwood requires at least a 40-tooth blade.
  • Avoid using twist drills. They tend to wander in the wood and cause breakout. Use brad-point bits and a backing board under the workpiece to reduce wood tearout.
  • Drill pilot holes for screws.
  • Rout with sharp, preferably carbide-tipped, bits. Take shallow passes to avoid burning.
  • Carving hardwoods means fairly shallow gouge bevels-15° to 20°-and shallow cuts.


Although not readily available as lumber, goncalo alves is handled by mail-order, specialty-wood dealers. In 1" thickness it costs about $9 per board foot. As veneer for marquetry, expect to pay about $1.25 per square foot.