Qualities of Ironwood (Also Called "Hornbeam")

"American Hornbeam" and "Hop Hornbeam" are hard and strong, especially well suited for tool handles and timber-frame pegs. May 14, 2006

There may be several varieties of iron wood. I believe the variety I have here is American hop hornbeam. I have never seen one that is more than 10 inches or so and most are smaller. Bark is very small grained and light grey in the winter. Has anyone ever sawn this and is it worth the effort? What is the quality of the wood? I found two in my woods that look to be extremely old and since a saw blade log is small and only one to a tree, I'd lie to know if it is special before I cut them down. I got a billion of the things that are maybe the diameter of a quarter on field edges, but only these two that look to be old.

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From contributor T:
I have never sawed ironwood (hornbeam). I have cut it for firewood. It is very abrasive on a chainsaw, very hard and heavy - it makes excellent firewood. It is also an important food source for partridge, etc. There are small nut type fruits on it in the fall. I am not going to saw any if possible. Try one if you like and see how it turns out.

From contributor C:
Hop hornbeam makes good tool handles, or implements such as on a farm or factory that require taking great strain, also wear resistant. Not durable to weather, though.

From contributor B:
Hornbeam makes the strongest pegs for timber framing.

From contributor G:
In the central states, there are two native hornbeams, both also called ironwood. Hop hornbeam, Ostrya virginiana, has light brown shreddy bark and gets the hop hornbeam name from the cluster of overlapping seed pods which resemble a cone of fruits on a hop vine. American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana has smooth grey bark which is often rippled like muscle, causing it to be called muscle-wood in some areas. Sounds like you have the latter. Like the other posters, I've seen it only in specialized uses that take advantage of its strength. Years ago I gave a 5' piece of it to my son for a walking stick and he used to delight in daring other boy scouts to try to break it. To this day, a veteran of much juvenile abuse, it remains unscathed and is probably still getting harder as it stands retired in the corner of his closet.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor R:
Hornbeam, of both kinds, is incredibly strong if it doesn't get wet. A 1" trunk, braced across a 2' gap will hold a grown man. In Minnesota, both hornbeams rarely grow beyond a 4" diameter, and that tree will be over 50 years old. I've only seen one over 6" in 55 years - and that was a wooded area that became a lawn. They normally grow as an under-story tree; they are very leafy, to gather light under taller trees and the area under a grove of hornbeams will be rather open. These groves are a great place to look for ruffed grouse. When hornbeam dries, it checks terribly. This does not seem to weaken it, but I can't imagine how one could get lumber out of it.

Comment from contributor J:
I took down an ironwood (about 8" diameter) while clearing a piece of land, and let it lay about 6 months to spalt. I then cut some sections and dried them, and they split terribly. Then I chose areas that had not split, and sawed them up for knife scales (3/8" x 1 1/2" x 5" each side of knife handle). Epoxy has held well for several years, and a linseed oil finish has stabilized and provides great water resistance. In short, let it split, then use what you can.

Comment from contributor E:
The ironwood you describe as having a sort of "shredded" bark grows up here in Canada too, especially in southern Ontario. Mature trees are 5-6" in diameter. I use ironwood branches and younger trees for making walking canes/sticks. Other writers above are absolutely correct. Itís a hard wood, the second hardest of the hardwoods but not extensively used like oak. Cleaning off the bark and fur is pretty easy but you have to be careful of knife marks - they're a bugger to sand out of the finished product. The wood takes gel stain really well and with a coat of satin varathane. You get a very nice looking finished product.

Comment from contributor M:
I live in central Wisconsin and the largest iron wood I have ever seen was about 12" in diameter. I aged it at about 100 years old. Large iron wood have a beautiful dark grain and finish quite well.

Comment from contributor C:
Here in eastern KY the ironwoods grow along creeks in the hollows mostly. Some also grow on hillsides where I have a few. I use them to turn and make mallets on a lathe. They have beautiful cross sections with distinctive growth rings very close together and evenly spaced. You can control splitting and checking by putting your pieces in two or three layers of paper grocery bags and storing them in a room with a stable temperature. When the paper is dry, the wood will be too. It takes about a month to six weeks.