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Argyle Art Nouveau Chair

Argyle Art Nouveau Chair by Matt Sandoval

Yes, you too might be convinced that the wood called purple heart is dyed to get that vivid color. Or maybe that it’s not a wood at all.

It happens every day in our stores where we invariably get asked, “So, c’mon is that really the natural color?”

Well, it most certainly is.

Believe it or not, Purple Heart may come from about 20 species within Peltogyne, which is found throughout Central and South America. The wood from each species is so similar in appearance to one another that the industry accepts them all to be allocated and distributed as one. Trees grow to enormous heights of 170 ft with diameters to 4 ft (but usually 1.5 to 3 ft); boles are straight, cylindrical, and clear for 60 to 90 ft which is why you’ll nearly always get totally clear boards of purple heart.  It’s a great tree that yields a lot of good lumber.

Purple Heart Tree and wood Scan

Purple Heart Tree and wood Scan

The wood is a worldwide favorite due to its deep purple color. Freshly cut, the wood actually shows a dull gray color but it turns purple upon exposure to air and light, and pretty quickly too.  Just set a fresh cut board out in the sun one morning and by afternoon you’ll notice a significant change.

Over time the wood does darken, some to a dark brown and others just to a darker purple. Oil finishes will speed the darkening.

Otherwise, lacquer and water based finishes will hold the color longer.

Tip for Finishing Purple Heart:

Before applying the finish, put your project in the sun for a few hours. This will make the color more intense.

The grain is typically straight but some material may exhibit a particularly interesting roey or curly grain pattern on quarter sawn surfaces.

The wood is hard, heavy and can be pretty rough on tools. Sometimes it may be difficult to work due to hardness and a tendency to splinter when routing, chip when planing, or burn when sawing. If your project calls for screws in the joinery, take precaution by pre-drilling the holes.  On the upside, purple heart glues easily, polishes well, and brings a nice wow factor to the finished project.

Purple heart boards are real, natural wood

Purple heart boards are real, natural wood

There is a high degree of variability in cutting characteristics, depending on the piece of wood or possibly the exact species of Peltogyne. Some wood seems to be relatively soft and easy to cut while other wood is so hard it burns. Watch for burning while routing as it is pretty easy to burn if your cutter is dull or you’re going too slow. Burn marks are pretty difficult to remove. Watch carefully the grain direction when planing boards that show an interlocking grain. It has a nasty habit of tearing out when you least expect it.  One summer my brother, during his college days, worked down in Guyana on some volunteer construction projects. He came back telling us how purple heart was the standard framing lumber they used. Even though they employed green lumber (un-dried) they still bent three nails for every one that made it through.

Turners tend to love working with purple heart, especially with sharp chisels as it can come to a beautiful sheen. And despite its hardness and shop hardships, it’ll always come out looking incredible, like that dramatic art-deco chair built by Matt Sandoval at the top.

Feel free to comment below! Have you used purple heart?  What are your impressions on the wood?

Vice President of Operations – Woodworkers Source
We’re a family-owned lumber & woodworking supply retailer with 3 delightful stores in Arizona, and 35 friendly employees.
Mark oversees the company and creates tutorials on wood finishing and woodworking tips for hardwood lumber.

Discussion, Questions & Answers

  • Carol Colhard

    I have recently acquired some purple heart wood and am not sure of the best way to finish it. I am looking for a deep grain and color with a glass finish. I am going to use it as the top to couch side tables. Any suggestions?

  • Nichole Samson

    what is the growing rate per year for the Purple heart tree?
    What kind of soil in suitable for its growth, as well as its temperature, light and water demand?

    Im an architecture student and currently designing a vertical farm for trees, hypothetically that tress would work what would be its required environment thats fully technologically controlled?

  • MarkC

    My guess is that the color change is largely due to some sort of oxidation of the surface fibers. While it is observed that letting freshly cut wood sit in the sunlight to darken, this effect can occur when indoors and out of direct sunlight. My drill press in my basement has a pile of purple shavings on it that were originally gray, even though there is no direct sunlight. Especially after fine sanding and polishing, I notice that the color deepens dramatically over several days. I have heard from a coworker who made a tabletop from purple heart that waxing the top right after sanding kept the wood looking gray and that it did not drastically darken. This would support my theory that it is oxidation as wax or a surface treatment would prevent oxygen from reaching the wood. I have witnessed firsthand that sunlight will actually fade the color – I placed a block of PHT in a south-facing window which received direct sunlight and after several weeks, the side that faced downwards (no direct light exposure) was a bright, vibrant purple. The other sides also turned purple; however, the sides that faced the window especially were faded and a little gray/brown in hue.

    The company I work for actually uses the wood as a premium material for outdoor benches and furniture because of its durability and toughness. We clearly note to customers that after some time in direct exposure to the elements (sun and rain, etc) the wood will weather and fade to a driftwood appearance, much like virtually any unfinished wood. I wouldn’t expect to find any purple wood laying around outside, unless it is from a branch that broke off a PHT tree as it is likely to weather and fade rather quickly.

  • The plot thickens regarding the color of purple heart. One of our employees found a few super bizarre boards. Here’s a picture: http://www.woodworkerssource.com/mm5/graphics/unique/uni-1181_2.jpg

    Albertico, what ever the chemical is, sure;y it’s UV sensitive since exposure to light makes the color appear faster than anything else.

  • Albertico

    Thank you Mark. I am in Costa Rica – working on carving a ” stump ” of a local Purple Heart Tree. It is 4 ft at the base tapering to 39 ” at the top – and is 7 ft 6 ” tall. It may weigh around 5000 pounds and is a real challenge. When I grind down into the wood – it is a light brown/tan – which changes to the bright purple later. It really confused me at first, because I thought there was purple under the surface – but it is just not there. The chemical must be only in the center – because the outer layer does not turn purple. However the outer ” sap wood ” layer must manufacture the chemical to place into the inner core as the tree grows. There are some purple/black veins in the outer layer – which could be the source of the chemical. My guess is that it is a chemical to prevent rot – and provide strength – to support an incredibly dense and heavy tree.

  • 🙂
    You have me stumped. Perhaps a botanist would know?

  • Albertico

    What chemical causes the wood to turn purple ? I don’t know is a legitimate answer.

  • Albertico

    What chemical causes the purple color ?

  • Alvaro

    Nice and awesome colored wood, but as stated above very difficult to work with. It is very important to use UV finishing to avoid oxidation, which takes away the impressive and unnatural color it has. End grain working is the worst with this species, a real pain…

  • Yes, Peter, the white patches are likely sapwood. Thanks for your input!

  • Peter Cales, Omaha

    Great overview. I’ve worked with purpleheart a litte – even have a half-finished, abandoned chair made from it in my shop. It definitely has that “wow” factor, and I get the same questions about whether it’s a natural color. Like walnut, I’ll occasionally find some lengths that have patches of white, which I assume are sapwood. That makes for a pretty interesting contrast. I think it’s best as an accent, such as with plugs or inlay, because of the intensity of the color.