Trees often have chemicals within the wood that are natural deterrents to insect attacks, fungal attack, and to also counter the crowding out from other trees. These same chemicals can affect the woodworker when exposed to the dust or even a simple splinter. To help my fellow woodworkers I have compiled a list of woods that are recognized as causing health issues to humans.
This list is in no way a complete collection of every tree that can cause harm to a woodworker however it is a collection of woods with potential to cause issues to more woodworkers than others. They are listed in alphabetical order, and each has a section dedicated only to that wood.
The notable thing with woodworkers, particularly hobby woodworkers, is the high potential of using strange and unique woods, the kinds of trees that come from a neighbors garden or from sources outside of the commercial lumber yard. The risk of using unknown woods is very real, and I hope this article gets the reader to consider the possible implications before making the first cut. Do your research and get that wood ID’d if you can.
As a woodworker myself, I know first hand about wood and possible health complications. There is a species of wood that I cannot even touch anymore because if I were to do so, I would start to bleed from my nose, I would have sores breakout across my chest and along my arms that would start to bleed. I know that if I were to continue to work with that wood, the health implications are not good, so I refuse to go near the stuff.
So, with that said, lets begin.
|Wood Species||Family||Health risk|
|Cashew tree||Anacardiaceae||Rash, Irritant, lungs|
|Bosse||Meliaceae||Sensitizer, allergies, rash|
|Bubinga||Fabaceae||Skin, possible sensitizer|
|Cedar Western Red||Cupressaceae||Lungs, skin, eyes|
|Cocobolo||Leguminosae||Allergenic, Sensitizer, Lungs, eyes, skin.|
|Mulga||Fabaceae||Skin, wood contains toxins.|
|Oleander||Apocynaceae||Toxic. Avoid completely.|
|Pau Ferro||Fabaceae||Strong sensitizer|
|Rengas||Anacardiaceae||Strong skin irritant.|
|Rosewood, dalbergia||Fabaceae (dalbergia spp)||Irritant and sensitizer|
|Rosewood, brazilian||Fabaceae (dalbergia spp)||Irritant and sensitizer|
|Rosewood, east indian||Fabaceae (dalbergia spp)||Irritant and sensitizer|
|Rosewood, siamese||Fabaceae (dalbergia spp)||Irritant and sensitizer|
|Sneezewood||Rutaceae||Strong nasal irritant|
|Tambootie||Euphorbiaceae||Eye, skin irritant. Toxic|
|Wenge||Fabaceae||Eye, skin, more detail below|
|Yew||Variable. Taxus spp.||Toxic, irritant, heart.|
A member of the Anacardiaceae family.
This tree is a tropical evergreen perennial. The wood has galleries that produce resins that contain anacardic acids that can cause dermatitis. A medical case study that shows the effects of this behavior can be found here. https://www.jbclinpharm.org/articles/a-case-report-on-emsemecarpus-anacardiumem-induced-extensive-irritant-contact-dermatitis-4589.html
Due to the tropical locations that this tree prefers, it is less likely to be used as working stock for woodworkers but is included in the list for the potential for the hand carving woodworker/woodturner to cross paths with it. It can make its way into the hobby woodworkers collection of woods while travelling and is a potential back yard tree in many countries.
As with all woods in this list, there is no certainty that any one wood will cause side effects to any particular person just as there is no guarantee that safety is assured.
The Anacardiaceae family is characterized by several members of this family having documented cases of severe reactions from using tree parts, either fruit, nut, or wood. Please undertake deeper research before considering the wood for use.
A member of the Meliaceae family.
Originates from west and central Africa and is now listed as a vulnerable species.
It is the dust that affects woodworkers and it may cause rashes, trigger allergies, and can sensitize the woodworker to its dust. Nausea and headaches can also result from exposure. Most often used as a veneer.
A member of the Fabaceae family.
This is a large family that is a relative of the common pea, in that they are all nitrogen fixers into the surrounding soil.
The dust from this wood can cause skin and eye aggravation that can lead to lesions. This behavior is similar to sensitivity reactions but I cannot find reference of this wood being recognized or listed as a vector of this issue.
Bubinga has close relatives that are listed on the CITES ii list that is designed to limit exploitation from overlogging of this species.(Guibourtia spp.)
Treat with respect and caution. The bottom section of this article discusses sensitivity in some detail.
Cedar, western red.
A member of the conifers.
This soft wood is well regarded for external applications but can suffer from iron stain where fasteners and moisture connect.
The dust is the issue with this wood and has been linked to nasal cancer as well as eye, skin and respiratory aggravations. A good mask will go a long way to avoiding the problems that this wood may present to the woodworker.
There is no concern on this woods sustainability as yet.
A member of the Leguminosae family.
It is also a member of the Dalbergia genus.
Being a member of this genus includes it within the IUCN Red list of vulnerable wood species and for that reason alone should give pause to the woodworkers plans.
The health risks associated with this wood are dust related and include high potential for allergies, it can trigger eye, skin, and breathing tract aggravation, and is known as a sensitizer.
Approach with caution, and be aware of the dwindling natural stocks of this wood.
A member of the Fabaceae family.
A part of the albizia genus.
Commonly known as Silktree and Pink Siris.
Several similar trees fall under this name and while they are not commercial species the hobby woodworker could come across the wood from time to time.
The health risk to the woodworker is primarily respiratory tract aggravation. Some woodworkers may have rashes and eye irritation. Not a large tree so what wood is used is likely turned.
A member of the fabaceae family and is an Australian wood in the acacia group.
This wood is likely to be a collected species for wood turners and is dense and attractive. The wood contains toxins that are known to have been used by the indigenous people as a tip for spears and was recognized as having toxic behavior. Splinters will fester and the dust can irritate nasal passages and cause headache and vomiting. Curiously this tree is pushed over by landholders in times of drought for stock fodder.
It is a brown toned wood that is very hard and takes a polish well. Knife makers are known to look for this wood for handle scales.
Use with caution, as the toxins are virulent. Masks are the minimum method for dust control and dust extraction is preferred.
A member of the Apocynaceae family.
It is an attractive flowering tree with potential for crossing paths with the novice woodworker looking for cheap craft wood. It is most often found in suburban situations and it is this reason why it is included in this list.
Please be very careful with this plant as every part is toxic. While new woodworkers will be most at risk the knowledge that this tree is very harmful is reasonably well known, so there is hope that the novice will ask a more experienced woodworker for information regarding this wood. Avoid completely.
A member of the Fabaceae family.
Originates from the South American tropics.
The wood is similar to the rosewoods and exhibits similar risks to the woodworker.
The typical reaction a woodworker suffers is eye and skin aggravation. It is known to be a sensitizing wood and repeated contact may trigger unwelcome side effects similar to the types of injuries I receive as stated in the first section of this article. Handled appropriately with PPE should help with this wood.
A member of the Anacardiaceae family and so is loosely related to the cashew tree.
This wood has potential for severe rashes and this includes the green wood and the dry wood. Dust can be a strong aggravator to the skin, causing sores, lesions, and also causing fever in some individuals. The primary cause of injury is the sap, similar to the cashew group of trees.
Use with caution, and use PPE where possible. Avoid contact with the sap.
I will include the Dalbergias as one collective as they exhibit similar potential harmful attributes. There are 16 members of rosewood in the Dalbergia genus.
Members of the Fabaceae family.
As there are many woods within this genus, it is best to approach them with the known adverse effects that are common. These include skin, eye, and breathing tract aggravation. There is elevated risk for this wood to be a sensitizer.
Many woods are now on protected lists and at this time Dalbergias are all included on restricted lists however they will soon be included in protected species if logging behaviors continue.
A member of the Rutaceae family.
This is the family of the citrus that we all know.
This wood is not common but is included for the small chance of the novice woodworker to stray into its path.
A member of the Euphorbiaceae family.
A tree from Southern Africa that is known for a sap that can cause severe irritation.
The challenge with this wood is that it is very sought after for use in the high end woodwork game, and this overrides the danger that is present in the wood. This usage is generally within the South African economy but as with all woods, parcels and packs make their way around the world into private collections and boutique wood suppliers.
Another member of the Fabaceae family.
This wood is listed as endangered because of over exploitation of the logging industry and should be avoided by woodworkers on that case alone.
The wood itself presents risk to the woodworker in the form of dust that can cause severe reactions over time the more a woodworker is exposed. It can be attributed to causing aggravation to the eyes, the skin in general, and possible connections to abdominal cramps. The wood contains toxins that can cause splinters to become infected. As this wood is endangered, it is recommended to select other species that are more sustainable than this species.
A broad name given to several genus of tree. The most problematic of them being the Taxus spp. This wood is another of the trees that should be avoided if at all possible. It contains toxins that can cause many health issues including but not limited to headache, nausea, skin afflictions, cardiac issues. It really should be avoided.
The above is in no way intended as a conclusive list of all woods that are capable of harm to the wood worker, and are only a selection of the species that present a more virulent risk than many others.
All wood dust is harmful and should be controlled or eliminated where possible and it is impossible to tell if a particular wood will cause any issue to a woodworker so as best practice we recommend to approach every wood the same way, with risk control methods in place.
These woods are a dangerous group because at first use there may be no visible effect whatsoever, but over time with more exposure, the woodworker develops sensitivity to that particular wood that can be slow to surface but painful and irreversible when developed to a dangerous level.
In severe cases, like the one I have with a wood species from Northern Australia called Northern Silky Oak (Cardwellia sublimis), the woodworker eventually cannot physically touch the wood because of the severe reactions that ensue.
In my case, these reactions are skin rash related at first that turn into sores in a few hours that then progress into open wounds that bleed. This happens along my arms, across my chest and abdomen, and by the time these start bleeding my nose and mouth are also bleeding. It takes several days to recover, and the only way to treat it is to avoid the wood.
So the take away here is that do not take the classification lightly when you see the wood “sensitizer” in the article and table above. By all means, use the wood for that project you have planned if that is what you have on hand, but be aware of potential problems.
If a rash of pimples erupt across areas of your body, cease and desist use at once. There is no wood that is so important that your long-term health should be a price of entry.
Risk control methods.
In the first instance the dust should be either removed from the cutting zone by suction, or blown away from the operator with fans. Fans are ok for external work and not recommended for internal work at all. In all cases and at a minimum, a good particle mask should be worn along with safety goggles or glasses as well.
These will protect the eyes and the lungs first and foremost. Exposed skin is another issue but is difficult to control particularly if wood turning because shavings end up everywhere and while a turners smock is helpful it still takes in the fine dust that can linger in the fibers even after washing.
The list below shows the wood family risk potential. All woods that the woodworker uses should be positively identifed prior to use.
|Tree Family||Sensitizer Risk level||Listed number|
|Apocynaceae||Toxic – Avoid||1|
*Medium and above represent known and likely sensitizers.
The family Fabaceae is a high risk vector for woodworkers so please treat any wood from this family with respect and don’t take your health for granted.
Data has been referenced from several resources including government and scientific papers and the information above is accurate to the authors understanding. Article written and edited by Tim Blanch as owner/operator of Woodwork Hobby Report.