Woods to Know: Holly

Holly (Ilex opaca)

by Peter MacSween

Most of us are familiar with Holly (aka American Holly) as a traditional Christmas decoration.  Wreathes and boughs of holly with its distinctive leaves and bright red berries are common sight during this festive season.  In fact, its primary commercial use is in the making of these decorations.

The woodworker though, appreciates Holly for the ivory white colour of the heartwood.  Holly is usually considered the whitest of all woods and is used for all manner of decorative objects such as brush backs, turnery and scroll saw work.  It is sliced into veneer and is an important component of inlay and bandings.  It is also dyed black to be used as a substitute for ebony in musical instruments.


There are over 12 species of holly in North America.  Ilex opaca is the largest and the one commercially harvested for lumber.  The tree is found in the southeast United States from the state of New York south to Florida and from the Atlantic coast west to the Mississippi River.  The largest trees are typically found in Alabama, Arkansas and southern Mississippi.  Within this range it can be found growing as a shrub or as a small tree.  The trees typically reach a height of 40 to 50 feet, with 1 to 2 foot diameters.

Holly can be difficult to dry and a strict drying schedule must be followed to prevent degrade.  It must be harvested in the winter and quickly dried to prevent blue fungal staining of the wood.  Stickers must also be dry, as wet stickers will stain the wood decreasing it value.  Once dry, it is moderately stable.

The wood is usually straight grained but a significant percentage of lumber shows interlocked and irregular grain.  It has a medium to very fine texture.  The wood is basically featureless, growth rings are barely visible.  This presents an ideal background to display the pure white colour of the heart.  The sapwood is almost identical in colour to the heart wood and is not  distinct from it.

End-grain: Holly

The wood can be difficult to work, especially if irregular grain is present.  The wood can be knotty and areas around these knots can also present challenges.  Tools should be kept sharp and woodworkers should drill pilot holes when using screws and nails.  It glues well and is easily stained to mimic other woods.  Its fine texture allows it to hold detail when carved or turned.  It can also be sanded to a high luster.  It is not considered durable, so holly is limited to interior projects.

Holly is considered an expensive domestic hardwood.  Years of harvesting it for Christmas decorations have reduced most natural stands, and it is now found mostly growing as scattered individuals in the under story of southern forests.  Despite its relative scarcity, it is not considered a threatened or endangered species.  You can sometimes find it lumped in with other white species such as maple but that is a rare occurrence.  Most sawyers will recognize its high value and set it aside.  Its lumber tends to be short, narrow and usually 4/4 in thickness.  Small squares and blocks for turning are also available.  Holly can be purchased through specialty lumber dealers.  

Finally, Holly is an exquisite wood for inlay and bandings.  Here the bright white colour provides visual interest and contrast without overwhelming a project.  Early woodworkers knew this principle and holly has been used as component in inlay for hundreds of years.  Contemporary woodworkers have embraced holly as well, further cementing its decorative reputation in the woodworking community.

Average Dried Weight40 lbs/ft³A measure of its weight at 12% moisture and an ambient temperature of 70°F.
Specific Gravity.64A measure of the ratio of its density compared to water (at 12% MC)
ShrinkageRadial: 4.8
Tangential: 9.9
Volumetric: 16.9
Radial (the amount of crosswise shrinkage);
Tangential (the amount of lengthwise shrinkage);
Volumetric (the total amount of shrinkage.)
T/R Ratio2.1A measure of the uniformity of tangential to radial shrinkage.
Janka Hardness1,020 lbfA measure of resistance to denting and abrasion.
Crushing Strength5,540 lbf/in²A measure of compression strength parallel to the grain.
Ideal lumber has a very uniform, pale white color with virtually no visible grain pattern. Knots are common, which can reduce the usable area of the wood. Can develop a bluish/gray fungal stain if not dried rapidly after cutting. Holly is usually cut during the winter and kiln dried shortly thereafter to preserve the white color of the wood.
GrainInterlocked and irregular.
TextureMedium to fine with a medium natural luster.
Can be difficult to work on account of the numerous knots and interlocked grain. Glues, stains, and finishes well, and is sometimes stained black as a substitute for Ebony. Turns well on the lathe.
Inlays, furniture, piano keys (dyed black), broom and brush handles, turned objects, and other small novelty items.
Price$65 per board foot

Photos and Specifications Courtesy of: The Wood Database