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What Is Holly Lumber?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Holly lumber is made from the Ilex opaca tree, famous for its spiky green leaves and bright red berries. Wood from the holly tree can be white to cream in color if it is handled appropriately, and can be used in fine woodworking, musical instrument construction, and furnishings. Some woodworkers use it as a substitute for woods like ebony and boxwood if they are not available. Supplies of holly lumber vary and it can be expensive because it is a slow-growing tree and many specimens are small, requiring careful processing.

This is a hardwood, known for having a tight, close grain, although it can be prone to developing knots. It is also very heavy, and can be difficult to shape with some tools. Holly lumber is commonly chosen for inlays and carving where the delicate tones of the wood will be clearly visible, and is usually too expensive for more utilitarian uses. Woodworkers may choose to stain, paint, or varnish it for protection, or to enhance its natural beauty.

Harvesting and processing can be complex, because the wood is subject to discoloration if it is exposed to sunlight shortly after cutting. Mills may cut and process holly lumber in the winter, when the sun is less likely to be out. They need to handle the raw lumber carefully as they dry and process it so it doesn’t buckle, crack, or develop other flaws. Fully seasoned lumber can be expensive because of the limited supplies and careful handling required. For small projects, it is sometimes possible to buy cut ends, which are discounted because they are not full size.

One concern with holly lumber is that it is very vulnerable to insects and fungi. When it is used indoors, as it often is, this may not be a significant worry because the environment should stay dry, leaving the wood sound. If holly lumber is likely to be exposed to pests, it may need to be treated to keep them out of the wood. Woodworkers also need to consider the risk of shrinkage, as holly lumber can shrink considerably as it cures and adjusts to a new environment. It can also swell in humid, warm conditions.

When inspecting lumber to see if it is suitable for use in a project, there are several things to look for with holly lumber. The first is clear, even coloring without signs of purple or gray staining, which indicate it was exposed to sunlight during processing. Lumber should also be checked on both sides and the edges for knots as well as checking, small cracks that can appear in wood that is dried too quickly.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon310342 — On Dec 21, 2012

I have a holly tree that is about 30 feet tall and from the base is over two feet in diameter. It might be a bit more. At seven feet high, it's about two feet in diameter.

There are 10 holly trees about 10 feet tall, and the bases of those trees are four to six inches in diameter.

I'm very interested in selling entire tree or branches for musical and/or medical purposes.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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