Jul
22
2007
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Lignum Vitae woods

Lignum Vitae woods c.19th century
Diameter 11-12,5 cm
Weight 1360 g

No one at the Barnes Bowling Club knows how old the assorted bowls, or’woods’ stacked away in their pavillion actually are. That is one of the wonders of lignum vitae, the hardwood from which bowls have been made since the timber was discovered on the island of San Domingo in around 1500. Certainly they are a century old, maybe more, as is the ivory jack also seen here. The barnes club itself formed in 1725.
Lignum vitae, the ?wood of life’ – it was once thught, wrongly, to cure syphilis – is the densest wood known to man. Because of its high fat and resin content it is also self-lubricanting and virtually impervious to water, making it ideal for ship’s propellous, Mosquito aircraft, chisel handles, gavels….and of course bowls (which are made from the dark centre of the trunk).
Since the invention of synthetic, or composite bowls in 1931, and, more recently, the banning of lignum vitae imports, only one in ten British bowlers still uses traditional woods, rather as some music lovers stay loyal to vinyl.
A vital characteristic of bowls is their ?bias’. This, determined by their slightly oblate shape – though for a time also by the insertion of lead weights – makes them roll in a curved trajectory.
In flat green bowls, for example, a typical bais is labelled 3. But the Barnes woods have a bias of 12 or 13, which means they crvein almost a complete semi-circle. Allied to this quirk, the club’s green, tucked behind the Sun Inn, rises up at its edges, with games played diagonally, from corne to corner.
After the rules of flat green bowl were first codified by a Glasgow solicitor in 1848, such local eccentricities were virtually ironed out the game. But not at Chesterfield, where the green is said to date back to the 13th century, nor Lewes, where the game has been played since at least 1658, and certainly not at Barnes.
In some maverick quarters, it is not onnly the woods that remain impervious to change.