Word of the Day: Bort

Diamond bort

“Bort” refers to shards of small, impure diamonds, or the small fragments removed from gem-quality diamonds during the cutting process.  It is also a term used to describe low-grade diamonds, not of gem quality.  Both categories of bort are utilized mainly in a variety of abrasives.  The origin of the word “bort” is not entirely known, but is speculated to have come from the Old French “bord” or “bort,” meaning “bastard.”

Carbonado or “black diamond” is a dark-colored, impure diamond with a slightly different and more rare structural form and chemical composition.  It is composed of crystalline diamond, graphite, and amorphous carbon; it is the hardest form of natural diamond.  Like bort, it is mainly used as an abrasive and for diamond set drills.

Carbonado from the Central African Republic
Carbonado, or “black diamond” from the Central African Republic. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Though bort and carbonado are certainly less glamorous than the gem-quality diamonds, they are by far the more abundant and useful.  About 80% of all diamonds mined (representing around 130,000,000 carats or 26,000 kg per year) are industrial-grade.  With the highest hardness, thermal conductivity and melting point of any mineral, these humble-looking diamonds possess the properties which rank them among the most useful industrial materials in the world.

Open pit diamond mine, Sakha Yakutia
An open pit diamond mine, Sakha Yakutia, north of Russia. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Featured photo: Bort as a combination of shards and crystals.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Word of the Day: Propolis

Propolis at the edge of a beehive

Propolis, also called bee glue, is an aromatic reddish substance collected by honeybees from tree buds and bark, consisting of a mixture of tree resins, balsams, and waxes which are altered by the bees’ own secretions, esp. saliva and beeswax, and used by them to seal cracks in the hive and varnish the cells of the comb. (Thank you to the Oxford English Dictionary for this definition).

For centuries, healing properties have been attributed to propolis, and it is often touted as an herbal remedy or supplement.  However, even a quick scan of the literature (such as the articles found on sciencedirect.com) strongly suggests that most of the evidence for its effectiveness is anecdotal.  On a hopeful note, in vitro studies have supported claims for the anti-microbial effects of propolis, although actual clinical studies are nearly nonexistent (1).  Part of the issue is that the chemical composition of propolis is very complex and can vary widely and depends largely on the local ecology, especially the plants from which the bees are collecting the resins (2).

In Petra Ahnert’s wonderful book Beehive Alchemy, of the fifty or so recipes involving bee products, only three include propolis (salve, toothpaste and throat lozenges).  So it appears (for now, at least) that propolis is far more useful to the bees that it is to us.

And in my opinion, that’s really okay.

Featured image: Propolis found at the edge of a beehive.  Photo courtesy of beeinformed.org.


(1) Red Propolis: Phenolics, Polyphenolics, and Applications to Microbiological Health and Disease, (Irlan A. Freires, … Bruno Bueno-Silva, in Polyphenols: Prevention and Treatment of Human Disease (Second Edition), 2018)

(2) A worldwide yearly survey of new data in adverse drug reactions and interactions N.H. Choulis, in Side Effects of Drugs Annual, 2012 (entry on Propolis)

Word of the Day: Ashlar

Ashlar stonework Palazzo Rucellai Florence Italy

An ashlar is a large stone hewn to square sides, for use in building or laying pavement. It also refers to the particular method of stone masonry called ashlar or ashlar-work, which makes use of hewn stones, often made to a specific proportion, as opposed to rubble-work, which makes use of unhewn stone.

According to The Stonemason and the Bricklayer, a manual from 1891, by the self-described (but unnamed) editor of the “Industrial Self-Instructor”:

“The stones for the best class of [ashlar] work should be carefully proportioned, the length, depth and breadth having what is called a harmonious relation to each other [a proportion further described in the book].”

Anything less than this constitutes “sham” or “false” ashlar, which can only result in inferior and unstable stonework.

Example of the “broken ashlar” style of wall. Illustration courtesy of chestofbooks.com

In literature from the Middle Ages, there are references to “ashlars” used as weapons, being hurled from fortress walls at attackers below.  Whether they were made for this purpose, or the defenders were simply desperate enough to use the stones of their own buildings, I don’t know — either way, it would be a pretty effective missile.

The usefulness of ashlar-type stonework has certainly been recognized throughout many eras, and many parts of the world.

Ashlar wall at Machu Picchu
An ashlar-style wall dating to the 16th century, at Machu Picchu, Peru.

<a href="http://Rubyk / CC BY-SA“>Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Today, ashlar work is still very much alive and well, though its definition (at least, according to the author quoted above) has been expanded to include a number of styles that include a variety of types of dressed stone.

Still, harmony, stability, and fine craftsmanship lie at the heart of ashlar stonework, with the aim of creating a structure that will stand for centuries and beyond.

Unless, of course, one is aiming simply to throw it at an enemy’s head.

Featured photo: ashlar wall of Palazzo Rucellai in Florence, Italy. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.


Word of the Day: Caoutchouc

Caoutchouc (also called “India rubber,” regardless of its source) is a natural rubber that is the first-processed form of the latex of certain trees and plants, particularly the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis), the white rubber vine (Landolphia spp.), and the Ceara rubber tree (Manihot carthagenesis).  It is the precursor to fully-processed rubber. It is distinguished from other varieties of natural rubber by the proteins it contains, which can cause allergic reactions in some people. Caoutchouc is used extensively in many applications, and is valued for its large stretch ratio, high resilience, and for being extremely waterproof.

The best-known source of natural rubber is the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis).  Native to Central and South America, archaeological records indicate that the latex of the rubber tree was first used by the Olmec civilization to make rubber balls used for the Mesoamerican ball game.  Rubber latex was introduced to Europe in the 18th century.  It’s usefulness was quickly recognized and exploited, with plantations appearing in several tropical colonial holdings in Indonesia, India, and the Congo.

In the Congo, the Belgian colonial rubber industry was based on harvesting the latex of the white rubber vine (Landolphia owariensis). By the turn of the 20th century, the rubber trade in the Congo had become notorious for its brutal treatment of the local people, who were often conscripted against their will and subjected to harsh penalties (including death) for not meeting production quotas.  Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece of literature Heart of Darkness was based heavily on Conrad’s experiences in the Belgian Congo.

Today, synthetic rubber is a widely-used alternative to natural rubber that avoids the allergenic nature of caoutchouc.  However, natural rubber is still a valuable industry, with most of the rubber today produced by plantations in Southeast Asia, Central and West Africa, and South America.

Modern rubber plantation, Malaysia
A modern rubber plantation in Malaysia. Photo courtesy of junglerubber.com.au.

The history of natural rubber has many fascinating chapters, form the Mesoamerican ballgame to the saga of Congo rubber, to the invention of vulcanized rubber tires and Henry Ford’s dream of a Brazilian rubber plantation utopia, and beyond.  The usefulness of caoutchouc lives on in thousands of everyday products in home and industry around the world.

Featured photo credit: Harvesting the white rubber vine (Landolphia owariensis), circa 1906.  Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Word of the Day: Fuller

Fulling Mill, by Georg Andreas Bockler

A fuller’s job is to “full” raw wool; that is, to remove the lanolin and other greasy impurities from the fibers to whiten it and prepare it for spinning and weaving.  In the European tradition, this usually done through the use of fuller’s earth (a naturally-occurring clay), and fuller’s herb (also called soapwort, Saponaria officinalis).  Depending on the end use of the wool, the fuller would also thicken the wool by felting it, or causing the fibers to mat together through pounding or mechanical agitation.

In Europe, the fuller was for centuries an important link in the chain of the all-important wool industry, from Medieval times to the late nineteenth century and the advent of the industrial revolution.

In modern times, the processing of wool is done by chemicals and machinery, and the fuller is no longer in the picture.  However, the legacy of the importance of this cottage industry (which, in Britain, was also called “tucking” or “walking”) lives on today in the common surnames of Fuller, Tucker, and Walker.


Word of the Day: Osier

The Welsh Cyntell, basket by Ruth Pybus

The name “osier” refers to a number of species of willow tree that produce long, narrow, flexible branches that are especially valued in basket-making.  It can also refer to the branch itself (also called a “withy”).

The best-known of the species is the common osier or basket willow (Salix viminalis).

Common osier (Salix viminalis)
The common osier (Salix viminalis). Photo courtesy of Van den Berk Nurseries.

The art and craft of willow basket-making is ancient and widespread, with long traditions in Europe, East Asia, and the Americas.  Willow-work is not limited to baskets, however.  According to James Arnold’s book The Shell Book of Country Crafts (1968), osiers (or withies) play a role in many essential crafts including: thatching, basketry, hurdle-making (livestock enclosures), and making coracles (a type of small lightweight boat) — among numerous others.

Willow basket, 1919
Willow basketry in the early 20th century United States. Photo courtesy of historichomeshowardcounty.blogspot.com.

The practice is alive and well today, though the economic and practical importance of willow-work of all types is far less than it was in previous times.  Still, there is a great deal of interest in the craft, and many opportunities, especially in the United States and Britain, to learn it from experienced crafters.

Willow baskets by Jane Wilkinson
Modern willow baskets by Jane Wilkinson. Photo courtesy of craftcourses.com
Modern willow baskets by Oxfordshire Basketmakers
Modern willow baskets from a crafters’ workshop. Photo courtesy Oxfordshire Basketmakers.

Featured photo credit: The Welsh Cyntell, basket by Ruth Pybus.  Photo courtesy of Potter Wright & Webb.

Word of the Day: Verdigris

The Magdalen Reading, by Rogier van der Weyden (1438)

Verdigris is the greenish-bluish film that is created on the surface of copper by the application of a dilute acetic acid. It has a long history of use as a pigment, in dyeing, in the arts, and in medicine.

The term can also refer to the greenish film that forms on the surface of brass, bronze, and copper as a natural result of weathering by exposure to air or sea salt.  However, the chemical compositions of the natural verdigris (copper carbonate or copper chloride) and artificial are different, and only artificial verdigris (copper acetate) has the uses listed above.

Statue of David Hume, Edinburgh, Scotland
Verdigris on the statue of David Hume in Edinburgh, Scotland (note the polished metal on the big toe, where the patina has been worn away by repeated touching – for good luck – by human hands)

The use of verdigris as a pigment and medicine dates back at least to its mention by Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24 -79) in his encyclopedic Naturalis Historia, but in all likelihood goes back further than that.  In the 15th through 17th centuries, verdigris in oil paint was a popular lightfast and intense green used by many well-known artists, including the Early Netherlandish master Jan van Eyck.  In the city of Montpellier in France, the manufacture of verdigris was a common household industry.  Montpellier verdigris, renowned for its quality as a pigment, was made by exposing copper strips to the vapors arising from distilled wine.

Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait
Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434). Note the rich green (probably painted with verdigris) of the woman’s dress, a color that at the time was reserved for those involved in banking, thus denoting her upper class status.

Through its history, verdigris has also been touted as a treatment for a wide variety of illnesses, from leprosy to infections of the skin.

In modern times, however, verdigris — mostly due to its toxicity and relative instability as a pigment — has largely fallen out of use.  But not entirely: today it is found in industrial fungicides, as a dye, and architecturally as a patina for copper and bronze.

Featured photo credit: The Magdalen Reading, by Rogier van der Weyden (after 1483). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Word of the Day: Wainwright

Studebaker Farm Wagon

A wainwright, also known as a wagon-wright or a wheel-wright, is a tradesperson who specializes in making wheels and wheeled vehicles.

For centuries, the horse- or hand-drawn wagon was the primary mode of transportation for most of Europe and Asia (and the Americas, after European introduction).  For that reason, a skilled wainwright or wheel-wright was an invaluable part of any community.

According to James Arnold’s The Shell Book of Country Crafts (1968), when speaking of the farm wagons of the 19th century:

The building of a wagon or cart involved the harmonious thought and work of a team of men, each highly skilled in his department of the whole craft.  Carpenters constructed the body and the under frame and it was another man’s responsibility to make the wheels, while the blacksmith produced all the forge-work, the wheel-tyres or the strakes, supporting standard for the body and sundry pieces.  When everything was finished the painter contributed his share, to give the wagon its gay, proud coat of paint, so well applied as to outlive a generation of farmers, even though that wagon would spend so much of its life exposed to the heat of the harvest sun, the rains of Spring and the frosts of January.

A well-built farm wagon could be expected to last through a hundred years of hard use. At the center of this process was the wheelwright, the person responsible for making the all-important spoked wheels (which is why the two terms have become somewhat synonymous).

Try to imagine what would happen if you (assuming you’re not a wheelwright) were suddenly asked to make a functional wagon wheel.  When wainwrights were active, it took years of apprenticeship to learn the trade.  There are generations of refined knowledge behind the crafting of a wheel: a deceptively simple device that became one of the foundational pillars of our modern society.

Studebaker Farm Wagon
The Studebaker Farm Wagon, 1893 (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


Wax stoma with wax crystals

Natural wax is, chemically, “an organically-synthesized hydrocarbon generally composed of long alkyl chains with various other molecules such as fatty acids, esters, alcohols, and aromatic components.”  Okay, sure.  But what is wax?

Waxes are characterized as much by their properties as by their exact chemical composition.  Generally, waxes are hydrophobic (water-repellent), lipophilic (fat-loving), solid at most ambient temperatures, but malleable and with a low melting point.

Natural waxes are “organically-synthesized,” meaning that every wax found in nature was originally made in the body of a living creature.

This includes the so-called “mineral waxes”: ozokerite (and its derivative, ceresine), and montan wax, both of which are found in association with lignite (coal).  Paraffin wax and microcrystalline wax are derived from petroleum.  Both coal and petroleum are the result of the organic matter that is subjected to heat and pressure over a long (long) period of time.

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Photo credit: Ozokerite, from the collection of the Natural History Museum of Lille, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A large number of plants and animals (including insects) make wax, and put it to a variety of uses.  Human beings are no exception.

Which bring us to our first question: What is a property of wax that humans make use of, that is not found elsewhere in nature?

Well, let’s look at the properties one by one.


The hydrophobic (water-repelling) nature of wax is by far its most widely-used property. Sheep produce lanolin (also called “wool wax” or “wool grease”) to waterproof their fleece (it also has antimicrobial properties).  Plants that produce wax usually do so as a means of preventing moisture loss from their leaves.  Similarly, people use the wax produced by other plants and animals as an emollient to “waterproof” their own skin, by including it in products like salves and lip balms.

Wax stoma with wax crystals
Epicuticular wax stoma with wax crystals, on a rose leaf.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, lanolin is particularly prized for this use, as it closely resembles the compounds produced by the human body for the same purpose.  However, lanolin in its natural state is mixed with compounds that can cause allergic reactions.  Here is a brief but informative article about using using lanolin on your skin..

And here is one of the better (among the hundreds) of books about how make your own cosmetic products from wax:

(paid link)

Wax is also one the preferred ingredients in wood polishes, which act as waterproofing for wood.  Wax polishes have been around for centuries (at least) and are relatively easy to make. Here’s time-honored recipe that has been around with only slight variations for hundreds of years:

Melt one pound of beeswax in a double boiler (never, EVER melt wax over an open flame!).  Add one pint of gum turpentine and remove the mixture from the heat, stirring constantly while it cools.  Pour the mixture into a wide-mouth container before it fully hardens, and cover it with an air-tight lid.  Apply the wax to furniture with a soft cloth.  Allow the solvent (turpentine) to evaporate, then polish with a clean cloth.

Recipe taken from: Formulas, Methods, Tips, and Data for Home and Workshop by Kenneth M. Swezey, published by Popular Science Publishing Company, 1969.  Similar recipes also appear in Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts (sic) and Processes, originally published in 1863, and in Rodale’s Book of Practical Formulas (1997).

Maplewood with beeswax and carnauba wax
Maplewood with beeswax and carnauba wax polish. Photo by Simon A. Eugster, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Both lac bugs and honeybees use wax to construct waterproof protective structures for their larvae.  Humans use wax to waterproof fabric such as canvas sails and raingear.  They also use it to create my favorite textile art, batik.

Indonesian batik
Traditional Indonesian batik, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(paid link)

Let’s take a look at another fascinating property of wax.

Solid but malleable at room temperature, with a low melting point.

Again, honeybees come to mind, crafting those lovely structural honeycombs.

Honeycomb, photo by Sven Teschke, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Humans use this property for things like the art of lost wax casting.  In this technique, wax is sculpted into a form that is used to make a mold, and then the wax is melted away; the hollow mold is then used to cast molten metal (often bronze).

Here’s a book, in case you’re interested in learning more about it:

(paid link)

Though the function of spermaceti in a sperm whale’s body is poorly understood, the two main competing theories both rely on the wax’s low melting point, which keeps it liquid at the whale’s internal body temperature.  One theory holds that the waxy substance acts as a buoyancy regulator, with the sperm whale able to control the liquidity (and thus the density) of the wax.  The more widely accepted theory is that the spermaceti assists the whale in echolocation.  Either way, something is important enough about spermaceti that a large whale has roughly 500 gallons of it in the spermaceti organ (located at the front part of the head) at any given time.

It’s hard to compete with the coolness of echolocation, but we’re going to give it a try by looking at encaustic painting.  This art form has been around since at least the first century A.D. in Egypt, where it was used to paint “mummy portraits,” or portraits of the dead.  This painting technique uses molten wax mixed with pigment, and is known for enabling rich, textured and luminous color.

Encaustic Painting, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a book, in case you’re interested in learning more about this time-honored art form.

(paid link)


Ah-hah!  I think we might have found a property that only humans use.  At least, I can’t think of any other living creature that purposefully sets things on fire — though I would love to know if there is one.

These days, candles are almost entirely decorative, but it wasn’t so long ago that they served the critical purpose of prolonging the hours in which a person could be productive.

All waxes, which are composed primarily of hydrocarbons (in the form of wax esters), are flammable, though some are better for that purpose than others.  Of the “big four” most commercially important waxes (carnauba wax, candellila wax, beeswax, and paraffin), only beeswax and paraffin are widely used for their flammability.  Though one exception is bayberry wax, which forms a coating on the fruit of the bayberry tree (a.k.a. the wax-myrtle or candle tree, Myrica cerifera) and is used to make the sweet-smelling bayberry candles.

Bayberry Candles
Bayberry candles, with Bayberry leaves, courtesy of CapeCandle.com

So, now we have at least one property of wax that only humans typically use.  But that’s not the end of our exploration of the wonderful world of wax.

Next question: How much wax does the average American consume on a daily basis?

You’re trying to remember the last time you stuck a chunk of wax in your mouth, aren’t you?  You’re thinking, Who eats waxNobody eats wax, unless there’s some wax-eating health food craze, right?

Well, let me put it this way: Think about the last time you ate a nice, shiny apple from the grocery store, or an M&M candy, or a bar of chocolate; the last time you swallowed a pill or used a baking mix or chewed a piece of gum…Chances are, you are eating wax every day, whether you know it or not.  So, how much wax?

To get an idea, let’s take a look at the most widely used food-grade wax in the world.  Carnauba wax (also called Brazil wax, or “the Queen of Waxes”) is extracted from the leaves of the carnauba palm (Copernicia prunifera).  In food products, the wax is used as a glazing agent, a body or mass agent (to add bulk), an acidity regulator, and an anticaking agent.

Here’s a sample of the recommendations of the CODEX Alimentarius (a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines, and other recommendations relating to foods, food production, and food safety) regarding limits on how much carnauba wax can be included in food products:

Food Category Maximum allowed amount*
Surface treatment of fresh fruits 400 mg/kg
Processed fruits 400 mg/kg
Surface treatment of fresh vegetables (including mushrooms and fungi, roots and tubers, legumes, and aloe vera), seaweeds, nuts and seeds 400 mg/kg
Cocoa and chocolate products 5000 mg/kg
Imitation product of chocolate and chocolate substitutes 5000 mg/kg
Some confectionery products 5000 mg/kg
Chewing gum 1200 mg/kg
Decorations (for example, fine bakery wares), covers (not fruit) and sweet sauces 4000 mg/kg
Bakery products BPF
Dietary supplements 5000 mg/kg
Flavoured drinks based on water, including “sport”, “energy,” or “electrolyte” drinks 200 mg/kg
Coffee, coffee substitutes, tea, herbal infusions, and other hot drinks of cereal grains, excluding cocoa 200 mg/kg
Ready to eat snacks 200 mg/kg

Source: Carnauba Wax Uses in Food: A Review

So, in things like chocolate and dietary supplements, it’s generally recognized that up to .5% of the food can be wax. According to these guidelines, if you eat, say, one chocolate bar five days a week for a year, about one and a quarter of those bars that year is pure wax.  If you eat an apple every day for a year, you eat the equivalent of about one apple slice’s worth of wax.

However, in the United States, the FDA has categorized carnauba wax as “Generally Recognized as Safe” and there are no specific limits in place as to how much carnauba wax can be included in food.

Nutritionally, the wax is inert — which is why it is so widely used.  Our body does not metabolize it, and it is hypoallergenic.  So, it’s not doing you any harm, but it’s also not doing you any particular good.  Carnauba as a food additive is mostly just there for show — and it’s a fair amount of show.

And that’s just carnauba wax.  Paraffin wax is produced in enormous quantities, and put to very similar uses in food.

Think about that, next time someone asks you a silly question about how much wax you’ve eaten lately.

Next question: What the heck?

There’s one more use of wax that we haven’t talked about yet, that I’m willing to bet is not on your radar: Ceromancy (or carromancy) is the practice of divination by pouring liquid wax into water and interpreting the shapes formed, with the aim of foretelling the future.

Ceromancy, by Lauren Bebry
Ceromancy, by Lauren Bebry (laurenbebry.com)

You might think this practice (along with the many other forms of “-mancy” out there) is just fanciful nonsense, relegated to the realm of superstition and “people who don’t know any better.”  But look a little deeper, and you’ll find a principle that unites humans in their never-ending quest for knowledge about the natural world.  It’s the idea that there are mysterious and complex forces at work in the universe — mysterious and complex, but not unpredictable.  There is an assumption at work here, that there are definite “rules,” and if we could only gain some insight into how they work, we would be able to “see the future” — that is, make predictions about what is going to happen, based on an understanding of how the world works.  That is exactly the foundational axiom of the scientific method: That the laws of nature are complex, but not unknowable, and not random or changeable.  It’s a pretty big assumption, when you stop to think about it.

Luckily for us, and so far at least, it seems to be true.  Our quest for knowledge is not for nothing: when we wake up tomorrow, the universe will likely be operating according to the same rules as it was when we went to sleep the night before.  That’s comforting, isn’t it?

When the human world feels chaotic and unpredictable and overwhelming, it’s nice to look around us at the bigger picture and know that the natural world is build on a rock solid foundation, governed by laws that are the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  And are, within at least an important (if not infinite) range, knowable.

Isn’t that so totally awesome?