BLACKWOOD, AFRICAN

BOTANICAL NAME: Dalbergia melanoxylon of the family Fabaceae (syn Leguminosae) the legume, pea, or bean family

COMMON NAMES: the most commonly seen alternate name is mpingo.

Other common names include: african ebony, african grenadillo, african grenadilo, babanus (sudan), babanus, banbanus, begboio, black botany bay wood, blackwood, bokango, cape damson blackwood, cape damson ebony., chella, chiku, congowood., did, driedoring, east african blackwood, ebene, funiti, grenadilla (mozambique)., grenadilla d'afrique, grenadilla, grenadille d'afrique, granadilla, grenadillo, grenadilo, lurr, motangu, mozambique ebony, mufulamamba, mufunjo (uganda), mufunjo, mugembe (tanzania), mugembe, mugweze, mugwiti, muhati, mukelete (rhodesia), mukelete, mukudziti, mumhingwe, mungara, munhowe, murgwiti, murwiti, opo, pau preto, pau-preto, pingo, poyi, rit, rugbe, samachi, senegal ebony, shami, tareh, umbambangwe

TYPE: hardwood

COLOR: The heartwood is very dark, ranging in color from a dark purple, to bluish black to dark brown, all of which colors convert to black with age. Black streaks are common and sometimes it is charcoal gray with black grain. The the thin sapwood is yellowish to white and is sharply demarcated from the heartwood.

GRAIN: The grain is generally fine, even, and straight

TEXTURE: fine and slightly oily

PROPERTIES / WORKABILITY: this extremely dense and hard wood can cause severe blunting in cutting edges and it is difficult to plane with hand or machine tools but is otherwise easy to work and it is a WONDERFUL wood for turning. Pre-drilling is required for screwing or nailing, glues well. Its oily nature can cause difficulties in applying finishes.

My favorite quote about this wood is that it "turns like frozen butter".

One report says that Working with Blackwood can be tricky because when heated by the machining process, the oil tends to glue the sawdust together in lumps on the tool, so that cutting edges clog up.

The wood is so hard that it can be tapped for screws like metal and this is one of its several great advantages for making woodwind instruments, which with this wood are generally made with metal maching tools, not woodworking tools.

DURABILITY: The heartwood is very durable, moderately resistant to termites, sometimes attacked by borers in the standing trees; sapwood is liable to attack by powder-post beetle.

FINISH: The luster is reportedly dull but it can be brought to a high polish on a dry buffing wheel or when turning on a lathe.

STABILITY: movement in service is rated as very small

BENDING: this wood is unsuitable for steam bending

ODOR: odor and taste are not distinct although reportedly if cut with dull tools it may give off a strong acrid smell like burning coffee

SOURCES: This African and S.E. Asian tree has an extensive range on the African continent. It can be found throughout East and Central Africa, in the savanna regions of the Sudan southward to Mozambique, then westward to Angola and northward to Nigeria and Senegal. Countries of origin include Angola, Central African Republic, India, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

Reportedly, the most prolific region for this wood is in Mozambique.

USES: African Blackwood is the most desirable wood in existance for wind instruments for several reasons. First, its high density (and oily nature) make for a very bright, sharp sound in wind instruments. Second, the fact that it is so dense that it can be tapped for screws like metal make it ideal for the fitting of instruments such as the clarinet, piccolo, oboe or flute. Third, it is not subject to climatic changes, so instruments retain their tonal qualities.

It is also a favorite of turners because of its outstanding turning characteristics and the tonal qualities make it excellent for guitars as well as woodwind instruments.

Other uses include: agricultural implements, beams, bearings, bearings & bushings, boxes and crates, brush backs, building construction, carvings, charcoal, chemical derivatives, chessmen, concrete formwork, construction, decks, drum sticks, factory construction, flooring, food containers, form work, foundation posts, framing, fuelwood, furniture, handles, heavy construction, inlay, inlay work, joists, knife handles, light construction, mathematical instruments, medicinal use, musical instruments, organ pipes, piano keys, pianos, porch columns, pulley blocks, rough construction, shafts, sounding boards, sporting goods, tables, tool handles, turnery, vehicle parts, veneer: decorative, violin, violin bows, walking sticks, woodwork, xylophones

TREE: A deciduous savannah tree or shrub, it will intertwine with other trees, and has a heavily branched, many stemmed growth habit. It can grow as high as 30 feet with diameters of 8 inches and, rarely, up to 50 feet with diameters of a foot or so. Commonly has defects in the trunk, including furrows, crooks and hollow hearts, which make it difficult to get long pieces of lumber. It is found in tropical lowlands and on various sites in subhumid and semiarid areas. It tolerates a wide range of sites, especially on gravelly soils.

WEIGHT: 75 to 82 pounds per cubic foot

DRYING: Seasoning: Blackwood dries very slowly and tends to split, especially in the log. It is advisable to coat the ends to minimize the splitting. Once dried, the timber is slow to absorb moisture. One report says it naturally dries very quickly but that seems to be nonsense --- most reports say drying times of 2 to 3 years and longer are common. Common drying defects are heart shakes and surface checking. Moisture-retardant paint should be used for end-coating to minimize splitting.

AVAILABILITY: generally only in small pieces and from speciality dealers

COST: very expensive, especially for larger pieces.

HOBBIT NOTES:

(1) I have seen a picture of logs 30" to 36" in diameter and 7 feet long belonging to Gilmer Wood Co., but these were stated as being quite out of the ordinary.

(2) Even large logs do not produce large planks because the logs tend to not be uniformly solid. Logs are generally processed to produce turning stock no more than 2" by 2".

(3) several reports say toxicity can be a problem and that this wood can provoke allergic reactions in some people.

web quotes:
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Managed Timber Resources LLC has trees of this species that average 50 to 60 ft. tall and with a diameter of 1-8 and up.

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Sawmill operators dread cutting the wood. "There's always a heart void in the longs, and there are always roots and laterite soil. It's a real pain" said Myles Gilmer, owner of Gilmer Wood Co. in Portland, Ore. "If you can make one saw cut per blade, you're pretty lucky. Then you have to sharpen it."

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Unfortunately, due to Blackwood's small initial size and desirability, it is becoming alarmingly scarce. This is also partially due to the high level of waste involved in the primitive African harvesting process. Many small instrument makers, for reasons of conscience as well as supply, have opted for African Ebony as a substitute for Blackwood. Ebony has roughly similar properties. There are still a few companies who direct the harvesting of Blackwood by the traditional methods. It would be a great boon to the longevity of the supply if some ecologically minded person or company would import some modern portable band saw mills into the areas where Blackwood is cut.

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African Blackwood is second only to Cocuswood for use in woodwind instruments because of its tonal qualities and resistance to climatic changes.

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The timber is exported in log form from East African ports. Log lengths are usually from 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 m) and are often sold by importers only in log form and by the pound. Prices are in the expensive range.