This might be a bit of overkill on information, but I wanted to share with you the species of woods I use in my projects. I like using exotic woods because they possess a beauty that surpasses most domestic woods in both color, beauty, character and density.
By utilizing various woods from around the world I can get a custom contrast to my work and the overall presentation of the finished product. The colors of the exotics are intense at times and that makes my projects stand out from all others.
Amboyna is technically not a distinct species, but is the name of the burl wood from any of the Pterocarpus species. Most commonly this is Narra (Pterocarpus indicus), but burl sections of Burma Padauk (Pterocarpus macrocarpus) are also sold under the name Amboyna.
The name is derived from Ambon Island in Indonesia, where much of the figured wood is believed to have been initially exported.
Amboyna is among the most expensive and sought-after of all burls, and is frequently sold as veneer or as small turning/craft blanks. Some suppliers specify “Red Amboyna” for material with the typical rich reddish brown heartwood, or “Golden Amboyna” for pieces with lighter yellowish brown coloration. It’s not unusual for pieces to contain sharply contrasting yellowish sapwood.
Amboyna is commonly used for fine furniture, turned objects, electric guitar tops, knife/gun grips, and other small specialty wood items.
Banksia pods originate from southwestern Australia. They grow on trees from the Banksia genus. However, of the many Banksia species, typically only the pods from the Bull Banksia (Banksia grandis) are large enough and solid enough to be used for woodturning applications. These pods are commonly compared to pine cones, though Banksia trees are not conifers and aren’t related to pine trees (Pinus genus)—the seed pod itself is considered the fruit of the tree.
In woodworking applications, banksia pods range in size from 4″ to over 12″ long, with a diameter ranging from 2.5″ to 5″ wide. Just under the exterior of the pod, there is an area of reddish brown fuzz-like material. Further toward the center is the denser, wood-like core. The seed cavities can reach well over halfway into the pod, giving turned projects a very unique appearance and texture. Some woodturners fill these voids with resin or other colored inlay materials, while others choose to showcase the openings as a prominent design feature.
Common Name(s): African Blackwood, Mpingo (Swahili)
Scientific Name: Dalbergia melanoxylon
Distribution: Dry savanna regions of central and southern Africa
Tree Size: 20-30 ft (6-9 m) tall, 2-3 ft (.6-1.0 m) trunk diameter
Average Dried Weight: 79 lbs/ft3 (1,270 kg/m3)
Specific Gravity (Basic, 12% MC): 1.08, 1.27
Janka Hardness: 3,670 lbf (16,320 N)
Modulus of Rupture: 30,970 lbf/in2 (213.6 MPa)
Elastic Modulus: 2,603,000 lbf/in2 (17.95 GPa)
Crushing Strength: 10,570 lbf/in2 (72.9 MPa)
Shrinkage: Radial: 2.9%, Tangential: 4.8%, Volumetric: 7.7%, T/R Ratio: 1.7
To be considered the original ebony, African Blackwood was imported and used in Ancient Egypt thousands of years ago. Even the name “ebony” has an Egyptian derivation as “hbny”—which has been shown to refer to primarily to Dalbergia melanoxylon, rather than the species which are considered to be ebony today: such as those in the Diospyros genus. In addition, African Blackwood is technically in the Rosewood genus (Dalbergia), and is more stable and resistant to movement and warping than other types of ebony.
African Blackwood is considered to be among the hardest and densest of woods in the world; indeed, among some 285 species tested, (including Lignum Vitae), Gabriel Janka originally found African Blackwood to be the very hardest. Unfortunately, many online sources list African Blackwood’s Janka hardness at only ~1700lbf—which seems very unlikely given its confirmed specific gravity.
With its striking, zebra-like contrasts, and bold figuring, Bocote can be a very eye-catching wood. Bookmatching two consecutive panels can create symmetrical “faces” and other patterns in the wood, (though a relatively thin-kerf blade should be used to minimize the shift of the pattern). Bocote is generally used for its aesthetic attributes, rather than its mechanical ones—and although Bocote is by no means weak, its strength-to-weight ratio is below average. (It is roughly as stiff and strong as Hard Maple, even though Bocote is considerably heavier.)
An immensely popular imported African hardwood, Bubinga may be loved as much for its quirky name as it is for its strength and beauty. Also sometimes called Kevazingo, usually in reference to its decorative rotary-cut veneer.
Bubinga has a close resemblance to rosewood, and is often use in place of more expensive woods. Yet Bubinga also features a host of stunning grain figures, such as flamed, pommele, and waterfall, which make this wood truly unique. Bubinga also has an exceptional strength-to-weight ratio.
One of today’s most prized lumbers for its outstanding color and figure; yet also one of the most infamous for its difficulty in gluing, and its tendency to cause allergic reactions in woodworkers.
Also, there are a few misleading reports of Cocobolo’s Janka hardness being only about 1,100 lbf, and it’s modulus of elasticity at only about 1,100,000 lbf/in2: which is almost certainly either a typo or a different wood than what is commonly called Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa). Reports indicate that Cocobolo is stronger and denser than Brazilian Rosewood, and that is the basis for the strength values (bending strength and modulus of elasticity) that are quoted at the top of this page.
Specific gravity is used to predict the hardness of wood with a fair degree of accuracy, and given its incredibly high density, (it sinks in water: see video below), Cocobolo’s hardness (and other strength properties) is most likely several times higher than the 1,100 lbf which is sometimes reported.
There’s no mistaking Gaboon Ebony as there are few woods that are deep and solid black (unless dyed), and even most species in the Diospyros genus aren’t black. Other types of ebony include: Macassar (striped) Ebony, and Black and White Ebony. African Blackwood is very similar in density, color, and (unfortunately) cost, but is technically in the Dalbergia genus and isn’t considered a true ebony. Wenge and Katalox are two woods that are sometimes used as an ebony substitute.
The wood is exceptionally dense, strong, and stiff, though it is considered to have moderate to poor stability through seasonal changes.
Ebony (Black & White)
Not commonly available, Black and White Ebony is very expensive, on par with solid-black species of ebony.
Heartwood is a pale straw color, with darker black streaks throughout; some pieces may be predominantly black rather than white. Sapwood is a paler white color, not always clearly defined.
Comprised of a handful of species from the Khaya genus, all of which are native to Africa. Sometimes lacks the deeper reddish brown color and durability that is common for true mahogany in the Swietenia genus. Botanically, Khaya is a part of the Meliaceæ family, which not only includes mahoganies, but also Sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum), and a host of other commercial species. Considered to be a valid substitute for Honduran Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), otherwise known as “Genuine Mahogany.”
Heartwood color is variable, ranging from a very pale pink to a deeper reddish brown, sometimes with streaks of medium to dark reddish brown. Color tends to darken with age. Quartersawn surfaces can also exhibit a ribbon-stripe appearance.
The term mallee refers to a species’ general growth form (known as a “habit” in biology). Usually smaller and shorter than trees, mallees grow multiple smaller-diameter stems from a common root system. Because of this, most mallee species are ill suited for lumber, though they do have a propensity for burl growths that can be harvested and used for turning and other small specialty projects.
Heartwood ranges from pink to orangish red. Pale yellow to gray sapwood is sharply demarcated from heartwood. Nearly always seen in burl form.
Birdseye Maple is not technically a distinct species of Maple, but rather, it’s a figure that’s occasionally found in Acer saccharum (Sugar Maple) trees. It’s named “birdseye” (sometimes simply written out as: Bird’s Eye Maple) because the figure resembles small bird’s eyes.
The figure is reportedly caused by unfavorable growing conditions for the tree. The Sugar Maple attempts to start numerous new buds to get more sunlight, but with poor growing conditions the new shoots are aborted, and afterward a number of tiny knots remain.
Birdseye Maple is frequently sold in veneer form, but solid lumber is available as well. Being tiny knots, the birdseye figure is most noticeable and pronounced on flatsawn pieces of lumber.
Curly Maple is not actually a species, but simply a description of a figure in the grain—it occurs most often in soft maples, but is also seen in hard maples. It is so called because the ripples in the grain pattern create a three dimensional effect that appears as if the grain has “curled” along the length of the board. Other names for this phenomenon are: tiger maple, fiddleback maple, (in reference to curly maple’s historic use for the backs and sides of violins), or flamed maple.
Unlike quilted maple, curly maple is most pronounced when the board is quartersawn, and the curls usually become much less pronounced or absent in flatsawn boards. Hence, on wide boards where the grain tends to be close to vertical (quartersawn) near the edges and horizontal (flatsawn) in the center, the curly pattern will be most evident on the edges of the board, with the figure diminishing in the center.
It is not completely clear what environmental conditions (if any) cause this phenomenon, but there are different grades of curly maple, which greatly effect its price. Ideally, the criteria for determining value is based upon: color (both uniformity and lightness—whiter is preferred), frequency of the curls (tight, closely-spaced curls are preferred), and intensity (more depth is preferred). Prices can range from just slightly more expensive than regular soft maple for lower grades of curly maple, to triple, quadruple, or higher for prices of the highest grades. But in general, higher grades of curly maple tend to be less expensive than quilted maple, and offer an economical solution for a “figured” hardwood.
Quilted Maple is not actually a species, but simply a description of a figure in the grain. Quilted maple occurs most often in soft maples, but is also seen in hard maples. (The highest grade quilted maple is most commonly seen in Bigleaf Maple.)
Quilted maple is so named for its resemblance to patchwork patterns seen on fabric quilts. Much like birdseye maple, the figure on quilted maple becomes most pronounced when the board has been flatsawn, which is the opposite of curly maple, which becomes most prominent when quartersawn. Alternate names and sub-categories for this type of figuring include blistered, curly-quilt, sausage-quilt, tubular-quilt, and angel-step.
There are varying grades of quilted maple, based upon the perceived depth of the quilt, as well as the purity of color of the wood itself (with a pure and uniform white being the most valuable). Quilted maple billets are often sold for extremely high prices for use as tops of electric guitars. They are frequently dyed in outlandish colors such as blue, green, or purple to give an “electric” effect to the grain pattern. One technique that is used to further enhance the grain pattern is to initially dye the wood a very dark brown or black, and then sand back almost to raw wood, leaving just a residue of black dye remaining in the low spots of the grain’s figure, and then reapply a dye of the final color. The result will be accented and shadowed by the darker dye that was left in the low portions of the grain, while the primary color is brought out in the body of the wood.
Padauk has a very unique reddish orange coloration, and the wood is sometimes referred to by the name Vermillion. Unfortunately, this dramatic color is inevitably darkened to a deep reddish brown color. (See the article Preventing Color Changes in Exotic Woods for more information.) UV-inhibiting finishes may prolong, but not prevent the gradual color-shift of this brightly colored wood.
Padauk is moderately heavy, strong, and stiff, with exceptional stability. It’s a popular hardwood among hobbyist woodworkers because of its unique color and low cost.
Padauk is perhaps the most frequently misspelled (and mispronounced) wood species, with Padouk, Paduk, and Paduak being common misspellings. The most common pronunciation is pah-DUKE, it is sometimes mispronounced as Paducah—a city in Kentucky.
Brazilian Rosewood, like other exploited hardwoods such as Cuban Mahogany or Teak, has earned worldwide fame. Historically, it has perhaps been the species most frequently associated with the term “Rosewood,” and with its strength, hardness, stability, beauty, and acoustic properties, it’s easy to see why Dalbergia nigra has been used for everything from flooring to xylophone keys.
Due to the high demand and limited supply of Brazilian Rosewood, and its continued exploitation in recent decades, it has been listed in the most restrictive category of endangered species: CITES Appendix I. Not only is the lumber restricted from being imported or exported from country to country, but even finished products made of Brazilian Rosewood may not cross international boundaries.
Because of these heavy (yet justifiable) restrictions, several substitutes from the Dalbergia genus have been used in recent years, such as East Indian Rosewood, Honduran Rosewood, and Cocobolo; though perhaps the closest rosewood in terms of color and appearance may be Amazon Rosewood (Dalbergia spruceana)—another hard-to-find and pricey rosewood, though not CITES listed as Brazilian Rosewood.
Tulipwood is a stunningly beautiful hardwood which is in short supply. The tree itself is only found in a narrow geographical area, and it’s small enough to be considered a shrub: typically yielding very small and narrow boards. Because of these limitations, Tulipwood is generally reserved for very small specialty wood items and accent pieces.
It would be hard to overstate Black Walnut’s popularity among woodworkers in the United States. Its cooperative working characteristics, coupled with its rich brown coloration puts the wood in a class by itself among temperate-zone hardwoods. To cap it off, the wood also has good dimensional stability, shock resistance, and strength properties.
Also in this category are Crotch Walnut and Walnut burl. Both provide an extremely pleasant view to the eye and enhance any project immensely.
Walnut Burl Crotch Walnut
Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, breathing Wenge wood dust has been reported to cause central nervous system effects, irritation of the skin and eyes, and is a sensitizer. Also, Wenge splinters tend to take longer to heal and are more likely to go septic (get infected) than splinters from other woods. See the articles Wood Allergies and Toxicity and Wood Dust Safety for more information.
Can be difficult to work with hand and machine tools. Blunts tool edges. Sands unevenly due to differences in density between light and dark areas. Very splintery—care must be used when handling unfinished wood with bare hands, as splinters have an increased risk of infection. Very large pores can be difficult to fill if a perfectly smooth/level finish is desired.
Heartwood is a very dark brown with black streaks. Upon application of a wood finish (particularly an oil-finish) the wood can become nearly black.