African Blackwood: dream or nightmare?

African Blackwood: dream or nightmare?

About 8 years ago we thought we had hit the jackpot, when we were offered 110 tons of second quality Blackwood logs at the crazy low price of $50-$100 per ton FOB at a Mozambique port. As prime quality African Blackwood was selling at about $20,000 per ton we thought we had died and gone to heaven. Instead, what followed was a four year “learning curve”. Surely I must be one of the most learned men in the wood trade by now!?!

African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) belongs to the rosewood family and is a small scrubby tree that has a typical height of about 15-20ft with a max diameter trunk rarely more than 12 inches. It is often very fluted and we were to find out that the pith is also often eaten by ants, that can track sand and grit into the middle of the log, causing havoc with saw blades. With a typical dry weight of about 1200kg per cubic metre it is hard, heavy, oily wood of purplish black color and a narrow sap yellow-white in color. It is found all over Africa but mainly in Tanzania and Mozambique.

Local indigenous carvers are the main users of this rare and precious resource. Theodor Nagel (www.theodor-nagel.com) has dominated the world trade in the species for the last 100 years or so. A 2003 study undertaken by Cambridge University (titled “International Trade in African Blackwood”) details the trade and highlights that it is seen as a flagship species for cooperative and sustainable conservation efforts in countries like Tanzania, where all to often it is used for firewood by local communities. See www.mpingoconservation.org for important facts on its current status.

Bagpipes Clarinet
Traditional uses: Bagpipes…
…and a clarinet

The wood is very highly prized for ornamental turning as it cuts like steel and holds incredibly fine detail. It is also used in the best quality clarinets, oboes, flutes and bagpipes and just recently has been used as a back and side material for acoustic guitars. This last use has had mixed reviews. It is a superb tonewood and can look stunning with a little bookmatched sapwood showing, but reportedly Dana Bourgeois (www.pantheonguitars.com) built an acoustic guitar for Ricky Skaggs (www.rickyskaggs.com) which self destructed after 30 days in the humidity of Hawaii and it was unable to be resuscitated.

So, all we had to do was convert the logs and count the bucks? No-sirr-eee!!!

Four years later we have 96 tons of firewood and about 15 tons of miscellaneous blocks, planks and art pieces (and four missing fingers).

We tried stealth: I visited Nagel’s sawmills and warehouses in Africa and Germany, but was unable to gain any useful access or pointers. We also tried high speed steel, cobalt, tungsten carbide, stellite, bimetal in circular saws, bandsaws, pneumatic saws, portable sawmills (both band and circle) from 40 year old precision German monsters to the latest sliding tables and combinations thereof.

None of the methods, machines or materials used was a wildfire success. After the initial big push of six weeks breaking down the logs to usable sizes, we eventually settled to a production of 15-35 small blocks per day by one man: Leonard, our chief diamond cutter and super producer. Nothing I did could raise production – it took forty-eight months to finish the job. (We will leave out the story of the 4 missing fingers as this is a family show).

After 4 years we are older and wiser….but not a lot richer.

Do come and explore our large inventory of African Blackwood and share in both our joy and pain. It really is a wonderful wood for very specific needs. See below for some inspiration.

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A beautiful bowl and cube box by Bill Ooms

 

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Paired with Cocobolo for the handles of these knives by Peter Steyn
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A collector grade duck call by Watkins Duck Calls