With access to a vast and varied supply of domestic lumber, American woodworkers have it made. But despite our country's arboreous assets, furniture makers and buyers alike remain drawn to exotic woods. Much of this foreign lumber hails from Africa, a continent home to stunning woods like wenge and bubinga.
As is typical with exotic lumber, African woods are sold by specialty dealers, both online and off. I've found Woodfinder and eBay to be handy resources in tracking down sellers. Natural edge slabs (those with the bark still attached) and planed boards are usually obtainable, albeit far costlier than domestic hardwoods. For most woodworkers, solid exotic woods are a luxury item — and being a frugal breed, they instead opt to use exotic veneers. When applied to MDF or plywood, these thin strips provide all the appearance of solid wood at a fraction of the weight and a sliver of the cost. (For an introduction to veneering, see my earlier post "Wood Veneer Demystified".)
While veneering is also an efficient use of lumber, deforestation remains a grave concern for the sub-Sahara. The illegal logging of old-growth forests not only threatens indigenous wildlife and our environment at large — it also stokes political conflict in a region in desperate need of stability and reconciliation. When next shopping for cabinets, hardwood flooring or even a guitar, check out the Rainforest Action Network's list of endangered tree species or the Friends of the Earth's useful guide to determine which types to avoid. Check out some of my favorite African woods below...
Bubinga – Bubinga is a true luxury lumber. Known also as African rosewood, it's used to make musical instruments, fine furniture and other high-end products. In fact, Japanese automaker Lexus offers the West African wood as an interior trim in its newer models. Prized for its remarkable figuring (see above), curly or "waterfall" bubinga is wildly expensive.
Padauk – Padauk is a blood-orange colored wood native to Central and West Africa. It is treasured by turners for use in bowl and handle making. Padauk's heft also appeals to luthiers, particularly in the making of electric guitar bodies. It yields a gorgeous natural finish, gradually darkening to a rich reddish brown.
Sapele – Also found in Central and West Africa, sapele is most commonly used in hardwood flooring and cabinetry. Furniture and guitar makers also love the lumber for its striking figure. Cadillac too has caught on, selling the new CTS with optional sapele trim. But buyer beware, the Rainforest Action Network states this wood is "heavily exploited" though "some populations [are] protected".
Wenge – Contemporary furniture makers love wenge for its sleek, straight-grain figuring and coffee colored tone. But many woodworkers avoid it at all costs—dust and minuscule splinters irritate the eyes and skin. If you do use wenge, be sure to wear gloves and respiratory protection.
(Images: 1 Afroxyl , 2 Tropical Exotic Hardwoods , 3 Green Sahara Furniture, 4 Official Zootman, 5 Corporate Interiors)
Johnny is currently blogging his experience as a student and amateur woodworker. You can keep track of his projects on his blog, Woodlearner.