African Blackwood is one of the coveted and most expensive woods in the world, prized for rare qualities like waxiness and a dark color that make it desirable for woodwind instruments and fine furniture. It grows in dry regions from Eritrea and Senegal to Transvaal in South Africa. African blackwood goes by many names including Dalbergia melanoxylon, mpingo, and imifutu. No surprise, is is in danger of disappearing in its native habitat. Added to its low germination rate is lack of planning for conservation. It is a small tree, reaching a maximum 50 feet tall. The threat to its survival has driven up the price of the wood. A log of African blackwood can sell for $9,000. Processed timber sells for $13,000 per cubic square meter. Here are 8 things you didn’t know about African blackwood, one of the most expensive and threatened trees.
For those not fluent in the language of the wood market, here are some eye-opening comparisons. High-quality, veneer grade white oak sawlogs sell for around $120 per cubic meter—that’s less than a tenth of the price of African blackwood. African blackwood is $80 per board-foot, while birch is $4, Japanese cedar is $6, and American cypress is $5.
The Deering banjo company uses African blackwood to make the tone ring in their John Hartford banjo, designed by the famous bluegrass singer. The company says that this particular wood helps the instrument improve in tune over time. A new John Hartford Banjo costs around $5,000.
German knife manufacturer J.A. Henckels—one of the oldest kitchen knife makers in the world—uses African blackwood in the handles of their knives. The company favors the moisture-repellent qualities of the wood. The J.A. Henckels Bob Kramer stainless Damascus santoku knife with an African blackwood handle costs $400.
Russian cellphone company Gresso makes some of the most luxurious mobile phones in the world. For their 2016 Gresso Meridian collection, they use 18 karat gold, titanium, and African blackwood. Each handmade phone features bodies made of 15 millimeters of the quality wood and details like pink gold inserts. Prices start at $3,000.
Most wood shrinks as it dries, leading to warpage and splitting. African blackwood barely shrinks over time. When investing in a pricey piece of furniture or an instrument, consumers don’t want their purchase to become unusable in a few years. African Blackwood products boast more longevity than other types of wood products. Popular North American wood like walnut and maple shrink nearly twice as fast at African Blackwood.
Since it’s illegal to export many types of timber logs out of Africa, manufacturers of African blackwood products need their logs cut almost immediately after harvesting into timber squares about the size of the intended product. This benefits the product quality. In the exporting and shipping process, logs of most wood species undergo stress which can increase the chance of cracking and twisting in instruments and furniture. Cutting the logs down into squares immediately makes for a stronger product.
African Blackwood is unique because of its rich, dark color. The darker the wood, the more expensive it tends to be. The darkest wood is called “pure” on the market and is very rare—it usually comes from trees that have survived over 150 years. Most African blackwood trees are poached before turning 50, so the 100-year-old-plus trees ones are very valuable.
Some other items you’ll find African Blackwood in include pool cues, walking sticks and artistic carvings. Some pool cues with the material cost nearly $400. Walking sticks with African blackwood handles can cost between $50 and $200, and re-sale logs of the wood on eBay run between $500 and $1,000.
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