African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon)

African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon)

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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

Color/Appearance: Often completely black, with little or no discernible grain. Occasionally slightly lighter, with a dark brown or purplish hue.  The pale yellow sapwood is usually very thin, and is clearly demarcated from the darker heartwood.

Grain/Texture: African Blackwood has a  fine, even texture, with small pores that should not require filling; the grain is typically straight.

Endgrain: Diffuse-porous; medium to large pores in no specific arrangement; solitary and radial multiples of 2-3; dark brown deposits present; growth rings may be distinct due to marginal parenchyma; parenchyma banded (marginal), apotracheal parenchyma diffuse-in-aggregates, paratracheal parenchyma can also be vasicentric, and aliform (winged); narrow rays, spacing normal.

Rot Resistance: Heartwood is rated as very durable in regards to decay resistance, though only moderately resistant to insect attack. The sapwood is commonly attacked by powder-post beetles and other borers.

Workability: Very difficult to work with hand or machine tools, with an extreme blunting effect on cutters. African Blackwood is most often used in turned objects, where it is considered to be among the very finest of all turning woods—capable of holding threads and other intricate details well. When made into clarinet or oboe bodies, the wood is typically processed on metal-working equipment, giving it a reputation as being metal-like in some of its working properties.

Odor: African Blackwood has a mild—though distinctive—scent while being worked.

Allergies/Toxicity: Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, African Blackwood has been reported as a sensitizer. Usually most common reactions simply include eye, skin, and respiratory irritation. See the articles Wood Allergies and Toxicity and Wood Dust Safety for more information.

Pricing/Availability: African Blackwood is very expensive, on par with true ebonies such as Gaboon Ebony in the Diospyros genus. Since the tree grows so slowly, and is generally small and gnarly, available boards tend to be narrow—though large clear sections are occasionally harvested from older trees that yield bookmatched guitar backs (~8″ wide).

Sustainability: African Blackwood is listed on CITES appendix II under the genus-wide restriction on all Dalbergia species—which also includes finished products made of the wood. It’s also reported by the IUCN as being near threatened. Technically it doesn’t meet the Red List criteria of a vulnerable or endangered species, but is close to qualifying and/or may qualify in the near future.

Common Uses: Musical instruments (guitars, clarinets, oboes, etc.), inlay, carving, tool handles, and other turned objects.

Comments: 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.

Related Species:

Related Articles:

Scans/Pictures: A special thanks to Steve Earis for providing the wood sample and turned photo of this wood species.

Note: for the endgrain zoom, I’ve slightly modified the brightness of the image to help show the details of the pores and parenchyma.

African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon)

African Blackwood (sanded)

African Blackwood (sealed)

African Blackwood (sealed)

African Blackwood (endgrain)

African Blackwood (endgrain)

African Blackwood (endgrain 10x)

African Blackwood (endgrain 10x)

African Blackwood (turned)

African Blackwood (turned)

African Blackwood (sealed)

African Blackwood (with sapwood)

  • Scott Denison

    I have a question about the Janka test with African Blackwood. If the steel ball is pushed into the wood at the depth that all of test criteria specify, which is 2900lbs, what does the specific gravity have to do with the actual Janka test and what does it mean? I’m planning on have an impact weapon made with this wood and I’m interested in durabilily of this specific wood.

  • Carl Landis

    I’ve used this wood as well as Kamagong for impact type weapons
    the gravity question is not as important as is the question of
    durability. These hardwoods are normally used for strength training
    in the wrist, forearms and shoulders and should not be used two
    man drills.

    I’ve seen rattan sticks break Kamagong in half, because of the
    brittleness of these type of hardwoods the best solution I’ve
    found is Cold Steel’s polypropylene sticks. They have the weight
    and density of African Black wood and is almost indestructible
    and more cost effective than wood.

    • Jgorish

      Stickman Escrima Products were the first plastic sticks to be successfully marketed. The “Panther” sticks have similar weight and density to woods like ebony, are much more durable than hardwoods and feel more “wood-like” than polypropylene. The “Panther II” are lighter but also can be finished to look like wood, and are also much more durable.

  • Joel

    How much weight can a 2ft. x 8ft. log of African Blackwood support before breaking.

  • jacobwalker

    why is the African backwood endangerd

    • ejmeier

      As far as I understand it, African Blackwood is not endangered. It’s listed by the IUCN as “near threatened” but that only measures the likelihood that the tree species will become biologically extinct in the wild. However, there’s a great difference between becoming biologically extinct (what the IUCN measures) versus becoming commercially extinct. While not at risk biologically, commercially only ten to twenty percent of mature trees are suitable for exportation, and harvesting is frequently done at an unsustainable rate.

  • Tai Fu

    I bought some ebony from a lumberyard, but discovered that the wood exuded some fragrance when sawn. So I started digging and I really think I have african blackwood rather than ebony as the seller claimed. The piece on the right seems to smell like ebony, but I do not know if smell is a reliable identification. I rubbed some shellac onto the wood with my bare finger to see what the wood looks like, and the wood exuded a LOT of oil. I tried the same thing on known samples of gaboon ebony and macassar ebony (both of them bridge blanks) and they did not exude any oils at all. This wood exudes so much oil that my fingers are brown, and the color bled into the sapwood as well. I’m really hoping the wood will not be impossible to glue like cocobolo…

    • ejmeier

      It does sound like you probably have some African Blackwood on your hands. In my opinion, it’s a superior wood anyway. Stronger, and more dimensionally stable. Not sure how you’re gluing it, but as with any oily wood (ebony can be hard to glue too…) you should proceed carefully.

      • Tai Fu

        I never had any issue with gluing ebony except for one time when the glue I used was mixed improperly (was using hot hide glue), and the ebony probably oxidized for quite some time. Since I am making bridges I don’t really want to use epoxy because it might need to be removed later on for whatever reason.

  • OYO BeN

    INQUIRING MORE DETAILS ON AFRICAN BLACKWOOD INTERNATIONAL MARKET.
    WE ARE UGANDANS AND ABLE TO SUPPLY ANY MARKET. P’se email bnoyo@yahoo.com

  • OYO BeN

    Still inquiring for the international market prizes for the African blackwood logs/ per cubic meter. My email is bnoyo@yahoo.com

  • OYO BeN

    I have a source of supply need international buyers and prices per cubic meter log

  • McSwervy

    I’m thinking about making a small pipe using African Blackwood, can anyone here speak to it’s heat resistant properties?

    • AngryReader

      It is a good wood for pipes. I use a small blackwood pipe and I know of people who use african blackwood for bowl inserts.