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: Grain is typically straight; fine, even
texture and good natural luster.
Rot Resistance: Heartwood is rated as very durable in regards to decay resistance, though only moderately resistant to insects/borers. The lighter colored 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 have occasionally been 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.