Wood of the Mpingo Tree
Dalbergia Melanoxylon, mpingo, African blackwood--these are the scientific, African and English names for the tree which is called the "Tree of Music" because of its preeminent position with respect to the utilization of its wood in the manufacture of fine woodwind musical instruments. At prices of £12,000 per cubic meter, this species probably commands the highest price of any timber in the world. For American woodworkers, this puts its price in the range of $50+ per board foot, a US timber measure of 1 inch by 12 inches by 12 inches. Compare this to the finest American black walnut which costs less than 1/10 the price of blackwood.
The largest consumers of mpingo are instrument makers in France, England and Germany and the members of carving co-operatives in Africa, who sell their work world-wide. In addition, the wood is used for ornamental turnery, chessmen, carved figures, walking sticks, brushbacks, knife handles, truncheons, bearings and slides, pulley blocks, and inlay work. Locally in Africa it is used for medicinal purposes and in building, because of its resistance to termites and other deleterious insects. A certain amount is also used for fuel, both as logs and charcoal, since 90% of Tanzanian energy usage depends on wood.
From an ornamental turner's perspective, African blackwood is used in the very best work extant in this craft. I have used this wood since the late 1980s and its qualities of fine texture, density, stability, and surface finish have no equal--its rich beauty is unsurpassed. Mpingo's fine texture and density allow it to be worked with highly polished cutters which leave a shimmering, mirror-like surface. When first cut, it is a dark purple/plum brown but quickly changes to an almost pure black upon exposure to light and air. It is extremely heavy, with an average density of 75 pounds per cubic foot (1,200 kilograms per cubic meter), and oily to the touch. When cut it exudes a strong flowerlike fragrance typical of the rosewood family of woods. Photographs of this wood in its raw log and roughsawn form are provided in another section of this website to give a better feel for this remarkable material.
John Jacob Holtzapffel, an Englishman who developed and refined the ornamental lathe, wrote a series of books a hundred years ago which are considered the Bible of the ornamental turner. Referring to the qualities of blackwood he said, "It is most admirably suited to eccentric turning as the wood is particularly hard, close and free from pores, but not destructive to the tools, from which, when they are in proper condition, it receives a brilliant polish....This material is in every way suited to deep or shallow cutting and is especially valuable for surface patterns, the facets upon which acquire a brilliant polish from the cut of the tool alone." The author of Timbers of the World, Alexander Howard, says, "It has a rare quality, namely that unlike practically every other wood, it does not shrink on either way of the grain, retaining exact measurement after machining, so that it is especially useful for pattern making, for screws and the like." All in all, in my personal experience, African blackwood is one of the most exquisite treasures of nature I have had the pleasure to share.
Some of its primary uses are further detailed in the following pages on this site:
THE TREE THE PROJECT
HOME WHAT WHERE WHY WHO HOW
ABCP Website maintained by James E. Harris, © 2000.
Last revised 21 Apr 2008.