What is African blackwood?
What differentiates it from other woods?The grenadilla wood (binomial name: Dalbergia melanoxylon, Leg.-Papilionaceae) has various names around the world. In Africa, his country of origin, it is called mainly "Mpingo". In the English-speaking world it is called "African blackwood" or "grenadilla", in French it goes under the name of "grenadille d’Afrique" or "ébène mozambique", the Portuguese know it as "pão preto" (black wood) and in German-speaking countries it is termed "Grenadill".
In 1502 the Portuguese seafarer Vasco da Gama brought grenadilla from Mozambique back to his country as a replacement for the costly genuine Asian ebony (Diospyros spp., Ebenaceae). It therefore often happens that grenadilla is erroneously referred to as ebony. But ebony is a hard, dry, brittle wood with a very low oil and resin content, and thus it is now scarcely used for making woodwind instruments.
At this juncture one should also mention cocuswood (Brya ebenus), well known on account of its aesthetically pleasing appearance and belonging to the same family (Leg.-Papilionaceae) as grenadilla. Because of the highly intensive exploitation of this already rare type of wood, imports have become a great rarity. Cocuswood is a dry wood with a low oil content, so it cracks easily, and because of its components it can produce extreme allergic reactions..
Kingwood (Dalbergia cearensis), which also belongs to the Leg.-Papilionaceae family, has an attractive, aesthetically pleasing appearance similar to that of coconut wood. However, it is brittle and has a marked tendency to splinter, crack and split. The natural purplish-violet colouring is not durable in the long term, as the surface fades under the influence of light and oxygen and then takes on a somewhat unattractive brown hue; even surface treatment cannot completely stop this process.
Still the Grenadilla wood remains the first choice for oboes, clarinets and flutes. Especially because of its waterproof and sound outstanding qualities. In the production of my flutes I refrain from using cocuswood, kingwood and other exotic, aesthetically beautiful timber. On the basis of my many years of experience I can only confirm that grenadilla is the most suitable wood for woodwind instruments.
AbundanceThe grenadilla tree is chiefly to be found in Central and Eastern Africa, especially in Tanzania and Mozambique. It is a tree of the dry forests and the savannah, and grows to a height of about 5-8 m, whereby the trunk diameter of adult trees is up to around 50 cm and is free of branches. The grenadilla tree grows in isolation, rather scattered with very large intervals between the individual trees and has a ring-shaped crown. Its branches are thorny. Grenadilla is self-pollinating, and because of the sparse stands it can freely develop.
Because of the region's long dry periods, which the grenadilla tree effortlessly survives, the areas of growth are sparsely populated.
Because the grenadilla trees grow very slowly and because of the current increasing consumption, both by the local population and by the explosive rise in mass production of musical instruments in the Far East, it has already come to serious bottlenecks in the supply with grenadilla wood. The grenadilla tree is already in the red list of endangered species by the IUCN "International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources". Through this high demand for this timber it came in many places on illegal deforestation. Some organizations have made the goal to protect nature, to curb illegal logging and to operate only sustainable forest management.
Supplies for our lumberyard stock is obtained solely from verifiably legal forest managements!
Description of the woodThe trunk of the grenadilla tree is made up of the dead heartwood and the living sapwood, the colours of which are sharply differentiated. The layer of sapwood is very thin and yellowish, and as it is worthless for instrument-making it is removed when the tree is felled.
The backbone, and thus responsible for the tree's stability, is the trunk's heartwood. It is extremely hard, and metabolic waste products are stored in it. It is thus rich in constituent substances, resins and oils - the so-called heartwood substances - that determine the colour and structure of the wood and are dependent on the soil properties of the location in question. The colour is brownish-violet to black and the pores are medium-sized, scattered and almost completely full of dark heartwood substances, so that the surfaces seem almost pore-free.
PropertiesThe heartwood is extremely hard, very dense and heavy, and because of its specific gravity of 1.3 g/cm3 it does not float. Drying of grenadilla hardly causes any shrinkage.
As a result of its solidity, oil content and close grain - facilitating smooth surface treatment - grenadilla scarcely absorbs any moisture from its surroundings, and being the heaviest, densest, most water‑resistant wood it is thus absolutely ideal for woodwind-instrument making.
However, the selection and processing of the wood call for broad knowledge and experience.
Flutes made of African blackwood (grenadilla) have a "full tone which is particularly attractive in the high register" (Theobald Boehm).
Their characteristic timbre is bright, resonant, clear, elegant and rich in overtones.
For my flutes and piccolos I use only carefully-selected, well-seasoned, extremely close-grained and attractive black grenadilla with the best tonal qualities.
- Official site of the IUCN
- Dalbergia melanoxylon Red List of Threatened Species.IUCN 2006.
- Sound & Fair
- Mpingo Conservation Project
- "ARKive" Videos and images of African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon)