Wood of a Thousand Names

Chenchen, white sapele or antiaris. Any way you cut it, this wood has as many uses as it does names.

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Chenchen is a large tree from Africa with a long list of applications and an even longer list of names. Ben Clift of Renaissance Specialty Veneer Products, Columbus, IN, said the tree is called chenchen or antiaris as well as ako and koto. "It also is referred to as white sapele or white mahogany because it has a nice ribbony-grain pattern similar to the ribbon stripe in sapele."

Clift said his company stocks high grades of chenchen. "The material with good color and an interesting grain pattern is used in high-end projects, such as architectural woodworking applications. Chenchen logs are large and generate a very good yield of material. It offers a nice light color and is an attractive wood that can be stained. It is easy to go from dark to light with this wood." Clift said lower grades are typically rotary cut and used for backing in plywood. "Chenchen is not a mainstream veneer in the U.S. market, like cherry, makore or sapele. We do get requests for it. In Africa, it is used extensively where it is a commodity wood."

In addition to veneer and plywood, chenchen is used for furniture components, joinery, boxes, crates and light construction.

Family Name

Antiaris toxicaria of the Family Moraceae. Closely related species include Antiaris Africana and Antiaris welwitschii

Common Names

Chen chen or chenchen, antiaris, kyenkyen, quen, bark cloth tree, ako, mkuzu, mlulu, oro, ogiovu, kirundo, mumuka, upus, adoum, bonkonko, false iroko, white sapele

Height/Weight

Trees can reach heights of 120 to 150 feet with straight boles clear to 70 feet and trunk diameters of 2 to 5 feet. Weight ranges from 23 to 33 pounds per cubic foot.

Properties

Wood works easily with hand and machine tools. Experts recommend use of sharp cutting tools.

Glues and nails satisfactorily.

Has an innate luster and can be stained and finished well.

Light-colored wood, ranging from a white yellow to yellow brown with no distinction between its sapwood and heartwood.

The wood is perishable and susceptible to attack by the powder-post and ambrosia beetles.

Rick Banas, vice president at Interwood Forest Products in Shelbyville, KY, said his company stocks chenchen veneer. "It's mainly used for the panel industry in the United States and it's typically quartered." Banas agreed that chenchen has accumulated a long list of names. He's heard the wood referred to as blonde sapele but takes issue with another name for the tree, false iroko. "The sapele comparison makes sense because of the ribbon stripe. Calling it false iroko is a bad comparison. Chenchen is relatively soft and lightweight while iroko is as hard as a rock."

Banas is a fan of chenchen and thinks it hasn't reached its potential in the U.S. market. "I don't think it has been used here nearly as much as it could be in the panel and furniture industries, he said."

Banas likes chenchen for a number of reasons. "It is a cleaner wood than sapele - it doesn't have the pin knots that sapele can have. It is one of the more economical trees from Africa. It grows thick and fast and abundantly. The trees are so large that a single tree can yield 200,000 square feet of veneer. Chenchen is a very high yielding, clean log."

Banas added that his clients are using chenchen for architectural panels and store fixtures. "In Africa, chenchen is mass produced in plywood. It is also used there for inexpensive furniture."

About the only problem chenchen has, said Banas, is that it is a beetle magnet. "We learned that we have to wrap our supplies of chenchen in plastic if we are storing it in the warehouse. It's very tasty to worms and powder-post beetles."

Chenchen grows throughout the high forest zones of West, Central and East Africa. In Ghana, it is known as kyenkyen and chenchen. In Tanzania, it is called mkuzu and mlulu. In Nigeria, it is oro and ogiovu, while in Uganda it is called kirundo and mumaka. In Senegal, it is known as ako. Another regional name is bark cloth tree - because the inner bark of the tree was used to make white cloth. Long ago, the trees were cut to make canoes.

Author Albert Constantine Jr. wrote in Know Your Woods that "antiaris will season without difficulty but requires extreme care after the tree is cut, otherwise a blue stain will develop." The trees routinely grow to 100 feet or more and are easily distinguished because of their distinctive smooth bark, which ranges from pale, dirty white, to yellow, to pure white, according to Constantine.

The authors of Tropical Timbers of the World from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service said that the wood seasons rapidly, but "there is a pronounced tendency to warp, particularly twisting." They suggest a kiln schedule of T2-D4 for 4/4 stock and T2-D3 for 8/4 stock.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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