August 14, 2011 | 11:09 pm UTC

Black or light, figured or plain, limba makes beautiful music.

Limba is a hardwood with something of an identity crisis. A look at the list of common commercial names gives a hint. Known as limba bariole for its figured heartwood, it is also called: afara, frake, akom and a long list of other regional names including korina, especially in the guitar world.

The pale yellow-brown material is called light limba, white limba, limba blanc and light afara and is used in furniture, marquetry, turnings and musical instruments, including drums. Black limba, typically from the heartwood, yields interesting figures and is used for veneer in paneling, furniture and musical instruments, especially guitars. Limba also produces a grey-brown wood that is popular for corestock and light construction, doors and mouldings.

Black or Light

There seems to be no clear consensus as to which shade is most popular with users. Myles Gilmer, owner of Gilmer Wood Co. in Portland, OR, said his company sells 10 times the amount of black limba as white.

Although it can be used in furniture and cabinetry, “By far, the biggest users are electric guitar makers,” said Gilmer. “Most of our limba is used in solid bodies of electric guitars and also for some acoustic guitars, although the demand is by far greater with electric.”

Gilmer said the number one property appreciated by luthiers is limba’s acoustics. “The tone it yields is extremely important. After that, they appreciate the looks of the wood. Our clients seem to prefer the dark as it offers more contrast and they consider it more visually pleasing than the white.”

Gilmer said because black limba comes from the heartwood, which is usually smaller in percentage to the rest of the log, it can be difficult to get the widths he requires. “For black limba, 10 inches wide is considered a good size.”

He added that he has seen a spike in the popularity of limba, in part because of the reissue of some classic Gibson guitars made from korina, which is an American trade name for limba. “The reissue of some classic designs from the 1950s, like the Les Paul Korina Tribute guitar, has led to greater interest in the wood, which is highly prized for being relatively lightweight but offering great tonal qualities,” Gilmer said.

Doug Newhouse, owner of Newhouse Wood & Veneer in West Hartford, CT, also commented on limba’s popularity in the 1950s. “There was a trend to bleach mahogany to get a desired blond look. Limba came into fashion for this reason.” However, he added, “Anigre has replaced this look in our inventories, as it is more available and is a bit finer grained than limba.”

West African Native

Limba is native to the west coast of Africa. According to Ben Barrett, president/owner of Berkshire Veneer in Great Barrington, MA, “It covers a significant portion of the western portion of equatorial Africa and ranges from the Cameroons to Sierra Leone. The trees grow to 150 feet high and can attain diameters of 5 feet. Once above the buttress, the straight, cylindrical portion of the tree can be between 75 and 90 feet long.”

Barrett said limba’s sapwood is typically a lovely, pale yellow color. “The heartwood is darker, with grey and black streaks. There is demand for either the sap or the heartwood, but rarely in the same project as they are radically different from one another.

“Most of what we sell goes into furniture rather than paneling,” said Barrett. “The highly figured logs often are sliced for decorative veneers while the lower grade logs can end up in core stock for utilitarian plywood.”

According to the book, Veneers: A Fritz Kohl Handbook, “Limba is the dominant species of wood in the southern part of the Congo and is exported from there in significant quantities. The color of limba varies greatly by region. Limba from the Congo has the desired light yellow color, whereas the wood from the Ivory Coast can be brown to black in color.”

Black figured limba can be “sometimes substituted for walnut,” according to the book. Black figured limba works as easily as the lighter material although “the dark heart leads to longer drying time.”

Another reference source, Tropical Timbers of the World by Martin Chudnoff, USDA Forest Service, lists the tree as occurring in rain and savanna forests, where “Limba is a favored plantation species in West Africa.”

The wood seasons rapidly with little or no checking or warp. The Forest Service recommends a kiln schedule of T10-D5S for 4/4 stock and T8-D4S for 8/4 stock.

Family Name
Terminalia superba of the Family Combretaceae

Common Names
Limba, white limba, black limba, frake, afara, light afara, limba clair, limba blanc, dark afara, limba noir, limba bariole, egoin, ofram,
korina, akom

The tree grows to 150 feet, with trunk diameters of 4 to 8 feet. The wood has an average weight of 34 pounds per cubic foot with a specific gravity of 0.45.

Easy to work wood with both hand and machine tools, although the wood can have slight blunting effect on cutting surfaces.

The wood saws easily, has good veneering properties, good gluing and nailing characteristics.

The wood has low bending strength.
Its heartwood is extremely resistant to preservative treatments. The sapwood is only moderately resistant to treatments.

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