August 14, 2011 | 5:06 pm CDT

Moabi Looks & Uses Can Be Plain or Fancy

By JoAnn Kaiser
Family Name
Baillonella toxisperma (syn. Mimusops djave and Mimusops toxisperma) of the family Sapotaceae.

Common Names
Moabi, djave, njabi, adza, African pearwood, dimpampi

Grows as tall as 200 feet with trunk diameters of 6 to 10 feet. Weight is 50 pounds per cubic foot with a specific gravity of .80.

Dries at moderate rate with some tendency to twist and distort.

Extremely tough with high bending strength.

Works well with most hand and machine tools.

Silica content will dull cutting tools. Some experts recommend a reduced angle of 20-¦ to avoid problems when planing surfaces.

Sawdust can be irritating.

Nails and screws well.

Moabi, the tropical hardwood from West Africa also known as African pearwood, is a tree that gets noticed.

One of the largest trees in the forests of Equatorial Africa, from Nigeria to Gabon and Zaire, it routinely reaches a height of 200 feet with 10-foot diameters and straight cylindrical boles to 100 feet. Moabi is used as lumber and veneer in a variety of uses, from exterior joinery and construction to high-end furniture designs.

Studio woodworker Richard Judd has been working with moabi veneer in a few new designs. He used it in a two-panel folding screen that is caught a lot of attention. "I'm thinking of printing a tiny card with the words G�ÿIt's moabi,' since so many people want to know what it is," Judd says.

Moabi has a heartwood that ranges from a pinkish brown to a red brown and from an orange red to a rich red color, with a fine, even texture and a usually straight grain. It sometimes has a wavy grain that produces a variety of interesting patterns, including a rare pommele figure.

Judd, owner of Richard Judd Furniture Ltd. and Zazen Gallery in Paoli, WI, favors the figured moabi veneer. "It's got a nice wave design to it that is almost three dimensional. If you look at moabi on the surface, it looks like you are touching and feeling the waves of the wood, but it's flat," he explains. His other screens always combine other woods and often use inlay, but for the moabi screen, the veneer is center stage. "When the two panels are opened, there's an arch, or G�ÿS' at the top; closed, there's an double G�ÿC,'" he says. Judd also uses moabi veneer as the base of a glass-topped console table.

Myles Gilmer, owner of Gilmer Wood Co. in Portland, OR, says moabi is comparable to makore. "It is a nice wood. Even the plain material has G�ÿchatoyance,' a word that describes a wood's inherent luster and means it refracts light differently, like a tiger's eye," he says. Or as Webster's describes the word, it also means "having a changeable luster or color with an undulating narrow band of white light."

Gilmer sells solid moabi and says most interest in the wood comes from custom
furniture makers and cabinetmakers. "It is a nice wood. I've seen boards as big as 36
inches wide and 25 feet long," Gilmer says. Gilmer explains that while moabi does
resemble makore, moabi is usually in shorter supply: "If a client is looking for figured moabi in certain lengths, it might take a couple of months to fill the order, while makore doesn't have that problem."

Cam Gantz, sales manager of Interwood Forest Products Inc. in Shelbyville, KY, says his company carries moabi pommele for its North American market. He finds moabi is very similar in aesthetics to makore in many ways. "The pore structure appears the same, and the grain and figure are very close," Gantz says. "If there is a difference, it would be that some moabi is lighter in color than makore. Moabi might be a light orange as opposed to the blood red of makore. Both moabi and makore produce a pommele figure and moabi can yield a more dramatic blister."

The pommele is the only figure suppliers carry in moabi veneer. Gantz said the blistered logs are set aside and rotary cut to yield the dramatic look.

Some companies put makore and moabi in the same category because of their close resemblance and because both are from the family Sapotaceae. Makore is from the species Tieghemella heckelii (syn. Mimusops heckelii and Dumoria heckelii) and Tieghemella africana. Of the two woods, makore is more widely used - as much as 10 to 1 - in the North American market, according to one veneer salesperson.

Working the Wood

While Judd likes the look he gets with moabi, he has found that using it can require extra care. "Moabi is the first wood that's G�ÿgotten' to me. I usually work with just a regular facemask, but moabi dust has a choking effect and really irritates my throat. I use caution when working with it, wearing a tight fitting mask with a full respirator. After I'm done working with it, I clean the area of any dust right away," he says. Judd says the problems are limited to respiratory irritation and he has not had any skin rashes.

Varied Uses

Moabi has a variety of uses. Its properties of strength and durability make it suitable for exterior joinery and construction. It is also a popular choice for both residential and commercial flooring because it can withstand heavy use. It is used for turnery and carving, store fixtures, cabinetry and furniture, decorative veneers and joinery. A search of the Internet yielded some interesting uses of the wood, including exterior doors and containers for pool covers.


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