Wood of the Month:
Wenge: The Dark Wood from Africa

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Millettia laurentii of the Family Leguminosae

Wenge, palissandre du Congo, dikela, mibotu, bokonge, tshikalakala, awong, nson-so. A closely related species is panga-panga (Millettia laurentii) of Mozambique. It also goes by the name mpande.

Wenge and panga-pange have
average heights of 60 feet with 2-foot diameters but can grow to 90 feet with 3- to 4-foot diameters. Wenge weighs between 52 and 62 pounds per cubic foot; panga-panga weighs 50 pounds per cubic foot.

Wenge dries slowly. Experts recommend care to avoid surface checking. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service suggests kiln schedule T6-D2 for 4/4 stock and T3-D1 for 8/4 stock. Coarse texture with a straight grain. Carbide cutting tools are recommended since the wood has a slight blunting effect.

Wenge is a special wood. Some might even say it is rich in mystic powers. For hundreds of years it has been used in its native Africa to make ceremonial masks and statues paying homage to gods.

Wenge and the closely related species panga-panga are indigenous to Africa. In fact, they so closely resemble one another that in some areas, the wood is sold interchangeably.

Wenge grows in swampy areas in Zaire, Cameroon, and Gaboon. Panga-panga, on the other hand, grows in the open forests of Mozambique and Tanzania. Both trees are modest in height - averaging about 60 feet with 2-foot diameters, although the trees can grow as tall as 90 feet with 3- to 4-foot diameters.

Uses for wenge include interior and exterior joinery plus general construction work. Wenge is a good wood for turnery. It is also prized for wood sculpting because it cuts easily and has a beautiful grain and interesting color that adds to the artistic image. The best logs are veneer sliced for high-end cabinetry and architectural uses such as panelling.

Wenge is a very distinctive looking wood, with a dark brown heartwood. It has very close, fine black veins and white lines, which are really closely spaced strips of parenchyma. Parenchyma is tissue composed of cells that are typically brick-shaped or isodiametric. This tissue stores and distributes food to the tree. The combination of the white bands against the dark wood with the black streaks gives it an attractive look. Wenge is straight grained and features a coarse texture.

Similarity to maple
Wenge is similar to maple in natural abrasion resistance. Like maple, wenge is used extensively for flooring, especially in Africa. With its dark coloration and interesting figures, it makes for a dramatic-looking floor. Wenge is an ideal choice for high-traffic flooring areas, particularly in public buildings, such as hotels, boardrooms and banks. Flooring is sold both in planks and squares, with marquetry also becoming a popular choice. Because of its strength, wenge is also used as a substitute for hickory.

Species characteristics
Wenge and panga-panga are coarse textured and fibrous woods. When the veneer is sliced, it takes expertise to keep the pores closed with no open, rough edges. If they open or become rough, glue will come through. It takes time to bring wenge up to its best color; when sliced it is creamy beige, although in time the wood turns a dark brown. Experts say it takes a lot of work to obtain an acceptable finish and the edges can be particularly hard to sand.

Drying methods for wenge and panga-panga differ slightly. Panga-panga dries quickly while wenge is slow drying and must be carefully checked to avoid degrade, like surface checking. Both have small movement in service.

Although wenge is a dense wood, it works well with hand and machine tools. However, there is a slight blunting effect on cutting surfaces.

When sanded, wenge gives off a fine dust that can be highly irritating to skin, eyes and lungs. Proper ventilation and the use of masks and protective clothing are recommended.

Panga-panga will blunt cutting surfaces, so experts recommend a reduced cutting angle when planing or shaping. The natural resin cells of the wood also tend to interfere with the gluing process. Pre-boring is recommended for nails, and panga-panga's grain should be filled before finishing. Like wenge, it is just too heavy a wood for use in plywood, but it is a popular choice for turnery.

As a dense and heavy wood, wenge posed many logistical problems for early craftsmen. Without benefit of modern means of cutting or transporting the logs, African craftsmen would employ fire as a means for cutting and sculpting the wood. Felled trees that were slowly seasoned would be worked via the use of a controlled fire built under the tree. The smaller sections would by turned into art pieces honoring gods and the spirit world with fire carving, a process of selective burning using damp pieces of material to protect the part not being carved. Fire sculpting was not completed until the charred wood was sanded or scraped away to reveal the beautiful wenge wood underneath. Masks and sculptures of gods were especially popular carvings made by the native artisans.



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