BOTANICAL NAME: Millettia laurentii of the Family Fabaceae (syn Leguminosae) the legume, pea, or bean family (one report says, apparently incorrectly, that the family name is Papilionaceae)
COMMON NAMES: awong (cameroon), awoung, bokonge, bwengu, dikela, kiboto, mboto, mibotu, monkonge, mpande (tanzania), mukonde mutshi, mundambi, n'gondou, n'toka, n'toko, nson-so, otogo, palissandre du congo, pallissandre, tshikalakala, zai-wenge
A closely related species is Millettia stuhlmannii, which has the common names panga-panga, mpande, and partridgewood
COLOR:Heartwood is clearly defined and is a deep rich chocolate brown, with very close, fine, almost black veins, so the wood has alternating dark and light brown bands producing a very distinctive and decorative appearance. There are sometimes closely spaced whitish bands of parenchyma which can give the wood a particularly interesting appearance. The sapwood is pale yellow or whitish in color, and is clearly demarcated from the heartwood.
Most finishes cause it to become a uniform near-black. Extremely dark color is unmatched by any comparably priced wood. If bleached, the lighter areas become even lighter, furthering enhancing the contrast in a sometimes very attractive way. There are samples of this in the pictures.
Exposure lightens the dark color of the wood, and lumber is reported to be occasionally left in the sun on purpose to lighten the color (sometimes requested by importers of Wenge).
GRAIN: fairly straight, tight, grain
TEXTURE: It is a very coarse wood with low natural luster and yields sharp, almost steel-like, splinters that can make working with it difficult without protection for one's hands. Does not polish well due to coarsness but a filler will fix that.
PROPERTIES / WORKABILITY: hard, dense, heavy, works fairly well with both hand and machine tools and has moderate blunting effect on cutters. A few reports say heavy blunting, but that has not been my experience. Most reports say The presence of resin cells in the wood sometimes interferes with gluing and polishing but I have not personally experienced any difficulty in glueing, although I glue rough-sanded surfaces, which helps. Nailing is difficult and requires pre-boring but it holds nails well. It sands well, carves with considerable difficulty, does not bore very well, mortising and moulding characteristics are moderate, routing is difficult, saws well with power tools, somewhat more difficult with hand tools.
Some reports say that because of its strength, wenge is sometimes used as a substitute for hickory, but I find this odd since the color of the two is so radically different.
The porous nature of the wood makes Wenge a rather difficult wood to slice for veneer. It requires smooth cutting, and quality material is reported to be rather difficult to obtain. Wenge is reported to be too heavy to be used for plywood manufacture. My own experience is that quartersawn veneer splits VERY easily along the grain and even flat cut veneer has to be handled with considerable care.
DURABILITY: Durable and resistant to termites. The heartwood is extremely resistant to preservative treatment but the sapwood is permeable and thus treatable. Reportedly very resistant to weather, so suitable for above-ground outdoor uses.
FINISH: When filled, it can be brought to a satisfactory finish, but it's a coarse wood and like all such, cannot be brought to a high natural gloss. High porosity means the butt end soaks up finishing chemicals like a sponge, thus requiring a filler. Varnishing properties are reported to be rather poor. Some solvent-based stains are reported to dry with difficulty.
STABILITY: small movement in service
BENDING: one report says "low steam bending classification", several say "high bending strength"
ODOR: no specific smell or taste
SOURCES: grows in swampy areas in Zaire, Cameroon, the Congo, Tanzania, and Gaboon.
USES: The high natural resistance to abrasion makes this timber very suitable for flooring strips or blocks. Also used for interior and exterior joinery and general construction work. It is an excellent turning wood. 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.
Other uses are: architectural wood for furniture, bedroom suites, boat building, boxes and crates, brush backs, building construction, building materials, cabin construction, cabinetmaking, canoes, carvings, chairs, chests, concealed parts of furniture, construction, decorative veneer, desks, dining-room furniture, domestic flooring, dowell pins, dowells, drawer sides, drum sticks, excelsior, factory construction, factory flooring, fine furniture, floor lamps, flooring, furniture, furniture components, furniture squares or stock, general construction, handles, hatracks, heavy construction, joinery, kitchen cabinets, lifeboats, light construction, living-room suites, mine timbers, musical instruments, office furniture, organ pipes, paneling, parquet flooring, parquet or strip flooring, piano keys, pianos, plywood, posts, radio, railroad ties, rustic furniture, shipbuilding, shipbuilding, sounding boards, specialty items., sporting goods, stools, sub-flooring, tables, tool handles, turnery, tv cabinets, utility furniture, vehicle parts, violin bows, wardrobes, xylophones
TREE: average height of 60 feet with 2-foot diameter but can grow to 90 feet with 3- to 4-foot diameters.
WEIGHT: between 52 and 62 pounds per cubic foot
DRYING: dries slowly and requires care to minimize surface checking tendencies. There is only a slight chance of distortion.
AVAILABILITY: readily available from specialty dealers
COST: moderate to high
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.
Brittleheart is sometimes present in the wood, as are bore holes. The latter tends to reduce the volume of quality material from logs and is sometimes cited as one reason for the limited availability of the wood.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Wenge is always in limited supply on the US market. Some reasons for this are low yield from logs because of high waste from mulot or heavy worm infestation, supply problems from sources in Africa, and less demand on the market for darker colored woods. The wood is used almost exclusively for architectural purposes such as paneling and furniture pieces. Suppliers are reported to to be offering Wenge more frequently in recent years.