African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) is the primary wood used in the manufacturing of woodwind instruments – clarinets, oboes, flutes, piccolos and bagpipes.
On the outside, the African blackwood tree looks ordinary, often short and spindly, but beneath the bark and sapwood lies dark, lustrous heartwood with a resinous texture which is resistant to splitting or cracking and which creates a superior tone when turned into an instrument.
Additional markets are emerging for African blackwood in the guitar making sector, which traditionally uses ebony (Diospyros spp.) plus there is smaller scale demand from a number of manufacturing sectors including consumer products such as luxury jewellery, pens and knives.
African blackwood is very heavy with an average dry weight density of 1,200kg/m3, putting it amongst the heaviest known woods.
It is also very hard with a Janka hardness scale rating of 1,333 kgs of force.
Whilst the species is known as blackwood, the actual colour of the heartwood varies greatly from black to brown to purple.
The reason for this colour variation is not well understood and trees located close together in the forest can yield wood of completely different colour.
Other names for the species include the local Swahili name, mpingo, and the trade name, grenadilla.
A great deal of concern has been raised about the over-exploitation of African blackwood and there is no doubt that demand for the species from the music industry has been a driver of shrinkage of the species’ range, with commercial stocks now only remaining in Tanzania and Mozambique, whereas previously they were found across many regions of Africa.
However, African blackwood harvesting for tonewoods is highly selective due to the species’ extreme variability, with each tree growing in its own unique way, rendering many trees unsuitable for processing into musical instrument components.
In Sound and Fair’s experience far more trees are rejected prior to harvesting than selected for cutting.
In the absence of sustainable forestry management programmes, removing all the commercially valuable trees has invariably led to clearance for agriculture, which is ultimately the primary driver of the species’ decline.
However, by sourcing African blackwood from FSC certified forests, there is no reason why usage by the music industry should further threaten the species.