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Macassar ebony.



Macassar ebony -- a highly decorative wood.

When you think of a dark wood, you probably think of ebony, and for good reason -- African ebony is believed to be the blackest wood that grows. But there is one ebony that differs from the stark black of the rest of the Ebenaceae family. It is called macassar ebony, and it is a striking wood with high contrast between its gold and black streaks.

Jack MacLean, vice president of the United States Veneer Co. Inc., New York, N.Y., describes the highly exotic macassar ebony as "strongly marked." "I call it one of the great fancy woods of the world," he said, "but it is so striking that a little can go a long way."

MacLean said macassar ebony has a great deal of history. "It is a classic among exotics. It has always been an architectural wood and a good choice for fine furniture. In this country, it is closely associated with Art Deco. Macassar had its heyday from 1928 to 1936."

MacLean said that in the United States, there are famous macassar ebony installations with historical significance in architecture and art. "The Barcelona Pavilion has macassar ebony. The Bruno House has walls of macassar ebony that are stunning. One of the most important modern installations of macassar ebony is the Senate Chamber of the State Capitol of Florida, which is a knock-out. It features the hard-to-come-by 18-inch-wide macassar ebony," he said.

Macassar ebony or Diospyros celebica is also known as Indian ebony, coromandel, calamander wood, tendu, temru, tunki and timbruni. Macassar ebony, unlike its relative African ebony, comes chiefly from the Celebes Islands of Indonesia. It has a striped look different from the other ebonies, which are primarily black. Its heartwood is dark brown or black and the light streaks range in color from yellowish brown to a light brown or a grey-brown. However, despite their very dark heartwood, all ebonies have a very light sapwood.

Most macassar ebony is straight grained, but occasionally it will be wavy or irregular. It is a heavy, hard and dense wood with an average weight of 68 pounds per cubic foot. MacLean said that the wood is heavier than water so it will not float. Like other ebonies, macassar is very durable.

Working properties are a challenge

Macassar ebony has some "quirks" that make working with it difficult. The heartwood is very brittle and can shatter easily, which becomes a problem when cutting because it sometimes shatters instead of cuts. It is difficult to dry and also to work with. The trees are girdled (a ring is cut into the bark around the tree trunk) and left standing for two years before they are harvested. They are then air dried for at least six months under cover. This time period is crucial because rushing the drying could result in degrade and checking.

In terms of its workability, ebonies are like other hard, brittle woods. They have a severe blunting effect on cutting tools and must be pre-bored for nailing. Gluing can also be difficult. Macassar and the other ebonies also produce a nasty, acrid burning emission when they are cut, which makes them unpleasant to work with. "It hurts your eyes," said MacLean. However, ebonies finish beautifully.

Ebony is often sold in billet form because so much of it is short and stumpy. Macassar ebony is sold in veneer and solid form, but good, clean, lengthy logs can be hard to obtain. It is usually purchased in small quantities because of a lack of availability. In addition, the wood makes a strong statement and would be overpowering if it were used in a large quantity.

Macassar ebony has many architectural uses, according to MacLean. It is sliced for decorative veneers and also is used in many specialty items, including walking sticks, snuff boxes, inlay work, turnery, billiard cues, furniture and cabinetry. Furniture made of macassar ebony is always highly regarded, according to MacLean. "It is a classic wood of beauty as important as a fancy mahogany crotch," he said.

Macassar ebony has the same natural oiliness of the other ebonies, making it a good choice for musical instruments, such as pianos. "Your fingers don't slip off the keys," said MacLean. The stark black ebonies are usually the choice for piano keys as well as knife handles, while macassar might be chosen for a hairbrush or beautiful box. It is definitely the "star wood" in the family, providing the flashy looks.

Three main groups

There are approximately 300 species of ebony trees and shrubs around the world. Ebony thrives in tropical and mildly temperate areas. The ebony trees with the most commercial value fall into three groups, all belonging to the genus Diospyros. The three groups include species native to the United States, Africa and Asia, respectively. Macassar is an Asian species, described as a large evergreen forest tree with thin leathery leaves. Trees from the Ebenaceae family can grow very tall, although the Asian species may be shorter.

African ebony is also known as Cameroon, Kribi, Gabon, Madagascar and Nigerian ebony, depending on the country of origin. The species are Diospyrus crassiflora and Diospyrus piscatoria. African ebonies average in weight from 63 to 64 pounds per cubic foot. Uses include: tool handles, door knobs, piano and organ keys, bagpipe parts, and violin finger boards, pegs, inlay lines and stringings.

Ebonies from the United States are commonly called persimmon. Other names include butter wood, possum wood, Virginia date palm and boa wood. While persimmon is a bona fide member of the Ebenanceae family, Diospyros virginiana looks different from the rest of the family. Its straw-colored sapwood is the most commercially used part of the tree. Its heartwood is dark brown or black and smaller compared to the sapwood than with the other ebonies. Trees with usable heartwood produce decorative veneers much darker than the sapwood.

Persimmon is a hard, heavy wood, but lighter than the rest of the family. Its average weight is 52 pounds per cubic foot.
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Wood of the month
Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:Tree diplomat: going for the green.
Next Article:Project 1991: the shape of things to come.

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