Pictured is Tambootie, which may also be referred to as Tamboti, Tambotie, and/or Tambuti is scienfically known as Spirostachys africana. The tree is referred to as medium sized, which translates into tree heights of 30-50 feet with trunks up to 1 foot in diameter, which seems that it would be an imposing height with relatively narrow trunks, or tall and slender. This tree grows throughout Southern Africa.
General Characteristics and Workability of Tambootie
The heartwood of the Tambootie ranges from golden brown to a dark reddish brown and it frequently features black streaking which lends to its overall appeal. The sapwood, on the other hand, is pale yellow and is sharply demarcated. While not common, on occasion figured pieces are found that have subtly mottled grain patterns. The wood is naturally oily which allows for a natural high sheen and luster, but the oil content does contribute to difficulty in sanding as paper, or screens, load quickly. Luckily for the wood worker using Tambootie, it cuts very finely with SHARP tools meaning that little to no sanding is usually required. However, unlike some oily woods, Tambootie’s oils do not impair gluing operations, but the wood will shine up nicely when burnished with shavings from the turning operations; this is also a side effect of high oil content.
Despite its high density, Tambootie works well and responds positively to most machining operations. Its hardness makes it an excellent turning wood as well, however, it will blunt cutters of all types, and this effect is rated as moderate to severe. Sharp tools are always a necessity and when working with Tambootie, frequent sharpening, or replacement, is required.
Depending on the source, Tambootie is rated as being both very durable and resistant to insect attack, or it is listed as being highly susceptible to heart rot, a form of fungal disease, which as the name implies, attacks and destroys the heartwood.
Tambootie is reported to have a sweet and pleasing scent that lingers, a scent which some find too strong. In my working with this wood I have detected only a slight odor if at all. Some report that even finished pieces remain scented, but this has not been my experience.
Pricing and Availability of Tambootie
Since Tambootie is a relatively small tree, it is becoming increasingly rare as its popularity increases. Consequently, prices are comparatively high. Pen blanks sizes sell for around $2.50 each while a large bowl turning blank sized 8”x8”x3” sells for almost $70 at West Penn Hardwoods! However, this is less than one might expect to pay for similar sized pieces of other Southern Africa woods, such as Pink Ivory or African Blackwood.
Uses of Tambootie
Tambootie is prized for use a decorative luxury hardwood and finds applications in high end furniture. It is also commonly used for carving and small turned objects made for a specialty market. It is also used as a fragrant replacement for the vaguely defined “sandalwood” due to its scent and aroma.
Health Hazards of Tambootie
Unfortunately, despite its beauty, Tambootie is considered highly dangerous. The sap from a standing, or recently cut, tree is highly irritating to the skin, and even the dried wood and sawdust have been known to cause eye and skin irritations. While they are extreme cases, even blindness has been attributed to Tambootie sawdust! It is well known in the growing region that even food cooked over a Tambootie fire is poisonous, with those eating food prepared in this way subject to diarrhea. In fact, the sap is used as a fish poison, is applied to arrow tips, and may be used in traditional medicine as a purgative. If you are the scientific type, you may be interested to know that the poison is a diterpene excoecarin.
While many woods can cause allergic reactions in susceptible people, EVERYONE working with Tambootie should take appropriate precautions such as keeping exposed skin to a minimum, using proper eye protection, and also investing in a functioning dust filtration and management system. Excellent information about health risks associated with wood as well as advice on dust management is available from The Wood Database.
My Experience With Tambootie
In my work with Tambootie, I have had no adverse health reactions although I have found the wood extremely brittle and hard. Working with this tool blunting wood certainly required sharp tools that didn’t stay sharp for long, and this wood was capable of blunting and chipping even carbide bits. Be patient and cautious! As I noted, I never detected any scent whatsoever but perhaps you will have better luck. The oil will immediately clog any sandpaper, but if you make fine enough cuts sanding will be minimal anyhow on this hard wood. Even Abranet screens were clogged, but the dust and oil was easily removed with compressed air. The pieces of Tambootie I had varied widely in coloration and even in workability with the lighter pieces being easier to work. These pieces may have been closer to the sapwood although I can’t know this for certain. Of course, this may also just be another example of the well-known variability of wood! I would be willing to work with it again and would especially like to try making a bowl with this challenging wood, provided someone out there decides to gift me a bowl blank!
African Jumping Beans?
Tambootie provides one more interesting side note. The green fruits of the Tambootie tree are frequently invaded by the small grey moth Emporia melanobasis. The small worms develop without any apparent outside evidence and the fruits mature and split into three pieces. The larvae move about vigorously inside the pieces on the ground which results in fruits that move about, apparently on their own which surprises those who don’t know the mechanism behind it. This has led some to refer to the Tambootie as the “Jumping Bean Tree,” and in fact, the Mexican jumping bean, Sebastiania sp., also belongs to the family as the Tambootie but is infected with different moth larvae (Cydia deshaisiana)