This was my first time using Zebrawood, Microberlinia brazzavillensis, in a bowl blank size, having previously only worked with it as pen blanks. Zebrawood is certainly harder than many domestic species, harder than red oak or maple, and only slightly less hard than Wenge, a very hard wood I have recently worked with. Zebrawood is noted as being splintery and prone to tearout due to the very feature that makes it desirable, the wavy and colorful figure of dark streaks that run through the otherwise lightly colored wood.
Zebrawood Origins and History
As the species name implies, Zebrawood is harvested in Central Africa, mostly in Gabon, Congo, and Cameroon. An interesting historical note is that the first European use of the word “zebrawood” described a striped wood harvested from what was then known as the “Mosquito Coast,” located in modern day Honduras and Nicaragua. That wood was Astronium graveolens. The original traders were English, but they would eventually be expelled by the Spanish. However, this early trade and limited settlement by the English means that to this day some people in this part of Caribbean Central America speak English as a first language. By the twentieth century, the trade in Central American “zebrawood” had ended, after a brief spell of selling a closely related wood from Brazil, now sold as Goncalo Alves (Astronium sp.) as zebrawood.
Unfortunately, Zebrawood from Central Africa is very popular for decorative purposes in Western nations, often in the form of veneer for wall paneling and even flooring. Most often small pieces are used due to expense. A bowl blank of 8”x8”x2” sells for over $40 at West Penn Hardwoods, a very reputable and well stocked supplier of exotic and domestic woods. This pricing is in line with what you will find in general, but you are unlikely to find many sellers of Zebrawood who stock bowl blank sizes due to supply issues and the cost which many wood turners find prohibitive. Fortunately, this piece of Zebrawood, along with one other, was given to me by my father who bought it by the board foot in San Diego, California. I am blissfully unaware of what he paid for it.
Too Popular for Its Own Good?
The popularity of Zebrawood has caused the wood to be overharvested and it now has a place on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, a listing of the species most in danger of extinction. It is believed that in its native habitat and range, Zebrawood trees may number as few as one per square kilometer or less. The trees can be enormous, up to 150 feet in height and 4 to 5 feet in diameter. While some replanting efforts are underway, they are limited and it would take many years, decades in fact, for trees to reach replacement size, or size adequate for harvest. It could be argued, therefore, that is less than completely responsible for me to use this wood, but in my defense, I was not aware of its status prior to using it. I will think carefully before choosing it again.
My Experience Working With Zebrawood
As is common with highly figured woods, Zebrawood can be difficult to work with due to the irregularity of the grain and figure. These irregularities are what make the wood attractive, so the difficulties in working with it have to be outweighed by the appearance. Having never worked with Zebrawood in anything larger than a pen blank size, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my initial rounding cuts caused me to be concerned about splintering, which was somewhat of an issue with the early cuts, but this diminished as the turning progressed. I personally found that the wood ultimately cut easily enough and a very nice finish cut was possible with sharp carbide bits on the Easy Wood Tools. However, it was also true that the end grain areas did suffer from at least a moderate degree of tearout which required moderate to strong sanding effort to remove.
Zebrawood is highly porous so it was essential to remove all sanding dust with a solvent prior to attempting a finish. I opted for what is fast becoming my standby finish, Shellawax. This product doesn’t clog the pores as I fear a pure wax product might, nor does it require thinning and mixing like pure shellac would. It comes easy and ready to use right out of the bottle, applied with the lathe off and then buffed to a very nice shine, but not a plastic looking one, with the lathe on using the wet cloth areas with slight pressure to build friction and heat to melt and shine the wax component. Most importantly, to me, for such a colorful and highly figured wood, Shellawax does not greatly alter the natural color of the Zebrawood and it greatly highlights the figure instead of impairing or obliterating it as some finishes might do.
Overall I am quite pleased with the outcome of using this relatively small Zebrawood blank cut from a 2”x6” blank. The figure and coloration is unlike any other wood that I have experienced and while the Zebrawood does present some challenges due to the irregular figure, such as moderate end grain tearout, I feel that the attractiveness of the finished piece made the effort required worth it. And, it is important to note that the effort required wasn’t as extreme as has been required in working with some other woods I have encountered. The only reason I would pause before working with Zebrawood again is the reported scarcity in the world supply, especially since there are so many other woods that are beautiful and plentiful to choose from. I wouldn’t want to actively dissuade anyone from trying working with Zebrawood, but if they so choose, I hope they are at least cognizant of the threat to the world’s forests and overall biodiversity inherent to their choice of woods.