Wood Sense: Spotlight on Wenge

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This article is from Issue 46 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Spotlight on Wenge

Wenge (Millettia laurentii) and its nearly identical relation, panga panga (Millettia stuhlmannii), grow in many of the tropical countries in Central Africa, ranking as a major lumber species there. An attractive dark wood, wenge is hard, heavy, and takes some care when working it. The same applies to the lighter in weight panga panga. Note: From here on, wenge will be the primary reference, although all characteristics apply to panga panga as well.

History in woodworking

In its native land, wenge lumber serves utilitarian needs, becoming everything from barns to benches. It also has a loyal following among native woodcarvers. In Europe, wenge has long been used for fine furniture. However, the recent U.S. market for wenge primarily lies in flooring, veneer, and paneling, although the wood has a growing fan base among furnituremakers, turners, and box makers. It’s an outstanding accent wood.

Where the wood comes from

Wenge’s homeland includes the African countries of Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic, and Zaire. (Panga panga hails from Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.)

What you’ll pay

You’ll only find wenge at specialty wood suppliers, and it’s quite expensive. The finest boards in 4/4 (1" thick) cost from around $18 to $30 per board foot depending on how they were sawn, with quartersawn stock exacting the highest price. A 4×8 sheet of paperback veneer can run $200 to $300.

It’s a fact that…

Wenge is well noted for its shock absorption and is said to compare favorably in that respect with North American hickory.

Spotlight on Wenge

How to select the best stock

The orientation of wenge’s grain is the most important aspect of choosing stock for a project. In flatsawn boards, light-colored streaks show up in undulating patterns that look like wavy water. In quartersawn material, thin, light tan lines alternating with nearly black lines give the appearance of evenly spaced claw scratches. Given this dramatic difference, select stock that has been sawn in the same manner for a consistent look.

Working wenge in the shop

Due to wenge’s hardness, sharp cutting edges (carbide recommended) and drill points are essential. Because of its brittle nature, the wood tends to split and shed splinters. Nailing requires pre-boring. When the splinters embed in the flesh, they can quickly fester. In such cases, pull the splinters immediately and cleanse. By all means wear gloves while transporting boards to protect against splinters. Remove the gloves when working at machines.

Because the wood’s dust can irritate your nose, throat, and lungs, put on proper respiratory protection. Wenge can also irritate the skin with a reaction similar to poison ivy. Consider wearing tight-fitting long sleeves and a shop apron as a guard. Consider, also, these suggestions:

  • Ripping. The wood’s straight, coarse grain offers good ripping using a quality combination blade. When crosscutting, go with a 60- to 80-tooth ATB (alternate top bevel) blade for a smooth, splinter-free finish.
  • Jointing, planing, and routing. Because of the wood’s irregular density and straight yet coarse grain, tear-out can result. Here, take light machining passes and use a backing board when routing across grain.
  • Sanding. Various portable sanders and grits do well for prepping furniture projects. Use a sanding block when hand-sanding to avoid contact with those nasty splinters.
  • Assembly. To prevent joint failure, clean mating surfaces with acetone prior to gluing to remove surface resins.

Finishing wenge

The same resins that resist  glue in wenge also cause problems with solvent-based stains. Too,  there is little
reason to stain wenge. It  accepts clear finishes well if the surface is wiped with a  fast-drying solvent like acetone.  

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