Woodsense: Spotlight on Zebrawood

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This article is from Issue 55 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Quartersawn zebrawood

You can’t always tell a wood by its stripes.

By Pete Stephano
Technical consultant: Larry Osborn

So-called “zebrawood” was first mentioned in international trade in 1773 when it showed up in British customs records. At that time, it came from the Caribbean coastal region of what is now Honduras and Nicaragua and may have been a different species than the zebrawood we know today. The wood became an immediate hit with English cabinetmakers, and it continued to be imported until 1786, when the British settlers could no longer supply the wood.

Because of the demand for this wood, another source had to be found, and one was in Brazil. The wood here, however, proved to be a species we now call goncalo alves. Still, European and American furnituremakers called it zebrawood until about 1860. It wasn’t until the early 1920s that the “zebrawood” term used in North America applied to Microberlinia brazzavillensis, a tree from West Africa, which today is the only source.

African zebrawood comes from trees that grow up to 150' tall with trunk diameters of 4' to 5' feet. These have thick bark and produce heavy, hard, coarse-textured heartwood of wonderful color and luster that’s also resistant to termites and other insects. Zebrawood’s dark stripes can range from shades of brown to black. The lighter background generally ranges from cream to soft golden yellow. The stripes may be relatively consistent in some pieces but not others. Some zebrawood has highly variable stripes with some lines much thicker than others. Quartersawing the logs always adds to the striped appearance.

History in woodworking

As a decorative wood, zebrawood has been used in a limited way for veneer, wall paneling, custom furniture, inlay bandings, marquetry, specialty items, boxes, and turned objects. It’s also seen in handgun grips and exotic guitars.

In the not too distant past, it clad the dashboards of Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Because of its hardness, it has been fashioned into skis and tool handles.

Where the wood comes from

As mentioned earlier, there are a number of tree species around the world that can produce lumber that resembles and is locally called zebrawood. But the authentic zebrawood in the market comes from trees in the Microberlinia genus of the West African countries of Gabon and Cameroon. In other than North American trade, wood from these trees may also be called “zebrano,” “African zebrawood,” and “zingana.”

It’s a fact that…

The zebrawood tree species has bark that averages a whopping 1' thick! To facilitate hauling, the bark is stripped off the logs at the logging site, which adds to the wood’s cost.

What you’ll pay

Due to the tree’s relative inaccessibility and intense labor needed at the logging site, zebrawood tends to be fairly expensive. However, it is far more plentiful and not nearly as pricey as exotics ebony or rosewood. Zebrawood boards in 4/4 thickness sell for about $24 per board foot in Select & Better grade. Stock in 8/4 thickness is usually available, as is FAS grade at higher prices. Turning squares measuring 11⁄2 × 11⁄2 × 18" run about $15; 3⁄4 × 3⁄4 × 5" pen blanks cost about $2. Bowl blanks and thin stock are also available. A 4 × 8 sheet of 1⁄42"-thick, paper-backed veneer costs about $160.

You won’t find zebrawood at home centers or large lumberyards, as it’s mostly sold by retail specialty wood suppliers both at their stores and online.

How to select the best stock

Suppliers sell both flatsawn and quartersawn zebrawood. When buying several pieces, be sure the color and striping match. You’ll find the most consistent and dramatic striping in quartersawn zebrawood.

Working zebrawood in the shop

Zebrawood’s interlocked grain makes machining somewhat difficult, so go with carbide bits and cutters, slow feed rates, and light passes. The wood also tends to tear out when planed. Feeding the stock at a slight angle and using light cuts can reduce or eliminate damage. Jointing can also be challenging, so do it lightly, or simply rely on smooth rips at the tablesaw.

All adhesives work well, but because the wood tends to be oily, first wipe the joining surfaces with a solvent. The wood sands normally, but large and sharp splinters are a possibility. Progress through the grits to bring out zebrawood’s natural luster. For a glass-like smoothness, consider filling the open pores and grain.

Due to its natural oils, film finishes provide mixed results with possible failure. A penetrating oil with added driers, such as polymerized tung oil, works better.  

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