Only the heartwood of this important rain forest tree is commercially important. Selectively logged for the last 250 years, the Dalbergia Retusa tropical hardwood is now considered vulnerable to over-harvesting. Although similar species exist in South America and Africa, Central American cocobolo has a much smaller range. Its unique beauty and hardness make it one of the most desired materials for expensive turnery, sculpture, and wooden musical instruments.
Closely related to other important species within the Dalbergia genus such as Brazilian rosewood and African Blackwood, Central American cocobolo exhibits strikingly different color, with alternating bands of dark and reddish-orange wood. Growing to heights of 45 to 60 feet when mature, with trunk diameters of 20 to 24 inches, cocobolo is too small for the commercial production of lumber. Locally important for carvings, the wood has also found use in the manufacture of scientific instruments, guitars, gun grips, and knife handles.
Cocobolo machines well without excessively blunting tools. The heartwood has an oily quality that resists adhesives. Any operations that produce fine dust may cause allergic reactions in those who inhale the powder. The effect is similar to the rash caused by poison ivy -- not everyone is susceptible, but the aftereffects can be serious if the lungs are affected. If cut cleanly, the wood can be polished to a high gloss without sandpaper or finishing products.
Because it is hard, beautiful, and very stable, cocobolo has been important to many industries and fine arts. Kitchen knives with cocobolo handles can be immersed in water for short periods without distortion of the grips and do not require chemical treatment. Cocobolo wood has also been used for jewelry boxes, inlay and veneer, the handles of high quality hair brushes, and the manufacture of bowling balls. Cocobolo is favored for canes and pool cues because it resists warping and impact damage. Cocobolo resists checking and is resonant when struck, making it a preferred material for marimbas and xylophones.
Due to its slow growth and limited range, wild Cocobolo trees of harvestable size are in short supply. Tree farms in Central America may eventually provide a renewable resource of this wood, but production at present lags behind demand. The market demand for the best grades of cocobolo encourages the harvesting of trees before they have reached maturity. Closely related species offer wood with similar working properties but without the striking color of true cocobolo.
Wear a respirator when working with cocobolo to prevent inhalation of wood dust. Respect the material by using only sharp tools, since dull blades will produce rough work and possibly destroy the work piece. If screws or nails are to be used, pre-drill the holes to prevent splitting the dense wood. Glue joints are not dependable due to the wood's oily quality, but joinery may be strengthened if a waterproof glue is applied to the surfaces of freshly sawn tenons, just prior to assembly.
- Photo Credit Cocobolo Chess Pieces from Wikipedia Commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cocobolo_chess_pieces.jpg
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