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Timber - Robin's Notes

These are my personal views on the timbers we sell – how best to use them and how well they turn or carve. I am not a well accomplished turner although I have made the odd pen or two (or several hundred), nor can I particularly carve well (I just need more practice on this one), so take these notes as they are meant – just a few ideas on using our timbers. If you have any feedback or comments, please let me know.

Part 1. Ash to Jatoba


A great timber for tool handles as it can take a few knocks without getting damage.

The contrasting grain makes this an ideal for pale coloured pens and it also takes spirit stains well if you are looking for colouring your turned objects.

Turns very well, although you can sometimes get grain lift when your tools start to blunt.


An ideal wood to start whittling or carving as it is soft and has very little grain to guide your knife away from a cut.

Can be a little dull given its uniform cream colour and lack of grain, but the pale colour makes it ideal for staining, painting or pyrography decoration.


Another classic tool handle timber. Beech is dense but easy to turn with very little chance of tear-out or grain lifting. The characteristic flecked pattern can be interesting even on small pens.


Blackwood is now on the restricted list and is difficult to obtain. Blanks may be available on request.

Be prepared to sharpen your tools every few minutes! Blackwood is incredibly dense and hard, and although it does turn well with little chance of tear-out, it will blunt tools rapidly.

Blackwood was the timber of choice for woodwind instruments, with a dense uniform black colour not found in anything other than the best grade Ebony. The downside is that the wood is difficult to obtain and very expensive.

Brazilian Cedar

Looks and feels like a cedar but is more closely related to Mahogany. Very similar in appearance to American Mahogany but a little lighter in colour and also lighter weight.

Turns very well, with a slight issue of tear-out when your tools start to blunt. Is also good for carving, as long as you are careful with grain direction.

Polishes well and looks good with a gloss finish.


Now becoming difficult to obtain due to its relationship to Rosewood (this is another of the African Rosewood species). Bubinga is not actually endangered but there are concerns that the lack of other rosewoods could cause over felling if not controlled now.

Bubinga is a moderately hard and dense wood but is easy to turn. It finishes and polishes well, I prefer something like a microcrystalline wax.


One of the easiest (and cheapest) fruit wood to get hold of. Ideal for small turned ornaments and treen. Moderately hard, close grained so little chance of tear-out.


Ebony is now endangered and very difficult to get hold of. Some stocks still remain but these are more often lower grade and are always expensive. Ebony blanks may be available on request.

That said, I have had some very good results with the lower grade timbers – those which are not a uniform black-brown but often mottled with a pale mid-brown.


I do not understand why I don’t sell more Elm! Turners are happy to pay twice as much for Zebrano when elm can have almost as good an appearance with its bands of reddish-brown grain.

Elm can range from mid to hard density and is generally good to turn but there is a chance of grain lifting with the softer timber.

Elm polishes very well, often with a very good chatoyance finish (another thing you won’t get with Zebrano).


When I first saw this I thought 'Wenge' - the two timbers are very similar (as is Panga Panga). But with a little searching I am now confident this is a different timber for the following reasons:

  1. Gombeira is more dense than Wenge - not a lot but it is noticeable.

  2. When freshly cut, the banding is a pale yellow-brown, but this does darken. Apparently the banding will fully darken so the wood is an overall black-brown, hence the alternative name of 'Brazilian Ebony'.

  3. Gombeira is native to South America while Wenge and Panga Panga are from Africa.


As with the other timbers, the wood can be prone to tear-out, but the effort is worth it for the end results can be spectacular.

Goncalo Alves

After an ‘issue’ with a particularly difficult customer I now separate out Tigerwood and Goncalo Alves. They are the same timber, from the same tree, only tigerwood has a lot of obvious black banding whereas Goncalo Alves is mostly a dark reddish brown. The thing is, the bands are around 25 to 50mm thick, so when I cut a blank it may be red-brown, it may be black, or it may be both. To avoid any further confusion, if the blank is black or has black banding, I will call it tigerwood, otherwise Goncalo Alves (and that’s the end of my rant).

Goncalo Alves is a hard, dense wood with closed grain, similar in appearance to Teak and with similar properties. It turns well but will blunt tools. I like to finish Goncalo Alves with a hard semi-gloss wax.


I like Idigbo, but it is quite unusual. The base colour is a yellow-cream, but the open grain pores are a mid-brown colour, this gives an appearance of something like cut bone when turned – this may sound unpleasant, but it is striking.

Some care is needed to avoid tear-out, but in general Idigbo is light and turns well.

You can get some interesting effects when using coloured finishing waxes with idigbo as these will highlight the pores in the wood.


Iroko is a honey to golden brown colour, with a slightly course texture.

There is little grain pattern, so Iroko can be a little dull, but the colour does match well with gold fittings.

Using a grain sealant and a hard wax, Iroko can be polished to a high finish.


Jatoba is an attractive wood, in some ways similar to Teak, but with a straighter, less mottled grain.

Moderately dense but easy to turn.

It is not easy to get a bright finish with Jatoba, but you can get an attractive satin finish with sanding sealer and a hard wax. If you really want a gloss finish, then use CA.

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