We identify wood in many ways through features like hardness, wood grain pattern, price and availability, durability, and color. The color of wood is one of the prime attractions of using wood, apart from the fascinating wood grain patterns you can see in various types of wood. One of the most popular characterizations is by its color.
The darkest-colored types of wood have always held a fascination for woodworkers and end-users alike. However, you might feel that darker woods will be more expensive, not necessarily so. Many darker kinds of wood are expensive, like ebony, walnut, and some other species. But you can also get some reasonably priced darker types of wood.
Darkest-Colored Types of Wood
Many species of dark wood are readily available and affordable, and others are rare and expensive. Darker wood tends to be popular for making indoor furniture and similar indoor applications. It tends to be strong and dimensionally stable with the added advantage that it makes good furniture.
Dark wood is usually hardwood. But some softwood species are dark to medium-dark. A few prime examples are rosewood, fir, cedar, and pine.
Here are some of the darkest types of wood that you can find in the world of woodworking:
Gabon Ebony (Diospyros crassiflora)
When we think of dark woods, the first type of wood that comes to our mind is Ebony which grows in West Africa.
Gabon ebony is considered true ebony, unlike other types of ebony that do not come from the Diospyros genus. Gabon ebony grows in equatorial West Africa. The trees grow to up to 60 feet and with tree trunks of up to 3 feet in diameter. The wood is extremely hard with a Janka hardness rating of 3,080 lbf.
The heartwood of Gabon ebony is jet black, and you will not see much color variation in the wood grain. It is so dark that you cannot distinguish any wood grain. The wood is resistant to termites and other insects, and it has high dimensional stability and makes good furniture thanks to its high durability. However, Gabon ebony is prohibitively expensive and scarce.
We also use Gabon ebony for making high-quality cabinets, musical instruments, particularly fretboards, and ornamental objects. It is understandably a difficult wood to work with.
Ceylon Ebony (Diospyros ebenum)
This form of ebony is native to Southeast Asia. The trees grow up to 80 feet with tree trunk diameters up to 3 feet. Ceylon ebony, which we also call East Indian ebony is relatively softer than Gabon ebony with a Janka hardness rating of 2,430 lbf.
The heartwood of Ceylon ebony is jet black but you will also see some brown or grey streaks. The sapwood is pale and there is a clear demarcation between the sapwood and the heartwood.
The grain is typically straight to irregular, but the wood’s surface has a smooth, natural luster. The heartwood of Ceylon ebony is quite durable, and you will find it challenging to work with due to its extreme hardness.
Drying can also be a challenge, and you will sometimes see drying defects. The wood also does not glue very well.
We use Ceylon ebony for carving and making musical instruments, particularly piano keys, fretboards, and specific parts of musical instruments.
This wood isn’t listed on the CITES Appendices but features in the IUCN List. Harvesting, trading, and exporting of this wood are restricted in India and Sri Lanka.
African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon)
African blackwood is native to the dry, arid regions of southern Africa. The trees are not very high – they grow up to 30 feet with tree trunk diameters of up to 3 feet.
The irony of African blackwood is that it is the hardest of all ebonies even though it is not true ebony. This wood comes from the Dalbergia genus rather than the Diospyros genus of true ebony.
It is even darker than Gabon ebony and you will hardly see any wood grain pattern except occasionally a dark brown or purplish streak. The sapwood is pale yellow and has an extremely thin layer with a clear demarcation between the sapwood and heartwood. The wood grain is usually straight and uniform with a smooth, natural luster.
African blackwood is highly resistant to decay but does not withstand attack by insects and borers. This wood is difficult to work with and can often blunt the blades of machine tools and cutters.
It is good for making turned objects and holds threads very well. It makes the bodies of woodwind instruments like clarinets and oboes. African blackwood is so hard that it is commonly processed on metalworking equipment.
African blackwood is exorbitantly expensive and not easy to come by. It is listed as an endangered wood species on all lists, or at least listed as “near-threatened.”
Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra)
Brazilian rosewood is an extremely dark type of wood. Although we tend to compare it with ebony, it is not true ebony because it comes from the Dalbergia genus. Brazilian rosewood comes from Brazil.
The trees are tall and grow up to 130 feet with tree trunks of diameters up to 4 feet. It is one of the harder hardwoods with a Janka hardness rating of 2,790 lbf. So, although Brazilian rosewood is harder than many other hardwoods, it is softer than all the ebony species or African blackwood.
Brazilian rosewood can come in almost black color, it is more commonly seen in dark chocolate brown or purplish or reddish-brown, punctuated with darker streaks. The dark streaks of Brazilian rosewood are sometimes called “spider-webbing” or “landscape.” The sapwood is lighter and well-demarcated from the heartwood.
Brazilian rosewood has a medium to coarse wood grain and fairly moderately-open pores. The wood grain is straight with occasional interlocking.
This wood is easy to work with using both machine and hand tools but it can wear down cutting blades in the same way the other darker woods mentioned here do.
Brazilian rosewood has a high level of natural oil making it difficult to glue sometimes.
It is an expensive wood. This wood is among the endangered species of woods and features on the CITES Appendix and the IUCN Red List. It comes under the category of vulnerable wood species.
We use this wood to make veneer, furniture, flooring, cabinets, musical instruments, and turned objects.
Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa)
Here’s a hard and dark wood that features a multitude of colors to adorn the items that it makes. Cocobolo comes from Central America. The trees grow up to 60 feet and have tree trunk diameters of up to 2 feet. Cocobolo is a rather hard type of wood with a Janka hardness rating of 2,960 lbf.
Cocobolo comes in various colors which can range from brown, black, and purple. But it can also feature lighter shades of red, orange, and yellow. The sapwood is pale in comparison with the heartwood.
This wood features typical darkening when exposed to light over time. When it is freshly cut or sanded it looks much lighter. The wood grain of cocobolo can be either straight or interlocked and it has a fine, even texture with a natural luster.
Cocobolo is one of the more durable types of wood and also resists insect attack quite well. It produces natural oils that adequately protect it from moisture.
Workability and Uses
When it comes to workability, cocobolo can prove to be problematic thanks to the high level of natural oil. It also has an issue with the color of the wood leaching into the surrounding areas when you try to apply a finish. In such a scenario you need to ensure total drying to ensure that the coats you apply are adequately sealed.
Cocobolo is also another wood that is prone to tearout during planing and it predictably wears down cutting blades and tools due to its extreme hardness.
Cocobolo is another scarce wood but in high demand. The prices of this wood are on par with other rosewoods from the same family. It is a restricted item on the lists of endangered wood species. It features on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable.
We use cocobolo to create fine furniture, turned objects, musical instruments, and small specialty objects.
Katalox (Swartzia cubensis)
Although another name of this wood is Mexican ebony, it is from a totally different genus and not from the Diospyros genus. Katalox grows in Central America, Southern Mexico, and the northern regions of South America.
Katalox is a tall tree growing up to 130 feet with tree trunks of up to 4 feet in diameter. Here again, we have an extremely hard type of wood with a Janka hardness of 3,660 lbf.
This wood is deep, reddish-brown, almost black, and comes with a purplish hue. The sapwood is well-demarcated from the heartwood and is pale yellow – almost white.
The wood grain of katalox is normally straight but some irregular interlocking does occur. It is normally a durable wood. It resists decay and termites well but it is prone to attack by marine borers.
Katalox is predictably a difficult wood to work with due to its high density and hardness. The wood has a blunting effect on cutting blades and tools. It is also prone to tearout at sections where the wood grain interlocks. It has a high level of natural oils which makes gluing a bit of a challenge.
You get katalox in small sections for turning and also as figured lumber. The prices can be moderate to expensive, as is the norm with most tropical hardwood. Katalox does not feature in any of the lists of endangered wood species.
We use katalox for inlays, cabinetry, making fine furniture, flooring, musical instruments (guitars), and turned objects.
Katalox is an extremely strong type of wood and is also among the stiffest woods in the world. Because of its dark color, it competes with ebony. Its fine appearance led to coining the name “Mexican royal ebony” although, as we know, it is not true ebony.
Dark types of woods have always held a fascination for those who work on them and the end-users. An unfortunate fact is that most of the dark woods are also among the hardest in the world.
If you plan a project that calls for using dark wood, even if you use some of the cheaper species, you will still have a bit of difficulty while working with such types of wood.
However, if you do complete a woodworking project that uses some of the darker varieties of wood, you get immense satisfaction from the results.