What Is Wenge Wood?

By Robert Korpella
(From left to right) maple, merbau and wenge wood flooring samples.

An exotic lumber species from West Africa, wenge wood is dense, tough and durable. Over-harvesting, exploitation and a shrinking natural range have diminished wenge tree populations by half over the last 30 years, at the time of publication. As a result, the tree -- Millettia laurentii -- that produces wenge wood is considered an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Those factors make wenge an expensive and not-so-green hardwood choice.

Color and Appearance

The heartwood is a deep, rich brown with black lines. Depending on how the wood is cut, wenge may show narrow, tan lines alongside the black. Sometimes used in place of ebony, wenge becomes almost completely black after applying an oil finish. Wenge is coarse with a very straight, predictable grain. The wood is so dense, it weighs in at about 55 pounds per cubic foot of material.

Wood Dimensions

The species of tree that produces wenge wood grows to heights of up to 90 feet, with trunks as much as 3- to 4-feet in diameter. As a result, sawyers cut wenge into widths of 3- to 12-inches and lengths up to 14 feet. Most wenge is between 8 and 12 feet long. Occasionally, you may find boards as much as 30 inches in width.

Working With Wenge

While it is dense, wenge is also very porous. The wood may need a sealer application between sanding and finishing. Even then, an absolutely smooth surface may be too difficult to obtain. While it sands well, wenge is hard on hand and power tools, blunting their edges. Tools must be sharpened often when cutting and shaping the wood. Wenge also has a tendency to tear out or splinter as it’s worked.

Allergic Reactions

Some people have complained of skin and eye irritations as well as more serious symptoms while working with wenge wood. The wood has some toxicity and, in some parts of the world, it is ground to a fine powder and used to control fish nervous systems during harvests. Use a respirator or a vacuum system when working wenge, particularly when sawing or sanding, as these operations produce fine particles that affect those with such sensitivities. Immediately remove any splinters that lodge in the skin, as the wood can increase the chances of infection.

Where Wenge Is Used

Wenge resists termite infestations and rot, so it is suitable for use in interior and exterior projects. Its durability lends itself well for use as a flooring product. Some woodworkers also select wenge for cabinetry and for architectural trim work. Blocks of wenge can be turned or carved. Wenge is also shaved into thin veneers for plywood, paneling or for surfacing less attractive wood products, but as an endangered species, it is not an earth-friendly choice.

About the Author

Robert Korpella has been writing professionally since 2000. He is a certified Master Naturalist, regularly monitors stream water quality and is the editor of freshare.net, a site exploring the Ozarks outdoors. Korpella's work has appeared in a variety of publications. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Arkansas.