Taking the “Lesser” out of Our Lesser-Known Species (LKS) - West Wind Hardwood

Photo by Jan T. Nielsen – Jalisco (2005)

 Photo by Jan T. Nielsen – Jalisco (2005)

Let’s agree that the term lesser-known species (LKS) describes species whose regional forest potential is greater than its current use.  As a renewable natural resource, tropical forests are unique.  The problem is in the utilization of such a varied and variable mixture of wood species.

Generally the domestic market is less discriminating than the export market and over time a scale of preference develops and the average consumer is generally unaware that thousands of useful wood species exist. Some species are in high demand, while others are merely acceptable. At the other end of the spectrum, however, is a large number of species broadly and variously called “lesser-known species”, “secondary species”, “unpopular species” and “weed species”.

 The list of usable species has expanded to some extent because of advances in technology, marketing and because of a growing scarcity of the more desired species. Responsible forestry and forest certification will be challenged to succeed in the tropics without developing appropriate uses and markets for LKS. Using a broader range of species allows natural forests to produce sustainably reducing the chances that well-known species may be overexploited.

 Consider that at some point the “lesser known’s” may become familiar.  Their eventual acceptance or rejection has as much to do with demand as with supply.  Take for example, Cuban or Honduran (Genuine) Mahogany.

On the English-controlled islands in the Caribbean, mahogany was abundant but not exported in any quantity before 1700.  In 1721, the British Parliament removed all import duties from timber imported into Britain from British possessions in the Americas.  And according to an 1850 study, mahogany was first imported into England in 1724.  The first few planks were reportedly sent by a ships captain to his brother, a doctor in London.  When the doctor, who was building a house, gave the strange new lumber to his workmen, they complained that it was too hard.  He then asked his cabinetmaker to use the wood to make a candle box.  Despite the craftsmans complaints, when the box was finished, it surpassed all the furniture in the house.  The Doctor commissioned a mahogany bureau, and the Duchess of Buckingham ordered another.  Fact?  Fiction??  Perhaps just a darn good yarn.

The LKS’ are not widely utilized in Canada and the US but as shortages develop and prices rise, perhaps their presence will be noticed.   Now I’m not saying they are or will be all widely available but the more people ask, perhaps the better prepared mills and suppliers will be able and/or willing to meet your demand.

Increased use of lesser known species (LKS) helps to promote sustainable forest management in developing countries and provides a critical economic incentive for local communities to manage forests rather than convert them to farms and ranches.

Demand is based on many variables but here are three reasons to buy the LKS:

  1. LKS can often substitute for better-known species in terms of performance and aesthetics and generally more cost effective because they are abundant and under-utilized.  (But can be more difficult to source and with that comes added expensive as it may not be commercial harvested on a bulk basis).
  2. Many LKS offer rich, truly exotic colours and textures.
  3. The use of LKS can alleviate pressure on well-known timber species and increase economic viability of sustainable forest management.

Has your interest been peaked? Here some considerations once you think you’re prepared to take the next step.

  1. Anticipate some colour variation between heartwood and sapwood.  Think of this wood as a bolt of fabric.  Each dye lot can be subtly different.  Soil conditions will cause differences; as will exposure to light.
  2. Expect some fluctuations in moisture content between batches; especially with thicker stock.  Mills and suppliers of LKS are often small and their kilns very basic.
  3. Texture and workability is a mixed blessing.  Watch your tools.  Often these species are hard and dense.  Tools will dull quickly.  Keep them sharp and use carbide when possible. Don’t be intimidated by the crazy grains.
  4. As with many tropical species, they may cause skin or throat irritation.  Wear a dust mask; run your dust collector if you have one.  Always watch for serious allergic reactions.  Tolerances differ from user to user and may build with continued exposure.
  5. Re-supply can be more difficult with LKS so plan ahead.  Buy what you need and then some.    Allow for design changes and waste before the start of the project.

Photos by Jan T. Nielsen – Mexico – 2013 (Nayarit) and 2004 (Jalisco)

Photos by Jan T. Nielsen – Mexico – 2010 (Colima) and 2004 (Jalisco)

Lesser known tropical species bring much to the table: the sense of discovery; the wonder of the look, the environmental issue. Much like buying organic veggies, there is a perception of a ‘feel good’ consciousness. We have the CITES Treaty and Lacey Act to help keep us honest. The industry has come a long ways with public awareness of certification and well-managed forests but there are no solid guarantees for sustainability. What we can offer is a stable market for as many types of tropical species as possible. Be curious. Explore the options. Enjoy the craft of woodworking.

Here are just a few of the many LSK in circulation:

Movingui * Nigerian Satinwood * Ayan

Scientific NamesDistemonanthus benthamianus
Source: West and Central Africa
Wood Appearance: The wood is lemon-yellow to yellow brown; sometimes darker streaks. Possible presence of internal stresses and wind shakes. It has clearly demarcated sapwood. The grain is interlocked and the texture is medium.
Working Properties: The blunting effect is high; some difficulties due to irregular grain. Filling is recommended in order to obtain a better finish. The gum tends to build up on sawblades. Nailing is good but pre-boring is recommended, especially for large nails (risks of splits). It is moderately stable.
Durability: This species is used for exterior joinery in tropical areas but its use in temperate area is limited as it is prone to Coriolus versicolor fungi attacks. It contains water-soluble yellow extracts that can stain the elements in contact with wood under moisture conditions.


Scientific Names: Tieghemella heckelii, Tieghemella Africana, Dumoria spp. (synonymous)
Source: West and Central Africa
Wood Appearance: The wood is dark pink brown to dark red brown with sometimes purplish glints and/or pale veins slightly distinct; often with a decorative moiré (watered silk appearance). It has clearly demarcated sapwood. The grain is straight or interlocked and the texture is medium.
Working Properties: The blunting effect is high. Sawdust highly allergenic. Prone to clogging of sawblades. Nailing is good but pre-boring is necessary; tends to split in nailing. Gluing requires care (dense wood). Liable to blue stain if in contact with iron compounds in moist conditions.
Durability: Makore is very durable to fungi and to dry wood borers; sapwood demarcated (risk limited to sapwood).

Jatoba * Courbaril

Scientific NamesHymenaea courbaril, Hymenaea intermedia, Hymenaea martiana, Hymenaea oblongifolia, Hymenaea parvifolia
Source: South and Central America
Wood Appearance: The wood can vary from purple brown or orangey brown to red brown slightly veined. The wood has a golden lustre. The sapwood is clearly demarcated. The grain is straight or interlocked and the texture is medium.
Working Properties: The blunting effect is fairly high. Nailing is good but pre-boring is necessary. Gluing must be done with care (very dense wood). The wood stains well but does not take a high polish.
Durability: Jatoba is durable to moderately durable to fungi and dry wood borers; sapwood demarcated (risk limited to sapwood). Resistance to fungi and to termites is variable according to the species.


Scientific NamesAgathis dammara, Agathis alba (synonymous), Agathis lanceolata, Agathis moorei, Agathis obtusa
Source: Southeast Asia
Wood Appearance: The wood is cream white or light yellow often with a pink reflection. It turns golden brown on exposure; moiré aspect. The sapwood is not clearly demarcated. The grain is straight and the texture is fine.
Working Properties: The blunting effect is normal. Planed surfaces are lustrous; stains well.
Durability: Agathis is moderately to poorly durable to fungi and it is susceptible to dry wood borers; sapwood not or slightly demarcated . Prone to blue stain.

Alan Batu

Scientific NamesShorea albida
Source: Southeast Asia
Wood Appearance: The wood is red brown with clearly demarcated sapwood. Possible brittle-heart and sometimes presence of white streaks (resin canals). The grain is straight or interlocked and the texture is medium.
Working Properties: Very resistant to decay, insects, and fungal attack, even in a tropical environment. Nailing is good but pre-boring is necessary. Risk of splitting in nailing. Resin may clog the tools and has a high blunting effect. Accepts standard penetrating oil finishes to maintain that rich dark “Mahogany look” or leave unsealed to weather into a silver patina.
Durability: Batu is moderately durable to fungi and it is durable to dry wood borers; sapwood demarcated (risk limited to sapwood). Resistant to abrasions, wear, and dents. Naturally fire resistant. Used for boardwalks, bridges, wharves, trucks, and decking.

Pau Amarelo * Yellowheart * Brazilian Satinwood

Scientific NameEuxylophora paraensis
Source: Central and South America
Wood Appearance: Not a tall tree in rainforest standards only growing to 25 metres in height. The wood is bright yellow but the colour intensity diminishes after exposure to oxygen; can be sealed with lacquer to retain its unique colour. The grain is generally straight; a naturally high luster.
Working Properties: Locally the wood is used to dye fabrics and handicrafts. Has moderate blunting effect. Mild, unpleasant odor.
Durability: Moderately durable. Is reported to cause skin irritation.

Narra – Yellow and Red * Amboyna * Papua New Guinea Rosewood * Solomon’s Padauk

Scientific NamesPterocarpus indicus
Source: Papau New Guinea, Solomon Islands
Wood Appearance: A possible alternative to bubinga. The wood varies from light yellow, through golden brown to blood red. In fact the trees look exactly the same, and it is not until it is felled that you know if it is red or yellow. The grain is wavy and interlocked and the texture moderately fine.
Working Properties: Minor dulling effect on tools. Excellent to polish; hand rub with oil. Try our Oli-Natura Project Oil or the Oil-Natura HS Professional oil for a brilliant finish.
Durability: Very durable and extremely resistant to insect attack. Shavings will turn water fluorescent blue!

Garapa * Brazilian Ash

Scientifc NamesApuleia leiocarpa
Source: South America
Wood Appearance: The wood ranges from light yellow to golden brown; naturally weather to light silvery gray tones. The wood is fairly chatoyant and appears to shift from dark to light in different lighting angles. Uniform medium texture.
Working Properties: Easy to work with despite it’s density.
Durability: Is resistant to rot, decay, splinters, scratches, and even fire – naturally without any chemical treatments. Severe allergenic reactions common.


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