August 14, 2011 | 5:35 pm CDT
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Wood of the Month:
Brazil's Jatoba Denser than Teak

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Hymenaea courbaril of the Family Leguminosae

Jatoba, yatoba, courbaril, locust, West Indian locust, rode locust, jutaby, jut vermelho, locust, copal, marble, guapinal, algarroba and stinking toe.

Average height for jatoba is 130 feet but it grows from 100 feet to 150 feet with diameters of 3 to 5 feet. Average weight is 56 pounds per cubic foot with a specific gravity of 0.91.

Jatoba is sometimes difficult to dry. Problems associated with drying include surface checking and warping. Experts recommend a kiln schedule of T3-C2 for 4/4 stock and T3-C1 for 8/4 stock. In general, slow drying is recommended. Wood is stable in service and has excellent strength properties. Low stiffness and moderate steam-bending rating. The wood can be hard to work, having severe blunting effect on tools, and moderate difficulty to saw and machine because of the wood's high density.

"What do you know about jatoba?" a reader asks. That is a good question, and a timely one, since this Brazilian wood has been attracting a lot of interest among consumers lately.

In addition to growing in Brazil, jatoba is found throughout Central America, in southern Mexico, and the West Indies to Bolivia and Peru.

James Carse, general manager of A & M Wood Specialty Inc. of Cambridge, ONT, says he sells a small amount of jatoba, though his customers know it by a different name. "The name nine out of 10 of them refer to jatoba by is Brazilian cherry," says Carse. "However, I prefer calling it jatoba. It is not cherrywood or a species of Prunus."

Toughness Lends Jatoba to Heavy-Duty Uses
Carse says most of the the wood he sees in the U.S. market is used in flooring, but its desirable properties lend it to other uses as well. Jatoba, which is also known by the trade name courbaril, is an extremely dense wood that weighs about 56 pounds per cubic foot when seasoned, making it denser than teak. In addition to its density, the wood is extremely shock resistant. This combination of traits makes it ideal for demanding applications such as stair treads, athletic equipment, tool handles, railroad ties, gear cogs, and wheel rims. Jatoba also has good steam-bending properties, making it a suitable replacement for white oak in steam bent parts. Since jatoba is more plentiful in Brazil, it is used there and in nearby areas for general construction as well as for looms, carpentry and joinery.

Natural Inner Glow
Jatoba is not merely a durable wood to be used in workhorse capacities. Like teak, it is also strikingly beautiful.

"The wood is an attractive burgundy, deep red; some of it has dark stripes, but not all," Carse says. "The wood has a texture similar to bloodwood and it is not as porous as mahogany, but it is harder and denser than mahogany." Carse adds that jatoba is moderately priced.

Jatoba's good looks and relatively low price have made it increasingly popular for use in fine furniture, cabinetry and architectural woodworking. Boston-area woodworker John Reed Fox says he likes jatoba for its luminescence. "It's a nice-looking wood," he says.

Jatoba has a heartwood that varies in color from a salmon red to an orange brown when it is freshly cut. The wood then darkens to a red brown color when seasoned. Jatoba frequently has dark streaks, its sapwood can be wide and is much lighter in color - either white or pink and sometimes gray. The wood has a natural luster and a "warm glow," especially when planed.

Albert J. Constantine, author of the book Know Your Woods, says that wood from this tree has "a characteristic of woods in the family of Leguminosae - when the wood is planed it seems to glow from within."

Gum Used by Some
Jatoba is valued for more than just its timber. The trees have a rosin-like gum, which is sold by the trade name South American copal. This gum is used to manufacture specialty items like varnishes and cement, according to Constantine. "The bark is fairly heavy and contains an orange or yellowish gum," Constantine writes, "which in fossilized forms is sometimes dug up on sites which probably contained trees of this species."

Constantine says the wood is similar to the American species paper-bark birch in that the bark can be stripped off in large sheets and used in the construction of canoes.

Working With JatobaBecause of jatoba's density and toughness, experts recommend a reduced cutting angle of 20 degrees. The wood's interlocked grain also causes some difficulty in planing. The wood turns well and has good gluing and finishing properties, but it nails badly and must be pre-bored before nailing. The screw-holding ability of jatoba is considered good.

Jatoba is moderately durable, except when high proportion of sapwood is present. The wood is very resistant to insects such as termites and is highly resistant to preservative treatment.


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