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Popularity of wood species comes and goes just like architecture and fashion styles. In fact, these elements usually feed each other. As styles change, materials and industries shift to meet the demand for raw materials. Over the last few years we have seen a growing demand for Teak beyond the boat building industry. Minimalist Asian and Scandinavian influenced interior designs are using Teak more and more for flooring, wall panels, and ceilings. High end homes use Teak for exterior trim and doors and windows. You even see Teak decks. The honey brown coloring and smooth consistent grain plays very well with these styles. There is a small problem though. Teak is very expensive and with a strong demand from the boat builders who usually buy much larger quantities, the home builders and architects have to play second fiddle and either get lesser quality material or pay higher prices. What can you do? The people want what they want and the demand is still there thoroughly ingrained in our modern design aesthetic. Enter Afrormosia, a strong substitute to handle the overflow of demand for Teak.
Freshly sawn Afrormosia on the left and Teak on the right
Afrormosia, Pericopsis elata, grows in West Africa and mostly is imported from Ghana, Cameroon, and Ivory Coast. It is usually marketed at "African Teak" because it has a very similar color and grain appearance. Afrormosia is also a great exterior species with moderate levels of silica much like Teak. To be clear, it is not Teak and is not as superbly resistant to water and the elements. This is actually a good thing because the boat builders can therefore accept nothing less than Teak leaving the Afrormosia market free from competition from the boat industry. Moreover, the muted golden color that Teak achieves after oxidation and UV exposure is readily present in Afrormosia from the saw so waiting for darker streaks to fade isn't an issue. The hardness and stability are great and milling for flooring, trim, windows, etc goes without a hitch. Afrormosia doesn't have the same oily feel as Teak so it finishes much easier. In other words, Afrormosia is a great alternative to Teak for the home building market. As a bonus you can expect to pay about half of what you would pay for Teak…for now. (Cue ominous music.)
The reality is that the growing demand for Afrormosia has been recognized by CITES and now the species is listed as an appendix II species. This means that while Afromosia isn't endangered, current trade practices pose a threat to long term viability. So now the trade and harvest of the species is tightly controlled. It does mean that prices have climbed, lead times are longer, and availability is strained. We believe this is the right thing to do and with proper management, one can expect Afrormosia will be taken off CITES. At least that is the goal.
Teak on the left and Afrormosia on the right with 1 coat of lacquer
So consider this a kind of tease if you will and a sign of the times. Just when a good alternative is found, the spike in demand can threaten the species making it harder and more expensive to get. I guess the search will continue to now find an alternative to the alternative. The bright side to all of this is that CITES protection has shored up the forestry practices around Afrormosia and made it a generally more valuable species. Prior to the spike in demand, Afrormosia may have been discarded as a byproduct of another species trade like Sapele, Utile, or African Mahogany. With increased demand and protection, now Afrormosia isn't being wasted.
Really, Afrormosia continues to be the best solution for a Teak alternative as long as you are not building boats. CITES regulation may have complicated things a bit, but the species is still available without endangering the resource. So don't fear using it, just be aware that greater care and lead time may be needed when specifying it in a build project.
This continuation of the Wood Species series is written by Shannon Rogers, a/k/a The Renaissance Woodworker and founder of The Hand Tool School. It has been provided courtesy of the J. Gibson McIlvain Lumber Company, where Rogers works as Director of Marketing.