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Camel thorn considered stunning in color

Small tree that grows in the savannah of South Africa and Mozambique is hard to find, but is great as a turning wood

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It is unlikely if you have wood books in your shop that you will find camel thorn (Acacia erioloba) listed. The short tree - some refer to it as a tall shrub - grows in the savannah of South Africa and the southern part of Mozambique. It is a dense wood and comes in small widths and sizes. It is prized for its color.

"It's like a typical acacia tree," says Fabs Corte, a wood dealer with Cormark International in Weaverville, N.C. "It has a pretty big trunk and then at about 10' it opens up. It's a pretty new wood to the U.S. It is not abundantly available. We put it in the same realm as pink ivory in terms of process of cutting, finding the logs, getting the permits and everything else. It is a dark-reddish color and the sapwood is white. It has black streaking in it. Maybe the best way to describe it is that it looks sort of like a red-colored wenge. It is not as straight-grained as zebrawood, not as pronounced.

"It doesn't grow in groves; it is usually one tree standing alone in a savannah. But generally there will be other trees nearby, maybe 150' away. It is in about the same volume as pink ivory, so it is a valuable tree. You have to get permits to cut it; you have to go apply to the local provincial government to get cutting licenses. It is quite a process. When you get to trees like this that aren't as prevalent, there are a lot more loops you have to go through to get the right permits to cut it down. When we cut it down, we adhere to all the environmental laws that are set for that tree."

Camel thorn, also known locally as kameeldoring, is mainly used for turnings, small furniture projects, knife handles, spoons, pen blanks and inlays. It is also highly sought after by members of the Wood Collector's Society. Corte, who was raised in South Africa, says the natives use the bark of the tree to treat headaches and make tea from the leaves, which have some medicinal uses as well. It has often been used as firewood in the savannah.

"I've wanted to get it for years and years," says Richard Kuehndorf of Carleton McClendon Inc. Rare Woods and Veneers in Atlanta. "It is probably the prettiest wood I have ever seen. It's an acacia and those are always pretty anyway, but it has an amazing multi-color look to it. If you look at it closely, you can probably see every color of the rainbow in it when it is flatcut. The quartersawn won't show it so much. Good sizes are extremely rare.

"It's a great turning wood because of all the colors; it just kind of dazzles the eyes. It's a lot like wenge, which has a consistent chocolate-milk color stripe in it. It's like putting a different color in all those lines. It's a shame it is so rare."

"It is a dense and heavy wood," Corte adds. "It has the working properties of purpleheart - about 55 lbs./cu. ft. It is a little open-grained like a wenge, but with a little bit of sanding and some good finish application you can get a really high luster on it. But it will oxidize. When you first mill it fresh, it has a bright-red color to it and over time it goes to more of a dark-red, almost brown color."

It machines like the Australian acacias, which are really hard. The wood cuts very clean and doesn't chip out much. One oddity is it is believed that lightning will strike camel thorn more often than other trees.

"I brought some in earlier in the year, but all I could get was some small pieces because the size of the logs weren't very good," says Corte, who is currently in South Africa cutting camel thorn. "We tried to cut lumber, but we had a lot of defects just because of the size of the log. The new stuff that is coming in is going to [cost] around $20 to $25/bf. Widths and lengths are very similar to cocobolo. You're going to get stuff that is 3" and wider, 3' long at the most. When they cut the tree down, they are going to try and utilize every single [inch] that they can. Maximum widths would be 6" to 7" on a good tree."

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.

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