Most woodworkers are aware that over the past 20+ years the diversity of woods available to them has decreased. Decreased availability also comes with an increase in price. Woods such as genuine Mahogany, Rosewoods and the Ebonies are now hard to find, expensive and their trade is often controlled.
Demand for these woods is constant though, so woodworkers are now looking for substitute species that can replace these revered woods. atalox is one of them. Often called Royal Mexican Ebony, it is increasingly being used in place of the well-known Gaboon Ebony from Africa.
Katalox is found from Southern Mexico south through Central America to northern South America. It is a medium sized tree growing typically to 100 to 130 feet in height. Diameters of 3 to 4 feet are typical.
The wood is usually straight grained, but interlocked and irregular grain is also found. Some trees have wavy grain that will produce lumber with pronounced curl. Katalox has a medium to fine texture and a natural luster.
The heartwood is a dark brown ranging to a deep black often shading to a dark purple. The sapwood is sharply demarcated from the heart wood and usually presents as a pale white. Colour in wood comes from the deposition of chemical compounds called extractives in the heartwood. These compounds help protect the tree from insect and fungal attack. Katalox with its dark heart, is a very durable and long-lasting heartwood.
This process of deposition takes time though. If you desire a deep black heart, then it can only come from mature trees. Harvested too soon and Katalox trees will produce lumber that is mostly sapwood. I recommend you purchase Katalox only after seeing it for yourself, especially if you desire wood that is mostly dark heartwood.
Katalox is a hard and heavy wood and working with it requires using the standard woodworking approaches for woods with these characteristics. It will blunt tools quickly. Router bits, saw blades and other cutters must be sharp. Using nails and screws will require predrilling with the properly sized drill bit. Katalox with wavy and interlocked grain may tear. Cutting angles and feed rates might have to be adjusted to produce a smooth surface when milling this wood.
Katalox is also an oily wood, so problems with gluing should be expected. Wiping surfaces immediately before gluing with a solvent like acetone may help remove the oils that can interfere with gluing. Clamp pressure must be carefully monitored to prevent squeeze out and starved glue joints.
Katalox is rarely finished as woodworkers tend to polish it and take advantage of its lustrous qualities. If you do desire a finish, a good oil finish should suffice. These finishes will enhance the colour and figure of this wood. Film finishes, on the other hand may obscure the natural beauty of Katalox.
Katalox is typically used for the same applications as genuine Ebony. Guitar builders use it for necks and bridges. It can also be used for turnings such as pen blanks and pool cues. Game pieces, knife scales and other decorative items are other common uses. Katalox can also replace Ebony in inlays, flooring and small boxes. I’ve also seen it sliced into decorative veneers.
Katalox is not on the CITES list or the IUCN Red list. However, its new popularity has increased its demand and that has created a new threat, poaching. Poaching is common in rare species such as Bigleaf Maple and most Rosewoods. Purchasing Katalox from respected wood importers will help support the legal harvest of Katalox.
Expect to pay medium to high prices for this imported wood. You should be able to source it as
turning squares or small dimensional lumber. Using Katalox as an Ebony substitute is a wise choice as it will relieve pressure on genuine Ebony populations and hopefully allow them to recover. It’s incumbent on woodworkers to be proactive in their purchasing, as our choices today will help determine what woods are available for the next generation of woodworkers.