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A Guide to Exotic African Hardwoods: Types, Species & Examples

A Guide to Exotic African Hardwoods: Types, Species & Examples

Africa is home to some of the world’s most beautiful and interesting hardwoods. What are some fine examples, why are they so special and what are they used for?

Trees are some of the most diverse living things on our planet. The various climates and areas of the world give rise to wildly different types of tree.

Whilst timbers that are native to temperate climates of Europe and North America (like European Oak, Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar) are excellent, sometimes a project demands something rather different.

For something particularly striking, eye-catching and unique, look no further than the forests of Africa.

Species from this continent can provide a beautiful, luxury, designer touch. They are also technically superb: slow growing, hard-wearing and naturally durable, there’s an African hardwood for almost any application — interior or exterior.

Zebrano Guitar
Zebrano, also commonly known as Zebrawood. An eye-catching west African timber.

‘Tropical’? ‘Exotic’?

When discussing hardwoods, particularly those from Africa, South America and Asia, you’ll often see them referred to as ‘tropical’. This is simply because they are harvested from trees grown in the tropics, the area surrounding the equator.

You may also see these types of wood referred to as ‘exotic’ — this is often used interchangeably with tropical, but simply means wood from a different part of the world.

African hardwoods: types, examples & species

Let’s take a look at nine popular African hardwoods. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but is intended to be a helpful overview of species with a variety of different origins, applications and appearances.

Zebrano (Zebrawood)

Zebrano closeup
  • Origins: West Africa

  • Common uses: Furniture, veneers, specialty items

  • Appearance: Light brown and cream with dark brown to black streaks

  • Scientific name: Microberlinia brazzavillensis

There’s a reason why Zebrano (or Zebrawood) is one of the most popular, instantly-recognisable African hardwoods.

So-called due to its dramatic, bold stripy appearance, Zebrano is one way to make a real statement. Whilst too much can be overbearing, its mixture of creams, browns and blacks make a fantastic decorative statement for furniture trims, veneers, wall panelling and guitars. It’s incredibly hard wearing.

Many other types of wood try to use the name Zebrawood, so unless you choose carefully and discerningly, you’ll only be getting a pale imitation. The real deal comes from the Microberlinia brazzavillensis tree, which grows tall and straight up to 50 metres; it’s distributed throughout west Africa, notably Congo, Cameroon and Gabon.

The wood was very popular for use as car dashboards around 30 years ago!

Zebrano block isolated
Zebrano plank


Wenge closeup
  • Origins: Central and western Africa

  • Common uses: Flooring, furniture, panelling, as a veneer

  • Appearance: Dark brown with black streaks

  • Pronunciation: when-gay

  • Scientific name: Millettia laurentii

From the Cameroonian highland forests of central Africa, Wenge has a striking medium-to-dark brown hue, with black streaks and a straight grain. It’s a go-to choice for luxury furniture making and specialist joinery.

As darker woods gain traction amongst architecturally-minded, this species steps up by combining classy good looks with exceptional physical durability. It’s a heavy, hard timber that can work well for flooring. It’s also naturally resistant to termite attack.

Authentic Wenge comes from the millettia laurentii, a legume tree native to central and western Africa, specifically Zaire, Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Such is the popularity and uniqueness of this species, ‘wenge’ is even used as a colour in its own right.


  • Origins: West African tropical rainforests.

  • Common uses: Flooring, furniture, panelling, veneer

  • Appearance: Reddish-brown

  • Pronunciation: suh-pee-lee

  • Scientific name: Entandrophragma cylindricum

Another beautiful exotic choice, Sapele is cherished for its visual likeness to mahogany, and is often used as a substitute. In fact, it’s often referred to as ‘sapele mahogany’. This timber darkens with age, usually starting off as a pale yellow but eventually becoming an alluring reddish-brown.

The interlocking grain pattern delivers a pleasing, unique appearance. With exceptional durability, strength and rot resistance, Sapele makes a fantastic choice for a number of projects — furniture, veneers, musical instruments, panelling and even boatbuilding.

Entandrophragma cylindricum is distributed widely across the African continent. It originated in the west African rainforests of the Ivory Coast, but can now be found as east as Tanzania. Sapele timber actually gets its name from the Nigerian city of Sapele, where there is an abundance of the tree.


Iroko closeup
  • Origins: Tropical central Africa

  • Common uses: Exterior decking, flooring, furniture

  • Appearance: Golden yellowish-brown

  • Pronunciation: i-row-kow

  • Scientific name: Milicia excelsa

Also known as ‘African teak’, Iroko is an extraordinarily durable, dense hardwood that’s resistant to insect attack. With exotic golden yellow-to-brown hues and excellent outdoor performance, it’s clear why this wood has another well-earned moniker: the ‘Rolls-Royce of decking’. Externally, it can also be used for fencing and is similarly at home indoors for flooring and furniture making.

Iroko comes from the milicia excelsa, distributed widely across central tropical Africa, from Mozambique in the east through to Guinea in the west. It is a very slow-growing tree that can live for centuries — up to 500 years, in fact. It produces extremely strong, dense and scratch resistant timber — ideal for applications where hard-wearing wood is required.

Spalted Iroko
Spalted Iroko: Spalting is caused by fungi, creating stunning grain patterns.


  • Origins: West and central Africa

  • Common uses: Flooring, furniture, veneers

  • Appearance: Reddish-brown with purple hues

  • Pronunciation: you-teel (sometimes ‘you-teel-eh’)

  • Scientific name: Entandrophragma utile

Another of the African redwoods, like Sapele, Utile is revered for its likeness to mahogany. Indeed, the species shares a number of aesthetic and technical similarities — reddish-brown with purple hues, an alluring interlocking grain pattern and exceptional strength.

Entandrophragma utile is found across tropical Africa, from Uganda in the east to Sierra Leone in the west and as far south as Angola. It is able to reach up to 60 metres in height.


African Padauk
  • Origins: Central and west Africa

  • Common uses: Furniture, cabinetry, flooring, veneers, speciality items

  • Appearance: Reddish-purplish brown

  • Pronunciation: pah-dook

  • Scientific name: Pterocarpus soyauxii

Hailing from the tall, dense rainforests of Cameroon, Congo and Nigeria, African Padauk is a strong, dense and heavy hardwood that’s popular for a range of interior applications.

A gorgeous timber, this species typically starts life with a vibrant reddish-orange colour which tends to deepen significantly over time to a reddish-purple brown — perfect for luxury joinery and furniture making.

Panga Panga

Panga Panga
  • Origins: Southern Africa

  • Common uses: Flooring, furniture, musical instruments

  • Appearance: Dark brown

  • Scientific name: Millettia stuhlmannii

This species is spread across the forests of Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Mozambique. Resistant to fungi and termites and incredibly dense, Panga Panga is commonly used for furniture, specialist joinery and even boatbuilding. Dark brown with black streaks, this is yet another stunning, high-performance hardwood.


Ayous closeup
Thermo-Ayous: Ayous that has undergone a sustainable heat modification process to bolster its outdoor performance and alter its appearance.
  • Origins: West and central Africa

  • Common uses: Exterior cladding, fencing

  • Appearance: Light yellow (pre treatment); medium brown (post treatment)

  • Pronunciation: ayy-use

  • Scientific name: Triplochiton scleroxylon

Also known as African whitewood, Abachi and Obeche, this is another classy hardwood hailing from central and west Africa.

Initially with a light yellow colour, like Frake, Ayous is often sustainably modified thermally. This creates a product known as ‘Thermo-Ayous’ — a high-performance timber for external cladding and fencing applications, boasting a luxurious, tropical mid-brown colour.

Thermo Ayous Cladding
Thermo Ayous Garden Room Cladding
Clear-grade Thermo-Ayous cladding.


Frake Colour
  • Origins: West Africa

  • Common uses: Exterior cladding

  • Appearance: Light yellow-brown (pre treatment); Medium-dark brown with no knots (post treatment)

  • Pronunciation: frak-ay

  • Scientific name: Terminalia superba

Also known as Limba and Afara, this hardwood is particularly popular for use externally after it has been thermally modified.

During this process, the wood is baked at 212 degrees. This alters the timber’s cell structure to deliver an excellent strong, hardwearing and stable product with a mid-brown colour and virtually no knots.

The bark of this tree has even been used in traditional medicines for treating wounds, sores and more.

Frake Stack

What about sustainability of African hardwoods?

Making the ‘green’ choice is certainly a design priority. Historically, African hardwoods have been associated with unsustainable forestry and overexploitation. This is still a big concern, but progress has been made in recent years.

As part of UK and European Union timber regulations (UKTR and EUTR), due diligence has to be carried out to trace the source of any timber being imported. Next year, these regulations will become even more stringent, with the requirement for GPS locations for every felled tree.

The key is to only buy your wood from a timber importer and merchant with a clear environmental commitment, who carry out all appropriate checks. You might also like to specify a wood certification scheme, like PEFC or FSC.

African Forest

Searching for something rather exotic?

We’ve got over 60 years’ experience in importing and manufacturing sustainable timber and timber products. If you’re looking for something extra special for your next joinery project, we’re your people.

All of the tropical hardwood species that we’ve mentioned in this article are available from our joinery, woodworking & DIY store, in addition to many other gorgeous timbers from exotic environments across the world.

Use the button below to get in touch and discuss your exotic timber requirements.

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