Cocus Snippets




Cocuswood was the preferred timber in the heyday of English flute making, but it has since been worked out and is now virtually unobtainable.  No wonder we flute players and makers find it fascinating!  I thought it might be helpful to have a place where we can store interesting scraps of information about this timber, just like we might store any scraps of the timber itself.

Before we start delving into the historical records, we should scotch the notion that the wood is unobtainable.  It is certainly very rare, and therefore pretty expensive, but it is not extinct, just commercially unviable.  I have made at least one flute in cocus, and some replacement parts, and still have some supplies left.  My feeling though is that the timber is perhaps best reserved for repairs and replacement parts for deserving original flutes.

McGee 6-key cocuswood flute, modelled on Boosey & Co. "Pratten's Perfected"

(The timber in the flute above is unstained, but had some time to darken naturally before the image was taken.)

A piece of raw cocus from the author's workshop, suitable in size for a Pratten's keyed flute body section, showing contrast between sap and heart woods.  The sapwood will turn off, leaving just the heartwood. 

The tiny black spot visible in the sapwood near the right hand end is an example of a "birds eye" popular with ornamental turners, but considerably less popular with flute makers.  They are in fact tiny knots leftover from twigs that didn't proceed to turn into branches.  Many old flutes have tiny plugs of coloured resin filling such holes.  The plugs often protrude slightly from the surface, presumably because of the differing co-efficient of expansion with humidity.

Wikipedia tells us:

Cocuswood (also sometimes spelled "coccuswood") is one of the classic woods, one of the first exports from the West Indies to Europe. It is sometimes called Jamaican ebony...... The best known species to yield cocuswood is Brya ebenus, horticulturally known as the Jamaican Rain Tree.

So, we can see that cocuswood isn't really a species, but a collection of closely related species marketed under one name.  We'll see that theme expanded on in the accounts to follow.

Holtzapffel's account.

Any enquiry about wood and turnery naturally requires us to consult Charles Holtzapffel, the designer of the decorative turning lathe and author of the landmark series of books "Turning & Mechanical Manipulation", published circa 1843.  (I have made some slight changes to punctuation to make it more readable.)

COCOA-WOOD, or Cocus, is imported from the W. Indies in logs from 2 to 8 in diameter sawn to the length of 3 to 6 ft, tolerably free from knots, with a thick yellow sap: the heart, which is rarely sound, is of a light yellow brown, streaked, when first cut with hazel and darker brown, but it changes to deep brown, sometimes almost black. Cocoa-wood is much used for turnery of all kinds, and for flutes; it is excellent for eccentric turning, and in that respect is next to the African black wood.

[This seems to suggest that African Blackwood was known in England at least as early as 1843.]

An apparent variety of cocoa wood from 2 to 6 or 7 inches diameter, with a large proportion of hard sap of the colour of beechwood, and heart wood of a chesnut brown colour, is used for tree-nails and pins for ship-work, and purposes similar to lignum-vitae, to which it bears some resemblance, although it is much smaller, has a rough bark, the sap is more red, and the heart darker and more handsomely coloured when first opened than lignum vitae; it is intermediate between it and cocoa wood.

Another but inferior wood, exactly agrees with the ordinary cocoa-wood, but that the heart is in wavy rings, alternately hard and soft. Cocoa wood has no connection with the Cocoa-nut, which is the fruit of a palm tree common to the East and West Indies, the Cocoa wucifera; neither can it have any relation to the other endogenous trees which produce the Coquilla nut, the Attalia funifera according to Martius, and Cocos lapidea of Gaertner, or of the Cacao Theobroma, or the Chocolate nut tree. It is really singular that the exact localities and the botanical name of the cocoa wood that is so much used, should be uncertain: it appears to come from a country producing sugar, being often imported as dunnage, or the stowage upon which the sugar hogsheads are packed: it is also known as Brown Ebony, but the Amerimnum Ebenus of Jamaica seems dissimilar.

I have scarcely found any specimens of it in the various collections recently examined. The piece in Mr. G. Loddiges' collection from Rio Janeiro, (with Portuguese names,) was marked Cocoa by which it is generally designated in this country, as cocus wood is the name given by the wholesale merchant.  The cogwood of the West Indies, used for the cogs of wheels and building purposes, is a similar but lighter coloured wood of larger size.

In Mr. Tyrie's collection of Cuba woods, in Sir W. Symonds's museum, there are nine woods of about the same density and general character as cocoa wood; they are arranged the lightest first with their Spanish names; the figures denote the apparent diameters of the trees from which the specimens were cut:

  • No 108, Acacio real, hazel brown, slightly veined, 8 inches;
  • No 141, Navaco, very like cocoa but much lighter, 3 in;
  • No 144, Gateado, more veined, ruddy cast, 4 in;
  • No 5, Yayti, slightly darker than last, with greenish cast;
  • No 12, Almiqwi, chesnut brown, only more ruddy, very rich tint, 4 in;
  • No 133, Cerillo, the complexion of tolerably dark walnut, sap is paler than cocoa, 5 in;
  • No 42, China, very near to cocoa in colour, specimen had a very small heart and much sap;
  • No 101, Granadilla, greenish cast, 3 in;
  • No 72, Mabao, rather darker than cocoa, the heart apparently 15 or 18 in, diam., one inch of sap left on the specimen;

Nos 108, 12, and 72, appear to be desirable woods [for eccentric turning].

The Cocus-wood of commerce is not easy to trace to any of the trees of the West Indies, the cocoa plum is Chrysobalanus Icaco, which forms only a shrub; Cocco-loba uvifera, or mangrove grape tree, grows large and yields a beautiful wood for cabinet work, but which is light and of a white colour. In appearance and description it comes near to the Greenheart or Lauras chloroxylon, which is also called Cogwood.

Holtzapffel counts cocuswood as inferior only to African Blackwood in the extremely demanding area of decorative engine turnery:

The transverse section, or end-grain of the plain woods, is the most proper for eccentric turning, as all the fibres are then under the same circumstances; many of the woods will not admit of being worked with such patterns, the plankway of the grain: and, of all the woods, the black Botany Bay wood or the black African wood, by which name so-ever it may be called, is most certainly the best for eccentric turning; next to it, and nearly its equal, is the cocoa-wood (from the West Indies, not the cocoa-nut palm); several others may also be used, but the choice should always fall on those which are of uniform tint, and sufficiently hard and close to receive a polished surface from the tool, as such works admit of no subsequent improvement.

Holtzapffel also notes its applicability to archery bows:

The "union bow" [an archery bow made by gluing several different types of timber together] is considered to be "softer", that is, more agreeably elastic, than the single piece bow, even when the two require the same weight to draw them to the length of the arrow. In the act of bending the bow, the back [i.e. the outside of the curve] is put into tension, and the inner piece into a state of compression, and each wood is then employed in its most suitable manner. Sometimes the union bow is imitated by one solid piece of straight cocoa-wood (of the West Indies, not that of the cocoa nut palm) in which case the tough fibrous sap is used for the back, and, in its nature, sufficiently resembles the lance-wood more generally used.

Alexander L. Howard


Cocus WOOD. Brya Ebenus DC.

Weight 69 Ibs [69lbs per cubic foot = 1.1 tonne/m3]. West Indies.


Cocus or cocos wood, granadillo, green, brown, American, West Indian, or Jamaica ebony, torchwood, Eng. Amenkanische ebenholz, Germ. Legno granadillo, Ital. Granadillo, Span. Granadillo, ojo de perdiz, Cuba.

Supplies of this wood come in a somewhat irregular manner in round logs from 2 to 8 inches in diameter. There is some confusion as to the source of the supplies, though the probability is that shippers and merchants supply any botanical variety they can find which is sufficiently alike to be given the name. Some of the wood known by the name of canalete would have passed for cocus wood. It is hard and very heavy. The sap-wood is a very light yellow, and the heart-wood of a brown yellow. It somewhat resembles a brownish-yellow Coromandel wood. It is used for policemen's truncheons, flutes, bagpipes, brush backs, handles of knives and tools, and all kinds of turnery and inlay.

The pores are very small and obscure ; the medullary rays are exceedingly fine and even ; they are parallel and so regular that they would almost appear to be artificial.


Rockstro too seems to be aware that cocuswood is not a particularly well-defined term:

312.  The Cocus-wood of Jamaica gives a splendidly brilliant and powerful tone. This wood is extremely hard and resinous, and being therefore peculiarly non-absorbent, it retains its form under the influence of heat and moisture better than any other wood that has ever been tried, but it is prone to cracking, and, owing to its great density, it interferes somewhat with the flexibility of the tone. It has an exceedingly handsome appearance when newly turned and polished, but it becomes dark, dull, and generally unsightly, after being in use for a few years, and the application of French polish only defers the catastrophe for a little while, the ultimate result being worse than when the wood has only received its natural polish.


315. Cuban and South American Cocus-wood, or Grenadille. This material has for many years been employed for the manufacture of flutes. It is excellent for tone-production, though its sound is scarcely so brilliant or so powerful as that of the Jamaica cocus, or so sweet as that of box. Of all known woods it is no doubt the most suitable for flutes, and it is now almost exclusively used. It is nearly as non-absorbent as the Jamaica wood, though less dense, and not so liable to splitting, but it is not by any means free from that risk, and it is not always permanent as regards its calibre, though a flute in my possession, made of this wood by Messrs. Rudall, Carte and Co. in 1874., which has been in constant use ever since, is now even better than when it was new. The bore of this flute has remained quite perfect, but the nature of the wood having been somewhat mollified by age and use, the tone of the instrument has become more mellow and flexible, without being less powerful than at first. I am bound to say that this is an exceptional case. Cocus-wood is found by some persons to produce serious irritation of the lip, which necessitates the use of a silver or gold lip-plate.

Why so rare?

Why cocuswood is now so rare becomes clear when you remember:

  • Britain and surrounding countries didn't have much in the way of really dense and fine native hardwoods.  Those like boxwood were small, lighter and had been heavily exploited.  Further, by the 19th century, rural lands were increasingly given away to farming, urban and industrial uses.

  • By contrast to the poor availability of dense, fine timbers, the demand was rocketing.  Everything from musical instruments,  policemen's truncheons, belaying pins, tool and knife handles and all sorts of fine woodwork demanded timbers like this.

  • The islands of the Carribean were small and were rapidly being converted to lucrative crops like sugar, powered by the slave trade.  So there were Push and Pull forces at work - the trees had to be cleared to plant crops, but also their timber was in great demand.  And labour (in the form of slaves) was virtually free. 

So, no wonder the stuff was nearly made extinct.  Perhaps we should be researching why some survived?

More to come?

These are just the sources I had ready at hand; there are probably more.  If you stumble across useful information on the topic, do let me know, and I'll add it to these snippets for the benefit of those to come.


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Created: 30 September 2013.