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
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.
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
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
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
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
MANUAL OF THE TIMBERS OF THE WORLD,
THEIR CHARACTERISTICS AND USES, 1934,
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:
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
Cuban and South American Cocus-wood, or Grenadille.
material has for many
years been employed for the manufacture of flutes. It is excellent
for tone-production, though its sound is
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
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
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
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
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.