The Central American wood that stands up to a dunking

In the days when merchant ships battled the ravages of South America's treacherous Cape Horn, heavy cocobolo commanded precious little cargo space. But, the opening of the Panama Canal in 1912 changed all that. Cocobolo became common deck cargo, and tons poured into New England ports, where manufacturers turned it into handles on the finest cutlery.

Even though merchants had traded cocobolo for more than 100 years, it was decades before botanists agreed on its name. That's because the tree-first discovered in Panama-was classified as rosewood. Later, botanists found other specimens in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, and classified each as a different species!

Such scientific disagreement meant little to manufacturers and craftsmen, however. They knew that the wood was heavy, yet machined easily, could take abuse, and its oil protected it from dunkings in dishwater.

Cocobolo (Dahlbergia retusa) belongs to the same genus as Brazilian rosewood, and in fact, has similar properties. Rosewood, however, likes South America's rain forests. Cocobolo prefers the drier, upland savanna country of Central America's Pacific Coast.

A medium-sized—and quite often poorly formed—cocobolo tree reaches a height of only 75'-80'. Its reddish-brown, scaly trunk measures about 3' in diameter. Amid the tree's large, leathery leaves, tiny yellow blooms flower, and then later turn to long, flat seedpods.

At 65 pounds per cubic foot air dry, cocobolo weighs twice as much as cherry. Not surprisingly, it's too dense to float.

Cocobolo heartwood often carries a sunrise of hues—red, yellow, pink, and black, occasionally streaked with green, purple, and blue. In some boards, a creamy white sapwood borders the colorful heartwood. With age, it darkens.

Cocobolo has a bad reputation, but not for its working qualities. This wood is a well-known sensitizer that can produce a poison-ivy type rash or other reaction in allergic individuals. If you have an allergy history, work cocobolo with full protection: gloves, long sleeves, a dust mask, and a protective skin cream.

Dense and hard, cocobolo requires power tools or razor-sharp hand tools. With either, however, edges dull quickly. But, you can almost effortlessly bring the wood to a beautiful luster by sanding and polishing.

Although cocobolo grips screws well, gluing poses a problem. Because of oils and silica in the wood, you should wipe all joining surfaces with lacquer thinner or acetone, and then glue immediately. And, we give slow-set epoxy the nod over other adhesives.

Turners often apply only a cabinetmaker's wax to cocobolo. Furniture and case goods require a penetrating oil with a wax topcoat. Other finishes provide only mediocre results.

Tradition typecasts cocobolo as handle stock, but it excels in other starring roles as well. Mirrors, musical instruments (except those that touch the lips), jewelry boxes, clock cases, furniture, bowls, and other turnery all suit it. Remember, though, that the wood darkens with age, and without finish protection, turns nearly black.

Cocobolo isn't a rare wood. You can buy it (at press time) for about $11 per board foot. Retailers of exotic wood and mail-order firms usually sell turning squares and blanks, as well as boards and veneer.

Illustration: Steve Schindler