Types of Wood Used in African Masks
Wood is one of the most available resources throughout West Africa, and as such it has been a part of African mask making and carving since ancient times. Only in recent years, however, have many ecologists and biologists begun to catalogue with detail the amazing species and types of wood native and introduced to West Africa.
Most kinds of woods used in furniture, African mask and craft production are West African hardwoods. Instruments, such as djembe drums, are often made with softwoods which reverberate sound nicely. Generally, hardwoods are more durable and valuable, while softwoods are more abundant and sustainable.
Although wood is one of the most available resources, it is most heavily used locally for firewood and construction rather than craft and mask production. Several types of West African hardwoods are exported in significant amounts (as raw wood) to China, Europe and the Americas.
Wood carving employs only 5-10% of most West Africans, and though is often cited as a source of deforestation, is likely only a small contributor to the growing concern when compared with firewood usage and international exports. Many mask carvers in countries like Ghana, Senegal, and The Gambia, for example, have also taken part in grassroots initiatives to ensure the licensing and reforestation of wood used in crafts production-namely odum (teak/iroko), mahogany, ebony, and mango woods.
African Odum / Afrormosia wood
Called by many other names (West African teak, Assamela, Kokrodua), Afrormosia elata is hardwood is among the most desired woods for export, as well as African mask and furniture making. Odum/Afrormosia is often confused with other teak species or Iroko, a similar wood, and there are dozens of local names for this hardwood. The medium-colored wood features grainy highlights and some varieties are two-toned with light and dark hues. Most notably, Odum/Afrormosia wood (African teak) is extremely hard, making it the most durable choice for stools, large African masks, and buildings. It is also the most expensive wood to purchase a license to harvest. Due to some exploitation of this wood, the species is listed as endangered in some parts of West Africa and several West African organizations are now taking measures to limit harvesting while encouraging replanting efforts.
African Mahogany wood
Scientifically known as Khaya ivorensis, mahogany is an abundant throughout West Africa. In some places, mahogany wood is so readily available that it is burned as firewood for cooking. It's reddish brown color and smoother texture identify this family of hardwoods, of which there are other related species present in Western Africa. Mahogany is also a wood of choice for furniture, masks, sculptures, and figurines.
African Ebony Wood
Regarded as the most luxurious and unique wood throughout Africa, ebony (Diospyros spp.) is named for the black hue that streaks the wood. Most ebony wood is contrasted with shades of bright gold or white alongside the identifying black color. Some West Africans believe that ebony wood brings good luck or prosperity, and mask makers will carve mini-masks (harjares) from ebony wood to wear around their necks. Besides African masks, items commonly made with ebony include utensils, boxes, and animal statues and figurines.
Mango wood is a soft, white or yellow-colored wood harvested from the fruit-bearing mango tree (Mangifera spp.). The heartwood can be pinkish in color as well. Mango wood is of the most sustainable species, but is used sparingly in mask and craft production because it is not as strong. Rather, mango wood is suitable for percussion instruments such as West African djembe drums. In the rainy season, raw mango wood retains much water and is more susceptible to insect infestation, making it less desirable for export.
Other Known West African Woods
There are dozens more species of commonly harvested woods throughout West Africa also used to make African masks, furniture, sculpture and crafts. Some of these include Obeche, Coconut, Padauk, Longhi, and Gmelina woods.