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rare exotic wood

Rare and Exotic Wood For Homes. A Complete Guide

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Oct 29, 2020

Exotic and rare wood species can be a status symbol in luxury homes. But, the truth is, many species of tropical wood have been overharvested, clear-cut, are at risk of extinction, or have led to habitat destruction and deforestation. Indeed, many wood species are governed by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This issue is front and center in the struggle with global climate change. The book Project Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming ranks tropical forest restoration as the #5 solution.

What does that mean for our homes? It means that many of these species are more challenging and more expensive to source. And as with many scarce resources, we humans seem to desire them even more. Rare and exotic wood is desirable for two more rational reasons: its beauty and durability.


What Are Sustainability Issues Associated with Tropical Wood?

The tradeoffs on the sustainability side are twofold. First, it takes more energy to ship it to North America since these tree species are not locally grown. Second, these types of woods are often not sustainably grown and harvested.

Given that we ship so many products we use in our homes worldwide, and carbon offsets can be purchased, let's forgo the shipping issue for now. Then, the primary criteria for purchase need to be on how it was grown and harvested. In other words, it needs to be sourced responsibly.

This guide provides you with an overview of different types of tropical wood and their attributes. For more detail, the best database we've found online is Eric Meier's The Wood Database.

Wood Durability In Our Homes

One of the most unfortunate aspects of modern home construction is that homes today rarely incorporate quality timber into their construction and design. The stick frames of our houses are made from 2x4s sourced from softwoods such as pine or fir. The plywood sheathing encasing the walls of our home is most likely made from spruce or cedar. On the inside of our homes, engineered wood products are the norm, with laminate flooring and MDF baseboards, molding, and even cabinetry being standard construction practices. Often, the exterior siding is made from vinyl, designed to mimic the natural look of wood.

Softwoods and engineered wood products are certainly less expensive than sourcing solid oak or cypress rafters for your home. But, they are also less durable. Many of these products are treated with potentially dangerous chemical additives that could off-gas VOCs into your home.

Hardwood timber will last several lifetimes when adequately cared for. And, the diversity of grain and color of the hundreds of rare and exotic tree species offers an opportunity to adorn your home with a unique look. Below, we provide descriptions of some of the most beautiful exotic timbers worldwide and how to incorporate them into your home.

padauk wood
Padauk. Photo Credit: Woodworkers Source

Exotic Wood Species

What is Padauk?

This unique African hardwood is found mostly in the tropical areas of central and western Africa. The deep dark brown color is most customary, though you can also find Padauk wood with a lighter color tone. It has excellent strength properties, especially related to bending. The fact that it takes a good finish along with its relative elasticity makes it a great candidate for decorative veneer and fine joinery.

cocobolo wood
Cocobolo. Photo Credit: Advantage Lumber

What is Cocobolo?

Cocobolo, found in the Central American highlands, is a beautiful hardwood with a dark, textured grain. One of the unique characteristics of cocobolo is that it has deficient moisture absorption. This attribute makes it an excellent option for kitchens, bathrooms, or other areas where liquid and humidity are regular occurrences. The density of the wood is such that, unlike other woods, it won't float. You can find cocobolo wood in several colors, including yellow, pink, and black, with occasional and random color streaks of green, purple, and even blue.

ebony wood
Ebony. Photo Credit: Bell Forest Products

What is Ebony Wood?

If you are looking for unique hardwood flooring, ebony might be the tropical timber for you. The ebony tree is native to equatorial West Africa. It is one of the highest-ranked wood species in terms of stability, hardness, and weight. The dark black color will undoubtedly offer texture to certain areas of your home. The finely-textured wood has an extremely smooth finish when oiled and polished.

leopard wood
Leopard Wood. Photo Credit: Meader Supply

What is Leopard Wood?

The name alone sounds intriguing. If you haven't heard of this beautiful yet relatively rare wood from Brazil and Chile, it should be on your radar. The strong wood is uniquely speckled with dark flecks of different colors reminiscent of a leopard's coat. The dark specks have several different patterns, from a laciness that resembles latticework to larger and gaudier shapes. The wood's natural patterns and color make it an excellent option for fine furniture and decorative veneer to add texture to any part of your home lacking in character.

spanish cedar
Spanish Cedar. Photo Credit: Cookwoods

What is Spanish Cedar?

This wood is not related to the softwood cedar we know so well in the United States and Canada despite its name. This hardwood ranges from Mexico to Argentina and looks like mahogany but is much softer and easier to work with. Spanish cedar has a unique reddish or even rose-colored finish, and the smell of this beautiful wood will take you to the forests of Central and South America. It is a wise choice for doors, windows, cabinets, and furniture, as it is known to be nearly rot resistant.

purple heart wood
Purple Heart Wood. Photo Credit: Woodworkers Source

What is Purple Heart

Another tropical wood native to almost all of Central and South America is Purple Heart. It is an aptly named tropical hardwood. It is most appreciated for the deep purple hues and a close to impossible density to match. This unique wood's hardness makes it an excellent candidate for flooring and furniture that will most likely suffer from heavy traffic.

Zebrawood. Photo Credit: Woodworkers Source

What is Zebrawood?

This tropical hardwood is mainly found in Cameroon and Gabon in Western Africa. It should be noted that it does have issues with interlocked grains. Still, it finishes very well. The alternating light and dark stripes offer a look that is impossible to reproduce with other wood types. While it is sufficiently hard and durable, Zebrawood has a propensity for insect damage. So, avoid using it in areas where termite infestations are a possibility.


What is Teak?

Teak is a fast-growing hardwood that is routinely grown in tree plantations around the world. This beautiful wood is hard, strong, and dense and has lots of resin. Teak is unique in that it does not cause rust when in contact with metal, thus making it a perfect option for veneer and decorative objects that come into contact with metals in your home and a durable product for outdoor patios. It is also a beautiful, though expensive, flooring option.

Environmental Wood Sourcing Impacts

The exotic timbers reviewed above will assuredly add a touch of beauty to any home. However, finding ways to source this timber sustainably should be a prime consideration for homeowners who care about sustainability. 

To name just one example, the big leaf mahogany tree is an extremely slow-growing hardwood tree found throughout Central America, Mexico, and parts of the Amazon Rainforest. However, the great demand for this popular dark hardwood tree has led to significant impacts on illegal logging and deforestation. In the Amazon, illegal logging of the mahogany tree is causing fragmentation of the rain forest. This fragmentation is exposing the fragile ecosystem to further degradation. In Central America, the big-leaf mahogany has declined by over  70% since 1950

How Can Tropical Wood Be Purchased Sustainably?

PEFC Certification

One way to source hardwood timber from sustainably managed forests is to find products with the PEFC certification. PEFC is the world's most extensive forest certification system and certifies mostly smaller, non-industrially managed private and community forests. This certification system has hundreds of thousands of family forest owners certified in sustainable forest management. 

FSC Certification

The Forest Stewardship Council, FSC International, is another forest certification system that specializes in tropical hardwoods. They have certified over 18 million hectares of tropical and subtropical forests. They work with small landowners and indigenous communities worldwide, and their certification process helps these people find alternative source income through the sustainable management of their hardwood forests. Learn more about the five largest wood certification programs.

Who Sells Sustainably Sourced Tropical Hardwood?

Altruwood is one company with a diverse line of FSC-certified tropical timber products that also specializes in reclaimed wood products.  General Woodcraft Inc. is another company with a vast inventory of exotic timber, including mahogany, cocobolo, rosewood, ebony, padauk, and much more. They participate in several programs that promote and assure sustainable yield forest management across the globe, including the Forest Stewardship Council and Scientific Certified Systems.

Teak Patio Furniture

As with most materials, there is no one completely "sustainable" solution—it's really just relative to the alternative. In general, wood is considered a more sustainable material because it is a renewable resource and is biodegradable. Hard timber is more durable; a longer-lasting material is also considered more sustainable. But the tradeoff is that some wood harvesting is detrimental to our people and planet. So, before you get your heart set on Brazilian Mahogany cabinetry, remember to ask your contractor how it is sourced to make sure you are choosing responsibly. 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-19T04:00:06+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.