Wood Turning Species Digest: What is Beli Wood?
Can Wood Be Confusing?
I think we can all agree that wood species can be difficult for even the most experienced woodworker to identify and retain much knowledge about, right? There are just too many.
As you will read here, there is some confusion about the hardwood species of Beli in particular, even in the scientific community.
This page will strive to provide you with a digest of the characteristics of the species of wood commonly known as Beli, Zebrali, or Awoura, as well as to share with you the benefits of my personal experience from working with Beli in my wood bowl turning.
The Beli wood blank I worked with turned out to be a very beautiful piece, with what appears to be a little bit of spalting. This finished turned Beli wood bowl is on sale, now. Click the photo above to see the listing.
But, was it "fun"?...
First, Let's Get the Technical Specs Out of the Way…
Where is Beli From?
Beli trees are distributed through Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo, and western DR Congo.
Natural regeneration is abundant. This dominant species of wood is not endangered.
Why is it so hard to find accurate information on Beli?
From what I have read, there is some confusion about the classification of this species of wood. The genus Paraberlinia is synonymous with Julbernardia, with Julbernardia being the name for the genus currently most acceptable. The Julbernardia genus consists of about 10 species and is restricted to tropical Africa. It appears to be related to Aphanocalyx, Bikinia, Brachystegia, and Tetraberlinia. Can you imagine how this affects searching for this species?
Yes, that's right - one needs to search for many different key phrases to find all of the information.
Let's get to it!
So, What Does Seasoned Beli Typically Look Like?
The Beli heartwood is a lighter brown, highly veined and usually contains darker stripes running throughout its length. Depending on the cut, Beli can have an appearance very similar to Zebra wood. The sapwood is usually 10-15cm wide and more of a pale yellow. Only the heartwood has the striping, and there is a clear division between it and the sapwood.
The grain is straight or interlocked with a uniform, medium or coarse texture. There is a moderate luster to the nude wood. There is not much characteristic odor to speak of. This wood is moderately heavy, hard, and durable and is therefore resistant to dry wood borers as well as fungi and termites.
What About the Beli Tree?
The tree itself is medium-to-large in size, growing up to 150ft (45m) tall. Branches typically begin at around 65ft (20m).
The trunk is straight or slightly curved, with thin buttresses up to 6ft (2m) high, with a smooth bark surface, exfoliating in small scales. The outer bark is grey to orange-brown or reddish in color.
The leaves are fused in compound pairs and alternate. They are narrowly oblong to sickle-shaped and are typically 6in (16cm) long, and about 1-2in (4cm) wide.
The fruits are similar in size and shape to the leaves, but are more brown or black in color.
The Many Uses of Beli
Being fairly slow to season, with just a slight risk of checking or distortion; Beli is moderately stable in service. It works fairly well with ordinary tools.
Beli, also traded as "ekop" or "awoura", is a good quality wood which is especially suitable for cabinetry, joinery, and veneering. It is used for high class furniture, cabinet making, light construction, light flooring, interior trim and paneling, stairs, boat building, vehicle bodies, agricultural tools, handles, and carvings.
Gabon is the main exporter of Beli. Statistics show that Gabon exported 11,154 cubic feet (3400 cubic meters) in 1991. This number increased about 10 times by 2002.
Just How Fun Was Beli to Turn?
"Fun" can be such a subjective word that it merits some exploration. There are as many definitions of the word "fun" as there are people, probably. But, let's go with Merriam-Webster's definition of fun:
Definition of fun
1 : what provides amusement or enjoyment; specifically : playful often boisterous action or speech full of fun
So, something which is fun should provide us with amusement or enjoyment.
First, My General Expertise on Such Matters
I have been turning wood bowls quite unsuccessfully for over a decade.
Yes, you read that right.
This machine is the single-most scariest machine I own, and I own many. I am a completely self-taught wood worker. That does not mix particularly well with the lathe. I consider myself fortunate to still be alive not due to skill, but due to pure, dumb luck!
This means that I still approach bowl turning with a sort of "death grip" on my tools. I generally leave bowl turning with stiff shoulders. So, bear that in mind as you read my opinions.
I have only recently begun to master the bowl gouges. And, I am just now beginning to trust my mastery and relax and loosen my grip a bit.
I Can't Emphasize This Enough:
This is my fun - learning through experience. I find the most enjoyment in life when I have taught myself how to do something which I was never before able to do.
So, in this sense, Beli WAS very fun for me.
And, here is what I learned...
I purchased this particular 4x6x6 Beli bowl blank at Woodcraft of Dallas for around $30 USD.
The photo to the left shows what it looked like with their wax coating, price tag intact. I initially grabbed it from the rack thinking, "that is the oddest Zebra wood I've ever seen." I had never heard of Beli.
My design for this bowl happened to incorporate my first inward-curving lip. (Is this considered a "hollow form"? I could not find any better word for what I had in mind.)
So, I studied up on the hollow form turning and quickly realized that I would also need something to reach behind that lip, because traditional bowl gouges were not going to do it.
I ran over to Rockler after a bit of research and invested in an Easy Wood Tools brand Easy Finisher. I figured this tool might also save me a lot of sanding by allowing me to more properly finish bowl interiors. My cuts and scrapes with the bowl gouges were not quite there, yet.
I found center, mounted it to my 6" face plate, removed the corners with the band saw, and turned it to round and cut the tenon.
As soon as I stopped the lathe, I could more clearly see that there was a slight spalting along the top of this blank.
I am not sure if Woodcraft realized that was there. Who can ever really know what is inside wood until it has been opened up, right? That is part of the fun in turning bowls. What luck!
If you can look past my poor roughing cuts, you can see the beautiful grain this wood has, even dried and nude.
As far as the "feel" of it, again, it was very dense and hard. This Beli bowl required about twice the tool sharpening as a maple blank, to put it into a wood turner's perspective.
It took a while to get the interior of the bowl hollowed out, even with some super-sharp gouges. I had to use light passes, but I eventually got there.
Don't Blame the Beli
You can see some tear-out in the next photo, along the upper outside edge. That was my own fault for cutting downhill and on a lower speed than I should have. It was easily cleaned up by making more proper cuts, afterwards. This was not the fault of the Beli wood, in my opinion.
In fact, Beli had the same general feel to me as red oak. It was maybe even slightly easier to turn than red oak.
Here, you can see it after some refined cutting and bringing the shape I had in mind out. You are able to see some of the wonderfully stark pores as you travel from long grain to end grain.
What Is That Finish?
Especially on the drier, harder woods, I tend to slather the bowls in my own mix of beeswax and oil (Dr. Ray's Genuine Bee Oil, which I also produce and make available for sale on this site) in-between turning sessions.
This not only protects the shape as it sits, but will soften the outer layer of wood and act much like a sanding sealer. This allows for much finer, gentler final smoothing cuts. It also helps during the final sanding process, by raising some of the torn grain which is left.
When I finally completed the bowl and looked down inside with some proper lighting, I was not disappointed. You can see from this top view the remarkably uniform character throughout this piece of Beli wood. I love having these flatter rings almost all the way around, inside and out. It is practically symmetrical.
All-in-all, of course I had fun with my first Beli wood blank. The over-all experience taught me more than I expected to learn. Was it necessary related to this particular wood species? In part, yes, but not especially.
It feels like a slightly softer red oak. It looks like a slightly classier Zebra wood.
Would I buy more to try it, again? Absolutely! I enjoy the denser woods, like this. I am finding that I can more safely turn thinner walls with them. They tend to do what I expect. And, it was not so hard as to make me overly nervous. I enjoyed Beli.
Did I do well? You be the judge. Have you ever worked with Beli? Did you have fun with it? Maybe you know what Beli tastes like? Leave a comment. Let me know what you think about this bowl or this wood or anything else you would like to discuss.