Wood of the Month:

East Indian Rosewood Yields a Beautiful Cabinet Wood

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

FAMILY NAME

Dalbergia latifolia of the Family Leguminosae. Related species are Dalbergia sissoo and Dalbergia javanica.

COMMON NAMES

Indian rosewood, East Indian rosewood, Bombay rosewood, Bombay blackwood, malobar, shisham, sissoo, biti, ervaid, kalaruk.

HEIGHT/WEIGHT

Best growing areas yield trees of 100 feet or more with diameters up to 5 feet at the largest, but averaging 2.5 feet. Average weight is 53 pounds per cubic foot with a specific gravity of 0.85.

PROPERTIES

It dries well but experts recommend slow drying to avoid end splitting or surface checking. USDA Forest Products Lab recommends a kiln schedule of T6-D2 for 4/4 stock and T3-D1 for 8/4 stock. Wood can be difficult to work because of its high density. Some material has calcareous or gum deposits that can affect cutting surfaces. Material has high bending and crushing strengths with low stiffness and medium resistance to shock loads. The wood glues and finishes well although material with deposits can stain.

Wood of the Month has featured many rosewoods: Brazilian and Honduran rosewood, Brazilian tulipwood, cocobolo, and even blackwood, a close relative of the rosewood family, as a member of Dalbergia species. The focus for this month’s column is the fine furniture wood — East Indian rosewood, Dalbergia latifolia. East Indian rosewood is its common name in the United States, but related species of rosewood from India of commercial importance are Dalbergia javanica and Dalbergia sissoo.

The trees are native to Southern Asia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Java. Damp growing conditions are said to be ideal for the tree, but it has a wide-growing area. East Indian rosewood trees can be large, but tree size varies by location and growing conditions. At its tallest, the tree is 100 feet. Diameters vary widely reaching, up to 5 feet, although smaller diameters are possible.

East Indian rosewood and related species of Dalbergia have long been prized for yielding fine solid wood and veneer for use in furniture, cabinetry and high-end architectural woodwork. "The Wood Handbook, Wood as an Engineering Material," from the Forest Products Laboratory, describes Indian rosewood as "essentially a decorative wood for high-class furniture and cabinetwork," similar in looks to Brazilian and Honduran rosewood. "Indian rosewood is a heavy timber with high-strength properties and is particularly hard for its weight after being thoroughly seasoned."

The wood earns high marks for beauty with a heartwood that is medium-to-dark brown and sometimes purple with bold dark brown to dark purple streaks. The dark streaks show the termination of growth marks. Selected logs yield an attractive ribbon-stripe grain. The wood has a uniform texture. Rosewood is so named for the fragrance of roses the cut wood produces when first cut. It has no taste or odor when the material is seasoned.

Uses and Characteristics

In countries where it grows, uses for the wood include plywood, skis, boats, and flooring, shop, office and bank fittings, and exterior joinery.

It is good for turnery. Rosewood specialty items include turned knobs, drawer pulls and handles. It has long been a favorite for making carpenters’ tools and cutlery; decorative boxes are also made from rosewood. It is also popular for many types of furniture, such as Scandinavian-style furniture. Figured veneers are used to make high-end paneling, paneled doors and cabinetry.

Calcerous and gum deposits in the wood can pose problems. Logs with calcerous deposits are more prone to checking, according to "Veneers," a Fritz Kohl Handbook from Interwood Forest Products Inc. of Shelbyville, KY. The deposits can shorten the lifespan of cutting surfaces and at the finishing stage, although "colored deposits in the pores dissolve when solvents containing alcohol are used, and as a result, this can lead to stains." The sapwood and heartwood of East Indian rosewood are clearly demarcated. Its color deepens after seasoning.

Rosewood enjoys a long history as a fine furniture wood. The Chinese writer, Cao Zhao, in the "The Essential Criteria of Antiquities" (1388) wrote: "Its fragrance much resembles that of the truth-bringing incense. Quite what truths are brought remain a mystery to those who work with it; the dust is amongst the most irritating, debilitating, allergy provoking of any timber." The authors write that in America and England "the introduction of rosewood made a dramatic impact on early 19th-century interiors."

While rosewood has enjoyed a long history and reputation of being an expensive and beautiful cabinet wood, it has also been used for less glamorous applications such as posts and rafters. Long ago the Chinese were said to use it to make spokes for the wheels of military chariots.

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