August 14, 2011 | 10:06 pm UTC

Wood of the Month:
Narra's Burls Rare and Highly Prized

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Pterocarpus indicus of the Family Leguminosae

Narra, red narra, yellow narra, angsena, angsana, sena, amboyna, amboyna burl or burr (these name denotes highly figured veneers cut from burls), Papua New Guinea rosewood, Philippine or Solomons padauk.

Average height is 100 feet with diameters of 3 feet. Average weight is 41 pounds per cubic foot although darker wood tends to be heavier.

The wood dries slowly, but with little degrade. It is extremely resistant to termites and other insects, and is resistant to preservative treatment. The texture is moderately fine to moderately coarse and uneven, depending on the tree's ring and pore structure. Interlocked grain can be wavy. The wood has innate luster and natural fragrant odor. It is considered easy to work with both hand and machine tools with a slight blunting effect. The wood can easily be nailed or glued and stains and finishes well. Narra is an excellent turnery wood. It has a durable heartwood.

Pterocarpus indicus is the botanical name for a tree that has inspired a wide variety of names and has been used in a wide variety of applications. In the United States, the tree is usually called narra and sometimes further delineated as red narra or yellow narra.

The narra that grows in southern and southeastern Asia is called Solomons padauk or Papua New Guinea rosewood. Narra also grows extensively in the Philippines, Borneo, New Guinea, Cagayan, Mindoro, Palawan, Cotabato and the Malay Archipelago. Its Malayan name is angsana. Narra has also been called kiabooco, meaning "twisted wood." When in the burl form, narra's wood is usually referred to as amboyna burl - that name coming from Amboyna Island, another place the trees can be found. "The Fine Hardwoods Selectorama" lists the primary countries of origin for narra as the Dutch East Indies and Philippines.

A Rare Beauty
In "Veneers, A Fritz Kohl Handbook," produced by the Fritz Kohl Veneer Mill in Germany, amboyna burl is described as "one of the rarest and most expensive woods in the world," adding that "the burly part of the log is often very small." The scarcity of burl in the logs translates into rather high prices, as do its demand for use in high-end woodwork. According to the handbook's authors, amboyna burl is used for the "highest quality architectural woodwork" and that it was the first burl wood used for dashboards by Rolls Royce.

Its price will vary depending on the dealer and the size of the order, but for comparison's sake, one dealer put the price into perspective. "Amboyna burl would likely sell for $15 a square foot, while elm burl or ash burl might sell for $2 a square foot."

Fantastic Figures
Ordinary narra may not be as highly prized as the wood that comes from the burls, but it is still a beautiful wood in its own right that can yield a range of interesting figures. Experts believe these figures are formed from the existence of "terminal parenchyma" and irregularities in the woods. Parenchyma is the wood's soft tissue that stores and distributes carbohydrates. Narra's grain can be wavy, interlocked or crossed creating attractive figures such as mottle, fiddleback, ripple and curly.

Chris Goff, owner of Goff and Goff Lumber Inc., in Quarryville, PA, says he has carried narra for about eight years, buying the wood in lumber form. Goff says that most of what he sells is used for accent in specialty items such as jewelry boxes. The narra he sells is usually light colored off-white to tan. Quarter-sawn narra has a "lot of figure," and is priced comparably to the low-end rosewoods, according to Goff.

The wood varies from light brown with red markings to blood-red with black markings. The sapwood is about 50mm wide and light in color, according to Timbers of the World.

High-End Usage
While ordinary narra takes a back seat to the burl from its wood, it is still a very valued wood for furniture and decorative veneers. Its uses include high-end joinery, flooring, furniture, cabinetry, paneling, novelties and specialty items and carved pieces such as furniture feet and finials. The wood is also used for interior house and boat trim, sporting goods, musical instruments, caskets and turnery. Specialized uses include the manufacture of cases for scientific instruments.

Ask the Experts
Albert Constantine Jr., author of Know Your Woods, describes narra as "Wood of the same botanical classification as amboyna. It is of a rose to deep red color, some of a golden-yellow, having a distinct stripe when manufactured on the quarter. Some of the logs contain a ripple figure. It is a hard and heavy wood, not very strong or durable but suitable for manufacture into veneers for furniture and high grade work." Constantine adds that "Amboyna wood was used to a large extent in the manufacture of furniture during the Empire period, from 1804 to 1814."

Narra is described in Timbers of the World as being "fairly easy to work, but some care is required in planing quarter-sawn material as the irregular grain tends to pick up." The wood dries well with little shrinkage. Care is recommended to avoid surface checking when using expensive veneers.


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