Trees belonging to the rosewood family (genus Dalbergia) are considered woodworking royalty. Beautiful to look at, tough with a rose like scent, they are used in high-end furniture, cabinetry and musical instruments. East Indian Rosewood should be familiar to most woodworkers, especially for its use in musical instruments. It is also available as lumber, blocks, squares, and decorative veneer.
East Indian Rosewood is native to Southern Asia, particularly India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. It prefers the lower elevations, especially the damp tropical monsoon forests. Since it grows over such a wide area, there is some variety in colouration and grain structure. It is not a tall tree, occasionally reaching 100 feet with a 2.5-foot diameter. Specimens with 5-foot diameters have been logged. It is prized for the long straight trunks that can yield quality quartered lumber.
East Indian rosewood
East Indian rosewood end-grain
This species is durable when dried properly. Drying should be slow to minimize surface checking and end splits. The straight boles can produce quarters with a desirable ribbon-stripe figure that can contain interlocked grain. It has a uniform texture with large pores present. These large pores can contain white chalky deposits which can dull tools and present problems with finishing. Alcohol based finishes can dissolve the deposits leaving a streaky appearance in the final product.
The heartwood varies from a dark brown to a very attractive purple. There are often black/brown stripes overlaying the background colours. The sapwood is a sharply demarcated creamy white. And, like all true rosewoods, it has a pleasant rose-like odour when freshly cut and when it is worked.
East Indian Rosewood can be difficult to work. It is a tough wood, has an interlocked grain and, as previously mentioned, the silica deposits can dull tools and cause problems with the finish. Tools must be sharp, and carbide is preferred for machining. It glues well but screws and nails require pre-drilling. If you desire a glass-smooth finish, the large pores will have to be dealt with. Also, some finishes can cause the colours in the wood to bleed into adjacent areas. It may be wise to preview finishing techniques on some scrap material.
While East Indian Rosewood is used in many high-end furniture projects, it is particularly renown for it use as acoustic guitar backs and sides. Brazilian Rosewood was the wood of choice for luthiers until its use was banned due to overexploitation. East Indian Rosewood was recruited to fill the void and subsequently became the rosewood of choice in guitar making both for its appearance and its acoustical abilities.
East Indian Rosewood is also grown in plantations in India and Indonesia. There is considerable debate among woodworkers on how this affects its working properties as well as its acoustic characteristics. Lumber from these plantations can show signs of fungal attack showing up as a dark stain. Also, wood from plantations will exhibit wide growth rings and changes in texture and colour. How this affects acoustic qualities is very subjective.
Purchasing wood from reliable merchants can help you determine the origin of any imported wood. This is important for all of the true rosewoods, as there are many imposters. Reputable dealers will have import permits which will identify the wood by scientific name.
East Indian Rosewood is a slow growing tree vulnerable to habitat destruction. It is not on the CITES list (Convention in the International Trade of Endangered Species), but it is considered a threatened species. Plantation-grown wood will supplement diminishing stocks of old growth material. Overall though, supply dictates price and many luthiers are looking for alternative material for their guitars. You may not be a guitar builder, but this beautiful wood is accessible as blocks, squares and lumber. If you desire to build larger pieces, veneer is perhaps your best choice in accessing this attractive wood. In the end, all wood workers should try the rosewoods. Used wisely, they have the history and lineage to inspire many a worthwhile project.