Shortly after the discovery of the New World, Europeans began harvesting the pristine forests of North and South America. From Brazil came a very beautiful member of the rosewood family. Originally it was called Prince’s wood but later it was named Kingwood. By the end of the 17th century, it was the most expensive wood used in European furniture. It was a personal favourite of the French Kings Louis the 14th and 15th (hence its name). Their entire furniture collection had extensive Kingwood inlays.
Kingwood is a small tree rarely exceeding 55 feet with a 10 inch bole. Historically there may have been larger specimens, but they were the exceptions to the rule. Consequently, Kingwood is rarely seen as lumber. Most woodworkers will encounter smaller blocks, short pieces, and veneer.
The heartwood is purple to reddish brown often with attractive black streaks giving it a distinctive and beautiful appearance. The sapwood is sharply demarcated from the heart and is a pale yellow colour. Kingwood is a very hard and dense wood. It is usually straight-grained but occasionally can present as interlocked. It has a fine even texture with a bright natural lustre. Like all rosewoods, Kingwood contains natural oils and resins that yield a pleasant rose-like scent when freshly cut. These oils help protect the tree from various insect and fungal pests. In addition, the oils and resins make Kingwood a very durable wood, even resistant to termites.
Kingwood can be hard to dry without checking due to its high density. It is often sold air-dried with waxed end grain, but this material will need further acclimation to get the moisture content down to a workable level.
Since larger pieces of Kingwood are rare, woodworkers who want to use Kingwood for casework will have to use veneer. Kingwood veneer is available since slicing the logs into veneer is a more economical use of this rare wood. It is often sliced using the half round method. This variation of rotary slicing yields larger veneer sheets than traditional methods without the presence of wild grain. It is an excellent turning wood, capable of holding detail and can be polished to a high lustre. Tools must be sharp to deal with this hard, dense wood. Screws must be predrilled. Irregular grain might need different feed rates when machining. It can be difficult to glue due to its high density and oil content. Too high a clamp pressure can starve glue joints. Joinery surfaces should be glued soon after final milling.
There is a lot of debate about wiping surfaces to be glued with acetone to remove the oils. It may be wise to experiment with smaller scrap pieces before using this procedure. The oils can also affect finishing especially when using polyurethane and other oil-based finishes. De-waxed shellac can be used as a barrier to prevent Kingwood’s oils from interfering with various finishing techniques. Remember, Kingwood is too beautiful to be stained! Kingwood is reputed to have a excellent tonal qualities. It can be seen in various woodwind instruments. Its small size makes it difficult to provide pieces big enough for guitar backs and sides. When the rare guitar set is available, luthiers report it has a tone comparable to Brazilian Rosewood. All woodworkers should use dust protection when first starting to work with any rosewood. While reports of allergic reactions with Kingwood are rare, it is always advisable to see how you react to the wood to prevent a trip to the doctor.
While rare and expensive, Kingwood is not endangered. Perhaps its small size has saved it from the over exploitation seen with other members of the rosewood family. Kingwood is perfect for accent pieces and decorative objects. Once you use this wood for a distinctive door pull, inlay, or tool handle, there may be no turning back from Kingwood.