WoodSense: Spotlight on Rosewood

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rosewood

Sometimes called “true” rosewood, Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) is a beautiful hardwood. Its namesake is inspired by the sweet rose-like scent produced when cut.  Woodworkers have coveted it for centuries to use in the finest furniture and musical instruments. In 1992, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed Dalbergia as “most endangered,” suspending all commercial trade unless the dealer could prove that the wood was harvested before that date. As of January 2017, all Dalbergia species are listed on CITES Appendix II. This listing requires dealers to obtain permits in order to export from the country where the wood is harvested.

Fortunately, there are many branches in the rosewood family tree. In fact, there are approximately 300 tree species listed as Dalbergia. While most of them are shrubs or climbers, there are a dozen varieties that produce cabinet-grade lumber. These trees share many desirable qualities but vary in appearance and working characteristics. To know what you’re buying, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with a few scientific names. And consider purchasing a few stand-ins referred to as rosewoods, even though they aren’t technically members of the rosewood family.

History in woodworking

The Chinese revere rosewood and have used it to make exquisite furniture since the 16th-Century Ming Dynasty. China still ranks as the world’s largest consumer of rosewood. Today most woodworkers, find rosewood too expensive as a primary furniture wood. It’s more likely used as veneer or inlay, or for small, prominent parts such as knife and tool handles. Rosewood turns well, and small scraps are used to make pens and the black pieces in the finest chess sets. Rosewood’s excellent acoustic properties are great for making guitars and other musical instruments, like marimbas, that rely on wood vibration to produce sounds.



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Where the wood comes from

Many rosewood offshoots grow in other parts of South America and in Central America. The common titles typically indicate the country of origin, though some species have a wider range than their names suggest.

Out of necessity due to restrictions, many woodworkers turned to two Indian species—Dalbergia latifolia and Dalbergia sissoo that are almost indistinguishable from each other. Plantation-grown  Dalbergia latifolia, often marketed as “Sonokeling,” grows primarily in East India and is sold either as East Indian rosewood or just rosewood. Dalbergia sissoo, sold as Indian rosewood, grows in northern and western India.

Selecting a species

Except for Brazilian rosewood, other varieties are relatively simple to obtain, but they can be expensive. Although family traits make the wood easily identifiable (dark heartwood and creamy sapwood that mellows when exposed to light), the Dalbergias vary in color and grain, even from one board to the next. Considering the investment ($15-20 BF and up) it’s a good idea to select the stock in person if you can.

Luthiers love Brazilian rosewood’s acoustic properties as well as the attractive colors ranging from a honey-gold to a dark chocolate brown. Indian rosewoods are beautiful in their own right, but don’t have the color range of Brazilian—they are typically a reddish-brown.


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Working rosewood in the shop

Brazilian rosewood earned its reputation for its beauty and working qualities. Despite being very hard and dense, the wood is flexible and unmatched as a “tone wood”—perfect for luthiers. The rosewoods share myriad qualities, including outstanding turning and shaping characteristics, exceptional stability, and excellent decay resistance. The Indian rosewoods perform most like their Brazilian kin, but there are some noteworthy differences with the other siblings. Honduran rosewood is difficult to work with hand tools, and while it machines well, it dulls cutters quickly. Burmese rosewood is usually straight grained and easy to work with hand tools or machines, but it also blunts sharp edges in a hurry.

Dalbergias contain extractives that can sometimes hinder adhesion with water-based glue. To avoid adhesion failure, mill or sand the edges, and then wipe the surface with naptha before gluing. Epoxy or polyurethane glue work well.

Despite its lovely fragrance, rosewood dust can be quite irritating. Depending on the species, symptoms range from dermatitis to skin lesions, and minor sinus irritation to asthmatic-type reactions. The Dalbergia extractive is a very potent allergen for some. In some cases, musicians who experience only minimal exposure to the wood—by way of skin contact with chin rests or fretboards—have developed skin rashes. As with any wood, wear a NIOSH-approved dust mask and use good dust collection.

Finishing

True rosewoods—and rosewood substitutes—can be polished to a shine, but the resinous, waxy sawdust gums up sandpaper. A cabinet scraper works great for removing mill marks. Wet-sanding is another good option. The extractives can prevent oils and oil-based polyurethanes from curing properly. Test before finishing, or seal the wood with shellac. Rosewoods vary when it comes to grain. Depending on the sample and species, you may need fillers to achieve a super-smooth finish

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A rose by many other names

Although not Dalbergias, these rosewood substitutes are reasonable stand-ins. Macherium villosum, sold as Bolivian or santos rosewood, morado, and pau ferro, all look like Brazilian, but do not have the same acoustic qualities. All the commercial supply comes from Bolivia.

Curapay (Anadenanthera colubrine), aka Patagonian rosewood, is a dense, durable Argentinian wood. Curapay, which is often used for high-end flooring in the United States, is less expensive than true rosewood. Its wild grain tends to tear when worked with either hand or power tools.

Bubinga (Guiboutia demeusei) and its close relative, Guibourtia coleosperma, are sometimes referred to as “African rosewood.” These woods have an attractive salmon pink color with a tight grain that can be wavy or straight. African rosewood planes and cuts well, but contains silica that quickly dulls steel blades and bits

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