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Rosewood From Around the Globe

by Keith Stephens | August 24th, 2009

rosewoods

Rosewood is the popular name for wood from a very special group of trees. All true rosewoods belong to the genus Dalbergia. This is a large genus of small to medium-size trees and shrubs with wide distribution through out the tropical regions of Central and South America, Africa, Madagascar and southern Asia. Rosewood trees and lumber tend to be named after the countries were they grow. There are at least 20 different true rosewoods with a rich variety of colors and several other woods are called rosewood because of their density and appearance.

Several species have become popular landscape trees in the US. In Arizona the Indian Rosewood, Sissoo (D. sissoo) has become popular as a low water usage tree. Rosewoods are also used to make perfume.

Here are some of the most popular rosewoods and their uses:

Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra)is the pre-eminent rosewood appreciated in the western world. This wood was used extensively for furniture and musical instruments in the 17th and 18th century. Guitar makers still covet this wood for its tone qualities. International trade is restricted as the species is listed in CITES-Appendex II.

Honduras Rosewood (D. stevensonii) is available as lumber and is now used chiefly in percussion instruments (e.g., the marimba and the xylophone) replacing Brazilian Rosewood.

Cocobolo (D. retusa and several other species) is probably the most widely used rosewood today. The rich mixture of orange, purple and black makes for a sure attention grabber.

East Indian Rosewood (D. latifolia) is a rich deep purple brown and has been popular for furniture and music instruments, especially guitars. India no longer exports the raw lumber but the same wood is available as Indonesian Rosewood or Sonokeling. The Indonesian wood is grown on plantations producing fast growing trees.

African Blackwood (D. melanoxylon) is black and is used as a substitute for ebony. It is in demand for making clarinets, oboes and bag pipes. It is an outstanding wood for turning.

Tulipwood (D. frutescens) is unusual because of its color. The wood is cream colored with red or salmon stripes.

Tulipwood has some responsibility for my woodworking. I have always enjoyed boxes and containers. Killing time in a shop in La Jolla, CA I spotted a beautiful jewelry box. Cream colored with irregular purple to red lines. More cream than most people want but it was spectacular. At the time I had no idea what the wood was—I had no idea about woodworking –but the box stayed with me and several years latter I made something similar.

Once I served on a board where the newly elected president wanted a gavel. At the time I was trying my hand at turning and popped off “I will make you one”. At home was a square of Brazilian Rosewood and I thought it would make the perfect gavel. It turned smooth as butter and gave off a strong, sweet rose smell as the curls came off. No other wood has cut so smoothly for me. The gavel was gorgeous–golden brown with black marbling. I was pleased and feeling pretty good about my gift. Time for a finish. I applied Watco oil. The gavel turned black. A lesson learned. Do not finish rosewoods with penetrating oil. Your project may not turn black but it will darken and lose its markings. The gavel was a hit but I knew what it could have been.

There are some other issues working with rosewoods. The wood is oily which will cause gluing and finishing problems. Cut fresh joints for gluing and wipe them with acetone. Lacquer may fisheye and oil based film finish may just peel off. A wipe with acetone and then a wash coat of shellac will fight off those problems.

For a lot more information attached is an article by Dick Boak, C. F. Martin & Co. (The Martin Guitar Company). Read it and post your comments or experience with rosewood.