An Unpopular View of Rosewood

Mr Editor, put your flame proof underpants on, for this one is going to attract incoming from the eco-friendly tree huggers. I have used rosewood for most of my woodworking life and though it’s not particularly ….. no let me rephrase that, though it is completely not acceptable policy to use rosewood now because of global warming I shall probably continue to use this wonderful timber despite the ragings of the eco warriors.

I have no doubt that felling rosewood trees in the Amazon rainforest is a reprehensible thing to do, however as a first world woodworker who has no doubt played his part  in felling the green forests of Europe I don’t think I feel I have any right to deny that privilege to a third world woodworker who simply wants to feed his family. I,like many of you, have a young family and my thirteen year old daughter would be furious with her father for playing his part in damaging the planet in such a reckless and thoughtless manner.

However, as far as I’m concerned it is not a tree it is a material. Like dressmakers use fabrics, I use wood, and the qualities of rosewood are particularly unique and particularly individual to that species and whilst my customers want rosewood details on their furniture and I have an instinct for providing shapes in rosewood rather than anything else then I don’t really see why I should go all politically correct , particularly at this advanced stage of my life.

Partly I think this is because of an experience I had about 15 years ago when I heard of a scheme being set up by the partner of a woodworking colleague of mine , Lucinda Leach. This guy, Chris, had a scheme to enable rosewoods and other valuable timbers to be ecologically extracted from the rainforest and also provide a good living for the local villagers. His scheme was this – he would provide a container that would be loaded up with sawn planks of valuable tree, he would also provide members of the village with a chain saw and mill. This was the kind of tool that could be carried into the forest by two natives, placed upon the single valuable felled log and used to cut the valuable log into boards on site. The tree would not need to be dragged out of the forest thereby creating a pathway or unduly damaging the forest canopy. The villagers could then carry the logs back to the village, store them in the container and await for the container to be exported by road. Chris raised funding for this innovative project, researched it, selected the village, installed the equipment, trained the villagers and waited the results of their work.

All went well for a couple of runs, timber was exported and sold at a good profit. The profit was used to reinvest in more chain saw mills and containers and villagers were smiling all round. However this didn’t go on for ever. The whole thing broke down when neighbouring villages, seeing the prosperity being gained, ambushed the two guys carrying the chain saw mill out in the rainforest, stole the chain saw and ran off with it. Lacking the training to successfully use it damaged it beyond repair and left it in the rainforest.

I leave you ladies and gentlemen to draw your own conclusions about this rather sad story but I shall continue carefully, judiciously and sparingly to use rosewoods of various sorts, both in detail pieces on my furniture and occasionally for the whole piece. We are not manufacturers, we don’t make more than a handful of pieces of furniture a year and what we make is very special. I don’t see in that context why we shouldn’t be using rosewood even though it is not politically correct and though my thirteen year old daughter will be furious with me for saying so, I dont’ see why we first world woodworkers should be denying the third world any opportunity for making a living out of their rainforest that they can. If we wanted to really do something then maybe we should stop drinking coffee. Enough of a rant, back to rosewood.

This really is an amazing timber. It’s dark, red and lustrous and has many of the properties of mild steel. When you hit it it rings like a bell. Holes can be drilled and threads can be cut in this wood , again, just like mild steel. It can scraped to a surface and burnished to a shine. It’s heavy, my word how it’s heavy, and some of it even sinks when put in water. This stuff isn’t like wood and should be treated with the very greatest respect.

Whenever we have to use exotics like rosewoods, I get in touch with Bob at Timberline. I’ve been dealing now with Bob for over 20 years. Bob specialises in importing exotic hardwoods from all over the world and I rely upon Bob to advise me upon availability and species. The species of rosewood is essentially is dalbergia and there are lots and lots of rosewoods, really depending on which part of the world you are looking at. I’ve bought Honduras rosewood, Malaysian rosewood, Indian rosewood, Madagascan rosewood, Santos rosewood, all these I think are true dalbergia types, though Bob might actually correct me here. Rosewood isn’t called rosewood, incidentally because it has anything to do with the wood of the rose bush.

All the roses I’ve ever grown wouldn’t give us the timber for a decent lace bobbin let alone a matched and handed pair of tooth picks. No, rose wood  has nothing to do with the rose tree but acquires it’s name merely because of the smell some if those timbers give off when being worked. If you hand plane rosewood the air will smell of roses. True dalbergia has a rich and oily nature that really doesn’t take much to shine up. It’s extremely hard and close grained so will readily take a polish. All you have to do is abrade it to something like 320 grit and then burnish it with it’s own shavings. The oil in the shavings helping to shine the timber up. It’s very easy to over polish rosewood, so it can quickly, if any kind of thick finish is applied, look like plastic. Shellac is my most common polish for rosewood as it can be put on very thin and take the shine up to mirror quality very quickly.

Many of the boards that Bob has provided me with over the years have been sawn all round and with very little wastage, so although rosewood can be an extremely expensive timber sold by the kilo, costing well over £100 a cubic foot, it can be a relatively economical timber to use as there is very little wastage. Lots of timber I will buy unseen, ordering it from a trusted supplier over the telephone, rosewood I almost invariably drive all the way into Tunbridge to see Bob as buying this stuff over the telephone can be just too expensive. I know that if I buy those two boards then I can get four components out whereas if I bought those two which are almost the same size I’d only get three components out.


David Savage


First published December 2007 British Woodworking Magazine


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