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Like all other members of the true maple genus (Acer), European Sycamore is a hardwood whose sapwood is greatly preferred and sought after, versus its heartwood. It sap can vary from an almost pure white to a light cream color with tinting ranging from a golden yellow to a muted red; heartwood is generally medium to dark reddish-brown colored. Grains are generally straight, but can be wavy. Combined with its fine texture, it is easy to work (although, like all maples, it can burn easily) — turning, gluing and finishing well, with a good natural luster. Not unlike its Acer-genus counterparts, pieces can sometimes be dramatically figured.
Boards are typical found quartersawn, as European Sycamore is the lumber renowned for its preferential, and historical, use as a body wood for stringed orchestral instruments (violins, violas, etc.), possessing superb resonance qualities and full-spectrum frequency response at a very moderate weight.
Sustainability: Not listed in the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Common Uses: Veneer, musical instruments (specifically orchestral stringed-instrument bodies), architectural millwork, furniture, cabinetry, joinery, wood flooring and parquetry, utility wood, turnings and small specialty items.
Comments: The Acer Pseudoplatanus tree has seen wide naturalization not only due to the wood’s highly desirable status as a tonewood, but, more generally, because of its wide natural canopy — making it ideally suited for use as a shade tree in public parks, bordering public streets and roads, on private residences and other such locations. Its seeds easily germinate and take root, so the tree has wound up becoming labeled an “invasive species,” “environmental weed” or “nuisance” in numerous areas scattered across both its indigenous and naturalized regions.
As the wood ages, it typically does so by gravitating toward a more golden brown appearance. European Sycamore is a non-durable wood, so it is not well-suited for outdoor applications; some sort of tough, durable finish for products crafted from this wood is recommended.
Lumber is also commonly utilized in Europe for architectural millwork, where the more white-colored boards are frequently used and highly coveted.
Black Stinkwood has long been popular for use in fine furniture building in South Africa (where it is indigenous), due to its fine, tight, typically straight grains and a resolute durability that is often compared to Teak. It’s heartwood color can vary from almost black to dark brown, to more medium brown tones with a reddish tint; the sap is easily distinguished by its contrasting pale yellow coloration. Despite its inherent density, Stinkwood possesses very cooperative working properties. It has beautiful finishing characteristics and a rich natural luster.
Sustainability: Not listed in the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, although the species has been classified as a “Protected Tree” in South Africa.
Common Uses: Fine furniture, cabinetry, doors, decorative trim and gun stocks.
Comments: Despite its humorous name — given for the horrid smell the trees put off when first cut — Stinkwood has remained a tremendously popular wood with South African fine furniture craftsmen, cabinet makers and gunsmiths, alike.
The bark of the Ocotea Bullata tree has medicinal properties which, combined with the immense popularity of the tree’s timber in South Africa, has led to the species being effectively extinct in a number of scattered areas throughout its (original) natural range; the bark stripping has fatal consequences for the tree.
Engelmann Spruce is typically a high-altitude mountain evergreen tree, indigenous to the mountainous regions of western North America, with scattered, isolated distribution in surrounding lower-level areas. The wood is prized among many acoustic guitar luthiers, for its superior resonance and tonal response qualities when used as a soundboard (acoustic guitar top). Its color can range from a light off-white to cream.
It is straight grained and has a fine, consistent texture, which makes it generally easy to work — although common-grade pieces may contain numerous small knots, and the wood can be difficult to stain. Its excellent stiffness-to-weight ratio has made it historically useful in a variety of construction and utility applications, benefited, also, by a virtually limitless domestic supply.
Sustainability: Not listed in the CITES Appendices, and is reported by the IUCN as being “a species of least concern.”
Common Uses: Acoustic guitar soundboards, harps, violins and pianos, construction lumber, sheathing, railroad ties, wood pulp / papermaking and also used in the Western US as Christmas trees.
Comments: Although Engelmann Spruce is a fairly cheap, easily accessible lumber, clear instrument-grade, quartersawn billets can be very pricey — as small knots are quite common in the species, and such coveted clear pieces typically are derived from undisturbed specimens grown at higher altitudes.
While Sitka Spruce remains a more heavily utilized wood for such acoustic guitar soundboard applications (being slightly stronger and heavier than Engelmann), there are a number of discriminating guitar builders who covet Engelmann. (By comparison, Sitka Spruce trees are far more massive in stature.) Due to this unique demand, premium-grade billets can command prices comparable with any of the most expensive domestic wood species.
Ptaeroxylon Obliquum, from which Sneezewood is derived, is a deciduous evergreen tree or shrub. The lumber it yields has a heartwood which is generally comprised of light to medium golden brown hues (although the brownish hues can sometimes be dark, toward the tree’s center). Grains are generally either straight or wavy, although they can be interlocked. The wood is quite dense, which makes it somewhat difficult to work, but renders excellent dimensional stability when dried.
It turns and finishes well, although gluing can be problematic, due to the natural oil content of the wood.
Sustainability: Not listed in the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Common Uses: Construction, railway cars, bearings, furniture, musical instruments, fuel wood, utility wood, carvings, turnings and small specialty items.
Comments: Sneezewood is considered to be one of the most durable, bug and rot resistant woods in the world, having been classified as “Imperishable” in its native South Africa. The wood has been found to outlast both iron and brass when you as machinery bearings. Part of the wood’s status of being little known in the western world is due to its great strength, stability and durability; for centuries, it has been utilized in a variety of functional roles in south / southwest Africa.
Snakewood stands out as one of the most aesthetically unique exotic woods in the world. Its muted light yellow-, orange- or red-tinted brown underlying base color is covered by tight, uniform patterns of darker brown or black patches which give the appearance of snakeskin. The wood is straight-grained with a fine texture. The wood is extremely dense, so much so that it can be brittle and splinter, or even shatter, when re-sawn; cutting edges should be at there sharpest whenever working Snakewood. In spite of this difficult working properties, it does turn and finish quite well — taking a high polish and displaying an impressive natural luster.
Because of its relatively slender profile — marked by a thin, narrow trunk — thick boards are never seen. Snakewood can be commonly found in the form of small logs or half-logs.
Sustainability: This species is not currently listed in the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
There has been a lot of heavy poaching going on throughout Central America — particularly in Mexico — and this wood is the most coveted in the entire region. Get this wood while you can, as its exportation will more than likely only become more restricted in the next year or two.
Common Uses: Fine furniture, musical instruments, turnings, and other small specialty objects.
Comments: Snakewood is a “first cousin” to Bloodwood, which is also a species of the Brosimum genus. The wood has become very popular for crafts, gun and knife handles and guitar fretboards, due to its very striking, unique appearance. The genus is noted for its great strength, density and hardness, which, naturally, makes it harder to work and tough on cutting tools and machinery.
Because of this, you often find pieces of irregular measurements, and — due to the trees’ very thin trunks — which are not very wide. You will never see long, wide boards of this species, and it is considered the most expensive exotic wood in the world when you calculate cost per board-foot vs. the actual usable portions which are produced from log / half-log resaws.
Sipo Mahogany (commonly referred to as either just “Sipo” or “Utile”) is an African wood that is considered to be the closest, aesthetically, to Genuine Mahogany (although not a true “Swietenia”). It’s interlocked grains are akin to other African woods and generally produce a characteristic contrasting light-dark / two-toned sort of appearance, when quartersawn — which can be visually stunning in the case of more chatoyant boards. The fact that the wood is considerably easier to work, with less tearout, than African Mahogany and possesses a hardness that places Sipo between it (African Mahogany) and Genuine Mahogany has seen it transcend from relative obscurity to become a quite popular and highly regarded “mahogany substitute” wood, presently.
Aesthetically, the wood is similar, also, to its African first cousin, Sapele (with both being species of the Entandrophragma genus) — although Sipo is more pourous, and has richer color.
Sustainability: Not listed in the CITES Appendices, but is categorized as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Common Uses: Furniture, cabinetry, turned objects, veneers, musical instruments, boatbuilding, and carving.
Comments: Sipo makes a really great mahogany substitute, with nice color and stunning aesthetics, when quartersawn. Like many such woods, it can become discolored when left in contact with iron and other metals. When combined with its very modest price range, its continually growing popularity as such (mahogany substitute) is easy to understand.
East Indian (or Ceylon Satinwood) Satinwood is a truly exquisite tropical hardwood. Its heartwood ranges from light to medium golden yellow, typically. Sapwood generally is white / off white and paler than the heartwood, though not always clearly demarcated. Premium-grade examples can be seen with a mottled or rippled grain pattern — resembling ripples in satin fabric, and, thus, lending to its name “Satinwood;” such examples may possess a chatoyance ranging from subtle to the dramatic.
Grains can be straight, but are more typically interlocked. Although — due to its density, hardness and generally interlocked grains — it can be difficult to work, it turns, glues and finishes superbly; featuring a smooth, luxurious texture and a shimmering natural luster.
Sustainability: Not listed in the CITES Appendices, but categorized as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Common Uses: Veneer, fine furniture, inlay, musical instruments, turned objects, and small specialty wood items.
Comments: In comparison with other exotic woods, Ceylon Satinwood has remained in short supply to the US market. Its exportation from the region remains restricted. That said, this is actually of little concern to the tree farmers of East India, as the wood is highly coveted throughout the Indian Plate portion of Southern Asia.
Finding long boards of it can be most difficult; pieces of craft-sized dimensions are more commonly found in the US. Other than the supply issue, a root cause for this is the fact that trees reach full maturity at a height of only 40 to 50 feet, with miniscule trunk diameters of just 1 to 1-1/2 feet. Long boards are always in short supply and sell at a premium, when found.
The Sassafras genus is renowned for and distinguished by its aromatic properties. Its typically straight grains and coarse texture bear patterns which resemble Ash; and its generally tan to light brown coloration makes its appearance easy to mistake it as such, though sometimes tints ranging from pale orange to olive green can be present. Despite its relatively light dried weight (31 lbs/ft3 / 495 kg/m3), once dry it is considered to be dimensionally stable, with excellent durability and easy working properties.
Sustainability: Not currently listed in the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Common Uses: Furniture, utility lumber, boatbuilding and turnings.
Comments: Given the trees’ small profile, Sassafras is better known for the oil derived from its root bark and fruit than for the lumber it yields. Since never viewed as a commercially viable timber — despite being indigenous to the US — boards and even craft- and turning-sized pieces are not that commonly offered here.
Siamese Rosewood, a.k.a. Vietnamese Rosewood, is one of the most dense, dimensionally stable rosewoods. The wood is derived from large evergreen trees which grow in open, semi-deciduous forests. It’s primary heartwood colors are typically confined to varying brown hues, although secondary colors of red, orange and yellows are commonly present. (Sap is a pale yellow, and easily distinguished.) Its pores are very small by rosewood standards; it sands smooth and finishes beautifully, with a wonderful natural luster. It is typically straight grained, although grains are occasionally interlocked. It is considered to be one of the most dense, stable and durable of all rosewoods.
Because of these properties, Siamese Rosewood has remained extremely popular with Chinese furniture builders — and which has also made it, for many years, a popular target for poachers. This has led to its current ‘near extinction’ status.
Sustainability: This species is listed in CITES Appendix II, and is categorized as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; part of the Dalbergia -genus worldwide exportation ban.
Common Uses: Veneer; fine furniture; carvings; musical instruments; cabinetry and other interior applications; turning; small specialty items.
Comments: Wikipedia had this to say with regard to Dalbergia Cochichinensis: “Siamese rosewood is denser than water, fine grained, and high in oils and resins. These properties make the wood dimensionally stable, hard wearing, rot and insect resistant, and when new, highly fragrant. The density and toughness of the wood also allows furniture to be built without the use of glue and nails, but rather constructed from joinery and doweling alone. Unfortunately, it has been the demise of this species at the hands of regional neighbors, China, which has placed it on the verge of extinction and is its tragic modern legacy. The incredible demand for it in this new millennium was accelerated prior to the 2008 Olympic games, in Beijing, and continued with the new construction boom the country has experienced.
There are actually two different types of wood which are known as Pau Ferro: the most common one is also known as Bolivian Rosewood, and Morado; the other one is significantly more dense (generally around 50% more), and is known also as Brazilian Ironwood and Brazilwood. The vast majority of what os made available in the US is former of the two — the less dense variety. The wood earned its “… Rosewood” nicknames (by which it is commonly known) because its colors and density are similar, which its medium brown base typically augmented by black streaks or grain lines, and sometimes even purple, tan and golden secondary hues, and sometimes a purplish tint, overall. Although it can have varying grains, straight-grained pieces are generally very easy to work, and the wood turns smoothly and finishes well. It is considered quite durable, although it can be subject to insect attack.
Sustainability: Not listed in the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Common Uses: Veneer, musical instruments (in particular, guitars — both electric and acoustic), furniture, cabinetry, flooring, interior trim, turnings, and other small specialty wood objects.
Comments: Pau Ferro is a popular Brazilian Rosewood substitute and is thought to be about as similar in properties to rosewood as any non-Dalbergia-genus species possibly could be. Its grains are tighter than a typical rosewood specimen, and it is thought to have a more distinctly percussive taptone than that of Brazilian. It’s tonal response is said to have tight lows, present mids and a clear, singing high end response.
Despite the comparisons, it should be noted that the (much more prevalent) Machaerium-genus species of Pau Ferro has less density, hardness and weight than an average rosewood.
Nicaraguan Rosewood — also known as Yucatan Rosewood, or Panama Rosewood — is the least dense, hard and heavy of all the Dalbergia species. Its heartwood can vary from a pale yellow-brown, to tan, to varying shades of brown (both light and dark); sapwood is pale yellow and clearly demarcated. Grains are generally straight, but can be wavy or interlocked; its texture ranges from fine to medium, with large, open pores. Its moderate luster is in keeping with its reputation of being aesthetically bland, although darker accents and occasional figuring are sometimes present.
Despite being significantly less stout than all of its true rosewood cousins, the wood is surprisingly durable. It is less oily, also, which adds up to some generally very cooperative working, turning, gluing and finishing properties.
Sustainability: This species is listed in CITES Appendix II, but is not listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; part of the Dalbergia -genus worldwide exportation ban.
Common Uses: Turned objects, musical instruments, furniture, and small specialty wood objects.
Comments: The density, hardness and weight of this species can vary greatly, depending on the specific region and conditions of its growth.
There has been some confusion and controversy surrounding its scientific name, as it is commonly referred to as “Dalbergia Yucatensis.”
Madagascar Rosewood is a very popular wood with both acoustic and electric guitar luthiers (especially the former), as well as furniture craftsmen, despite being a wood that has been difficult to acquire in the US for the bulk of this new millennium. Depending on the specific species, heartwood colors can range anywhere from a pale yellowish-brown to orangish-red to deep burgundy to a chocolate brown, typically highlighted by bold black ink lines and secondary hues. Its straight grains and medium texture generally make for excellent working properties, despite its considerable hardness and density; its cuts, turns and finishes beautifully, with a nice natural luster.
The wood typically has a high natural oil content, which can make gluing challenging.
Sustainability: Listed in CITES Appendix II, and reported as “Vulnerable” to “Near Threatened” (depending on specific species) by the IUCN; part of the Dalbergia -genus worldwide exportation ban.
Common Uses: Veneer, musical instruments, boats and shipbuilding, furniture, cabinetry, trim work, flooring, inlays, carving, turned objects, and other small specialty wood items.
Comments: There are four distinctly different Dalbergia species which are all commonly called “Madagascar Rosewood.” Back in the 1990’s, wood poaching on the African island of Madagascar reached epidemic proportions. Logging and exportation of the wood was banned, in response, in 2000, but was lifted in 2012, in the aftermath of major political upheaval in 2009. Madagascar Rosewood’s exportation was once again banned in 2015, but between an unwaivering demand for the lumber and continuing poverty throughout the region, the illegal logging trade has continued (despite bans).