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Wood of the month - satinwood.


Many species lay claim to the name satinwood, among them Brazilian satinwood, Euxylophora paraensis, East Indian satinwood, Chloroxylon swietenia, West Indies satinwood, Zanthoxylum flavum, Jamaica satinwood, Fagara flava and East African satinwood, Fagara macrophylla. The species featured here is Ceylon or East Indian satinwood, although the rest are worth mentioning too.

West Indies satinwood, although hard to come by, is considered the finest of the satinwoods and is the species made famous by its prolific use in high-end furniture during the 18th century. West Indies satinwood was so famous in its heyday that the times was referred to as the "golden age" of satinwood.

Sheraton, Hepplewhite and Adam used this wood extensively in their signature furnishings. Pieces made of satinwood have a particular luster and sheen similar to satin material that is very hard to duplicate. "They improve with age," said one manufacturer.

The best satinwood comes from Santo Domingo, although supplies have been all but exhausted. The wood also grows in Bermuda, the Bahamas and southern Florida with the most ideal growing conditions in Jamaica. There trees routinely grow to 40 feet with diameters averaging 1.5 feet. Other common names for Fagara flava include San Dominigan satinwood, yellow sanders and aceitillo.

West Indies satinwood is not as hard as East Indian satinwood, which became popular and more generally used after the West Indies variety's use peaked. One other identifying characteristic about West Indies satinwood is its aroma when cut and worked - it smells like coconut oil.

The wood's usage today includes marquetry, reproduction furniture and antique restoration, and for small items such as brush backs. It is also used for turnery items such as bobbins.

Ceylon satinwood

Chloroxylon swietenia, also of the Family Rutaceae, is another small- to medium-sized tree with the same golden yellow of the other satinwoods. Its range includes Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), hence the name East Indian satinwood, but it also grows in central and southern India. Additional names include burutu, bhera and mutirai. Ceylon satinwood has a fine, even texture and a slight pleasant fragrance when cut. It has all the traditional uses of a fine decorative veneer and is especially popular for inlay work, lines and bands.

The tree grow to an average height of 40 to 50 feet and an average weight of about 61 pounds per cubic foot. The wood is heavy and dense and can be hard to work, with a moderate blunting effect on cutting tools.

Ceylon satinwood can be a highly figured wood. In fact, some believe that plain non-figured satinwood is the exception rather than the rule. Among the many figures of satinwood are bee's wing, and bee's wing cross mottled, two

very distinctive figures, rippled satinwood, roe and narrow ribbon striped and the straight stripe figure. Gum rings are considered the source of thin veins showing up when the wood is flat sawn. Ceylon satinwood's sapwood and heartwood are very similar, a lustrous golden yellow with a tightly interlocked grain that gives the most decorative figures when quartered.

Ceylon satinwood should be air dried slowly so that it won't surface crack. Kiln drying also produces good results and little degrade. The wood has high bending and crushing strengths. It should be pre-bored and care needs to be taken during gluing. However, it stains and finishes well.

Easily worked wood

Jack LaDue, owner of LaDue's Handcrafted Furniture, Jacksonville, Fla., a custom furniture manufacturer, routinely uses a number of exotic, valuable woods, among them satinwood. He purchases his supplies from a variety of veneer dealers and said that his only problem is in getting the thicknesses he prefers, 1/32 as opposed to the more commonly available 1/44 or 1/42. "I prefer the thicker veneer because I mostly use satinwood for inlay work and I like to sand between each row after gluing," he said.

LaDue's custom work is often designed by architects and furniture designers who specify the woods. He is currently using it in a traditional style desk featuring quartered mahogany with a top of inlaid satinwood (one row) and ebony banding (two bands of ebony), bordered by carpathian burl elm. The desk, like his other designs, is a high-end executive's desk that will likely sell for $8,000 to $9,000. He is also using satinwood in a traditional, upright cabinet designed to hold a television set.

"Satinwood can be brittle, but I find it an easy wood to work with," said LaDue. "Today's usage seems to be as an accent piece. You don't see much made of pure satinwood. It is used on dining room tables and banquet tables. Years ago it was used for the entire piece. It is a striking and beautiful wood," he said.

Werner Lorenz, president of Indiana Veneer Corp., Indianapolis, Ind., also said that while the species was once used widely in furniture, it is expensive and supplies are limited. Its use now is primarily for interior design, architectural, inlay and specialized work. "The name satinwood comes directly from the look of the wood - it has that shiny, silky look of satin fabric," said Lorenz.

The East African variety

Still another claimant to the name satinwood is East African satinwood, also of the Family Rutaceae. Its common names include olon dur and munyenye. This tree grows well in equatorial forests at elevations of 8,000 feet. It is the tallest satinwood with average heights of 95 to 100 feet and trunk diameters averaging 2 to 5 feet. Its bole is generally straight and cylindrical.

Here again, the sapwood and heartwood are bright to pale yellow but very similar. The grain is usually interlocked and often has a stripe figure. The wood's airdry density varies from 42 to 64 pounds per cubic foot.

East African satinwood air seasons quickly with almost no degrade although it may warp. It is not a durable wood - the sapwood is vulnerable to borer attack; the heartwood resists preservative treatment. Though it can be difficult to hand plane, it will steam bend well.

The many "modern" satinwoods have a hard act to follow with West Indian satinwood considered a legend for its interpretations of the Sheraton and Hepplewhite styles of furniture. The bright satin sheen of the early satinwood that only improves with age is the mark of the West Indian satinwood.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Vance Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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