Merbau is an attractive wood, strong as hickory and almost as stable as teak. These characteristics attracted the attention of the flooring industry looking for new species. Merbau is mostly known in North America and Europe as an exotic wood flooring, with limited amounts of rough lumber available.
Merbau is common to the Indo Pacific region. It is found from Tanzania and Madagascar in coastal Africa, eastward through Southeast Asia and from there to Australia and the Pacific islands of Fiji and Samoa. It is a very large tree growing to 160 feet and the buttressed trunk can be up to 5 feet wide.
Merbau is a diffuse pored wood with large to very large longitudinal cells. This gives the wood a coarse texture. The grain ranges from straight to interlocked and occasionally is wavy. It is easy to dry with little degrade. Once dry, it is very stable. Merbau is rated as durable and is also resistant to termites.
The sapwood of merbau is a pale yellow sharply demarcated from the heart. The heartwood when freshly cut is a light orangey brown which darkens to a deeper reddish brown as it ages. Small yellow mineral deposits are often scattered throughout the wood. The colour of the deposits fades over time, but when first finished they appear like tiny flakes of gold. These deposits also aid in identifying merbau from other similar species.
While usually considered somewhat easy to work by machine, merbau can dull tools and the deposits can gum up saw blades and cutters. Interlocked wood can tear out when machined. Using nails and screws will always require predrilling. It glues with few concerns, just mind your clamp pressure. While it takes all finishes well, be aware that the yellow deposits are water soluble. Use of water -based finishes can cause the yellow colour to bleed into the surrounding wood. Merbau will also stain black in the presence of moisture and contact with ferrous metals.
Merbau has a distinct odour when being worked and can cause sneezing. It can also irritate the skin. Woodworkers should use appropriate protection when working it until you can determine how sensitive you are to this wood.
Merbau is used for furniture, panelling, interior woodwork and musical instruments in areas where it is endemic. It also used for heavy construction such as pilings and beams. While little lumber is imported into North America, when available, boards with large widths and lengths are common. Merbau lumber is usually offered as a mid-priced exotic wood. Most woodworkers will encounter it as hardwood flooring as mentioned previously.
There is a high demand for this wood especially in China where large quantities were used during construction of the 2008 Olympic venues. It also a widely used wood in Southeast Asia, both domestically and as an export species. While not on the CITES list, merbau is on the IUCN red list and is considered threatened in many exporting countries.
If you want to work with merbau, I recommend woodworkers do a little research. Avoid buying from countries that have problems with illegal harvesting. A good wood importer can help you purchase responsibly. In the end, your decision will have to balance what’s best for the species and the demands of your project. Woodworkers must be accountable when sourcing woods like merbau so we can help maintain healthy forests going forward.