It’s easy as woodworkers to see trees solely as a source of wood for our projects; but in fact, there are a lot of species that we use for other purposes such as food, paper or cooking. Tamarind is such a tree. While often planted as an ornamental, it is mostly propagated for its fruit.
The fruit is a brownish irregularly shaped pod. Inside is an acidic fruity pulp that is used in many cuisines of the world. It is particularly common in the foods of India and the nations of Southeastern Asia such as Thailand and Vietnam. Western palates will recognise tamarind in Worcestershire and HP sauce.
Tamarind is native to Africa and was introduced to India so long ago that it is often considered to be indigenous to that country. It is now found in most tropical countries throughout the world. In fact, there are large tamarind plantations in Central America and Brazil. It is planted both for its fruit and as a shade tree.
The tamarind is a medium size tree growing up to 80 feet high with diameters of 2 to 3 feet. It produces diffuse pored wood with medium to large pores. Tamarind has a medium texture with a wavy and interlocked grain
The heartwood is a deep reddish brown with occasional purple overtones. Heartwood conversion is slow in the tamarind, so only older and larger trees will show any heartwood. Consequently, the wood consists mostly of a pale-yellow sapwood that is sharply demarcated from the heart.
The wood is difficult to work given the wavy interlocked grain. The heartwood can also dull tools. Working by hand will be a chore. Using machines requires carbide tooling while keeping an eye on feed rates and depth of cut. Once milled and shaped, the wood glues easily and finishes well.
The sapwood is particularly prone to spalting, which refers to the colourful patterns and fine lines produced by fungal decay. Most of the tamarind imported into North America is spalted turning blanks and squares. This material tends to come from wood found on the floors of tropical forests or from trees cut and allowed to spalt in this high humidity environment.
Working with spalted tamarind can be challenging. There will be areas of different density since the spalting process is not uniform. Keep you tools sharp so you can cut cleanly through the different areas of wood density. Areas that are punky can be stabilised using cyanoacrylate glue. Spalting is a random and unpredictable process, so each piece of spalted tamarind is unique.
Tamarind heartwood is harder to come by. The heartwood is narrow and the larger trees are often hollow. This limits the sizes of available lumber. However, since it is easy to glue, you can laminate smaller pieces of heartwood into larger panels.
Tamarind can be used for furniture but is usually carved or turned into decorative objects. It tends to be priced on the high side, but smaller turning squares can be more economical. Tamarind is not on the CITES nor on the IUCN list of threatened species.
Tamarind offers an entry point into the working and appreciation of spalted wood. If you work wood either as a turner or a maker of decorative objects, it is a logical choice. You can also enjoy tamarind as you savour some of the cuisines of the world that use tamarind as a distinctive flavour.