Few woods can match East Indian Satinwood’s striking appearance. The heartwood is a striking golden yellow with a metallic luster. Different figure types abound, and some say figured boards are more common than their plain looking counterparts. In fact, the name Satinwood derives from their resemblance to fine satin fabrics. The best pieces have a velvet-like texture to the touch.
The tree is native to Sri Lanka (previously Ceylon) but is also found in southern India. It is a small tree, 50 to 60 feet tall with an average width of 1 foot. Only 10 feet of the trunk is clear of branches. Consequently, East Indian Satinwood lumber is limited to small pieces. In fact, you are most likely to encounter this species as veneer. If you do find some solid lumber or squares, they are usually plain and without figure.
The heartwood, as mentioned, is a distinct golden colour deepening to a darker golden brown. The sapwood is a paler version of the heart, but is not sharply demarcated from it. Occasionally, you will find thin veins of colour in the heart which are produced by gum rings. The wood has a very fine texture which makes it an excellent candidate for turning.
East Indian satinwood
East Indian satinwood end-grain
The grain is interlocked and this produces many of the figures associated with East Indian Satinwood. Quarter cutting or slicing will bring out these figures. Even a simple striped figure is attractive owing to the combination of its golden colour and rich lustre. Mottle figures abound with the most desirable being a beeswing figure which gives the wood the appearance of fine satin.
If you are fortunate to find some solid East Indian Satinwood, be prepared for a workout. The hard dense wood will dull tools. Some pieces contain silica which will dull tools even quicker. The grain, especially if figured, will tear during planing and jointing. Woodworkers should try lowering cutting angles and should be prepared to break out the card scraper or even to sand to deal with the difficult grain. Screws require pre-drilling, and it will glue with few problems. It stains well, however, I can’t see anyone obscuring the beauty of the wood with a stain.
Most woodworkers will encounter this species as a veneer. The problems with working the solid lumber do not apply to the veneer as the surface produced by slicing wet logs is usually free of tearout. Also, due to its high density, glue rarely migrates to the surface during pressing making finishing blotch free.
Historically, East Indian Satinwood veneer was used as accent strips, small decorative panels and inlays, basically wherever its striking appearance could create an interesting visual effect. Solid pieces were often turned into various small objects such as brush backs and bobbins.
Lumber producers tend to use common names indiscriminately, especially for high value woods. Hence there are many ‘satinwoods’ out there. Woodworkers interested in East Indian Satinwood should buy from reputable dealers especially if purchasing solid stock. Buying authentic veneer is somewhat easier, as the figure and colour are distinctive. West Indian Satinwood is a close substitute, so be aware. Import documents listing country of origin should help distinguish the two as they grow in separate and distinct geographical areas.
East Indian Satinwood is very expensive given its distinctive appearance and relative rarity. It is ideally suited for those who work with period furniture. For those with a more modern design aesthetic, it works well as accent strips and in small items such as boxes and jewelry cases. If you have ever wanted to work with veneer, East Indian Satinwood is the gateway, enhancing all projects with its timeless beauty.