Confusion can reign when discussing Meranti (also called Lauan, Philippine mahogany and balau) and all of the products made from this important group. Geography and biology play an important part in this story and it is here where we will begin to sort out the history of Meranti.
Meranti is a common name for species of trees from the genus Shorea. Shorea itself is a member of the family called Dipterocarpaceae. The Dipterocarps make up over 80% of the trees in the forests of the islands in southeast Asia. There are 196 species of Shorea found in these forests and apart from differences in the colour of the heartwood they all share similar characteristics (texture, grain, workability, etc).
The forest industry decided to place the various species of Shorea into 5 groups based on the colour of the heartwood. These 5 groups are dark red meranti, light red meranti, white meranti, yellow meranti, and balau. Lauan is the common name referring to panel products from this group, while Meranti is used for solid lumber as well as plain and quartered veneer. The term Philippine mahogany is usually applied to interior trim and millwork. For this article, I’ll use the word Meranti to simplify all of this nomenclature.
Mercanti (dark red)
Mercanti (dark red) end-grain
Meranti grows throughout all of the major islands of southeast Asia, most importantly the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It is also found in continental Asia from India east to Thailand and Vietnam. They dominate the forests in the islands, and can grow to over 200 feet in height with diameters ranging from 3 to 5 feet on average. The trunks of the trees are often clear of branches for the first 90 feet, which increases the yield of lumber from them.
Since Meranti is so prevalent, it quickly became an in important forest resource. The Japanese started commercially exploiting these trees from the Philippines in the 1930’s. With the invention of rotary slicing, Meranti quickly began to dominate the panel industry. In fact, Meranti in the form of lauan plywood is the largest traded tropical hardwood product in the world. When the forests of the Philippines were no longer productive, the logging companies moved on to the other islands.
The heartwood can vary from a dark red/purple to a straw yellow or pale white. It is coarse grained with large pores. These often contain blade dulling silica deposits. The wood is straight grained but often interlocked producing a distinctive ribbon striped appearance. It dries easily but proper attention to kiln scheduling is important to prevent drying stresses. When dry, it is very light and is not considered to be particularly durable.
Most woodworkers should be familiar with the panel products made from Meranti. Rough lumber is often available and there is a lot of trim and millwork available at various home centers made form white Meranti. When working this wood, patience is often required. Cut and machined surfaces are often covered with ’fuzz’ made of small fibers leaving a rough surface to the touch. These surfaces must be sanded to produce a fine finish. The wood can tear and splinter so routing and shaping must be done with sharp tools using proper feed rates. Cross cuts and routing against the grain should be done with backing boards to prevent tearout. Screws and nails require pre-drilling to prevent splits.
The wood glues well and takes all manner of finishes. The open pores must be filled if a glass smooth finish is desired. Stains can yield an attractive finish especially if pigment stains are used.
Meranti has been marketed as an mahogany substitute but it bears only a superficial resemblance to genuine mahogany. There are substantial differences in the working characteristics as well. Woodworkers looking for a mahogany substitute would be wise to stick with better alternatives such as khaya, gobbon, and sapele.
Meranti is found in all types of panel products such as core stock, sub flooring, and decorative panels. Solid wood is commonly used in cabinetry, trim, and millwork. It is also used as a face veneer and is very popular as the visible surface of interior doors. Dark red meranti is sometimes used as a decking material. All told, Meranti is a very important species in the industrial and commercial woodworking industry.
However, Meranti’s popularity has led to it being overexploited. Of 196 species, 148 are on the IUCN red list. It is not on the CITES list, and I suspect that commercial interest will keep it off that list. It is undeniable that the tropical islands of southeast Asia have suffered from the over-cutting of Meranti. While it is difficult to avoid using lauan since it so prevalent in the commercial industry, woodworkers wishing to use this wood can choose sustainably grown lumber. As well, there are other tropical species available that are sustainable and are priced competitively. Limiting your use of this species will allow the forests in southeast Asia to recover for future generations.