In search of Sheesham

A timber shop selling local timber varieties

For a woodworker there can be nothing more enticing than the scent of wood. I am always sniffing around for different varieties and sources of wood.

So when John Canby, a Californian expat in Delhi, asked me if I could find him a decent source for Sheesham, I readily acquiesced.

Sheesham (Dalbergia sisso) is a much sought after local species in North India where it is used for making fine furniture, tools and so on. It is widely available in most towns of North India but not in the main timber markets which nowadays rarely keep local timbers.

I checked with a few timber shops in Greater Noida where I live and discovered no one had Sheesham. My carpenter friend Sirajuddin (known to everyone as Mullaji) offered to help. He said he could take me to some local timber dealers in a nearby town called Sikandrabad.

Yesterday, John, Sirajuddin and I drove through the dusty outskirts of Greater Noida, down a narrow country road traversed by suicidal drivers and giant trucks carrying Honda cars.

The dust and the road hogs kept us tense and mostly off the metalled road till we crossed a railway track into Sikandrabad.

John parked by a small shop making horse drawn buggies with wood and metal. The timber shop was half a kilometre up the road.

Sikandrabad timber shop

It was piled with firewood and scrap but had an enormous store of local timbers in an inner shed. Local wood species are called "Desi Lakdi" and for some reason are shunned by urban cabinet makers and carpenters. They are mainly procured and used locally in small towns and rural areas.

John looked extremely happy judging from the glow in his face and I too was intrigued by the variety of local species cut and stacked in untidy lots inside the dismal shed.

John picked up quite a few pieces of Sheesham of various sizes; I could tell he had a good eye for even in the dark he had found pieces with interesting grain and figure.

The venerable proprietor amidst his stash

I was fascinated by a stash of freshly cut planks of Neem (Azadirachta indica) drying near the open door of the shed. I had never seen Neem wood - it is distinctly pink in colour and rather heavy. It also gives off the peculiar Neem smell.

I picked up three one inch by five feet by one feet planks for Rs 250 (less than four US dollars) while John paid Rs 3700 (about 50 usd) for eight or so pieces of Sheesham including a fine four foot by 15 inch slab with handsome figure.

Mammoth bandsaw

The workers in the shop fired up their ancient diesel-powered band saw, an enormous beast sunk into the ground, to cut my pieces of Neem.

I bought the Neem as an experiment as I have been looking for a source of secondary wood for use in making the insides of drawers, shelves and so on. No point using expensive species for all purposes.

If Neem works it will turn out cheaper and better than Pine of Poplar for use as a secondary wood. Who knows perhaps it could even be used as a primary material in certain projects.

Time will tell and in the meanwhile John and I plan to do some more sniffing around for local timbers in the area. If only drivers in this part of the world cared more for their own and the lives of others; hunting for wood would be so much more pleasant.

Indranil Banerjie
8 April 2016
Photographs by John Canby

Comments

  1. John here - I had been reading Indranil's blog for a while, and was happy to finally meet the man behind it, as well as explore the nearby towns for new sources of wood. Driving in the UP was/is an adventure for sure. The sheesham I picked up is drying, and I look forward to making a chair from it later this year.

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    1. John, glad you founf some heesham, let's hope it dries well. My Neem isn't doing too well: one board has cupped drastically and the smaller ones are splitting. Let's see how they finally end up.

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    2. Neem is notorious for shrinkage.

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    3. I had made three queen size beds and six bed side tables from what was said to be neeem. This was from a tree which had a substantial lean and which was split by lightning strike and cut down. The log was stored for a year before being rough milled. I stored it further for more than six months through summer.
      This was a wood from hell. You could hear it turn and cup as I split it on my band saw. Every time I milled it it would move, shrink warp or cup. It showed a moisture content of 7% which was good. Not a great wood for making large projects. It doesn't machine well, lots of wild grain.
      However it has a great look I gave it a few coats of dewaxed shellac and then decided to put on some water based polyurethane with a sprayer on one bed and then on the others I used brush as it was easier.

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    4. Kittu, seems I have landed myself a lot of trouble in the form of Neem. You say it looks good after being finished. What sort of project do you reckon it might be good for?

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  2. Since it tends to warp and cup a lot smaller projects are more easily handled. Sharp tools and good techniques are necessary to reduce tear out. Rough mill it to higher dimensions and allow for slight change in structure then one or two final milling passes. Also if you join the wood there might be some change in surface go for slightly thicker joined parts in case it warps post joining. I needed 3/4" final thickness for bed side tables I joined 7/8" thick. Of the six tables two warped slightly. I thicknessed those two down to 3/4" Left the rest at 7/8" having had enough of milling work! Slightly bends etc in the bed rails where eventually left in place with the size of rails being dangerously close to minimum safety requirements. I learnt that living with some defects is not so bad.

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    1. "I learnt that living with some defects is not so bad" - I like that comment. Life's like that isn't it!

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  3. Very interesting and well described journey. Enjoyed the story. You are a very good writer too. Living with some defects is not so bad but leaving some defects is bad. All defects can be fix or transform into a beauty mark. I always make mistakes and every mistake gives me another chance to improve my creation.

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  4. Try Bareilly for Sheesham wood.

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    1. Thanks for the tip. Any particular place or dealer?

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  5. Sheesham is hard to come by. Here in Andhra neem is mostly used as door frames as it withstands termites well. Of late people are going for fancy wood instead of functional.

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  6. Neem is the preferred wood for door frames in areas infested with termites. I should say that it is a misconception, as even neem wood frames are not tolerant to termites.

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