Experimenting with Sheesham

A piece of Sheesham for a box lid
I had picked up some Sheesham planks a couple of years ago which were neatly stacked against a wall in my workshop all this time. Last week I decided to pull out one plank to cut out a piece for the top of a small 14 inch long box.

Sheesham (scientific name Dalbergia sisoo) is a priced wood in north India and is often confused with the much rarer Indian rosewood (Dalbergia Latifolia). The latter is an expensive but amazing species, which is unfortunately on the list of vulnerable species.

Sisoo or Sheesham is not endangered and is pretty prolific though large straight growing trees are increasingly rare. This means that most of the wood available comes with knots and curved grain.

The piece I selected had a couple of knots on it and I decided to keep them in order to provide greater interest to the box top.

The odd thing about the wood as I found were little chalky patches of a lighter colour spread all over the wood (notice the discoloured patches). The other peculiarity of the wood was its varying hardness; it was soft and porous in parts and very hard along the darker growth lines and knots.

Re-Sawing Sheesham by hand

Clearly this is a tricky wood to handle and I soon found out how tough the going could be.

I first decided to re-saw the piece - that is slice it in half - because it was a little over an inch thick whereas I wanted my box top to be half an inch or less. 3/8th would in fact be best as I plan to make a panel out of it.

I had roughly planed one side and used that to run a marking gauge along the sides of the piece. I then began to saw it in half.

My regular rip saw made very slow progress and I realised it could take days to make the cut. I switched to a Japanese Kataba meant for hard wood.

After ten minutes or so of hard sawing, I realised re-sawing Sheesham by hand was a bad idea. I was sweating, uncomfortable and discouraged by the fact that I had barely managed to get a few inches into the wood.

Having no other alternative, I persevered, sawing a little at a time. It took me more than a day to slice the little 18 inch long piece and when I was done I found that I had done a bad job.

After Planing

I had sawed from all four edges and the saw had not stayed on one plane. As a result, the surface of both pieces was extremely uneven.

The next step was some hard hand planing. This is when I realised how hard the Sheesham was in parts; the plane skidded off the wood when it hit the hard parts as if it was striking metal. The grain turned as it approached the bigger knot forcing a change in planing direction. Some tear out was inevitable which necessitated further planing.

Eventually, after much heavy breathing, I managed to straighten it out even though I couldn't fix a deep line at one end. The surface was far from perfect but I decided to stop at this point and have a go with my random orbit sander.

 Sanding the surface

Using a random orbit sander is not my favourite activity these days, especially after I learnt the vibrations can cause major problem for some people, especially older people. Nowadays I use anti-vibration gloves while using this power tool.

However, in this case I had to sand the piece to see how good a surface I could get. I was not too concerned about thicknessing it perfectly because only one side need to be fairly flat. I would have to reduce the sides to fit the piece later.

The sander did a decent job and the areas of slight tear out were greatly reduced and the soft porous grain areas smoothened.

I finally hit the piece with a couple of wipes of Shellac to see how it would eventually look.

After a wipe of Shellac

The effect was pretty nice; once I fill up the grain and give it a high gloss, it should look nice on the box lid.

After this little experiment, I have learnt that working with knotty, difficult grained Sheesham can be a nightmare. Preparing this little piece took the mickey out of me and gave my hand planes a hard time.

If I use Sheesham for bigger projects I will make sure I work with pieces that have straight grain and no large knots. No point in busting body parts for a project.

Indranil Banerjie
7 October 2014


  1. "DISCOVERED" for a second time and have read it cover to cover in one go!
    Congratulations on your journey so far.
    I am a newbee woodworker (.... though from a family of wood workers).
    How can i send you photographs of my projects?

    1. Email your project photos to indian.woodworker@gmail.com.
      Thanks and best wishes.

  2. I googled Seesham and it returned 'Indian Rosewood' if google is wrong how am I supposed to believe the people aren't. Thanks for clearing it up.


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