|Chhattisgarh Teak Forest|
The average Indian's ignorance of timbers, their type, variety and characteristics, is odd given that this country has a long tradition of using wood products. The Subcontinent's forests at one time were vast and contained innumerable species of excellent furniture grade tree species.
Writing in 1929, Hugh Trotter, forest economist at the Forest Research Institute at Dehra Dun, observed: "For high class furniture, cabinet-making and decorative panel work, there are several very ornamental and excellent woods in India. The chief characteristics required for these uses are nonliability to crack and split, retention of shape, ease of working, and good colour, figure and grain."
So important was timber and its uses in India that a forest products laboratory was set up in Dehra Dun in 1906. In the pre-WW II era it was "the largest, and probably the best equipped of any Forest Research Institute in the world, and the advice and experience of the many specialists employed there are always at the disposal of timber users and others, whether large or small, without any charge." [Trotter 1940]
The institute at Dehra Dun still exists and the use of wood is continuously rising in this country. Yet, general awareness about woods remains low. Poor quality factory made furniture, mostly of plywood disguised with layers of wood veneers, are hoisted as objects of desire. Few customers care to look beneath the superficial shine of chemical finishes or care about matters such as wood grain, figure or durability.
In the past, customers of fine furniture and cabinetry appear to have been far more discerning. This was particularly true of the country's European population They favoured a variety of local woods and much of the excellent furniture crafted here was also exported to Europe, chiefly Britain.
While some of the woods once so popular are well-known names even today, many others are long forgotten.
Of the 15 top cabinet grade woods of yesteryears listed in Trotter's invaluable handbook on common Indian timbers, only a handful continue to be well known to the public. These include Teak, Sheesham, Walnut and Mahogany. These woods continue to be commonly used for fine furniture and cabinetry.
Three of the woods in Trotter's list are now so scarce that they are either in the endangered list or are regarded as under severe threat. Chloroxylon swietenia (satin wood), for instance, a highly attractive and durable wood has virtually disappeared from world markets and is on the IUCN Red List. This unmatched wood is found in small quantities in south India and Sri Lanka.
The famous Andaman Padauk (Pterocarpus dalbergioides) too has largely disappeared although it is not officially protected. Similarly, East Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) is on the CITES list and can only be found in the black market in small quantities.
Of the eight remaining woods, a few continue to be used and cherished by Indian cabinet makers. These include Toon (Cedrela toona) as well as the Sirish and Kokko family (Albizzia species).
The rest, including Betula alnoides (Indian birch), Chukrasia tabularis (chikrassy), Phoebe species (bonsum), Pteroearpus marsupium, Terminalia bialata (silver grey) and Terminalia tomentosa (Indian Laurel), seem to have gone off the radar, at least as far as cabinet making is concerned.
It's a pity that a number of excellent cabinet grade woods native to this country are no longer available or used. Some discerning woodworkers are, however, making a special effort to pick up and use local woods when possible.
16 February 2018
Some local woods used by woodworkers
Abid Ali (North India)
Indian red cedar or toon. This is wonderful wood to work with, very easy to plane takes finish well. Love the colour.
Walnut. The Kashmiri walnut when you can get some is pleasure to work on, I like this wood when the project demands a bit of carving.
Teak. Yes I know you will say who doesn't like teak. Simple fact that it's a very easy to work teak and you get excellent finishing results puts it in the top 5. The put off is price.
Indian rain tree/Sirish/ monkey pod. This is a wood I came across in guitar workshop amazing grain pattern, tough to work but it's worth the effort once you see the finished product.
Deodar. This is a amazing softwood. Excellent to work with, this wood is quite resistant to decay, insect attacks can be used for outdoor projects too. Only problem is availability outside of Kashmir and Himachal.
Toona Ciliata:, Common name Toon Indian Mahogany etc
Pros: Takes a very good polish, very easy to work, readily available, very good texture; Costs 1200-1400 per cft. Cons: Very susceptible to borer especially sapwood. This wood cannot be stocked for long time as sapwood will attract borer inevitably; This is not a very stable wood and bows significantly during seasonal changes. Contains some characteristics of mahogany family and interlocking grains sometimes pose challenge with hand planing (tear out).
Baadam (Terminalia cantappa). Indian almond is found primarily in the north eastern forests. Heartwood is golden brown and sapwood is white to yellow. Grain and texture are very similar to teak. Pros: Takes polish very well and after polish resembles teak; price tag is relatively low around 1400 per cft; termite resistant; relatively stable wood; machining and chiselling is easy. Cons: Heavy interlocked grain; heavy contrast between sapwood and heartwood poses challenge to staining; primary source is Assam and due to transport restriction, availability is restricted.
Bhola (Merbau): This is a wonderful wood respected by local carpenters who rank this wood after teak. Bhola is a very stable wood, used for window, cot preparation. Assam Bhola is best one, although it is also imported from Indonesia and Malaysia. Heartwood is dark brown and sapwood yellowish orange in colour. Doesn't have very distinctive figure as texture is usually dark. In my house, Bhola is used in windows and doors and has survived the humid weather for more than 30 years. Pros: A very stable wood, robust and heavy; very easy to chisel and plane; gives a good lustre after finish; termite resistant. Cons: Not a heavily figured wood and price tag is on higher side 2600-2900 per cft.
Champ (Michelia Champaca): A highly figured wood gives a fairly good competition to other figured species like teak and Sheesham. Available in north eastern provinces specially from Assam. Texture is greenish brown to yellowish brown. Used for window and doors frames and panels. Pros: Easy to work; finishes well, termite resistant and reasonably priced, Rs. 1400-1700 per cft. Cons: This wood takes a long time to season. Air drying should be carefully done to avoid twist and cups.
Black Sirish (Albizia odoratissima). This wood belongs to the Fabaceae family and should not be confused with Monkey Pod (Albizia saman). Also known as Kakur Sirish or Kakur locally. Heartwood is yellowish brown to dark brown in colour with black patterns of annual rings looks wonderful after polish. Pros: Relatively cheaper rate Rs 1000 per cft; pungent smell repels termites and other insects; Gives a very good surface; Very sturdy, durable wood used for tables, stools and benches. Cons: A very hard wood to work. Need to cover mouth, face and eye while sawing and machining, as smell is very pungent and some people may have allergic reaction to it.
Two more woods need worth mentioning, Neem and Acacia. Both are very hard to work but produces very durable furniture. People here make cots with Acacia wood, which gives decent surface polish and are economical substitutes for more expensive woods.
Vinay Oommen (South India)
The following are the woods that I use often though I am not sure if they are local. They are available in Vellore locally, but may be sourced from central India or Abroad.
Karuvelam: (Babool wood). This is a very hard wood, with beautiful grain. So hard that it is difficult to work with. But this is used in door posts etc. It is cheap in Vellore (about Rs 1250 per cubic foot). The problem with this wood is that it sometimes has fibres that are at right angles to the main grain (I am not sure of the technical term for this) but this this makes it difficult to get a good smooth finish and uniform stain.
Neem: This is again a hard, cheap wood (Rs 1200 or so per cubic foot). Very difficult to work with, but can be used for structural work. The tree is abundant in south India.
Mango. Not so commonly available, as I think people prefer the mangoes rather than the wood. But when it is available it is a light coloured, wood, and cheap (Rs 1250). This is also very fibrous with fibres running all over the place. I think it is used in Pepperfry.com type of furniture a lot to make shelves etc. I would use it if I get my hands on it, but the trees are not so common especially I think with people now going for hybrid mango trees.
Naatu Teak (native teak). This is cheaper than the Burmese teak or Nigerian teak. I think the native teak refers to the fact that it is Indian teak. The trees are usually thinner and so one only gets thinner reapers, sometimes with the soft wood also included. It is used to make teak wood beading. But this is far cheaper than the other teak varieties, so that if a project is planned with small thin strips, this is the wood I would go for.
Country wood: This is a loose term I think that is given to other trees that have little commercial value. This is usually handled by the smaller lumber mills. One of my students got a whole small tree trunk for about 1000 rupees or so, that he used to make a martial arts dummy.
The other wood that I use a lot but is not local is Vengai. This is more expensive (about 2500-3000) per cubic foot. At this range we also get Irulai, and some imported teak varieties. Padauk is also got at this range, but I hear it is imported now.