Woodworking With Rosewood

With controversy surrounding sustainability, Is Rosewood worth the trouble?

Marimba bars made from Rosewood
Carl Johnson / Getty Images

Rosewood is a species of wood that is revered for its deep, rich, reddish-brown color, a color that is hard to find in other hardwoods. It is prized widely by wood turners and guitar builders alike. However, the wood is steeped in controversy.

Rosewood Comes From Countries Around the World

Rosewood is actually a group of hardwood varieties consisting of two different genus and about a dozen species that come from various countries around the world.

Originally, the most popular varieties of rosewood came from Brazilian rainforests, but the mass harvesting of the trees in the region outpaced the growing ability of replacement trees, effectively making Brazilian rosewood an endangered species of tree.

The Brazilian Rosewood

The Brazilian rosewood was used in guitars to replace maple necks, as guitar makers and players found that the South American hardwood provided a more consistent tone to the sound made by the guitar. The deep color also provided a very distinctive look to the neck of the guitar. Over time, though, the guitar manufacturers began gravitating back to maple for the strength (and availability) of the wood, using thinner rosewood overlays in place of solid rosewood necks. This was also partly due to cost, as once the Brazilian variety started becoming more scarce, it became quite expensive.

India and the Far East

About the same time, other sources of rosewood from India and the far east began to emerge, although the stock from these newer sources had somewhat different properties and colors.

The easy availability of the hardwood from these Eastern sources was somewhat short-lived, as the United States government began tracking shipments of endangered species of hardwoods under the Lacey Act, which required official documentation for all imports of rosewood of any species into the country.

Gibson Guitar Factory

Perhaps the most famous case was when the Gibson Guitar factory in Memphis, Tennessee was raided in 2011. All of the employees were sent home, and nearly half a million dollars worth of rosewood stock was seized from the company. Gibson maintained that they had followed the Lacey Act and that they had documentation for all of their purchases, but it took nearly three years to resolve the case. When we visited the Gibson factory in Memphis in the fall of 2014, we asked about the case and they responded that all of the materials seized in the raid was eventually returned to the company.

The High Cost

If you can find some rosewood that has been purchased by your supplier legally, and you feel that you can afford the high cost associated with the wood, there are few hardwoods that can provide such a contrasting beauty to a project as rosewood. Most stock is used for inlays and veneers, but small blocks are often used in segmented woodturning as a highlight. It is a fairly easy wood to work with, as it turns and cuts equally well, can be carved cleanly with a sharp chisel, or shaved cleanly with a block plane. When working with the stock, check the cutting edges of your tools regularly, as you may need to sharpen the edges more often than with other hardwoods.

One Word of Caution When Working With This Hardwood

Some woodworkers and others who are exposed to rosewood's sawdust have reported eye and breathing irritation. We would advise taking proper precautions, such as the use of safety glasses and dust masks to prevent inhalation.

Mechanical fasteners are not commonly used on this hardwood, but they can be used with pre-drilling as need be. Standard glues may prove difficult to hold due to the high oil content of the wood, but specialty glues such as moisture activated glue or epoxy should hold successfully.