Narra is a popular tropical hardwood that finds application in several different venues. It features fine color and often interesting grain and figure.
Narra is scientifically known as Pterocarpus indicus. The genus Pterocarpus is one that many users of tropical hardwoods may immediately recognize since it is the genus to which several other popular tropical hardwoods belong, most notably Paduak, which is of African origin. Other related Pterocarpus species include: Amboyna (Pterocarpus indicus in burl form), Andaman Padauk (Pterocarpus dalbergioides), Burma Padauk (Pterocarpus macrocarpus), and Muninga (Pterocarpus angolensis). The term “Narra” may in some cases refer to any or even all of the above species although only P. indicus should be referenced this way for clarity.
Narra may also be encountered under any of a number of local or common names, including: Sonokembang (Indonesia), Angsana or Sena (Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore), Tnug (Cambodia).
As the common names imply, Narra is a wood of southeast-Austral Asian origin, being found in a sweeping range from northern Australia to Cambodia, southernmost China, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Ryukyu Islands, the Solomon Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.
A potential point of confusion revolves around the use of the term “amboyna,” which refers to specimens of Narra burl wood only. The burl form name derives from the Indonesia location of Ambon, where the burl form was commonly found. This burl form is commonly used as a veneer to gain maximum use from a relatively rare form.
Another point of clarification involves Pterocarpus macrocarpus. This species is similar to Narra, being native to Burma (Myanmar) but it is generally harder than Narra and it is commonly referred to as a “rosewood” throughout Southeast Asia, although technically it does not belong to a recognized rosewood bearing genus or species.
Narra is a large tree of up to 100 feet in height with a circumference of up to 5 feet. The tree is recommended as an ornamental tree for avenues and is sometimes planted for shade and ornamentation. It is widely planted throughout its range, and in other suitable areas, as a roadside, park, and car-park tree.
The flower is used as a honey source while leaf infusions are used as shampoos. Both flowers and leaves were once used as a food source although this is not a common practice today. Reportedly, the leaves are supposedly good for waxing and polishing brass and copper.
The heartwood can vary widely in color, ranging from a golden yellow to a purple or reddish brown. Narra has a medium texture and small pores. The grain is usually interlocked, and can sometimes be wavy, or display a variety of figuring such as ribbon-stripe, mottle, or curl. Narra has good weathering characteristics and is typically very durable and resistant to decay. It is also known to be resistant to insect attack, including resistance to termites and powder post beetles, although occasionally ambrosia beetles may be present and can cause damage, particularly to the sapwood.
Interestingly Narra is the national tree of the Philippines, as well as the provincial tree of Chonburi and Phuket provinces in Thailand.
Narra is reported to be easy to work with both hand and machine tools. However, Narra does have a moderate blunting effect on cutters, so frequent sharpening, or the use of replaceable carbide cutters, is essential for successfully working with this wood. Fortunately, Narra turns beautifully on the lathe and presents no difficulties with gluing or finishing operations. Narra has a distinct fragrance, sometimes described as being rose-like, that lingers even after being worked.
Only relatively small amounts of prized Narra wood reach the world market and therefore it is expensive. Its relative, Paduak, is considerably more available and affordable. Pen blanks can be purchased for $4.50 each, while a more substantial bowl blank size measuring 6”x6”x4” retails for slightly over $46 at an exotic wood retailer such as West Penn Hardwoods, a reliable source for bowl blanks from many species at fair prices. Other exotic wood suppliers may also have Narra in stock although it appears to be relatively uncommon. Woodfinder is a website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers and I can’t speak to the quality of any of them, but they do have the advantage of performing searches based on your location which might allow you to visit a wood dealer in person to hand pick what you want to work with at a price you are comfortable paying.
It should be noted that prices for amboyna burl wood will be considerably higher than for standard Narra. Amboyna pen blanks, where available, can cost upwards of $7.00 each. An entire burl, measuring 1-13/16″ x 24-5/8″ x 32″ recently sold for OVER $600! Highly figured Narra will also command a premium price although not as sky-high as for the burl.
Narra is most commonly used for applications ranging from veneer (especially in the burl form) to solid furniture and cabinetry, boatbuilding, turned objects, and small specialty wood items.
Narra also has been used for medicinal purposes. In folk medicine, it is used to combat tumors. This use might actually have legitimate value since the existence of an acidic polypeptide has been found in Narra leaves that inhibited the growth of specific types of cancer cells in vitro. Its apparent efficacy is due to its ability to disrupt cell and nuclear membranes. This application needs further investigation.
Historically, Narra was also one of the sources of lignum nephriticum, a diuretic in Europe during the 16th to 18th centuries.
These uses are not completely surprising since the closely related species Paduak is known to have anti-parasitic properties.
Severe negative allergic reactions are uncommon but Narra has been known to cause reactions in sensitive individuals. Most commonly these reactions took the form of simple skin and respiratory irritation, although these reactions might be more severe in a sensitized indiviual. Therefore, care should be taken especially if an individual has experienced allergic reactions with other woods or wood dust.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database along with additional information about the best use of a dust collection system, coupled with the use of personal protective equipment such as respirators, which is highly recommended when machining this wood.
Fortunately, I have never experienced any negative side effects from working with Narra.
My Personal Experiences
I have only been privileged to work with Narra on one occasion, and I find it difficult to locate suppliers of additional bowl blank stock in this species, even on a small scale such as the piece I worked with. This is unfortunate since I greatly enjoyed working with Narra. It cut and turned simply beautifully although the grain is a bit more open than some other species, for example maple, although it closely resembles its relative, Paduak, in terms of porosity and grain structure. I found that the wood sanded well and lent itself to a high sheen and polish with a simple shellac finish. I was especially pleased by the wavy grain figure in the piece I turned as well as the purplish color streaks that were in the center of the finished dish. If the opportunity should present itself in the future, I will be quite pleased to work with Narra once again.