The wood most commonly marketed as Honduran, or Honduras, Rosewood is scientifically known as Dalbergia stevensonii. Some regular readers, and/or those who are familiar with the genus specifications of trees and wood, will recognize that Honduran Rosewood is a “true” rosewood since it belongs to the Dalbergia species. Ultimately, Dalbergia belongs to the much larger pea family and includes a very large number of small trees, shrubs, and even climbing vines. So, while rosewood that belongs to the Dalbergia genus is “true” rosewood, not all Dalbergia are rosewood producing plants. And there are a lot of Dalbergia genus plants (including trees). One list I consulted has almost 300 named species within Dalbergia, and that doesn’t include subspecies.
Readers could be forgiven for guessing that Honduran Rosewood comes from the nation of Honduras in Central America. However, most all of the commercially harvested D. stevensonii today comes from Belize. There are some small, and generally not commercially exploited, stocks in southern Mexico and Guatemala. Within Belize, D. stevensonii is found in the very wet southern forests. The name makes a bit more sense when one remembers that prior to independence from the United Kingdom in September 1981, today’s nation of Belize was known as British Honduras. Since D. stevensonii has been exported from the area that today is known as Belize since 1841, for over a century the wood came from a region that then included “Honduras” in its name and the popular name persisted through independence.
Other common names for D. stevensonii include but are certainly not limited to: Central American rosewood, nogaed, and rosul.
For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to D. stevensonii as Honduran Rosewood from this point forward.
The heartwood of Honduran Rosewood ranges in color from a deep brownish-purple to a light-brown, with darker brown to black streaking, which occurs in no specific pattern, nor following the grain or growth rings of the tree. The most common is a brownish-mauve color. Some experts identify at least three distinct color variations identified in different trees of the same species, although in at least one case it is likely that only the sapwood was provided. Speaking of the sapwood, it is clearly demarcated from the heartwood; the sapwood is pale yellow in coloration.
The grain of Honduran Rosewood is most often straight although it can on occasion be interlocked. The wood exhibits a fine to medium texture and achieves a nice natural luster, due to high oil content, when thoroughly sanded and polished.
The end grain areas of the Honduran Rosewood present as porous and diffuse. The pores are medium to large, but few in number. It is common to encounter gum deposits in the wood.
I shouldn’t think it would matter for the purposes for which Honduran Rosewood is most commonly employed today, but it is rated as very durable in terms of resistance to rot, while only moderately resistant to insect attack.
While Honduran Rosewood can be lovely to look at, it can unfortunately be difficult to machine. It has a tendency to ride up and over cutting blades, especially jointer blades. In addition, Honduran Rosewood will have a moderate blunting effect on all cutting tools, so frequent re-sharpening is necessary to achieve good results with a minimum of frustration or peril to the wood worker. This blunting effect is common with wood of the hardness and density of Honduras Rosewood, which has a higher density than any native North American hardwood.
As is common with true rosewoods of the Dalbergia genus, Honduran Rosewood has high oil content, and while this can help make the wood naturally beautiful and easy to polish, as well as smelling wonderful when freshly cut, it can create considerable difficulties for the wood worker. The high oil content can make the wood difficult to glue, so a pretreatment of the areas to be glued with a solvent such as denatured alcohol is advised prior to the application of glue. For specific guidance on gluing oily tropical hardwoods, please refer to this article. Also, the oil carries a reddish-pink coloration that can bleed into adjoining woods, especially light colored woods, upon the application of a finish that is solvent-based. This color bleed most commonly presents problems when small pieces of Honduran Rosewood are used in applications such as inlay, especially on musical instruments. For guidance on finishing oily tropical hardwoods, including true rosewoods, please refer here. All that said, on the plus side for my purposes, Honduran Rosewood is reported to turn beautifully, at least in part due to its high density and hardness.
Also in the plus column, Honduran Rosewood has a distinctive and quite pleasant, to me, flowery scent when freshly cut, although sadly the users of the end products are quite unlikely to be able to detect and enjoy this aspect of the wood.
The availability of Honduran Rosewood is rapidly diminishing (more on this later) although it is still available in both dimensional lumber and turning blank sizes For the most part the sizes will be small. Because the supply is diminished but the demand is not, Honduran Rosewood will be priced in the mid to upper ranges for an imported hardwood.
I always recommend both West Penn Hardwoods and Bell Forest Products as excellent sources of both domestic and exotic hardwoods. I have had multiple dealings with both vendors and have always been very satisfied.
West Penn Hardwoods, which has just completed a challenging move from New York State to North Carolina, has extensive stocks of Honduran Rosewood in both bowl and spindle turning stock sizes, as well as pen blanks, musical instrument grade stock, regular lumber and thin dimensional sizes. As a price example, a very large 8x8x3 bowl blank of Honduran Rosewood currently sells for slightly over $48. However, special sales are common so check the website frequently and sign up for email alerts.
Bell Forest Products is selling only spindle blocks, ranging from pen blanks up to 3” thick pieces as well limited quantities of dimensional lumber.
While the two dealers above are personal favorites, Honduras Rosewood is obtainable from other dealers in tropical hardwoods, probably including one near you. If you don’t have a favorite supplier that you have worked with extensively in the past, by all means shop around for the best prices and the best selection to meet your particular wood working needs.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for Honduran Rosewood, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms to capture all the possible listings. I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer near their home in person to hand pick nice pieces at a comfortable price.
Honduran Rosewood is used in many of the same applications as other highly desirable tropical hardwoods. High on that list is certainly very fine furniture and cabinets, veneers, inlay, and marquetry, turned and other specialty wood objects.
However, it is as a tone wood used in the making of very high end musical instruments that Honduran Rosewood is most sought after and used. Honduran Rosewood is especially valued in the manufacture of percussion bars for xylophones. The wood is also known to be used for drum sticks, organ pipes, piano keys, entire pianos, and violin bodies and bows, and for the bodies of harps. Honduran Rosewood is also popular for the fingerboards for banjos, guitars and mandolins.
As might be expected for a wood that is so very valued and sought after, especially one with a very limited geographical distribution, Honduran Rosewood presents challenges for users in terms of its sustainability and even its very legality to possess and use.
Honduran Rosewood is listed with the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices, in Appendix II, which means that international export and trade is only allowed when the exported wood is accompanied by a certification of sustainable, monitored, and legal harvest. This certification is becoming next to impossible to obtain as Belize has halted, or severely restricted at best, exports while it evaluates the remaining stocks of Honduran Rosewood within its borders.
However, oddly, Honduran Rosewood is not listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
I purchased the pieces of Honduran Rosewood that I have in stock long before I was aware of the vulnerable status of the species. Ideally, the loss of a species is slowed or halted long before it becomes necessary to include it in the CITES Appendices. Given what I now know about the status of Honduran Rosewood, I may not choose to purchase it in the future. But I also realize that inherent in working with wood is the killing of a part of the natural world that may be slow to return and if I become deeply concerned about this fact, I will have to find a new hobby. I hope that such a time does not come to pass or at least not any time soon. I am also very confident that the vendor from whom I purchased my stocks of Honduran Rosewood would only deal in certified and legally exportable and salable woods.
While the impact of rules based on treaties and conventions such as CITES may seem abstract, in the United States, they are very real. In fact, the Gibson Guitar factory in Nashville, Tennessee, was raided in August 2011 because of alleged Lacey Act violations. For those who don’t know, the Lacey Act of 1900, amended in 2008, prohibits trade in illegally taken wildlife, fish, and plants. This raid followed a confiscation of tropical hardwoods at the Gibson Guitar factory in November 2009. This raid, and others like it, has highlighted some of the problems that importers encounter if they use tropical woods in their products and it also highlights the criticality of always ensuring proper documentation and chain of custody evidence whenever working with, selling, or buying tropical hardwoods that are, or may be, listed in trade limiting agreements such as CITES.
In situations involving Honduran Rosewood, which was not involved in the raid at Gibson, rather the woods in question were Ebony from Madagascar and East Indian Rosewood from India, the actual genetic identification of the wood can be of critical legal value. This is, in part, why I am so very specific in the beginning of these posts to exactly identify the wood in question, because while it might not matter much of the time, when it does, it really matters a great deal. There can be confusion, even amongst professionals, between the protected D. stevensonii and the closely related, but completely unregulated, D. tucurensis, because they look quite similar and are both harvested in, and exported from, Belize. This need for species-level identification, especially in legal arguments with the Federal government, has spurred the creation specifically validated and accepted tests and procedures for the specific identification of both species. If this topic is of critical interest, please refer to the specifics as published by the United States Forest Service. Naturally, the Gibson company, which has been raided several times, claims that the raid is the result of Democratic Party conspiracy. Imagine that…
It realize that many, if not most, wood workers do not have endangered species lists memorized, therefore I think it worthwhile and important to do even a small amount of research before purchasing any lumber, domestic as well as imported, to be certain of the potential impact you are having, even in a small way, on threatened or endangered populations. This information is easy to come by and takes only minutes to locate through any Internet search engine, including those you can access on your phone as you are standing in the lumber yard or store. Unfortunately, you simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered.
Although severe reactions are uncommon, Honduran Rosewood has been reported as a sensitizer and repeat exposures may provoke serious reactions, in addition to the standard risks posed by prolonged and repeated exposure to dust from any wood species. The most common reactions associated with Honduran Rosewood are limited to skin, eye, and respiratory irritation. These types of reactions are not uncommon with woods in the Dalbergia genus, with Cocobolo being especially well known for causing potentially severe reactions. In general, the dust generated by sanding operations poses the greatest risk of causing a reaction. Appropriate protective equipment is therefore recommended, as always, when working with this, or any other, exotic wood, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database. Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.
Fortunately, I have experienced no negative side effects when working with Honduran Rosewood.
My Personal Experiences
I immediately noticed the density and hardness of the Honduran Rosewood, especially as I had previously been working with woods that were softer and less dense. But while these characteristics meant that the wood cut more slowly, it also meant that wood cut incredibly cleanly with standard carbide tipped tools. I favor carbide tipped tools because they never require sharpening, instead used cutters are simply rotated and/or replaced, an especially valuable trait when working with woods as hard and dense as Honduran Rosewood. The clean cuts meant that I had little sanding to do and I was pleased about that.
I encountered no gum deposits but the piece I was working with did have a few small knots, a feature that I think we can forget can occur in tropical hardwoods just as it can and does in domestic woods. Some wood workers dislike, or refuse to work with, pieces that have “imperfections” such as knots, but I personally enjoy their presence as it reminds me that I am working with a natural and variable resource such that each piece is truly unique.
The final finish of the bowl presented a challenge. I had read multiple articles about the extreme difficulties encountered when attempting to put a finish on Dalbergia species and I was hesitant. I had read that shellac worked well on oily woods, and I considered using that as I have good stocks of it now, and I also considered just using a natural wax such as carnauba to shine up the already fairly glossy natural finish of the wood.
Finally, I decided to return to Watco brand Teak Oil which is marketed as being an excellent choice for hard and dense woods such as Teak, as the name implies, as well as Rosewoods. I have long used, to great success, Watco Danish Oils, I trust the brand and applied the Teak Oil to my bowl. I had used this product previously with a small bowl made from East Indian Rosewood, another Dalbergia species, and was confident that I would achieve good results.
These types of finishes are known as “hardening” finishes. They work by soaking into the wood and then undergoing a chemical reaction that causes the oil to harden on exposure to the oxygen in the air, creating a protective finish not just on, but also in, the wood itself. Sometimes, the natural oils in a wood can prevent the reaction from occurring, which can cause the finish to remain tacky for up to a month, if it ever dries completely at all, and that was a risk in using such a finish on a Rosewood. If this happens, the only solution is to try to remove as much of the tacky finish as possible by using mineral spirits and heavy rubbing, extensive sanding, or even mounting the piece back on the lathe and cutting off the affected areas.
The Teak Oil did not have much of a darkening effect on the wood, contrary to my experience with the East Indian Rosewood. I was pleased about this as I was somewhat disappointed with the degree of darkening on the East Indian Rosewood. The Teak Oil in no way diminished the vibrant color or the streaks that are so prevalent in the Honduran Rosewood. I am, once again, quite pleased with the results of using the Watco Teak Oil.
I enjoyed working with Honduran Rosewood and I especially appreciate a wood so beautiful in terms of natural color, figure and grain pattern. Working with the Honduran Rosewood does require some patience and sharp tools, but I find those helpful with any wood I am working with. I confess that I might have some hesitation about purchasing Honduran Rosewood in the future because of its current protected status. However, with that said, I do think it is a beautiful wood with which a wood worker with some reasonable experience and knowledge about the wood should be able to succeed, especially if potential challenges are known and planned for in advance. Any wood worker who would like to try working with Honduran Rosewood should, I think, conduct additional research into how to best achieve their desired result with the wood, and be absolutely certain that the source they are obtaining the wood from has acquired its stocks legally in accordance with international treaty provisions and regulations.
As always, I wish all my readers a great experience in whatever their wood working interests happen to be and to those who like working with lathes especially, do a good turn today!