by Eric Meier

In the world of acoustic guitars, perhaps no other tonewood holds the same respect and downright mystique as Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra). Yet paradoxically, the wood has been virtually loved to death: since 1992, it’s been on the CITES Appendix I, the most restrictive category of endangered species, (even finished products may not cross international borders). Because of these protective measures, several substitutes have been used in recent years, primarily East Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia). Hence, for a multitude of reasons, differentiating between true Brazilian Rosewood and many of its close cousins can be very useful.

Brazilian Rosewood

vs

East Indian Rosewood


Brazilian Rosewood (sealed)

Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra)

 

East Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia)

Color: Tends to be more variegated, and more on the reddish side. (Can also exhibit a figure in the grain similar to Ziricote that is known as “spider-webbing.”
Color: Tends to be a dark chocolate or purplish brown.
Average Weight: 52 lbs/ft3 (835 kg/m3) The two weights are so close, for all intents and purposes, density is identical.
Average Weight: 52 lbs/ft3 (830 kg/m3) The two weights are so close, for all intents and purposes, density is identical.
Scent: Has a distinct, rose-like scent when being worked.
Scent: Has a distinct, rose-like scent when being worked; some find its scent less pleasant than other Dalbergia rosewoods.

Brazilian Rosewood (endgrain 10x)

Brazilian Rosewood (endgrain 10x)

 
East Indian Rosewood (endgrain 10x)

East Indian Rosewood (endgrain 10x)

Endgrain: Pay close attention to the endgrain, as it’s one of the best ways to separate the two woods. Each sample above represents approximately a 3/8″ square section of endgrain. The key is in the pore density: East Indian Rosewood has about twice as many pores per square inch as Brazilian Rosewood. This can be difficult to gauge if you don’t have any known samples to compare, but Brazilian Rosewood should have fairly sparsely spaced pores, while East Indian Rosewood should be almost riddled with pores.

Another Useful Trick

Apart from the very characteristic odor, (which should roughly separate it from most non-Dalbergia species), Brazilian Rosewood has another characteristic that can be leveraged in order to help distinguish it from other rosewoods: its heartwood extractives are not water soluble, and will not fluoresce under a blacklight.

Before you get scared off from performing this test, be aware that with a simple blacklight bulb available in any hardware store for only a few dollars, and a few minutes of your time, you can perform both water extract fluorescence and ethanol extract fluorescence tests at home!

For suspected samples of Brazilian Rosewood, take a small test tube or other small transparent container and fill it with some shavings, (a handplane works great for this), and then fill the remainder of the container with water and shake it up for a few seconds. Bring the container under the blacklight and observe the results: true Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) will not fluoresce or show any appreciable change of color under the blacklight, while most other rosewoods will glow a pale blue/green color.

Telling Brazilian Rosewood apart from other common substitutes:

Non-Dalbergias: Use scent to rule out most non-Dalbergia species. (Scents are difficult to describe in words, but certainly no scent at all would be a negative sign.)

East Indian Rosewood: Pore density; water extract fluorescence

Amazon Rosewood: Density—Amazon Rosewood tends to sink in water; water extract fluorescence

Madagascar Rosewood: Water extract fluorescence

Cocobolo: Density—Cocobolo tends to sink in water; water extract fluorescence

Kingwood: Density—Kingwood tends to sink in water; pore size—Kingwood’s pores tend to be smaller; water extract fluorescence

Honduran Rosewood: Density—Honduran Rosewood may not sink in water, but it is roughly 20% heavier; pore size—Honduran Rosewood has slightly varying sizes of pores (ranging from medium-small to large); water extract fluorescence

  • D King

    The BRW I’ve seen has much tighter grain rings than EIR. I have many Brazilian samples with 100+lines per inch whereas most of the EIR I’ve seen might have 4-10 lines per inch.

    • ?214

      That is because most of the BRW was old growth, and never replanted for future use (basically why CITES is now a thing). Old growth trees generally grew within a forest, competing for light and nutrients. Replanted trees (like pretty much all Indian rosewood now) and grown with light and other needs in check, so they can grow faster, which means fewer rings per inch.

      In softwoods, old growth is preferred for strength. Hardwoods are actually stronger with a moderate average ring size.

  • YY

    Years ago I bought a flute. I was told it was made of Siam Rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis). But I found the wood pattern of the flute is very similar to or the same as the one of Burmese rosewood (Dalbergia oliveri) found in your wood database. Is it difficult to distinguish these two woods?

    Dr. Yupeng Yan, Thailand

    • ejmeier

      After reading the anatomical description of Dalbergia cochinchinensis via http://insidewood.lib.ncsu.edu/ I’d say it’d be extremely difficult to tell the two woods apart. They both have the same pore size, distribution, patterning, ray size/spacing, etc. I’d go with the ID of what the seller told you it was.

  • ?214

    Acoustic guitar factory worker, here.

    Brazilian ALWAYS has a sweet, extremely pleasant scent. EIR on the other hand, has a scent, but it is a neutral scent that doesn’t evoke a strong attraction to the wood.

    Cocobolo smells spicy, generally of cinnamon.

    Guatemalan sometimes has a light spicy scent, but often has a sweetness intermingled.

    Madagascar has a faint sweet scent, reminiscent of Brazilian.

    Honduran’s scent is nearly indistiguishable from Brazilian, although a bit weaker.

    Bhilwaran doesn’t have much of a notable scent.

    I operate a laser cutter for the top/back/sides and various small flat components. The smoke from Brazilian is even pleasant, but not so for the rest. Cocobolo’s smoke simply smells much more strongly than the normal scent.

    • IAMSuperPatriot

      Thanks for this scent guide. I have a guitar which a Peruvian friend gave me. The guitar was in his guitar because the bridge was broken and he said if you fix it you can keep it. It has a cinnamon smell to it and I think it is probably cocobolo.

    • azoiaboy

      You work at Taylor guitars in El Cajon…no?

      • ?214

        Nope. Even more famous and the market leader, but I’d prefer if you didn’t state obvious company name here just for the sake of possible employer google searches returning results from years ago when I was much more brash and much more of an ass.

    • brickman

      My test is simple. I look at the serial number. I know that my1976 Martin has EIR.

  • brickman

    I have a much easier way to tell if a guitar has EIR. I have a Martin D-35 built in 1976. I bought it used. The serial number tells me when it was built and I know Martin stopped using Brazilian rosewood on that model in 1969. It is purplish brown by the way.

    • ?214

      Wow, the purple color usually fades with time. The raw wood is often very purple.

      You have to be careful relying on serials. Before CITES, they were looking at EIR and other options and some have the two species mixed (especially 3pc backs) during the late ’60s IIRC.

      • brickman

        My D-35 does have a 3 piece back. The back is brownish. The sides are purplish.

  • Rickey Bryan

    What if any kind of trouble can anyone get into producing instruments with Brazilian Rose Wood trim now? I know that it can’t be shipped across international borders etc. That is without special permits from federal agencies. Have small pieces for end trim, would it be better not to use it or to use it as decorate pieces?

    • ejmeier

      If it is remaining local/domestic, shouldn’t be a problem. Just make sure your customers are aware of these limitations.

  • Julia Xia