by Eric Meier

There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding a certain type of wood called satinwood. Due to a number of reasons, the precise identity of any given piece of “satinwood” may not be immediately apparent. Let’s see if we can’t sort out this confusion, and get to the bottom of the matter.

What is Satinwood?

Most likely, the origin of the term comes from the woven fabric satin, which has a smooth, lustrous face. But regardless of the source of the term, in woodworking, there are a few characteristics that are common to most types of satinwood:

  • Yellow/gold color
  • Medium to high density
  • Fine textured
  • High natural luster
  • Interlocked grain (producing mottle figure—especially on quartersawn surfaces)

Satinwood (veneer)

Classic satinwood look.

Given the above characteristics, this only leaves perhaps a handful of woods that would properly fit the bill. But just because a wood possesses certain characteristics doesn’t necessarily mean that it ought to be labeled “satinwood.” With the initial qualifications laid out to help us understand what type of woods we’re generally describing, let’s dig into semantics and find out which wood(s) should be called “satinwood,” and which should not.

Will the Real Satinwood Please Stand Up?

Due to various sales tactics and marketing techniques, merchants like to give their wood species interesting names to help sell them. Much like the oft-abused terms “teak” or “rosewood,” another profit-making term that sellers throw out is “satinwood.” This might be good for a sawyer’s bottom line, but it might not be so good for woodworkers, especially if we don’t know exactly what type of wood we’re getting.

So what should be considered “genuine” satinwood, and what shouldn’t? Regardless of recent trends or marketing campaigns, there’s been only two species of satinwood that have historically been accepted as satinwood in its truest sense, and both are in the Rutaceae family (which also includes the Citrus genus, containing Orange, Lemon, Lime, etc. trees).

The Genuine Article(s):

West Indian Satinwood (Zanthoxylum flavum)

Also called: Jamaican Satinwood, San Domingo Satinwood, or Yellow Sanders

Average Dried Weight: 56 lbs/ft3 (900 kg/m3)

West Indian Satinwood (sealed)
East Indian Satinwood(Chloroxylon swietenia)

Also called: Ceylon Satinwood

Average Dried Weight: 61 lbs/ft3 (975 kg/m3)

Ceylon Satinwood (sealed)
Both species share the following traits:

  • Difficult (impossible?) to tell the two apart with hand lens
  • Weight not a reliable means to distinguish these two species
  • Very fine texture and small pores which don’t require filling
  • Most commonly available as veneer
  • Expensive, increasingly rare
  • Faint yet pleasant scent when worked
  • Pronounced blunting effect on cutters

 

The Impostors:

It’s not my intention to disparage the following woods listed below, but instead to simply point out their unfortunate monikers. These are quality hardwoods, suitable for many projects—they just shouldn’t be referred to as “satinwood” in my opinion. Because of this reason, within the context of a discussion on satinwood, they are referred to as “impostors.”

Pyinma(Lagerstroemia spp.)

Also called: Asian or Cambodian Satinwood

Average Dried Weight: 44 lbs/ft3 (705 kg/m3)

The chief offender! Pyinma is currently enjoying renewed popularity while being sold as Asian Satinwood, (or, much more deceptively, as simply Satinwood).

Pyinma is significantly lighter (20%) than genuine satinwood, and has a much more coarse and uneven texture, being a semi-ring-porous wood. The color of Pyinma can sometimes be darker and more variable than satinwood (its color also darkens with age upon exposure to light). It does not have the same blunting effect on cutters as true satinwood. Pyinma is a very economical alternative to true satinwood.

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of Pyinma is it’s outstanding curl. Nearly every piece of Pyinma has some level of curly grain, ranging from light to very deep and figured, perhaps the “curliest” of all woods! This wood is almost always sold in solid lumber form.

Pyinma (sealed)
Movingui(Distemonanthus benthamianus)

Also called: Nigerian or African Satinwood

Average Dried Weight: 45 lbs/ft3 (725 kg/m3)

Following close behind Pyinma, Movingui is probably the second most mislabeled hardwood, and is sometimes sold as Nigerian Satinwood. Also similar to Pyinma, Movingui is roughly 20% lighter than true satinwood, and also has a coarser texture than satinwood (though unlike Pyinma, the texture is even).

In terms of appearance, Movingui is probably the closest of the impostors, with a nice consistent golden color and an interlocked grain that is usually highly figured with a good natural luster. Also like satinwood (unfortunately), Movingui has a pronounced blunting effect on cutters due to its high silica content.

Movingui is usually sold in veneer form, but it’s not uncommon to see the wood available in lumber form as well. Prices tend to be in the mid to upper range for imported lumber, though not as expensive as true satinwood.

Movingui (sealed)
Yellowheart(Euxylophora paraensis)

Also called: Brazilian Satinwood or Pau Amarello

Average Dried Weight: 56 lbs/ft3 (900 kg/m3)

Techincally, Yellowheart’s in the Rutaeae family like the true species of satinwood, but this is a wood that’s already had a bit of an identity crisis: initially it was called by its Portuguese name Pau Amarello, meaning “yellow wood.” Now it’s been given a new—more commercially profitable name—Yellowheart. Hence, it’s not too frequently called Brazilian Satinwood anymore.

Yellowheart is about the same weight as true satinwood, and has a similar texture, (even, but a bit more coarse). It also takes an nice polish and has a good natural luster, just like satinwood.

However, Yellowheart usually lacks the strong grain figure that’s so commonplace in both satinwood and its lookalikes. Yellowheart is used almost exclusively in lumber form, and is quite inexpensive for an imported species.


African Satinwood This can be a tricky, catch-all name that may refer to any number of species, all of which are lighter than true satinwood, and most are also coarser-textured.

Perhaps the most common wood that goes by the confounding name African Satinwood is Movingui as listed above, but it could also refer to other species, such as: (listed in order of probability)

Avodire (Turraeanthus africanus)

Afrormosia (Pericopsis elata)

Obeche (Triplochiton scleroxylon)

Sorting Them Out

The above information can be helpful to use before making a wood purchase, but if you’ve already acquired some wood that was confusingly labeled as “satinwood,” it might be necessary to dig a little deeper to get a positive identification. Follow these steps below to help lead you to a better understanding of what you’ve got:

If you have veneer:

Take a close look at the grain texture of the face of the wood (use a magnifying glass if necessary), and note the coarseness of the grain and the size of the pore openings. (For instance, if you look at the full-sized scans of genuine satinwood above, you’ll notice that the grain “lines” are very thin and fine; this is contrasted with the grain of Movingui, which should look comparatively coarse, with thicker grain “lines.”)

Movingui (coarse texture)

Movingui (coarse texture)

Coarse texture:

Pyinma (rarely in veneer form)

Movingui

Avodire

Obeche

West Indian Satinwood (fine texture)

West Indian Satinwood (fine texture)

Fine texture:

East Indian Satinwood

West Indian Satinwood

Afrormosia

Yellowheart (not used as veneer)

 

If the veneer sample has a fine texture, and looks by all other outward indications to be a sample of satinwood, it may be very difficult to tell Afrormosia from true satinwoods, but as a general rule, most veneer slices of Afrormosia will be more of a golden yellow or a darker shade of brown, while satinwood ranges from bright yellow to golden yellow.

If the veneer sample has a coarse texture, pay close attention to color and figure. Pyinma is strongly curly, but doesn’t exhibit the mottle or beeswing figure that the other woods have. Pyinma’s color can also be more varied, and can range from an off-white to a darker yellowish or reddish-brown. Movingui tends to be a bright golden yellow, with mottled and/or curly figure. Avodire can look very similar to Movingui, but tends to be a paler yellow, frequently almost white, and with a weaker and more loose mottle figure. Obeche is a light yellow or white, and has almost no grain figure; it’s a very soft and light wood, comparable to Basswood.

If you have solid lumber:

Weight should be a very reasonable and accurate indicator to begin dividing lumber. If you can’t use a scale to weigh the wood, try to get a feel for the wood’s weight as compared to another known wood, such as oak.

Light (about as heavy as oak)

Obeche (24 lbs/ft3) – very light!

Avodire (38 lbs/ft3)

Pyinma (44 lbs/ft3)

Afrormosia (45 lbs/ft3)

Movingui (45 lbs/ft3)

Heavy (noticeably heavier than oak)

Yellowheart (56 lbs/ft3)

West Indian Satinwood (56 lbs/ft3)

East Indian Satinwood (61 lbs/ft3)

 

Remember that wood density varies by an average of +/- 10% of the weight listed above, so there’s enough overlap in many of these wood species to eliminate using weight as the sole means of identification. Also, these weights are listed for dry wood; if you have a turning blank that’s still green (such as Pyinma), then just about any kind of wood can potentially feel heavier than oak.

If the wood sample is heavy (noticeably heavier than oak), then look at the endgrain (preferably with a 10x magnifier).

  • True satinwoods should have small pores, along with marginal parenchyma at the boundary of each growth ring.
  • Yellowheart, on the other hand, will have slightly larger pores, and a much more vague division of growth rings, with no parenchyma bands to mark the growth rings.

West Indian Satinwood (endgrain 10x)

West Indian Satinwood (endgrain 10x)

Yellowheart (endgrain 10x)

Yellowheart (endgrain 10x)

If the wood sample is light (about as heavy as oak), then you can immediately separate Obeche from the rest on account of its extremely light weight, which is roughly as heavy as Basswood. Following this, look at the endgrain (preferably with a 10x magnifier).

Pyinma is ring-porous or semi-ring-porous, and will have varying sizes of pore openings, usually arranged in intermittent rows corresponding to growth rings. It also has extensive banded parenchyma, visible as white lines running parallel with the growth rings.

Avodire has medium sized pores in no specific arrangement, with very little visible parenchyma, except some limited vasicentric parenchyma. Rather plain endgrain anatomy.

Movingui has medium sized pores in no specific arrangement much like Avodire, but Movingui also has well-developed parenchyma surrounding the pores which are aliform (winged and lozenge), confluent, and banded.

Afrormosia has parenchyma that’s much the same as Movingui (aliform, confluent, and banded), but the pores are somewhat small in Afrormosia, with a much high pore density as well.

Pyinma (endgrain 10x)

Pyinma (endgrain 10x)

Avodire (endgrain 10x)

Avodire (endgrain 10x)

Movingui (endgrain 10x)

Movingui (endgrain 10x)

Afrormosia (endgrain 10x)

Afrormosia (endgrain 10x)