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:
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 SandersAverage Dried Weight: 56 lbs/ft3 (900 kg/m3)|
|East Indian Satinwood(Chloroxylon swietenia)Also called: Ceylon SatinwoodAverage Dried Weight: 61 lbs/ft3 (975 kg/m3)|
|Both species share the following traits: |
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 SatinwoodAverage 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.|
|Movingui(Distemonanthus benthamianus)Also called: Nigerian or African SatinwoodAverage 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.|
|Yellowheart(Euxylophora paraensis)Also called: Brazilian Satinwood or Pau AmarelloAverage 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 OutThe 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.”)
Coarse texture:Pyinma (rarely in veneer form)
Fine texture:East Indian Satinwood
West Indian Satinwood
Yellowheart (not used as veneer)
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)
- 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.