Distinguishing Brazilian Rosewood, East Indian and Other Rosewoods

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

Are you an aspiring wood nerd?

The poster, Worldwide Woods, Ranked by Hardness, should be required reading for anyone enrolled in the school of wood nerdery. I have amassed over 500 wood species on a single poster, arranged into eight major geographic regions, with each wood sorted and ranked according to its Janka hardness. Each wood has been meticulously documented and photographed, listed with its Janka hardness value (in lbf) and geographic and global hardness rankings. Consider this: the venerable Red Oak (Quercus rubra) sits at only #33 in North America and #278 worldwide for hardness! Aspiring wood nerds be advised: your syllabus may be calling for Worldwide Woods as part of your next assignment!

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Eric walkerMichael SchreinerJosef BeachJay DavisRickey Bryan Recent comment authors
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Eric Walker
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Eric Walker

Unfortunately the photos I uploaded aren’t the best. The one showing the end grain probably better. I will see if it will let me upload more.

Eric walker
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Eric walker

I am in the process of trying to clear my late fathers workshop and have come across a piece of wood that I at first threw out by the skip but after a few days brought back in and took a cabinet scraper to. Am I being too hopeful that this piece,which at one time was some part of a display cabinet or similar could be Brazilian rosewood? It only measures 3/4″ thick,how much would you lose on each cut to try to make a guitar back and sides? What thickness are the back and sides of a guitar? I’ll… Read more »

Michael Schreiner
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Michael Schreiner

There is no other timber having the sweet pleasant scent as Rio or Brazilian Rosewood. It is still possible to aquaint onesself with it. In un- varnished Victorian tools and handles, Danish Modern furniture. Like its surface appearance, its scent cannot be confused with Indian.

Josef Beach
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Josef Beach

My guitar has Brazilian rosewood VENEER on the face and back. Can this still make it special even though it’s not a solid wood? The body is solid mahogany.

Jay Davis
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Jay Davis

I bought my Martin D35 from its original owner back in 1973. He told me it was one of the last of the Brazilian rosewood guitars. It had a strong sweet smell inside. Its serial number shows that it was made in about march of 1971. I called the Martin company and asked if a 1971 D-35 could actually be made of Brazilian rosewood and they told me that this is very possible as three piece backs used smaller pieces of wood and the smaller wood supply lasted a few years past 1969. I then asked them what in particular… Read more »

Rickey Bryan
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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?

brickman
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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
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?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
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brickman

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

?214
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?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… Read more »

IAMSuperPatriot
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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
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azoiaboy

You work at Taylor guitars in El Cajon…no?

?214
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?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
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brickman

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

YY
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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

D King
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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
Guest
?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.