What is Sheesham wood and what is it best used for? As a DIY enthusiast, amateur or beginner woodworker it can be bewildering to navigate the many types of timber available on the market. Many popular kinds of timber go by multiple different names, – and that’s before you’ve even started to consider the different properties and uses of the wood you are looking to buy.
What is Sheesham wood? Sheesham wood is the wood of the Dalbergia sissoo tree, commonly known as the North Indian rosewood tree. The North Indian rosewood tree is a tall (up to 30 meters), a fast-growing tree indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. It grows widely around the world but is actually classified as an invasive species in Australia and parts of the United States.
This article will tell you all you need to know about Sheesham wood, a popular timber with a wide range of uses, and help you decide whether Sheesham wood is the right choice for your project.
In India, Sheesham wood has long been a major economic timber, second only to teak (Duke, 1983), and is used to make agricultural implements, musical instruments and ornaments, as well as for fuel and to make charcoal.
The tree is frequently planted in urban areas for its shade and visual appeal. A common sight in the Indian furniture trade, Sheesham wood has become increasingly popular around the world for its attractive colors and grain, and for the properties, it shares with teak, at a lower price.
A Tree By Any Other Name
When searching for Sheesham wood, you’re likely to run into a common problem: one tree can be known by many names. The North Indian rosewood goes by several names, including the Himalaya raintree, Indian Dalbergia, penny leaf tree, shisham, and sissoo.
Sheesham wood is also one of many types of timber commonly known as rosewood or Indian rosewood, including the similarly named East Indian rosewood (Dalbergia latafolio). Rosewood is popular for its beautiful colors and grains, but different kinds have different properties, and some wood sold as rosewood does not belong to the Dalbergia genus and is not considered ‘true’ rosewood.
Remember that common names are often used very loosely and inaccurately, so use the scientific name to ensure you are getting precisely the wood you want.
The Technical Basics
Because Sheesham wood is taken directly from a tree, dried and treated to avoid warping and cracking, and then used in its ‘pure’ form to make furniture and other items, it is considered a kind of solid wood.
This distinguishes it from engineered wood, which is made from layers or particles of wood glued or compressed together and sometimes covered by veneer (a thin layer of ‘real’ wood that gives the impression of a solid piece of wood – in fact, Sheesham is sometimes used to create this veneer). Types of engineered wood include plywood and fiberboard.
Sheesham wood is considered a hardwood. In technical terms, hardwood is classified as wood from broad-leafed trees (such as oak trees) whereas softwood is taken from cone-bearing trees (such as pines). Because hardwood trees usually grow more slowly than softwood trees, hardwood is denser and stronger, and therefore more expensive.
Hardwood is commonly used to make furniture, ornaments, toys and other items that make the most of its strength, attractive grain and high finish (more about the uses of Sheesham wood below).
The best-known hardwoods are probably teak, mahogany, and walnut, but because Sheesham wood has many commercial and decorative uses, it is classified alongside these as a valuable hardwood (FAO.org). As a species indigenous to Asia, it is subclassified as tropical hardwood.
Sheesham wood is usually divided into two types: heartwood, which is golden to dark reddish-brown in color, and sapwood, which is white to straw-colored. In all trees, sapwood is the living wood that is found just under the bark. As the tree grows, it produces new sapwood, which covers the old sapwood cells. These cells die and become heartwood, which is the older, central section of the trunk (Snyder, 2007).
Sheesham heartwood is darker and heavier than the sapwood because the dead cells are filled with a resin that is responsible for the celebrated color and scent of rosewood. The sapwood contains more moisture because it is taken from the living part of the tree. Because of these characteristics, Sheesham heartwood is usually more stable and resistant to rot, insects and fungus than the sapwood.
You may not be able to choose whether your new hardwood table is made from heartwood or sapwood, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the different kinds of wood are suited to different purposes and environments. The good news is these differences are also responsible for the dramatic and beautiful color variations that make Sheesham wood so sought after.
The Advantages Of Sheesham Wood
The many advantages of Sheesham wood include its durability, versatility and attractive finish. As a hardwood, Sheesham wood is heavy and dense, and it has good pest and decay resistance.
Because Sheesham wood comes from a relatively fast-growing tree, its texture is not as fine as that of slower-growing trees. This makes it softer than many other hardwoods such as teak, which can be an advantage: Sheesham wood is more forgiving on tools and easier to work with if you are an amateur woodworker. It is also more flexible than teak and many other hardwoods, which means it can be bent without cracking.
However, as a hardwood, Sheesham wood is also hard-wearing and low maintenance. It does not get scratched or dented easily through everyday use and won’t require more than easy cleaning to keep it in good condition.
If your floor or table is made from solid Sheesham wood, any damage it might sustain is easy to repair with some quick sanding and polish. As it is so sturdy, a cabinet made from hardwood like Sheesham can be passed down as a family heirloom, or sold as a valuable antique generation after it was built.
Sheesham wood is known for its beautiful colors, which make every piece unique. It usually has a straight grain that makes it relatively easy to carve, turn and glue, and it has a natural luster and smooth finish. It sometimes has a slight pleasant fragrance due to the resins trapped in the wood.
There are ecological advantages to choosing wood for building and decorating over more artificial materials like steel, concrete or glass. Wood is a renewable resource and requires less processing to reach its finished form than steel does, for example.
Perhaps the most attractive feature of Sheesham wood, however, is its relatively low cost. Sheesham wood is often compared to teak, but it is far more affordably priced, which means you can buy a beautiful hardwood piece without investing quite as much in your choice.
The Best Applications for Sheesham Wood
The best applications for Sheesham wood are furniture and decorative items: uses that make the most of its strength, rich hue and fine finish. Like many kinds of rosewood, Sheesham wood is prized for cabinet making and other ornamental pieces because of the beautiful colors and grains that can be coaxed out of the wood.
But there’s no need to stop at furniture and ornaments: as an amateur woodworker, you’re likely to find a hundred uses for the attractive and flexible qualities of Sheesham wood. Like other hardwoods, it can be used to make toys, sports equipment and handles for tools and utensils.
Because it can be bent and shaped and is relatively water-resistant, Sheesham wood is often used in boat building. Its acoustic quality also lends itself well to percussion instruments (Firewood Crops, 1983).
In the home, Sheesham wood is an excellent and popular choice for furniture, door and window frames and flooring. If you’re looking to make a statement with your dining table or coffee table, Sheesham wood is an ideal choice. Its rich, varied colors and interesting grain mean every piece is uniquely beautiful and uniquely yours.
Commercially, Sheesham wood is used to make veneers, the thin layer of ‘true’ wood glued onto plywood or chipboard to make it more attractive. Its water resistance makes it suitable for manufacturing marine grade plywood. In India, it is also used to make agricultural tools.
Of course, as with any material, the advantages and disadvantages of Sheesham wood depend on your intended use. Do your research and consider all options to ensure you’re making the right choice for your particular project or purchase.
Disadvantages Of Sheesham Wood
The disadvantages of Sheesham wood include its heavyweight and its vulnerability to water and pest damage. Sheesham wood is lighter than teak but much heavier than mango wood, which is another popular choice for furniture and home decor. Its heaviness can make Sheesham furniture unwieldy and difficult to move.
Although it is more water-resistant than softwood, It is quite porous, which means its water resistance is lower than that of other hardwoods. It is more vulnerable to pests and less durable than teak (which is often considered the gold standard of hardwoods).
As a woodworker, there are some disadvantages to working with Sheesham wood. Although its grain is usually straight, it is known to have some interlocking sections, which can tear out and spoil the shape or finish of your piece. Sheesham is also known to contain occasional chalky deposits that can wear out and blunt your tools.
The North Indian rosewood tree is tall, but it does not grow particularly straight, which means that long, smooth sections of wood can be difficult to come by if you are looking to use Sheesham wood for a larger project.
What’s more, although Sheesham wood is considered a relatively soft hardwood, it is much tougher and stronger than pine, for example, and as a beginner woodworker, you may find it difficult to work with. Make sure you get plenty of practice on easier woods before investing a lot of time and money in a project using Sheesham wood or another hardwood.
The commercial use of solid wood also has environmental consequences. All species in the genus Dalbergia (which includes Sheesham wood) were added to CITES Appendix II in 2017, which means they are considered threatened.
This action was taken because of concerns that both legal and illegal trade may cause the extinction of the species in their native habitats of India and Pakistan. The new status of Dalbergia as a threatened genus means that permits are required to export the wood (Rajdeep, 2017).
On the other hand, because the North Indian rosewood tree is invasive in parts of the US and elsewhere in the world, its commercial propagation in these places can be a concern. It can out-compete local species, overcrowd rivers and streams, and reduce the productivity of agricultural land (Lusweti et al., 2011). However, its value as timber is generally considered greater than its disadvantages as an invasive species (Pasiecznik, 2008).
If you are concerned about your eco-footprint, mango wood may be a better choice for you than Sheesham wood. Mango wood is a byproduct of the mango fruit industry. The wood often comes from trees that are cut down after they stop producing fruit, and it is considered a ‘greener’ option. It may also be easier to source sustainably grown and harvested softwood, as softwood trees grow more quickly and are not as vulnerable to deforestation by commercial demand.
When Not to Use Sheesham Wood
Because Sheesham wood is heavy, it’s best avoided for items that need to be light and easy to move around. Great for your four-post bed – not so wonderful for a kids’ toy box, perhaps.
Although it makes wonderful, strong and high-quality furniture, Sheesham wood is generally not recommended for outdoor use as it is susceptible to damage by a fungus, insects, and rain, and is not as durable as teak. Rather than exposing your beautiful hardwood table and chair set to the elements, avoid the risk of damage and keep your Sheesham wood furniture inside.
Although the color variations and veins are considered beautiful, Sheesham wood furniture makes a strong statement. If you’re looking for a neutral, unobtrusive piece of furniture for your minimalist home, you might prefer teak, which has a more solid, consistent, and lighter color.
How to Treat Sheesham Wood
Traditionally, Sheesham wood is left to dry in the sun for six months before use. Commercially, this process is much faster in temperature and humidity-controlled chambers. As even the most enthusiastic home woodworker is unlikely to grow and harvest his own Sheesham, you will probably buy it ready cured and dried for your project.
Store the raw wood away from direct sunlight, heat, and moisture, as these conditions may warp, crack and otherwise damage the wood before you’ve been able to use it.
When working with Sheesham wood, remember that it is a heavy, dense hardwood. Ensure you have the right tools for the job, including a good quality saw and drill. Buy woodworking screws and, as Sheesham wood is not soft enough to drive a screw into directly, drill a pilot hole and a countersink first.
It’s likely that you chose Sheesham wood at least in part for its color and texture, and you’ll want to feature its natural beauty, so avoid using an opaque paint to finish your piece. Instead, consider a stain or a clear varnish, and use a wood sealer before you apply varnish to get a traditionally smooth and glossy look. Most clear varnishes and lacquers are suitable for use on Sheesham wood.
When you buy a piece of Sheesham wood furniture, the rules of maintenance are similar to those of any other hardwood piece. Keep the item out of direct sunlight, which can fade the wood’s rich colors and cause the varnish to crack and become dull.
Avoid contact with hot, cold or wet cups, glasses and dishes, and protect the surface as much as you can from scratches and abrasions, to maintain its high gloss. If it needs cleaning, wipe gently with a damp cloth, avoiding detergents, and polish it with beeswax regularly to seal the surface.
Is Sheesham wood for you? This is a question that can only really be answered after careful consideration of the specific function and style you are looking for. Whatever your project, do your research thoroughly before making an investment. If you do choose Sheesham you will be in good company. Its beauty, durability, and versatility – as well as its affordability – make it a popular choice for a wide variety of projects and items.
If you are on the hunt for a reasonably priced hardwood or a uniquely beautiful and cost-effective piece of furniture, it’s well worth your while to consider Sheesham wood.
Definition of valuable hardwood species. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/3/ac124e/ac124e03.htm
Duke, J.A. (1983). Dalbergia sissoo. Handbook of Energy Crops.
Retrieved from https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Dalbergia_sissoo.html
Firewood Crops: Shrub and Tree Species for Energy Production: Report of an Ad Hoc Panel of the Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation, Board on Science and Technology for International Development, Commission on International Relations, Volume 2. National Academy Press, 1983. Retrieved from https://books.google.co.za/books?id=M0ErAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA60&lpg=PA60&dq=sissoo+wood&source=bl&ots=JegWz5-kOP&sig=ACfU3U0bTQW0-anVdIf4K_S6DjR-8VwQdQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjRstGbhLjlAhWKTsAKHb6_CrQQ6AEwEXoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=sissoo%20wood&f=false
Lusweti, A., Wabuyele, E., Ssegawa, P. & Mauremootoo, J. (2011) Factsheet – Dalbergia Sissoo. Retrieved from https://keys.lucidcentral.org/keys/v3/eafrinet/weeds/key/weeds/Media/Html/Dalbergia_sissoo_(Indian_Rosewood).htm
Pasiecznik, N. (2008). Dalbergia sissoo. Retrieved from https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/17808#tosummaryOfInvasiveness
Rajdeep, A. (2017). New CITES regulation for all Dalbergia (Sheesham wood and Rosewood) Species. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/new-cites-regulation-all-dalbergia-sheesham-wood-rosewood-rajdeep/
Snyder, M. (2007). What is the Difference Between Sapwood and Heartwood?
Retrieved from https://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/what_is_the_difference_between_sapwood_and_heartwood
Wikipedia contributors. (2019). Dalbergia sissoo. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dalbergia_sissoo