Rosewood is a characteristically dark, highly grained wood from trees in the genera Tipuana, Pterocarpus, or Dalbergia. Trees from other species may also be sold with this name, since this wood has been traditionally prized for fine woodworking and musical instruments for centuries. Unfortunately, due to unsustainable harvesting practices, some rosewoods are in critical condition, and some ecologists believe that forests in regions like Brazil should be allowed to recover before any more is harvested.
These woods range in color from rich red to very dark brown. Older trees often have a rich aroma, especially Brazilian or Rio rosewood; the smell is reminiscent of roses, which explains the name. Older trees also accumulate essential oils, which can help to preserve the wood and to maintain the sweet, rich scent associated with it. In some cases, the essential oil is extracted from the trees and sold as a perfume or furniture polish.
Rosewood has been prized historically because it has a close, dense grain that makes it extremely strong and durable. Some types, such as Honduran rosewood, also have excellent resonance that makes them ideal for musical instruments like guitars and pianos. The wood also takes polish very well, and it holds up to a range of uses, from flooring to cabinetry. Furniture made from it may be left lightly waxed or unfinished, or it may be heavily varnished and polished to give it a more finished look. Some very beautiful examples of antique rosewood furniture can be seen in museums.
Trees in these genera favor tropical to subtropical conditions, and they are frequently found in rainforests, where they can form an important part of forest ecology by offering shelter to an assortment of animals. When rosewood trees are allowed to grow to full maturity, they can reach incredible heights that push them up into the rainforest canopy. These canopy trees can yield huge single sheets of wood for ambitious woodworking projects. Their timber is also often extremely showy.
No agency regulates the naming of “rosewood.” As a result, consumers can buy an assortment of products labeled with the term, and it can be difficult to tell whether or not wood from one of these genera was used. Some things to look for are close grain and a weight which feels heavy for the object's size. Ecologically conscious consumers may want to consider recycled rosewood, or alternatives to it, since high demand has threatened it in its natural environments.