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Woods Used in Sri Lanka Furniture

by Ayesha Abdur-Rahman, 2009

Throughout south and southeast Asia numerous tropical hardwoods have been used in furniture making. The most popularly used woods during Sri Lanka's Portuguese, Dutch and British periods (ca. 1505 to 1948) are jak, ebony, calamander, satinwood, nadun, and teak. Numerous other varieties were also in use and skilled cabinetmakers would sometime combine different woods for function and decorative application. Some woods have distinguishable characteristics that are easy to identify. Others are so similar that it is difficult to determine a positive identification. The aging process of the object as well as the use of stains, wax, varnish, and other finishing treatments can further complicate identification of the wood. On a density scale the densest are calamander, ebony, satinwood, then nedun, followed by jak and teak. Teak was very popular during the British period, and imported Burmese teak was used as the trading economy developed.

The woods documented in the image database have been identified by their color, markings, and grain. In some cases, the woods were previously identified in the collection descriptions at the National Museum of Sri Lanka. Tools for a more technical analysis were not been available for this project. Questions about source woods were referred to historians Robin Jones and Jan Veenendaal, however they only had access to the photographs and not the original artifacts. As a result, in some cases the woods have not yet been identified.

R. L. Brohier’s Furniture in the Dutch Period (1969) tells us the woods that were used during the Dutch Period. Helpful information about specific woods from this book is given below. In addition to the following list, there are other hardwoods used after the Dutch period that merit further investigation, particularly the bastard (hora) varieties that exist or existed with many species of wood used in Sri Lanka.

  • Badidel (Artocarpus nobilis) is from the wild breadfruit tree. It is found in low country regions, and is much like ‘Burma or imported teak’ in texture but possesses a lighter color. It is used for carving and turning processes in cabinet making and renders a satisfactory polish.
  • Cadooberia, (Diospyros affinis?). This is a bastard species of ebony. It is a rare wood with black-streaked rich brown to yellow stripes and takes on a lustrous look when polished. It is less dense and durable than true ebony.
  • Calamander (D. quaesita). Calamander is found in the wet forests of the southern provinces. This wood was popularized by the Dutch in the 17th century and later by the British in the 18th century. It has an extremely striking coloration, with dark to light honey-colored wavy patterns. The tree is slow to grow and can take up to two hundred and fifty years to mature. In 1969, Brohier says it was eradicated, and that the Forestry Department had begun cultivating the trees in the hills of Rakwana.
  • Ebony (Diospyros ebenum). Diospyros ebenum is a species of ebony that is found in Sri Lanka. During the 17th century ebony was the commonest wood used for furniture, and was found abundantly throughout the flat dry country of the east and southeast coastal region. The Dutch preferred a dark wood for contrast against the white walls of their residences. Sri Lankan ebenum species excelled above other species in evenness and intensity of its color. Brohier tells us that in the 18th century these darker woods were used for legs and moldings, and that there was a popoluar trend of staining other lighter hardwoods black to look like ebony.
  • Halmilla (Berrya cordifolia), sometimes called amonilla (Coomaraswamy, 1908). This is found in the low land dry zone encircling the central mountains. It has a brownish color, is easy to work, and takes on a good polished look. Brohier tells us that the wood was also used for arrack casks as it is durable and lends itself to bending.
  • Jak (Artocarpus heterophylum). In popular use in the seventeenth century for household furniture, Brohier writes it lost popularity for most of the eighteenth century, and came back into frequent use during the 19th century. Jak is cultivated extensively for it large fruit and it timber as a utility building wood and for small furniture objects such as chairs and chests. Jak is yet prevalent and in use, and the wood and roots are a source of dye.
  • Kohomba (Azadirachta indica), also know as Margossa and Neem. This wood has a wide distribution in the dry zone. It has a pinkish-red color that deepens and ages into a reddish-brown. It has oily properties and does not take a polish. This wood is used for cupboards, linen chests, and cabinets as the wood’s natural oil is a reputed insect repellent.
  • Kolon (Andina cordifolia). This wood has a light color with slight figuring and is often used for decorative panels. Brohier writes that these trees are found in the Sabaragamuwa Province in the Kolonna Korale from where it derives its name.
  • Kumbuk (Terminalia arjuna). Kumbuk is a magnificent water-loving tree. It is found in riverbanks, tanks, and canals. The tree has a wide distribution and can reach an maturity and a very old age. The wood has a rich brown color. Brohier says is difficult to machine cut as pebbles and even larger stones from the rivers grow into it. It is a wood similar to Palu.
  • Mara (Albizzia lebbek) is a rare and valuable tree found bordering forest areas. This tree produces a long straight bole and when polished takes on a gold luster. It could be mistaken for Nadun or Suriya Mara.
  • Nedun (Pericopsis mooniana) is found on the western coast, from the southwestern province to the Sabaragamuwa Province, including the hill country. Chocolate brown in color with striking grain, this wood has a lustrous polish and color that deepens with age. Brohier says this wood was rarely used before the 17th century and was most commonly used during the 18th century for a variety of cabinetwork. It was favored by the Dutch in the 18th century Dutch who called it Nadun. The trees were extensively felled and, according to Brohier, mature specimens were rare.
  • Palu (Manilkara hexandra) is a rich brown-colored wood, similar to Kumbuk. It is found extensively in the low land dry zone.
  • Satinwood (Chloroxylon swietenia), called Buruta in Sinhala, is a light-colored wood seen plain or with streaks. Figured satinwood is called mal buruta. Moderate in height, this tree is found in the dry zone. The wood is heavy and dense and difficult to work. Brohier says the wood from the older trees have a golden brown sheen on the grain. Satinwood is a decorative wood used frequently with ebony. For dating purpose we know the wood became fashionable and was used from the mid-eighteenth century on.
  • Suriya (called the tulip tree of Ceylon). This is a shade-loving tree that also loves saline soils and sea air. It produces a yellow blossom that develops into a purplish- pink flower. Brohier writes that during the Dutch period the tree was planted in and around the fortified town. Its wood was used exclusively for carriages, cartwheels, shafts, gunstocks, and furniture.
  • Suriya Mara (Albizzia odoratissima) is popularly known as Black Sirus. Brohier says both Mara and Suriya Mara were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Black Sirus was a desirable cabinet timber, even in Europe.
  • Tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) is called Siyambalagaha in Sinhala. Its distribution is primarily in the dry zone. This wood has a variegated chocolate color, with yellow edges, and is very hard and difficult to work. The pulp of the tamarind fruit is used in food preparation.
  • Teak (Tectona grandis) was introduced from India and Burma to Sri Lanka, and became popular and prevalent wood during the British period.
  • Wewarani (Aalseodaphne semacarpifolia), called Rani in Sinhala, is found in the dry regions. The wood has a yellow-brown and mottled color and takes a good polish. It is said to be difficult to work and popular as a boat building timber, according to Brohier.