Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) has basically been off the market since 1992 when it was listed by CITES as a "most endangered" species and international trade for commercial use was suspended.
While there are a number of substitutes, Bolivian rosewood (Machaerium villosum, M. scleroxylon and M. acutifolium) - other common trade names include morado, santos and pau ferro - and Madagascar palisander (Dalbergia baroni) have been the most popular.
"Now that palisander is pretty much a non-entity in the wood business, santos rosewood slides back into that niche it had," says Myles Gilmer, owner of Gilmer Wood Co., a retailer and wholesaler in Portland, Ore.
Bolivian or santos rosewood is a fine-textured, dark-colored hardwood that when finished probably most resembles East Indian rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia), according to Hearne Hardwoods, a retailer and wholesaler in Oxford, Pa.
Average widths run from 2" to 12" and lengths from 2' to 10'. It's used for furniture, cabinetry, architectural millwork, guitars and turnings. It's also prized by veneer manufacturers.
As for the comparison to Brazilian rosewood, it's about as close as you're going to get.
"For me, who sells lots of stuff into the musical instrument trade, it's not so much visual. It has a totally different sound than Brazilian rosewood," says Gilmer. "But for a furniture maker, then that's not really a consideration. It takes a dynamite polish; it's just like glass.
"It's a pretty 'contrasty' wood. On the radial surface, quartersawn, it usually has a nice stripe to it."
Gilmer describes santos as very dimensionally stable with a color that won't change appreciably through the years. The only detraction is the price, which has risen in recent years.
"Almost all of the commercial supply comes out of Bolivia. The Chinese like it so they are buying it as fast as they can. The price has gone up on the Western markets. It used to be the wholesale price was roughly $6 to probably $9 per board foot. Now it's running $10 to $15 per board foot.
"It's always been a Dalbergia look-alike. When I used to bring in a lot of Brazilian rosewood, the cost was pretty much the same to santos rosewood. Those were the old days when you could buy stuff cheap. I used to buy Brazilian rosewood for $800 a ton and santos was in that neck of the woods. Now, if you can find Brazilian rosewood, it's probably over $100 or $150 a board foot (retail), and santos is in the $14 to $20 range."
Gilmer cautions that the dust from working with santos rosewood could be an irritant to some woodworkers.
"It can produce sinus problems, a running nose and things like that. At its worst, you can have asthmatic-type reactions. You have to wear your respirator and be careful not to breathe in the dust."
This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.