Today’s blog is part of an occasional series dedicated to answering visitors’ questions.
Satinwood has one of those thoroughly non-mysterious names that tells you exactly what you’re going to get: wood that looks like satin.
Grand piano with satinwood veneer and painted floral decorations, ca. 1895. Chickering & Sons (American, 1823-1908). The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.
It belongs to a family called Rutaceae, which contains nearly 2,000 other flowering shrubs, trees, and plants. The sisters and brothers of satinwood include our citrus trees—lime, lemon, mandarin orange, grapefruit, etc.—and on the more bizarre side of the spectrum, a plant called burning bush that produces lovely white flowers but secretes an oil “which when expressed into the air can be lighted by a match.”
Satinwood (Chloroxylon swietenia). Photo by J.M. Garg, via Wikipedia.
Varieties of satinwood are found in Southeast Asia, India, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, and Africa. Being a rather hard wood with a decorative sheen of its own, it’s a popular choice for furniture, marquetry, and musical instruments.
Detail of the marquetry on the upper register of the wainscoting in the Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion Drawing Room. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.
Among the species there are slight variations—some are dark and fine-grained, others are lighter with a broad, mottled texture to the grain. The rich, blonde glow of ours at the Museum makes it a strong candidate for the popular Ceylon Satinwood (Chloroxylon swietenia) of southern India or Sri Lanka. Going by looks alone it could also be from Africa, but the Ceylon variety seems to have been the most readily available when the Nickersons commissioned this mansion. A 1912 book called Wood-using Industries of Michigan claimed just two species of the wood were on the market at the time, the Chloroxylon swietenia and a West Indies variety called Maba guianensis.