Suar wood is the wood of the Albizia Saman tree, sometimes called the Rain Tree, a tree native to South America and planted in Indonesia as a plantation tree. The wood is known by a number of different names, including Monkeypod, Samenes Saman, Parota, South American Walnut, and Acadia, as well as Suar Wood. It is a beautiful well-figured wood, with abundant cross-grain. The heartwood is close to the color of walnut, surrounded by a light sapwood.
Of course, every piece of suar wood, like every snowflake, is unique. Figuring of the grain can vary considerably, making one piece appear more desirable to a particular customer than another. Slabs should be individually chosen for the project they will be used on.
Suar wood and furniture made of suar wood is imported from both Indonesia and South America. It has largely taken over from mahogany for furniture made in Indonesia, due to the fast growth of the tree. Most of this furniture is slab style with live edges, ideal for the natural beauty of this wood. Slabs can also be purchased for the woodworker to make their own slab furniture out of this wood.
Properly seasoned and dried, suar wood is very strong and durable. However, furniture restoration companies can tell plenty of horror stories about working on pieces made of this product. The problem isn’t the wood, but rather the furniture made out of improperly dried or not completely dried slabs used in the manufacture of furniture. That furniture tends to crack, especially at the ends, as the wood dries out, turning a beautiful piece of furniture into something that looks like damaged goods. It can also become damaged by wood-destroying fungi, rot and insects.
Problems with Suar Wood Furniture
Furniture manufacturers who made problematic suar wood use these not fully dried wood slabs as a cost and material savings measure. Kiln drying of suar generally causes cracking in the ends of the slabs, reducing the amount of wood which can be sold or used as a continuous slab, without damage. Using wood that has not fully dried allows these manufacturers to reduce scrap, giving them a higher yield and therefore a higher profit from their materials.
To make up for improper drying, manufacturers will apply an extremely heavy high-build lacquer finish, sealing in the moisture in an effort to keep the wood from drying out and cracking. However, this doesn’t always work, as it is extremely hard to seal end grain in this manner.
This heavy finish serves as a sign to potential purchasers that the piece of furniture might be made with improperly dried wood. The finish is also almost always high gloss, making the piece of furniture more attention getting and attractive to ensure sales. The other sign to look for is tables with exceptionally thick slabs, more than 7 cm thick. It is virtually impossible to fully dry a slab that thick, increasing the chances for long-term problems. Another indicator that can be used when shopping for a suar wood table, is that improperly cured tabletops will be heavier than kiln dried ones.
Air drying of wood takes roughly a year, where the wood is stacked with spacers between the slabs to allow air to circulate between them. Since warehouse space is costly, most sawmills and furniture manufacturers use a kiln drying process, which allows the wood to dry in 30 to 45 days, as well as producing a dryer piece of wood, especially in humid climates.
As the wood dries, unevenness in the process and shrinkage of the wood will cause wood to cup, bow, warp, twist or crack. Stacking helps prevent most of those problems, as the weight of the wood acts as a clamp on pieces lower down in the stack.
It is the cracking, more than the warping and bowing, which causes a problem for manufacturers. They either have to cut off this part of the wood slab, or putty the cracks. Either of those options lowers the value of the resulting slab, either by making it smaller or by reducing the quality of the surface finish.
Making Your Own Suar Wood
One of the advantages of using suar wood for tabletops is the size of the log that the slab is cut from. The suar tree grows to 80 feet tall, producing a trunk that is wide enough to cut slabs which make excellent tables by themselves, without having to laminate boards or use multiple pieces with an epoxy fill for the voids. There are no voids and so epoxy is rarely used, unless as a finish.
However, some grades of suar wood do have voids, such as the aforementioned cracks. Since this wood comes from living trees, it can have imperfections. These can be filled with colored epoxy or minerals embedded into epoxy, depending on the style desired.
Suar woodtops are generally “live edge” with the bark removed and the underlying sapwood sanded smooth. This provides a free-flowing edge, without any of the roughness that can be associated with some live edges.
Suar wood slabs make for excellent “river” tabletops, when they are cut down the center and the live edge is used to form the “riverbanks.” The lighter edge of sapwood provides an excellent “beach” on the river, making it look more realistic than other river tabletops. Since the live edge is turned inwards, towards the center of the table, on a river tabletop, the outer edges are left straight and smooth.
Always ensure that your slab is dried, before working with it. A properly dried slab should contain less than 18% moisture, although drier is better. Check the slab for cupping, bowing or twist first, using a pair of winding sticks. The first step in the process of building any slab tabletop is to flatten the surface, usually by planning or sanding it.
Many professional woodworkers today have foregone planning as a means of flatten a tabletop. What they do instead is to use a router, in conjunction with a “bridge” to cut off the necessary material so as to make the top flat. The bridge holds the router a set distance above the benchtop, allowing the router to be passed back and forth across the surface of the slab, with a wide straight router bit cutting off the high points to leave a flat surface.
As a general rule of thumb, massive legs or bases are used with large tables of this sort, whether made of wood or metal. Sections of logs might be used for coffee tables and end tables. Literally anything can work, but it is important to keep the weight of the tabletop in mind when designing the table.
Filling Imperfections in Suar Woodtops
If the slab has imperfections such as hole or cracks, they can be filled with epoxy, either colored, clear or with ground minerals suspended in it.
To do this, the back side of the slab needs to be covered, so as to keep the epoxy from leaking out. This is easily accomplished with tape, so it is not necessary to build a mold, as would be done with some other live-edge tabletops. Putting a dam of hot melt glue around the hole to be filled, allows the epoxy to be poured into it, slightly overfilling the flaw, without the risk of epoxy spreading all across the slab, requiring more work to remove the excess.
Once the epoxy has hardened, the tape and glue dam can be scraped off the wood. If a large area then needs to be leveled with the surface, it can be done with the same router and bridge used to level the tabletop. For smaller areas, a power plane or belt sander can be used, followed up by a random orbital sander to finish sanding the piece.
While cracks in the slab can be filled with epoxy also, some woodworkers choose to install a bow tie spline. This is ostentatiously a means of stopping the cracking from spreading, but in most cases is more decorative than functional.
A contrasting wood is used to create the bow tie. These can be easily cut on the table saw, setting the blade to a slight angle and ripping a piece of stock all four ways, cutting angles into the sides of the board. The cross-section of the resulting piece looks like a bow tie, but is actually two dovetails, back to back. That’s where the strength comes from.
Once the bow ties have been cut, they can be used as a pattern, scribing the outline into the tabletop. Material that needs to be removed for the bow tie to fit into the table top can be removed with a mallet and chisel or with a router and straight bit. There are templates and bearings sold for cutting out the bow tie.
When installing the bow tie into the tabletop, there will usually be a slight gap. This can be filled with colored epoxy, giving your bow tie a border. But it is better to mix some fine sawdust from the tabletop into the epoxy, using it to provide matching coloration.
Making a River Tabletop from Suar Wood
In order to make a river tabletop out of suar wood, it is usually best to buy the slab pre-cut from the supplier, as it is difficult to make a long, straight cut through the center of the slab. Nevertheless, with a good circular saw, a sharp blade and a saw guide, it can be done in the average home workshop.
Making any river tabletop requires a mold. This does not have to be anything fancy, just a box that is big enough and deep enough to fit the slab into. Ideally, there will be no extra space, as that extra space translates into wasted epoxy. The inside of the mold must be smooth, without joints and should be covered with something that will not stick.
The two halves of the slab are placed in the mold, with the live edges facing towards each other. Sufficient epoxy is mixed, with any desired tint added, so that it can all be poured as one continuous pour. Some woodworkers apply a dam out of hot melt glue, as mentioned above. Then the epoxy is poured into the gap between the boards, filling it to the top. A torch is then passed over the surface of the epoxy to draw the bubbles to the top, before the epoxy is left to cure.
Once the epoxy has cured, the tabletop can be leveled and smoothed in the same way mentioned above for removing any warping or cupping. The tabletop is then sanded smooth, using progressively finer grits of sandpaper. Tabletops of this type are either waxed or finished with epoxy, either of which will eliminate the cloudiness and put a sheen onto the surface of the epoxy river.