Sheesham (Dalbergia sissoo), commonly referred to as sisso, is valued as construction lumber in India and Pakistan. The export of sheesham is highly regulated, and it's rarely marketed in the United States for anything other than craft and specialty products. Sheesham dust can be an irritant. Eye and breathing protection is recommended when working with sheesham.
Hardness and Blades
Sheesham ranks 1,660 on the Janka scale, which is a scale that ranks wood for density and hardness. For the sake of comparison, red oak is softer than sheesham, ranking 1,290 on the scale. The wood ranges from dark amber to reddish brown, similar to mahogany or teak. The grain pattern is relatively straight, but has interlocking patterns that turn or swirl at 90 degrees, and can cause chipping or blowout on woodworking machinery. Sheesham cuts relatively easily, but the coarse texture dulls blades and cutters. Carbide-tipped tools are advisable when working with sheesham lumber.
Sheesham sands and finishes smoothly, but open pores and coarse grain can result in a rough finish. To prepare sheesham for finishing, 100-grit sandpaper is typically all that you need. For a glossier finish, additional sanding with 180-grit can add more shine to the wood. Sanding with anything higher than 180-grit can result in the polishing of the surface. Polished surfaces don't absorb stain at an even rate and can cause wood to appear blotchy. You can finish sheesham with any clear coat after the initial sanding, but for the smoothest surface, fill open pores with sanding sealer that contains high amounts of solids. For a rustic appearance, skip the sealer and apply two coats of lacquer to highlight open pores.
Even though sheesham can be used for high-end cabinetry and furniture, the scarcity of large quantities of sheesham plywood and lumber makes the use of sheesham somewhat restricted to specialty items such as turnings, carvings, plaques, novelties, marquetry and inlay. Sheesham responds to sharp hand tools such as chisels and carving tools readily, and in contrast to its high density rating, it's easy to carve and shape with hand tools. Due to similarities in density, appearance and tonal quality to Brazilian rosewood, sheesham is used as a replacement for this endangered species on acoustical guitars. When used in this capacity, sheesham is often referred to as Indian rosewood.
Distribution and Availability
Some exotic hardwood dealers continue to stock small quanties of sheesham, but it can be hard to find. Only smaller pieces of the lumber are typically distributed domestically, due in part to sheesham's stunted growth pattern, which results in crooked limbs that don't produce large pieces. The ready availability and low prices of sheesham furniture might seem to contradict the scarcity of the lumber, but most sheesham furniture is imported, having been manufactured in foreign countries with low overhead.