For as long as I can remember, the mention of furniture and wood used for making it, inevitably included mention of “Burma teak”, with a bit of awe, reverence and a hint of exclusivity. Obviously, at even a tender, young age, I realized Burma teak was a cut above the rest. I had never dreamt that one day, I would be living in the land of Burma teak, see meters’ long logs of superior quality timber moving to borders and ports, to be exported to neighboring countries, see exquisitely carved wooden structures, many of gigantic proportions, and admire the distinctive grain of wood that add character to furniture adorning our homes.
Thankfully, as of 31st march 2014, timber logs can no longer be exported, and only export of value added wood products is permitted. The motive being, to encourage the growth and development of a wood processing industry, which will yield higher revenue, improve tax collections and offer employment opportunities to the locals. This will also prevent drastic climate change and soil degradation. Hence, sawn wood, and finished food products can be exported. This is of course, limited to the legal export segment, the illegal export sector continues and smuggling of the finest quality timber is rampant, almost as much as before. The illegal export segment accounts for 75% of Myanmar’s timber trade and accounts for over $6 billion, as stated by the Environmental Investigation Agency.
It is rather sad, that natural national treasures weave their way into foreign lands, and some of the finest woods like padauk and tamalan, face the threat of being completely logged out in 3-13 years, according to current demand trends, if drastic measures are not taken to protect these top wood varieties. Both padauk and tamalan are no longer available in abundance. Even the grades and girths of teak are seen declining over the years.
Chinese imports of redwood and rosewood continue and most of the Tamalan and Padauk end up in China, making them endangered. Teak is not far behind, and experts are fearful of its supplies dwindling rapidly too. According to Global Witness Research, nearly the entire forest land along the China-Myanmar border has been completely logged out, and Chinese logging companies are moving further inland into Kachin state for sourcing timber, albeit at higher extraction costs.
The import ban imposed six months ago, should help, if government authorities implement it sincerely. Hopefully, the age of exploitation of Myanmar natural resources of wood especially, might just be nearing its end.
Myanmar offers some of the finest timber from natural forests, and the government is mulling over the idea of curtailing timber extraction. Teak plantations are expected to grow and expand in the coming years, unfortunately though, plantation teak is nowhere close to naturally grown teak, in terms of beauty, hardness, and durability.
Myanmar Wood Varieties
Myanmar’s forests covering 70% of the country’s land still, offering wood varieties like, teak, padauk, thinlwin, tamalan and many others. Both hardwoods and softwoods come from natural forests and plantations, the former being way superior to the latter.
- Teak – Over two-thirds of the world’s teak resources lie in Myanmar, which remains the most forested country in the Greater Mekong Sub-Area. Teak is beyond doubt the most preferred wood for indoor furniture and outdoor use due to its inherent strength, while remaining light in weight. It has a naturally high oil content that makes it resistant to pests, does not rot and even holds up against the elements, bending but never breaking. Teak does not splinter and therefore does not need to be sealed. Its grains are distinctly straight, and occasionally interlocked. Teak is golden in color, tending towards brown, and darkens as it ages.
The trees grow nearly straight up to a height of 130 ft, and yield timber of three grades- A, B and C. Teak of A grade quality is representative of mature hardwood, that has been well seasoned besides coming from at least a 20-year old tree, and is of the highest quality, and therefore also the most expensive. A-grade teak shows grains that are closer since this quality comes from the most dense innermost section of the trunk, the color is golden and a hint of oil appears on touch. A harvested tree yields only a quarter of the total wood of A-grade quality and this partially explains its high price.
Grade-B teak is the less mature or immature heartwood forming the outer layer after the mature heartwood, but is enclosed inside the sapwood, that qualifies as C-grade teak. It is easy to differentiate with its less uniform grain, less oil and a duller appearance. This makes it cheaper as well.
Grade-C teak is called sapwood and forms the outer most layer of a harvested tree. It is the part of the tree that is still growing and carries nutrients to the rest of the tree. Its grains are further apart, and lack of a uniform color. It is neither as strong nor as resilient to the elements, and being inferior to the other grades, it is the cheapest type of teak.
The pros and cons of using teak for various purposes help in making the right choice.
- Padauk – This reddish wood is simply exquisite to look and work with. It is one of the more decorative hardwoods and some of the finest padauk is found in Myanmar. The reddish tinge turns into a brown over time. Its highly visible grain is interlocked and its texture quite coarse. Found in Africa, Thailand and Myanmar mainly, its higher density makes it tougher to work with. Of all these Myanmar Padauk is the toughest and heaviest, and comes from the upper mixed and dry forests in the country. It is highly durable, decay resistant and long lasting.
Padauk trees resemble the elms, gaining a height of 120 ft and a girth up to 7 ft. They flourish in tropical climates in both rain forests and dry plains. The reddish tinge changes to maroon when exposed to sunlight. It is ideal for carving and crafting into interesting shapes even while remaining sturdy and durable.
Unfortunately, massive logging and exporting of Padauk has led to a dwindling supply of this premium wood in Myanmar. It is highly sought after in Hong Kong and China, where a considerable proportion is sent illegally. With the new ban on timber, it is hoped that the small amount left in the country can be preserved through restricted logging.
- Tamalan – This is one variety of hardwood that one falls in love with, at first sight. It unique color and exquisite grain pattern is eye-catching, especially when seen in a hand crafted piece of furniture, polished to preserve its natural color and grain design. Belonging to the rosewood family, tamalan is an extremely high value wood variety, highly durable and resistant to the elements and termites. It is easily amenable to carving and ornamentation and its natural color adds to its beauty.
Tamalan grows in colder tropical regions and the Myanmar regions of “Mansi” and “Mankat” in the Sagaing Region, have the forest reserves where tamalan grows.
Tamalan, is nearly disappearing from Myanmar, the country that provides some of the best quality tamalan, due to huge demand from China where it is used for making the high premium, hongmu furniture. Experts believe that it may become extinct in less than three years due to the rate at which it is being logged and illegally exported.
The list of Myanmar wood varieties is long, but these three are by far the best, even as they face the threat of extinction in the next decade or so.