Sandalwood - production & trade

Known in commerce as East Indian sandalwood, sandalwood has two primary uses: extraction of an essential oil (sandal oil), and as a source of wood for carving. Production is based almost entirely on wild populations.

Trade

India and Indonesia are the two major producers and exporters, although it is not known exactly how much is exported or is used within the country of origin because much of the trade remains unrecorded. The United States and France are the two largest importers
A photograph of sandalwood chips from Mysore housed in Kew's Economic Botany Collection.
Image: Sandalwood essential oil is produced from the wood chips.

India accounts for some 90% of sandal oil production in the world. Sandalwood has a fairly wide distribution, but Mysore in India is the centre of supply. Here 75% of the best quality, most aromatic timber is obtained.

Trees tend to grow very slowly, gradually developing a core of heartwood. The environment has an effect on the quality of the wood and oil. Trees on mountainous, rocky and dry soils develop the hardest wood with the greatest oil content. The darker the wood, the higher the oil content. The highly prized marks, called birds' eyes, have a very high oil content are the result of damage to the wood.

Much of the sandalwood is obtained from natural forests although small quantities are also obtained from plantations and trees growing in private fields.

Root wood as well as stem and branch wood is used. In India, trees above 60 cm girth are harvested during the post-monsoon period. In areas affected by disease, only dead and dying trees are harvested. Harvesting is done by uprooting trees, although wood used for carving often comes from trimmings. Sandalwood trees coppice well when young and damaged roots can produce lots of new shoots.

Harvested wood is cut into billets which are then transported to a central depot. The heartwood of the trunk, main branches and roots is used in essential oil distillation. The sapwood is used for carving.

The wood is sold under a number of classes. They are classified according to size into 1st, 2nd and 3rd class billets from the stem, and primarily into three classes of root wood and two of branch wood. There are also classes for short, irregular pieces, chips and sawdust. The latter fetches a relatively high price. Sandalwood is much prized as a wood. In India, the sapwood is used for wood turning, particularly toy making.

Essential oil

For essential oil production, the billets of wood are chipped and ground to a powder. Most sandalwood oil is now produced by steam distillation of the powder. The oil content increases and is of a better quality in older trees. The oil is then sold to the end user for fragrances and perfumes. Exhausted sandalwood powder left over after distillation is used in the incense industry.