Padouk is the name given to the wood of the tropical Pterocarpus tree, native to Central and West Africa, and Southeast Asia. Trees can grow up to 50 metres in height, forming a long straight trunk that makes the timber an ideal candidate for logging.
The English term Padouk derives from the Burmese name for the tree, which is ‘Padauk’. Its wood is a rich red in colour, not unlike mahogany. The warm texture, coupled with the astonishing durability of the wood make Padouk perfect for use in the production of cabinets and fine furniture.
As trade with India and the Far East became increasingly viable throughout the 17th century, so exotic hardwoods began arriving in the UK from all over the globe. Cheap and easy to work with, Padouk was soon in great demand for fine furniture, panelling and even musical instruments such as guitars, and xylophone and organ keys.
The earliest examples of Padouk furniture in the UK would have been expensive pieces of imported furniture, made by Chinese craftsmen under European stewardship. However, as the fashion for rare woods and exotic furnishings took hold in Hanoverian England, so London cabinetmakers sought imported timbers to embellish the magnificent town houses and country estates of the period.
Another good example of the use of Padouk in antique furniture is the genre known loosely as ‘Anglo-Indian’ or ‘Colonial’. As young gentlemen found their fortunes in the distant corners of the Empire as officers of the East India Company or the British Army, they needed furniture for their new quarters.
In many cases this would have been Padouk furniture, locally sourced and crafted, although some enterprising London makers took to producing lightweight, hard-wearing Padouk furniture. This would have been convenient for shipping, and in some cases was even made in sections that could be dismantled and reassembled on arrival for convenience.
Padouk remains a popular wood today, both with carpenters for its hard-wearing versatility as well as buyers for its luxurious look. Sadly, widespread illegal logging in Africa and Asia could threaten the survival of the species if not sustainably managed.