In Malaysia belian (Eusideraoxylon zwageri) is the hardest wood found in the forest and has been used since time immemorial. The indigenous peoples in Sarawak and Sabah used it for buildings and structures as well as for their art pieces like masks, effigies like the kenyalang (hornbill bird) in Sarawak, which is symbolic of the Iban God. There were even reports that mentioned belian wood being used as posts for the Forbidden City in China!
The belian trees are also indigenous here and mostly found in Bintulu and Miri. During the early days many wharves, jetties and bridges and houses, especially near to water edges like rivers, were made of belian wood. The almost indestructible nature of the wood made it ideal for such construction purposes and it was also the preferred wood for coffins, especially amongst the early Chinese settlers. It however, was not particularly used for furniture pieces then as the wood was difficult to work on and heavy for the carpenters and craftsmen unlike today where it is often a distinctive feature in many high end homes or offices. A number of these very old furniture pieces made from belian wood that have been handed down for generations in some family homes tell the story of their hardiness, durability and considered as treasured heirlooms.
Belian trees are totally protected in Sarawak today and are also difficult to find. According to him the belian tree is a very slow growing species of the family Luaraceae. Research studies show that it only reaches around 30cm after 120 years! When it is first cut down, the wood has a light brown to bright yellow colour and this will gradually darken to very dark brown or almost black as it aged. It also tends to have a shiny hue when it is at this stage of exposure to the atmosphere. Most craftsmen will advise against polishing the belian wood furniture, either the table-top or the chair as it may cause the texture of the wood to deteriorate. Due to the hard nature of the wood, it is ideal for outdoor display and exposed to the weather without much worry. Indoor it is even more ideal as it is resistant to termites attack!
The state government of Sarawak had conducted a number of research studies on belian trees and their propagation but found the species to be extremely slow in growth and hence of limited commercial interest for plantation purposes. The belian wood is still in high demand today due to the rarity and distinct quality it possesses, especially for furniture pieces. Locally, a number of furniture companies do sell furniture pieces made from belian wood and some do customized pieces from recycled resources like old lamp posts and those from old houses torn down. Other readily available pieces made from belian wood in the market are jewellery boxes, walking sticks, animal figurines for display or as pendants.
STIDC Timber museum displays furniture and products made of belian timber.
This article from BorneoTalk Vol.34 (page 14). Click here for DOWNLOAD
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