Sunday, August 08, 2010

Selecting Wood for Your Musical Instrument Project

Thinking of finally putting together that dulcimer you bought the plans for 10 years ago and never got around to building. A crashing economy and the federal unemployment insurance extension bill give you some time on your hands and you’ve cleaned out the shop three times already? One of the first things you’ll need to do is choose the wood you want to use for that lute, guitar, banjo, dulcimer or violin you’re going to tackle.
First lets look at what makes a good wood for a musical instrument.  Tomorrow, we'll talk about how to do a tap test for tone quality.


  • The best wood for instruments is something that’s been sitting quietly somewhere for a hundred years or so, preferably at the bottom of a freshwater river or lake. Some of the best instrument wood around these days is being fished out of the rivers of the great north woods where loggers once floated their harvest to the sawmills. Along the way, some of the denser hardwood logs absorbed enough water to sink. And there they have been sitting for the past hundred to a hundred and fifty years curing. Brave scuba divers have been diving down into the tangled wreckage on the bottom of those rivers and fishing out these monsters and carrying them to special mills where they are dried out and carefully cut up into pieces suitable for the luthier’s art. People who make their living playing music pay top dollar for instruments made from this lumber. Another source for wood is old buildings that were built with whatever would was handy including some very expensive (nowadays anyway) lumber. Some farmer’s used to clear out their old nonproductive fruit trees and build chicken coops, barns and wooden fences from the lumber. Antique furniture, too damaged to restore, can provide you with well-aged instrument grade pieces of wood if you keep an eye out for them at flea markets and garage sales. A friend who is a luthier once bought some wood on a trip to Germany. It came out of a shed behind what she recognized as an old luthier’s shop, now abandoned. The wood had been cut from virgin timber in the Black Forest nearly 125 years before. She made a killing fashioning the wood into violins using an Anton Stradivarius pattern she’d wheedled out of a fellow luthier (considerable eye-batting and sweet talk was involved). Anyway, be imaginative. That ancient rock maple credenza of your Aunt Sophie’s might just have a couple of banjo necks in it. You never know.

Types of wood:
  • Five common types of wood for handmade and professional musical instruments include maple, rosewood, spruce, mahogany and basswood. Soft maple is prized for its ability to bend, making curved surfaces easier to form and is used in the bodies of guitars, dulcimers and violins. Harder maples are frequently used as necks where rigidity is essential. Spuce is used a lot in guitar tops and orchestral stringed instruments because of it’s tone. Spruce is a hardwood that has a soft core. This duality makes it a wonderful soundboard, but means you have to put a very hard lacquer finish on it to protect it from damage. Electric guitar makers like dense hard woods like mahogany for solid body guitars because its otherwise dark sound reproduces electrically amplified tones particularly well. Though beautiful, mahogany is seldom used in acoustic instruments save possibly in the fretboard where a denser, more durable wood might be important. Basswood isn’t very pretty despite its fine tonal qualities and is used in instruments that are going to be painted or in drums where a consistent frequency throughout the length of a board is important. Rosewood is also popular for use with fingerboards. Like mahogany it has a very dark tone and if used in the body of an acoustic instrument tends to dampen the sound.
All other types of wood are likely to have one or a combination of the characteristics of the 5 common types above. These basic characteristics include:

1. Strength and durability – Dense hardwoods are good for necks and headstocks, but tend to dampen the sound if used in the body of an acoustic instruments. Electric solid body instruments, however, tend to sound better with heavy hardwood bodies.
2. Flexibility – These woods are used in the sides or in arched backs and tops where the shape of the box creates some special tonal quality the instrument maker is looking for.
3. Tonal Quality—Many woods have, within themselves, special tonal qualities that the instrument maker is looking for that comes from the resonance of the wood itself. Some of these woods are like basswood and don’t have very pretty grain, but with a nice coat of paint, serve well, especially in lower cost instruments.
4.  Beauty--If you can find a wood with an attractive grain pattern, you'll have an instrument that not only sounds beautiful, but looks beautiful as well. 

This list is only a partial list of some of the woods being used by instrument makers worldwide to create beautiful sounding musical instruments ranging from banjos and cellos to tongue drums and bodhrans. The list is broken down by where in the world you can find the wood. This LINK is to a page that shows pictures of the grain pattern of many of these woods.

Argentina and Chile: Angico, Black Mesquite, Rauli Beech
Tropical Africa: Iroko or Afrormosia (African Teak), Panga Panga, Zebrawood, Wenge, Lovoa (African Walnut), Mansonia, Moabi (African Pearwood)
East Africa: Blackwood, Muhuhu, Tambootie
North Africa: Thuya Burl
Central Africa: Wenge
South Africa: African Boxwood, Leadwood, Mopane, Pau Rosa, Pink Ivory, Tambootie
West Africa: Afrormosia, Aniegre, Avodire, Beli, Benge, Bubinga, Doussie, Gaboon Ebony, Ekki, Emeri, Limba, Black Limba, African Mahogany, Makore (African Cherry), Movingui (Nigerian Satinwood), Obeche’, Padouk, Sapele, Shedua,
Asia: Camphorwood, Lebanon Cedar, Merbau, Paulownia, Larch
Southeast Asia: Afzelia Burl, Amboyna Burl, Kwila, Maidou Burl, Narra (New Guinea Rosewood), Thai Rosewood,
East Australia: Blackbean
Australia: Banksia, Bimblebox Burl, Australian Blackwood, Coolibah Burl, Australian Cypress, Jarrah Burl (Eucalyptus), Mulga (Spearwood), Raspberry Jamwood, Sandalwood, Blackbean, Fishtail Oak,
Brazil: Bloodwood, Castella Boxwood, Brauna, Canarywood (Putumuju), Friejo, Gombeira, Imbuya (Brazilian Walnut), Ipe, Jatoba (Brazilian Cherry), Brazilian Kingwood, Lacewood, Marblewood, Partridgewood, Pequia Amarello, Pernambuco (Brazilwood), Peroba Rosa, Brazilian Rosewood, Brazilian Satinwood, Sucupira, Tulipwood, Andiroba (Brazilian Mahogany), Brauna, Gombiera, Pau Ferro, Sucupira
Burma: East Indian Laurel, Burmese Rosewood
Carribean: Blue Mahoe
Celebes Islands: Macassar Ebony
Ecuador: Balsa
England: European Boxwood, English Elm, English Oak, European Walnut, Yew, Bog Oak
Europe: European Boxwood, Lebanon Cedar, European Chestnut, Hornbeam, English Oak, Pearwood, European Plum, European Walnut
Fiji Islands: Yaka
Germany: Acacia, European Beech, Pearwood
Guyana: Kabukalli, Snakewood, Tatabu, Shibadan
Hawaii: Koa, Monkeypod Wood
India and Sri Lanka: Ceylon Ebony, Kokko (E. Indian Walnut), E. Indian Laurel, Palmwood, E. Indian Rosewood, Sisoo Rosewood, Sandalwood, Ceylon Satinwood,
Madagascar: Madagascar Ebony, Madagascar Rosewood,
Maylasia: Jelutong, Damar Minyak
Mediterranean: Spanish Olive (Olivewood),
Mexico and Central America: Balsamo, Bocote, Chakte-kok, Chakte-viga, Cocobolo, Brown Ebony, Fustic, Goncalo Alves, Granadillo, Jabin, Katalox, Mexican Kingwood, Lemonwood, Lignum Vitae, Honduras Mahogany, Mesquite, Prima Vera (Blond Mahogany), Purpleheart (Amaranth), Guatemalan Rosewood, Honduras Rosewood, Mexican Rosewood, Tzalam, Tropical Walnut, , Ziricote, Nargusta
Myanmar: Teak
Polynesia and Pacific Islands: Monkeypod, New Guinea Red Cedar, New Guinea Rosewood, Black Palm
South America: Alerce (Patagonian Cypress) Beefwood or Bulletwood, Spanish Cedar, Fustic, Goncalo Alves, Lemonwood, Honduras Mahogany, Pau Marfim (Ivorywood), Prima Vera (Blond Mahogany), Purpleheart (Amaranth), Rauli (Chilean Beech), Amazon Rosewood, Santos Rosewood, Verawood, Tropical Walnut, Cocobolo (Granadilla), Kabukalli, Nargusta
Spain: Mediterranean Briar, Mesquite,
Surinam: Marblewood
Sweden: Masur Birch
Tasmania: Tasmanian Myrtle, Huon Pine
United States: Buckeye Burl, Mesquite, Red Oak (Spanish Oak), Osage Orange, Larch
Northeastern USA: Basswood, Eastern Hard Maple (Sugar Maple), Eastern Soft Maple
Northwestern USA: Alaskan Yellow Cedar, Port Orford Cedar, Western Soft Maple, Myrtlewood, Oregon Oak, Sitka Spruce, Pacific Yew
Eastern USA: American Ash, American Cherry, American Holly, Eastern White Oak, Eastern Black Walnut
Midwest USA: Eastern Black Walnut
Southern USA: Swamp Ash, Eastern Red cedar
Southwestern USA: Desert Ironwood,
Western USA: Red Alder, Incense Cedar, Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, Madrone, Mountain Mahogany, Myrtlewood, California Nutmeg, Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pine, Redwood, Englemann Spruce, Claro Walnut
Venezuela: Zapatero (Maracaibo Boxwood)
West Indies: Zapatero Boxwood, Cocuswood


  1. Hi Tom,

    I am Erdem, from barcelona and liked your page ! thanks for the fruitful advices!
    my question is about the wood age. I want to build my own cajón from maple . (rear parts , back , top and bottom from maple and front from plywood) i found a supplier from uk that can provide me 3 years old maple, though they were so nice telling me frankly that its 3 years old maple and if i can dry it myself (or not), they can sell it anyhow... What is your advice ? for the age or wood type ? and do you know any providers from EU ?

    many thanks !
    erdem :)

  2. Erdem, A cajón tends to be a very personal instrument. Drummers alter the design and woods they use to suit their preferences. One guy I know of builds the front from masonite and uses three different types of wood for three different tones - one for each side.

    Three year old maple should be fine if it's been stored properly and not in a damp place. If the supplier is telling you that it needs further drying, I'd listen to him. If he's telling you the wood is not ready, you may want to find your would elsewhere, unless you've seen it and checked out the wood's tonal qualities or just really like the looks of the wood.

    One way to determine the wood tone and timbre is to build a plywood box the size of a cajon and leave one side off. Then simply lay the wood you are considering using and beat on it so you can hear the tone. Try different types of wood until you find a wood type that gives you the tone you like - thick sides and thin. Some specialty wood dealers will let you bring your box to the store and experiment with pieces of wood they have for sale.

    If it were me I'd try maple, rock maple, spruce and then give some more exotic woods a try. Make your cajón completely unique. A luthier friend found some old growth Black Forest lumber that had been sitting in a shed in Germany for a hundred years. Don't discount the value of lumber from old buildings and even discarded furniture. Sometimes you can find the most beautiful sounding wood in abandoned buildings and on scrap heaps. Also try antique stores. Look for damaged furniture that the proprietor has pushed into a back room and forgotten. Old table tops can be cut up to make the pieces of your cajón.

    I need to make a cajón. I just moved and when I get my workshop set up again, I'm going to give it a try. Thanks for the inspiration Erdem. What a great idea!


  3. Tom, you are great ! Thanks for the intimate discussion :)

    I dont know how to begin since I am looking online for good deals but I take your advice for looking to antique stores and also a good friend of mine is a collector of such furnitures from the street corners...

    Though, for the first time I hear that one can build the cajon with 3 or 4 different woods because I always thought that we are supposed to hit on the front face where there is the plywood (or a relatively thinner piece having the strings inside - well, yes I saw some people hitting the rear parts but just for enriching the rythm for a couple of seconds) Constant drumming on a 8mm maply can cause some finger pain to me nowadays, ehehe.

    Well, I let you now when I collect a good piece and go inside the building process. It would be very nice to see some pictures and details of your future cajon project as well. Please share/post them on your blog that I would be very happy to follow !

    Thanks again,
    Have a great day !


  4. Trendy Punchy Bass Rubber Wood Cajon from Bizarkdeal

    The cajon is made of nature wood, with nature color. especially the front wood of the cajon has it own natural curly lines, which just looks very comfortable than some smooth wood panel. it has 4 very strong plastic foots, you just can feel any unstable when you sit on the cajon. The most important thing is its sound, absolutely high quality, just like a thousands dollar professional drum. and the impressive is you can adjust the sound very conveniently with the wrench along it.
    so far did not find any defect.
    It is worthy of buying and we enjoy it.

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