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.
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
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
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,
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