I’ll keep things fairly brief here and save more in depth info for those interested in ordering/courses.
Here are some of the woods I use or have used, some of their properties and combinations I recommend. Remember, it’s about the design and the build quality too, not just the wood. Wood choices and combinations will give the instrument a certain emphasis within the framework of an approach.
Sitka Spruce NW USA and Canada. The denser of the Spruces I use and the mainstay top wood in the industry over the last 60 years. Gives a solid, punchy tone and can produce good harmonic content alongside, especially with a lighter build. Great all round top wood and a great choice if you do a bit of everything – fingers, pick, strum etc.
Alpine/European Spruce European Alps and now East into Carpathia and thus my most ‘local’ top wood. Less dense and more immediate response than Sitka and imparts a comparatively lighter/brighter but more complex tone with sparkling harmonics. Mainstay in Classical guitars, and wonderful for steel strings. Still great all rounder and although I’d recommend for modern finger style, it makes for a great all rounder too with good headroom. Not found often in production steel strings and a timber I am using more of especially when I can get good quality.
Western Red Cedar NW USA and Canada. Light density and imparts a very immediate ‘pingy’ response with super harmonic content. Very warm midrange and a hollower, complex and more open sound especially noticeable in the bass. An obvious finger style choice but less headroom and a little less separation/clarity for digging in/strumming/flatpicking. I enjoy cedar guitars, have made a number of them and they are a popular choice among customers.
Adironack Spruce East USA. The wood of vintage Martins and Gibsons. Have made three or four instruments with Adirondack. Light, wider grained but stiff, has a punchy tone with strong fundamental and less potential for harmonic content. It has a smooth, rounded treble that hasn’t fitted quite so well with my guitars thus far. That said, may use again in the future.
Redwood West USA All comes from fallen logs or ‘Sinker” logs which have been caught in river silt for 100 years. Similar properties to WRCedar when on the lighter side, but always brighter tap tone. Can be extremely dense and bright. The brightness and upper mids come through strongly in Redwood guitars coupled with the low mid warmth you get from Cedar.
Lutz Spruce British Columbia/Canada. An uncommon hybrid between Sitka and Englemann Spruce. Lighter density than Sitka, I have only used once and have one top left. Stunning medullary ray figure, good harmonic production but slightly softer tone than Alpine Spruce.
Englemann Spruce West USA/Canada. Lighter density than Sitka and softer sounding with good harmonic potential. I don’t use it because where I want a more sparkly tone with Spruce, I’ll use Alpine.
Back and sides
Indian Rosewood East India. After the decline in Brazilian Rosewood, it has become the most used guitar back and sides timber for Classical and Steel String in the industry. It imparts good depth, sustain and clarity and is a great all rounder with a characteristically smooth tone. Favourite combinations – with Alpine Spruce and Western Red Cedar to add some liveliness and bite to the mix.
Mahogany Central America. The other most used back and sides wood in the industry. Lighter, more ‘woody’ tone than Indian Rosewood. Faster attack, punchy and exciting to play. Favourite combinations – with Sitka Spruce for great all round guitar. Also good with cedar for light, lively and harmonically rich tone.
American Black Walnut Eastern USA. Not so common in the industry but used by small guitar manufacturers and single makers. A softer sound than Rosewoods and Mahogany but still with some brightness in the tap tone, it imparts a warm and ‘woody’ sound. Favourite combination – with Western Red Cedar for a soft, warm and deep but exciting and lively sound. Works well with Redwood too.
Claro Walnut West USA. Similar to the above but slightly less bright tap tone. Can have wonderful flame figure. Favourite combination – with Western Red Cedar for a soft, warm and deep but exciting and lively sound. Works well with Redwood too.
English/European Walnut Slightly softer again than the above. Favourite combination – with Western Red Cedar for a soft, warm and deep but exciting and lively sound. Works well with Redwood too.
Brazilian Rosewood The old mainstay for guitar building until the late 60’s. The mainstay for classical builders until very recently. On Cites1 since 1992, and with recent changes in legislation, this wood is now a no no. It is virtually impossible to buy it and there are heavy restrictions on sale and export.
Cocobolo Mexico. Very dense/heavy Rosewood with high oil content meaning it has to be glued using polyurethane or epoxy resin glue. Usually wonderfully figured if cut on the slab. Profound bass, fat trebles and ringing sustain make this a choice for someone wanting a dramatic guitar. Favourite combination – with Sitka Spruce to balance the dramatic tone of this wood. Also great with Alpine.
Honduras Rosewood Honduras. Dense Rosewood, similar to Brazilian – crisp, bright and deep but a little drier sounding and less smooth. Favourite combination – with Alpine Spruce for a bright, complex tone for finger-style.
Palo Escrito/Mexican Rosewood Mexico. Light density Rosewood, a bit lighter than Indian Rosewood with attractive light orange colour and dark brown grain lines. For me, good for bouzoukis.
English Cherry UK Similar to American Black Walnut in density and brighter than English/European Walnut, this is my favourite native timber. It is difficult to get good, stiff pieces for guitars. Some of my early instruments were made of Cherry. Good with Cedar for a softer, warmer sound but with liveliness.
English Yew UK Another Native that has potential. Getting a split and knot free supply is very difficult. I have made a bouzouki and carved top mandolin using Yew and two student guitars. For the former two the tops were Alpine Spruce and for the guitars, one with Sitka and one with Cedar. I always keep an eye out for guitar size Yew.
European Sycamore/Maple UK/Europe. Wonderfully figured and the choice of violin makers through the centuries. A very clear and bright tone, quieter than Rosewoods with a softness and good separation. Lacking drama in the bass but this can work in its favour for stage work, pickups and recording. I use this for carved mandolins. Good with Sitka which adds a robustness back into the tone.
American Big leaf Maple USA. Very similar to the above. Again used for mandolins.
Koa Hawaii. Used as a decorative alternative to Mahogany throughout the last century and also the original Ukelele wood, Koa can make wonderful guitars. It varies a lot in its density and tap tone. Hard to get in the UK. I have only made two Koa guitars. Sonically similar in many ways to Black Walnut, it works well with Cedar to create a warm friendly tone but with exciting feel and good harmonics. Also works well with Alpine.
Tone Woods and the environment
News update …
All Rosewoods (Dalbergias) and Bubinga have been reclassified to CITES appendix II (other than Brazilian Rosewood which is already more restricted on appendix I). This is largely to do with the Chinese furniture trade which over the last 10 – 15 years or so have been importing millions of tons of Rosewoods from all over the world for a burgeoning trade in dark, carved furniture. Whilst the instrument trade pales into insignificance in comparison it is not blameless.
This means all Rosewood instruments being exported outside the EU will need a permit with proof of purchase of the Rosewood and will cost around £50 from DEFRA and all raw material being imported will need further documentation. This will undoubtedly push up the price. You do not need a permit if you own a Rosewood instrument (other than Brazilian), the certificates are for commercial exports only.
While a pain for many, this is a good opportunity for instrument makers to look to alternatives. Big changes afoot….
This is a subject on its own and giving it lip service here is the best I can offer at this juncture. In my experience, many instrument makers are concerned about the environment and yet it is still extremely difficult to obtain certified woods or woods where the source and working conditions of those involved in its processing are known. No matter what anyone tells you, the exotic timber trade is mostly unregulated because of the lack of controls in place in many of the countries of origin. It is an ever changing picture but what has not changed is that species are suffering from overexploitation which of course has a knock on effect to other associated plant and animal species and sometimes communities in those areas. What I have seen over the last 15 years is a dramatic change in availability and pricing of tone wood and this is of course due to increased demand coupled with falling supply.
As I understand it, for instrument making, most trees are selected and pulled out individually. Clear cutting and slash and burn usually happen for farming and mineral exploitation purposes. Most other felling goes for other uses- furniture/building/pulp etc. However, together with these trades, historically in the West and now in China, the chance to exploit cheap labour forces is making it possible for companies to use higher grade ‘traditional’ timbers and we are now looking at more single species depletion than ever before.
Instruments and the associated trade it must be said, use proportionately tiny amounts of timber selected especially for certain properties and this is why it has largely been ignored in the grand scheme. However, as recent admissions from Taylor Guitars have confirmed, the amount of wastage can be huge, especially as in ebony where brown streaky ebony was discarded as undesirable due to demand by top companies for black ebony – an utterly ridiculous and saddening situation. The trade has always utilised a relatively narrow selection of woods from around the world for their tonal and importantly, structural properties and for some parts of the guitar there literally are no alternatives. Using these woods, apart from their beautiful sound, give instruments longevity through their natural properties and the ability to make repairs and alterations to them over the years. Currently, if you ban the use of one, then the industry shifts to use another which in turn becomes pressured. CITES is protecting some of these species well but we are seeing more woods fall on to that list. Builders must put pressure on suppliers to use traceable sources preferably with certification. I believe we need more changes at government level to help improve the sourcing of the wood we use and importantly sustain the craft which we love for the future.
Now I have ceased repairs and setups and focus on building, I am making a commitment to improve my sources and look at alternatives but still make the best instruments I can. My mandolins are mostly Maple so they are mainly from controlled sources. Good recycled wood is rarely available and makers need consistency which makes this route tricky. UK wood supply is patchy but still an option for backs and sides and necks – Cherry, Yew, Walnut and Sycamore and I will be experimenting more with these. Mahogany is potentially a good route forward as there is one FSC supplier here in the UK – John Boddy – although they are building trade suppliers, not instrument suppliers so the stock is variable in its density and quality. I have made over 30 guitars with wood from there however. Much of the mahogany I’ve used for back and sides has come from old plantation in Fiji and there are some Mahogany plantation projects and second growth forests where management is a potential. Mahogany can grow fast and according to my friend in Puerto Rico, can be useable after 50-60 years. I get much of my mahogany from Timberline in Sussex who sources from known suppliers in Central America where the forests are mostly second growth but it is not certified. I will not use wood from Madagascar as it is well known there is a poor political situation there. It is also known it is one of the most important places in the world for biodiversity. Anyone accepting stories about sustainable supplies from there are being duped.
I have just ordered some sample FSC certified African Blackwood for fingerboards, bridges and head plates. This is an exciting new development from a company called Sound And Fair. They are currently seeking investment to develop their FSC/fairtrade business model to extend to more species coming from managed sources in Tanzania and also Mexico. This could be a good solution to replace ebony components and for backs and sides and must be the way forward. I look forward to becoming part of a new approach to instrument building – a mixture of fully certified tropical timbers for their unique structural and tonal properties and temperate/native ones for lower carbon footprint.
Work in progress…