Making wooden musical instruments involves a craftsman who is usually also a musician. If the instrument has strings, a neck, and a soundbox, we call the craftsman a luthier. The luthier will pay great emphasis to the type of wood needed for a particular musical instrument.
Whether you are a luthier or just a woodworker who wants to try your hand at making musical instruments, you must first choose suitable wood. In this post, we look at the factors that go towards good wood for a musical instrument. We then highlight the best wood you can use to make musical instruments.
Factors That Contribute to Good Wood for a Musical Instrument
If you go to a music shop, the first thing you notice will be the fragrant smell of wooden musical instruments. One of the main reasons for the characteristic odor is that most of the wood is aged – it was left on its own for a long time, even years, before using it to make musical instruments.
The Age Factor
Where can you get the best wood for a musical instrument? From a tree? Or, from a timber shop? No! The ideal type of wood would be from timber that is at least a hundred years old, and that has been sitting at the bottom of a freshwater lake or pond.
Yes, people are fishing timber from the bottom of rivers from when logging was in its prime. Over 100 years ago, lumberjacks floated logs from the great north woods along rivers to transport them to sawmills. Some sank, and they lie there till today.
Scuba divers retrieve these logs from riverbeds, and once dry, special mills process them, cutting them to size so that luthiers can perform their magic on them. Professional musicians pay a fortune for musical instruments made from this lumber.
You can also get old wood for musical instruments from old buildings. People built these buildings using the commonly-available wood of the times, a lot of which is rare and expensive today. Antique furniture that is beyond repair serves as a potential source of old wood for making musical instruments as well.
A lady once bought wood from an old shed in Germany, which used to be a luthier’s workshop. The wood was about 125 years old, harvested from the Black Forest. She procured an Anton Stradivarius pattern and earned a fortune from the violins she made and sold using this wood.
All this highlights the fact that with wood for musical instruments, old is indeed gold. If you are into the business of making musical instruments, you have to be resourceful and keep your eyes open for sources of old wood.
Best Wood for Musical Instruments
Before you collect every piece of old wood that you see, you need to be able to identify whether or not it is suitable “tonewood,” as we commonly call it. Here are a few categories of wood that makes good musical instruments:
Walnut is a preferred wood for musical instruments because it is a suitable tonewood, but it is durable and looks good. It is a versatile wood and is popular for making flooring and furniture as well.
Two significant varieties of walnut are English or Persian walnut, which come from those respective countries. High demand for this variety of wood has resulted in its cultivation in other regions like Asia, and the Americas.
You can pass off ziricote as ebony because it is such a dark-colored wood with black streaks if you are not aware. The grain pattern forms a spiderweb-like design. The wood that comes from Mexico is the rarest and most beautiful.
Ziricote is rich in natural oils, which make it quite challenging to work on. However, the luthiers who work on this wood manage to transform it into beautiful musical instruments.
A spruce tree is what we use for a Christmas tree. However, spruce wood not only makes good furniture and building houses, but it makes excellent musical instruments.
Some of the best acoustic and jazz guitars are made of spruce. The different varieties of spruce that you can get are Adirondack, Sitka, European, and Engelmann, and they are all popular with luthiers for making musical instruments. It is a convenient fact that we get spruce in several regions across the world.
If there is one wood that is truly elegant and beautiful, it is ebony. It is a tough but durable variety of wood. Lead guitarists favor ebony over rosewood for its smooth, and silky touch. The massive demand for this beautiful and exotic wood is highly expensive and in short supply.
It is on the list of endangered species of wood. The three varieties of this wood that we use for making musical instruments are Ceylon ebony or East India ebony (from India and Sri Lanka), Makassar ebony (from Indonesia), and Madagascar ebony.
Mahogany is a wood species that played a significant role in making musical instruments since ancient times. It is a much-favored type of wood due to its resonant properties. However, due to over-logging, mahogany is an endangered wood species and is seldom sold anywhere in the world today. You can still get mahogany from some areas in Asia, but you would do well to ensure that the sale is legal.
This wood is native to Europe and Asia. It is a tough, even-grained wood with excellent tonal properties. The patterns that the grain makes are also very striking. If forms due to a species of fungi that grow on the tree. So, with maple, you get wood with good tonal properties that are pleasing to the eye. It is an ideal combination for wood to be used for making musical instruments.
Rosewood is associated with guitar fretboards. Although many musicians have these prized guitars with rosewood fretboards, this wood is no longer available as it is almost extinct. You can still get instruments that contain this wood from India and Bangladesh, but here again, you should ensure that your purchase is legal.
The tonewoods mentioned in this list are expensive due to their superior quality. If you want to make top-notch musical instruments, you can pick any of these seven wood varieties. Some of them are not available anymore, but others are. If you scour flea markets and keep an eye on antique furniture, you could probably locate some of the unavailable varieties of wood as well.
Successfully procuring wood for making musical instruments depends on how resourceful you are. If you keep your eyes open and apply the knowledge you have gained from reading this post, who knows? You might find a goldmine in wood for making musical instruments!