I've always been interested in wood. I guess that's what got me into my career as a forester and tree geneticist. Growing up in Canada, I was always doing something with wood, whether it be building a soap-box racer (nearly killed myself when it rolled!), door stops, my own desk, and no end of construction projects on the farm. My university training taught me a lot about what wood is and how it's formed. It really is amazing stuff and the fascination with its properties and variation has never ceased.
Now as a guitar builder, I get to use this natural material to make beautiful instruments. For me, the beauty starts with the individual piece of wood. I don't make any standard models of instruments -- every one is different -- and the design is usually influenced to a large degree by the wood that I, or my client, has chosen.
I'm always on the lookout for unique pieces that can be incorporated in an instrument, and I'll try to buy beautiful pieces when I find them. Fortunately, there is a netwook of wood suppliers who cater to instrument makers and their need for properly processed woods for instruments. Logs are sourced from all over the planet and the variation is astonishing.
Just as a teaser, I thought I would assemble a gallery of some of my outstanding "back and side" sets -- as I write, all of the pieces pictured here are available in my stocked inventory!
Starting in North America, this set of black walnut (Juglans nigra L.) is from the United States. Black walnut is easily worked and I particularly like the wild figure in this set:
Further south in Mexico, Ziricote (Cordia dodecandra) has unique colours and wonderful figure. Check out his beautiful set:
Travelling further to South America, you might expect to see some of the famous Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra), but that species is now endangered and movement across internationaly borders is tightly controlled, even for old inventory. Fact is, I don't have any Brazilian in stock, and given its endangered status, I'm not looking for any. Instead we have a close cousin, also found in Brazil, Venezuela and Bolivia, Amazon rosewood (D. spruceana). Anatomically, D. spruceana is indistinguishable from D. nigra, but is slightly more dense and laboratory extracts with water fluoresce under UV light (Miller and Wiemann 2006). This is a set I've been saving for a few years now:
The "true" rosewoods are the genus Dalberiga, but the name "rosewood" is applied to several other timber species. One of these found in Bolivia and Brazil is Pau Ferro (Machaerium scleroxylum), also known by timber merchants as Santos or Bolivian Rosewood, Jaracandá and Morado. While not a true rosewood, Machaerium is considered a very close relative to Dalbergia, and Pau Ferro has become valued by instrument makers as a good alternative. Aside from its tonal qualities, it's also a good looker:
Africa is another southern hemisphere region with a wealth of stunning woods. Among the true rosewoods, we find several striking examples in Africa, but most are in short supply. So-called Madagascar rosewood is often identified as Dalbergia baroni, but there are at least 3 other Dalbergia species coming from Madagascar and marketed under the name. One thing that is certain is that Dalbergia from Madagascar has been under excessive harvest pressure from illegal trade for musical instruments, and legimate supplies now on the market are rather slim. I only have one back and side set in stock, but it will make an extraordinarily beautiful instrument:
In the tropical areas of western Africa we find a large tree known as Limba or Korina (Terminalia superba). The wood can be light coloured ("white limba") or with darker striping ("black limba"). Conservation programmes and establishment of plantations have been quite effective in managing the supply of this species, so hopefully we'll continue to see it used for instruments. The figure can be quite dramatic, like the example below:
Again in western Africa we find several members of the genus Guibourtia that are sought after for instruments. Ovangkol (Guibourtia ehie), also known as Shedua, grows in tropical rain forests and is highly regarded as a tonewood. Its close relative Bubinga (Guibourtia demeisei) is perhaps the best known member of the genus, and is under heavy harvesting pressure in Cameroon and eleswhere. It is known for its red colour and striking figure, such as this example:
Moving to India, we find another hotspot for sought-after tonewood. One of the best known is East Indian rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia), sometimes called Indian palisandre or black rosewood. India has placed tight controls on harvesting, and most material now comes from plantations. To my mind, this species probably represents the "best value" in tonewood -- it makes wonderful sounding instruments and is a good substitute for the now-endangered Brazilian rosewood - its South American relative that is often recognised as the "king of tonewood". Whether the subtle grain and dark colour appeal is a matter of personal taste, but I have a good supply, such as this example:
India is also the origin for one of the most commonly cultivated tropical fruits, the common mango (Mangifera indica). The species is cultivated throughout southern hemisphere. Some trees have dark brown heartwood, producing dramatic figure, such as this example:
The mango is also cultivated throughout southeast asia, which also has other members of the genus Mangifera. These other species can also produce dramatic figure, often through the process known as "spalting" (colour produced by fungi). This example from the Phillipines is likely Mangifera altissima:
Finally, our global tour of tonewoods brings us to Australasia. Australia itself is bless with many tonewoods, but is perhaps best known for Tasmanian blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), sometimes known as black wattle. A very close relative to Koa, the traditional tonewood for ukeleles from Hawaii, Tasmanian blackwood was made famous as a tonewood by the AUstralian guitar company "Maton". Almost every builder in Australia will have some in stock. I only have one set, but I think it's a cracker:
Another tonewood from Australia known for dramatic colouration is blackheart sassafras, where spalting an other colouraton of the heartwood is casued by fungii:
And finally to New Zealand, and its iconic tree, the mighty Kauri (Agathis australis). Some of these giants fell into swampland some 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, and are only just now being extracted from the ground and processed. How cool is that? So-called "Ancient Kauri" is known for is chatoyance and intriguing figure. One rare and sought-after figure is known as "whitebait swimming in waves". I have a couple of sets in stock from a particularly good billet, but they don't photograph very well in rough sanded form. Howeverm the figure explodes when finely sanded and put under a gloss finish, such as this example:
As you can see, the choices are tremendous. The various colours and figures of these woods inspire many ideas for stunning, unique instruments. Which portrait speaks to you?