Use of Imported and Australian Native Timbers in Mandolins
by Peter Coombe
Last updated 25th December 2016
Australian Native timbers
Australia has a wealth of native timber species, ranging from gigantic Eucalyptus of temperate rainforest, to tropical rainforest timbers, to desert Acacias. Much of the forest is still old growth forest, so the timber available can be of very high quality.. However, increasingly because of legitimate conservation needs (and woodchipping and fires) some of these timbers are now rare or difficult to obtain. Unfortunately, some of these now rare timbers include some of the best tonewoods. I believe Australia possesses in her native timbers some of the best tonewoods in the world.
Australian Native Timbers
King Billy Pine: Athrotaxis selaginoides
Also known in Australia as King William Pine. King Billy Pine is an extremely slow growing species that grows only in the mountains of north west and south west Tasmania. The timber is light pink to yellow pink, very close grained, soft, and with a characteristic aromatic odour when worked. It's appearance and softness is similar to lighter coloured Cedar, but it is stronger than Cedar.
King Billy Pine is, in my humble opinion, one of the finest soundboard timbers that grows upon this earth. In my experience, it makes beautiful sweet clear sounding mandolins that many musicians prefer over the best spruce-topped instruments. It is also a lovely timber to work with, planes and carves beautifully and fills the workshop with a pleasant aromatic odour when worked. It is not as strong as Spruce along the grain, so I use Red Spruce or Douglas Fir bracing, and carve the top a little higher than my Spruce tops (tip from Graham Caldersmith, thanks Graham). However, King Billy Pine is no longer harvested commercially and it is now almost impossible to get clean quarter sawn pieces suitable for soundboards, hence prices are a little higher for mandolins with King Billy Pine tops. Currently I do have a very good supply of this timber because I purchased a log some years ago before they stopped logging the trees. It is a great shame that this species has been shamefully wasted over the last two centuries.
I do have quite a bit of experience with King Billy with my Goldfinch model mandolin. Some examples of this model have been stunningly good mandolins, but I have found that the results are a little variable, probably because the wood is of variable quality. Many pieces have hidden knots, and it is difficult to get a good clean piece that is quarter sawn and with little or no runout. The best sounding timber to use for the back in my experience is Blackwood. Over the years I have steadily improved my Goldfinch mandolin so much so that recent models have been significantly louder than my Spruce topped instruments, but still with the typical sweetness and clarity of King Billy Pine. The best examples sound beautiful, but also have great projection, and can be heard when played with other instruments. These instruments almost invariably are made from the stiffest pieces of King Billy and Blackwood, so can be carved a little thinner. Unfortunately it is now difficult to get perfectly quarter sawn King Billy Pine at it's maximum stiffness.
Although King Billy Pine has been a great success, I have found it pays to warn customers that it does have a characteristic sound and feel that is different from Spruce. Customers expecting a Spruce sound are likely be disappointed. It also does not like to be played hard (unlike Red Spruce) , so customers with a heavy touch are also likely to be disappointed. However, musicians with a delicate light touch (many women) love the sound of King Billy Pine because it responds superbly to this style of playing.
Blackwood is a large tree that grows in Tasmania and Victoria and on the Tablelands of New South Wales and Queensland. The wood is a golden brown to reddish brown with longitudinal darkish streaks, fairly hard and takes an excellent polish. Rare pieces can have a lovely fiddleback (curly) figure in the grain. It is extensively used for furniture in Australia so is readily available in quantity and quality, although the fiddleback pieces are increasingly more difficult to get.
I have used Blackwood for back and sides and necks in many of my mandolins. The best combinations so far have been with Engelmann Spruce, and especially King Billy Pine. King Billy Pine together with Blackwood produces lovely sweet, mellow, smooth, but also loud and clear sounding mandolins. Stunning instruments. It also goes extremely well with Engelmann Spruce, the tonal qualities of the two timbers complement each other.
Blackwood is a highly variable timber with a wide variation in colour, density and hardness and rare pieces can be highly figured. An instrument made with fiddleback Blackwood back and sides can be strikingly beautiful. Blackwood is very closely related to Koa, so the appearance and tonal qualities are almost identical. I have found Blackwood to be a moderately troublesome timber to work with. Blackwood dust is slightly irritating, and the harder pieces can be difficult on bandsaw blades, and very difficult to carve. Some pieces are extremely hard, and often the most difficult pieces to work are the most attractive. For these I use abrasives and power tools rather than a blade to carve since it is impossible not to get tearout with a blade. Unfortunately that produces copious quantities of dust. Bending qualities in general are very good, although once again variable. Fortunately, Blackwood is readily available, reasonably cheap, and not too difficult to find quarter sawn in timber yards. It is a popular wood amongst Australian Luthiers and is used by the Maton guitar factory for guitar backs and sides.
Queensland Walnut is a large tropical rainforest tree that grows in the coastal districts of northern Queensland. It is one of Australia's most beautiful cabinet timbers with strong dark grain streaks, sometimes highly figured, but now very difficult to get and almost impossible to find quarter sawn. The best pieces have a strikingly strong grain pattern that is often also highly figured. At one time it was used to make high class furniture, but is now only used for decorative veneers. The timber is a distinctive dark brown, streaked with grey or black. It is a fairly hard, heavy and strong timber.
I have only made three instruments from Queensland Walnut, one with a Sitka Spruce top, one with an Engelmann Spruce top and one with a Swiss Spruce top. All have been very successful instruments, the Sitka Spruce instrument was purchased by a Canberra mandolin player who is still very happy with it; the Engelmann Spruce instrument I played myself for some 18 months.
Queensland Walnut makes very good necks, being heavy and strong and also stable. The timber I have is more than 30 years old, so it is very dry and precious. Queensland Walnut is well known to be a terrible timber for blunting tools and has a dreadfully strong stink that permeates throughout the workshop when worked. Acoustically, darker sounding and not as resonant as Blackwood but with a very solid bass. Bending qualities are variable, some pieces have been absolutely the worst timber I have ever tried to bend, other pieces bend readily. However, the best quarter sawn pieces are difficult to beat, they make very handsome looking instruments. Queensland Walnut is used by the Maton guitar factory for guitar backs and sides.
Queensland Maple is a tropical rainforest timber that grows in the northern coastal regions of Queensland. It is a large tree with a very large trunk but is not a true maple. At one time this timber was one of the prime cabinet timbers of the world, and was extensively used for furniture. However, once again, it is now rare and more difficult to obtain. It is one of my favourites because it is softer than the other hardwoods, so is easy to work, the dust is not irritating, and the timber is easier on tools than others. It also finishes very nicely. It is the most stable of all the timbers I have tried, including the true Maples. Queensland Maple sometimes comes in highly figured pieces, although almost impossible to get nowadays. Very good bending qualities, although the grain does tend to compress in tight corners. The timber ranges from brown with pinkish tints to a full pink (similar to Big Leaf Maple), and is fairly light in weight with a silken lustre.
I have made a number of quite successful mandolins with Queensland Maple back and sides, the best combination has been with a King Billy Pine top, but Engelmann Spruce also works well. The instruments in general have been loud and fairly bright. Queensland Maple, like the true Maples does take some time to show it's best tonal qualities. Currently I use Queensland Maple mostly for necks, and neck and tail blocks, primarily because of it's stability and lower density than the other hardwoods. Used by the Maton guitar factory for guitar necks (because of it's stability) and backs and sides of guitars. I am also now using it for guitar necks.
These trees grow in the higher rainfall areas of Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) grows into a massive tall tree with a tall branchless trunk; the largest flowering plant in the world. The height of these trees rival that of the Redwood giants of California. The timber is hard and strong and light in colour. From the butt of the tree, highly figured fiddleback forms of timber of great beauty can often be found. The timber is used extensively in Australia for furniture, and floorboards. It is not possible to distinguish between the 3 species of Eucalyptus that is marketed as Tasmanian Oak or Victorian Ash just by looking at the wood. Most of the commercial wood is cut on the quarter because it tends to split when not quarter sawn (and sometimes also when quarter sawn) so has to be carefully selected if it is to be used in a musical instrument.. Bending properties vary greatly, with some samples impossible to bend whereas other pieces bend satisfactorily. I suspect the differences are due to differing species of Eucalyptus.
A few years ago I came across a large plank of Tasmanian Oak that was obviously from a very large tree. It showed no sign of splitting, and was big enough for a one piece back with room to spare so I thought I would try it in a mandolin back. The mandolin has a Carpathian Spruce top and is a tone monster. Probably the best sounding and one of the loudest oval hole mandolin I have made. Encouraged by this result, I then made an A5 mandolin with a back from the same plank. Once again, a superb sounding mandolin. Tasmanian Oak certainly is an excellent tonewood that has not been fully appreciated by Luthiers. I love the sound of these two mandolins so will be using more Tasmanian Oak in the future. The A5 in particular has the clarity of Maple, but also has warmth that is lacking in Maple. Overall a very clear clean tone with more depth than the best of my Maple mandolins. Since completing these mandolins I have made a mandola, an other mandolins, and two guitars from Tasmanian Oak with similar results.
Tasmanian Myrtle, or Myrtle Beech or Australian Cherry (don't you hate those common names!) is a medium to large tree that grows in the higher rainfall areas of Tasmania and Victoria. It is often found as a small under storey tree in tall open forests. The timber ranges from a rather bland pink to a reddish brown. The grain is fine and even, is normally straight, but sometimes quilted with a lovely sheen when polished. The timber is used in fine furniture and floorboards. Myrtle is a very nice timber to work with, is moderately heavy and hard, planes and carves very well, and the dust is not irritating. Figured pieces, however, can be difficult to bend, tending to break or the grain lifts easily. Tiger Myrtle is a much sought after rare form of Myrtle that is the result of a fungus infection. The fungus does not seem to affect the structural integrity of the wood and Tiger Myrtle makes a stunningly beautiful instrument.
Myrtle is one of my favorite mandolin backwood with Spruce tops. However, it does not work as well with King Billy Pine, this combination making exquisite sounding instruments with little volume or headroom. However, with Spruce I believe it makes mandolins that sound equal or better than any Maple mandolin I have made. Some Maple mandolins have had better clarity, but Myrtle has a warmth, sweetness and smoothness that no other timber has. European Maple can sound just as sweet, but is brighter and clearer and lacks the warmth and overtones of Myrtle. In my opinion a superb tonewood that only recently has been discovered and appreciated by the international Luthery community.
Blackheart Sassafras is a native of Tasmania. Of all the native Australian timbers, Sassafras has the most contrast and the most variability in figure. The black heart is a fungus infection that infects the centre of the tree and turns the wood a dark brown. The result spalting can give spectacular colours and patterns throughout the trunk of the tree. In ideal conditions the tree can grow up to 45m in height and 1m in diameter and reach ages of 150 - 200 years. It is found in most areas of Tasmania except the drier areas on the east coast. Nowadays over 80% of forests containing sassafras trees are in reserves so the wood is becoming difficult to get and very expensive.
I started using sassafras relatively recently, but the results have been excellent. So far the best combination has been with European Spruce or Red Spruce. The sassafras mandolins have a solid, well balanced sound with a nice warm quality similar to Myrtle, but with much more clarity and brightness in the mids and treble. The wood being moderately light, the instruments are also loud and very responsive. The wood is easy to work, bends easily, does not need pore filling, finishes beautifully and is moderately light weight. A good piece of Black Heart Sassafras can make a spectacular looking mandolin that also sounds excellent. In terms of sound, it is one of my favourite hardwoods. However, it is not without it's problems. The fungus infection is down the centre of the tree, so the best figure and colours are in the centre of the tree, but that is where most of the knots are because that is when the tree was young. The spalting can progress to rot so it is not uncommon to find soft spongy wood in the black heart. Thus Black Heart Sassafras is very difficult to get quarter sawn, knot free and thick enough for an arch top mandolin. Sassafras wood also does tend to absorb moisture readily, almost sponge like, so adequate humidity control is essential. It is a first class backwood for guitars, sounding similar to Mahogany, but guitar sets are very expensive.
Australian Red Cedar is a large forest tree that grows from southern Afganistan through southern Asia and Australia. The trees can grow up to 60m in height and 3m in diameter. It is one of Australia's few native deciduous trees. The timber is a dark reddish brown and is highly valued as a furniture timber. In Australia it grows in subtropical forests of Queesnsland and NSW but has been grossly over exploited such that hardly any of the large or very large trees remain and is effectively commercially extinct. The wood is soft and light, with large pores, and is easily worked. Australian Red Cedar wood suitable for musical instruments is very difficult to find, but it has been used for guitar necks and is light enough to use for tops.
I have only made one mandolin with an Australian Red Cedar back and sides. It is a member of the Mahogany family, and the sound is similar to Mahogany i.e. warm bass, mellow tone. The mandolin was very light weight and the sound has a light quality to it.
Jarrah is the principle timber of Western Australia. It is a very hard, dense, stiff timber and is relatively acoustically dead when tapped. The timber is a beautiful deep red, or pinky red in colour and is used in high class furniture and all sorts of construction work and used to be extensively used for railway sleepers. It is still readily available, cheap, not too difficult to find quarter sawn, and often comes with fiddleback figure. It is very hard on tools and has only moderate bending qualities; I find the dust quite irritating.
Jarrah, in combination with King Billy Pine, makes lovely sounding mandolins. A King Billy Pine top, Jarrah back, and fiddleback Blackwood bindings produces quite a handsome combination. However, the instruments are quite heavy because Jarrah is a very heavy timber, and most musicians do notice this and don't like it. Tonally, Jarrah is very strong in the bass. Mandolins made from Jarrah have a strong rich sounding bass which imparts an overall fuller tonal quality on the instrument. I do not use Jarrah any more because of the weight problem and being a Eucalyptus species, the wood is not particularly stable.
Extremely hard and heavy desert Acacia species that I use for tuning knobs, bindings and fingerboards on my Goldfinch mandolins. Makes very attractive tuning knobs and excellent bindings. Sometimes can have fiddleback figure (ringed Gigdee). Bends reasonably easy if you are careful. Fine grain texture that polishes up well. It has an attractive dark reddish brown colour under an oil finish that compliments Myrtle. Is used as an Ebony substitute by many Australian Luthiers and also by the Maton guitar factor. Significantly harder than Ebony. Fingerboards made from Gidgee are not likely to wear out.
Another extremely hard and heavy desert Acacia that I use for tuning knobs and bindings. Reddish gold in colour and not as dark as Gidgee, but has a very attractive golden shine under an oil finish. Makes attractive bindings, but is stiff and difficult to bend.
A hard timber from northern NSW and Queensland with the colour of yellowed ivory. Bends easily so makes excellent bindings. Very difficult to get.
Yet another hard heavy Australian desert Acacia that makes great tuning knobs. Reddish brown in colour with some lighter streaks. Not as hard or as dark as Gidgee and is much easier to machine.
Moderately hard and heavy conifer that can be used as a soundboard timber. I have only ever made one mandolin from this wood. The mandolin was an F soundhole mandolin with Blackwood back and sides. The sound could be described as mellow, but I preferred the sound of a Red Spruce/Walnut mandolin I had at the time so have not used it since. Has also been used as a soundboard timber in violins and harps.
More recently I have been trying some European Spruce harvested in
Romania in the Carpathian mountains (the so called Carpathian Spruce).
This Spruce so far has been superb in terms of sound quality, but it is
not quite so easy to work with and not as pretty as the Swiss Spruce.
However, I will be using much more of this wood in the future because I
really like the sound I get from it. The sound is quite unique,
different from alpine Swiss Spruce and much more like Red Spruce, but
with improved warmth and clarity of tone when new.
More recently I made three A5 mandolins with a Red Spruce top and European
Maple back sides and neck. The first mandolin was easily the best
sounding mandolin I have ever made, and made me think seriously whether
it really was worth using anything else in my F soundhole mandolins!
It was so damn good that in my opinion it was the best sounding mandolin I
have ever had in my hands, bar none. At the time I thought it may
have been a fortunate fluke, but blow me down if the second instrument
sounded even better, and the third better again! Not all that much better, but better
nevertheless. Rest assured, I have drained the bank account and now have very good stocks of this amazing tonewood,
quietly drying the workshop, and will be using lots of it in the future. Pity it does
not have the beautiful natural colours of the Australian natives.